Review: Three Stunning Lowden Acoustics

Since the late 1970s, Lowden has been building fine guitars in Northern Ireland that utilize carefully selected tonewoods, unyielding attention to voicing of the internal bracing and soundbox profiles, and lots of hand craftsmanship to ensure that its instruments deliver unhindered sustain, volume, and balance.
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Since the late 1970s, Lowden has been building fine guitars in Northern Ireland that utilize carefully selected tonewoods, unyielding attention to voicing of the internal bracing and soundbox profiles, and lots of hand craftsmanship to ensure that its instruments deliver unhindered sustain, volume, and balance. We recently had an opportunity to test three new Lowden guitars, and we were mightily impressed with the quality, sound, and playability of these high-end instruments.

LOWDEN F-50

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Well, you’ve got your great guitars and then you’ve got your flat-out amazing guitars, and this F-50 is amazing on every level. Let’s start with the cosmetics. This guitar exudes class from stem to stern, with the understated elegance that Lowden does so well. The clean fretboard—devoid of position markers, which are found on the side—is dressed up sweetly with wood binding on either side. The neck contrasts beautifully with the alpine spruce top, itself tastefully adorned with their figured Koa and abalone soundhole rosette. The Madagascar rosewood back and sides are absolutely sumptuous, but the real capper for me is the super-cool soundbox bevel that takes the top over the top. The entire package is stunning.

When you strum a chord on the F-50, all that goes out the window. This guitar sounds so good I swear you won’t care what it looks like. The top is tuned to the body so well that even a clashy Fmaj7#11 in the first position (an F with the top two strings open) rings with an unbelievable clarity. The overtones that would normally be fighting one another blend together beautifully. The sound is very well balanced—nice lows and strong mids. But it is the high end that truly floors me on this instrument. The treble response is so sweet and present, the high E string really seems like it’s as loud as the low E. Single-note parts speak with a 3-D lucidity, and moving lines within chords jump to the front of the mix. Capoing up at the magical seventh position only accentuated the great top end, and the copious sustain makes it fun to just let notes ring, as opposed to frantically flatpicking like some flat-tops require. You definitely get the sense that you can play anything on the F-50.

And, speaking of playing, this guitar is comfortable and easy to play, despite the fact that the action isn’t super low. In fact, it’s high enough to make this one of the loudest acoustics I’ve played in a long time. It’s not brash sounding at all, but the volume on tap is really impressive. There doesn’t appear to be any compression at all, and it makes for a very dynamic playing experience.

I’m pretty much out of adjectives to describe how awesome this guitar is. It would be easy to say that it should be for this kind of money, and that’s true in many ways. But it’s hard to put a price on inspiration. When a guitar gives you this kind of feeling the moment you hit a note on it, you start to think about things like selling a few guitars and stretching a bit to get a transcendent (Hey! A new adjective!) instrument like the F-50. Musical ideas simply gush out of this guitar. One of the best I’ve ever played.
—MB

LOWDEN S-23

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The S-23 arrived dressed in the clean, simple garb of a red cedar top and walnut back and sides. The wooden rosette is tastefully rendered and the bridge brings a cool touch of figured wood to the party. The inlay-free fretboard and clear pickguard maintain the pristine, uncluttered appearance. It all adds up to a concert-sized body that is a perfect happy medium between a parlor and a dreadnought. The five-piece mahogany and rosewood neck looks as good as it feels, with the rosewood strips providing a cool swoosh where the neck meets the body. The gold Gotoh tuners with ebony buttons are the only real bling on this instrument, and they lend just the right amount of sparkle to the S-23’s quiet confidence.

The S-23 tuned up smoothly and quickly thanks to the Gotohs and it sounded great right out of the gate. The body style gives a tight, focused low end with prominent mids and brilliant highs. Open-position scale runs remain balanced and musical from the high string all the way down. Chords sound cohesive and even, with no frequencies jumping out and poking you in the eye (or ear). That evenness pays off big time when you play chords up the neck while leaving certain strings open. The highs and lows mingle in an extremely melodious way. That’s due in part to the guitar’s overall timbre, but it’s also because the S-23 intonates flawlessly. First position cowboy chords that can pinch sharp on many instruments sound in tune and consonant. Chords way up the neck ring with a mandolin-style accuracy. But combining those two chord types, say, with a D major at the fourteenth position against open D and A strings, is really striking. Every note sounds perfect, and there is no need for any of the chord-bending vibrato to mask out-of-tuneness that I tend to do compulsively on some guitars.

I didn’t get to do any recording with the S-23, but I know for a fact that this guitar would perform beautifully in the studio. It just has that voice that a mic loves, with no boominess or harshness. When you add to that the impeccable intonation, you have a guitar that you can layer all day long, in all registers, with no worries whatsoever.

There is a reason Lowden has the rep it has. These are spectacular instruments. I knew what the word on the street was, but I hadn’t played a Lowden prior to this review. I have no problem adding them to my all-time list of favorite acoustics.
—MB

LOWDEN WL-35X

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Part of Lowden’s Wee series, the WL-35x features a parlor-sized body but uses the same 14-fret neck as the company’s full-sized models. The “X” in this guitar’s name denotes a custom instrument, and as such it is constructed with an Adirondack spruce top (standard models have a redwood top). The five-piece mahogany and rosewood neck is faced with ebony on the front and back of the headstock, and gold-plated Gotoh 510 tuners with ebony buttons handle tuning chores. Other adornments are fairly modest, and include bindings of rosewood, sycamore, walnut, and mahogany, along with an abalone rosette. There are no inlays on the fretboard, just pearl dots on the side for positional reference. It all adds up to a lovely guitar that feels almost impossibly light and plays like a dream. The entire guitar wears what feels a lot like French polish. In other words, a thin finish with a matte sheen that feels more silky than satin. It looks fantastic over these high-grade woods, signaling a guitar that trumpets its “boutique” status from the moment you lay your eyes on it. There’s also a clear plastic scratch plate on the top that protects the finish.

The neck’s shape is incredibly comfortable, the polished frets feel glass-smooth under the fingers, and the action was perfectly adjusted right out of the box. This compact guitar is such an efficient instrument with impressive volume that you may find yourself questioning the need for anything larger. What really moves me about the WL-35x, however, is the sheer quality of its sound. Some of this has to do with the absolutely spot-on intonation—first position chords sound beautifully in-tune, as do close interval grips played way up the neck. Strummed or fingerpicked, the tone is incredibly musical, with a sense of dimension that is quite breathtaking. It’s like being bathed in tone that has a perfect balance of depth and shimmer, and with so much sustain that you can just hold a note or hit a harmonic and revel in how long it takes to trail off. It all adds up to a playing experience that defines what a great acoustic instrument is all about: inspiring sound, inspiring playability, and all the fine details that make a guitar difficult to take your hands off. An instrument like this will inspire you to play more, maybe learn or write some new songs, and it will make you sound your best whilst doing so. For all it does the WL-35x earns an Editors’ Pick Award.
—AT

Special thanks to Eddie’s Guitars in Maplewood, Missouri, the Fretted Frog Acoustic Guitar Shop in Pasadena, California, and Hearbreaker Guitars in Las Vegas, Nevada, for providing the instruments for this review.

CONTACT lowdenguitars.com

F-50
PRICE
$9,750 retail, $8,775 street
NUT WIDTH 13/4"
NECK 5-piece mahogany/rosewood
FRETBOARD Ebony with maple and ebony binding, 25.6" scale length
FRETS 21
TUNERS Gotoh 510 with ebony buttons
BODY Madagascar rosewood back and sides, alpine spruce top with abalone with highly figured Koa rosette and optional soundbox bevel,
BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated 2-piece saddle
FACTORY STRINGS Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze, .012-.053
WEIGHT 4.65 lbs
BUILT Northern Ireland
KUDOS Flawless construction. Gorgeous tones. Completely inspiring.
CONCERNS Very expensive.

S-23
PRICE
$4,480 retail
NUT WIDTH 13/4"
NECK 5-piece mahogany/rosewood,
FRETBOARD Ebony with maple and ebony binding, 24.8" scale length
FRETS 20
TUNERS Gotoh 510 with ebony buttons
BODY Walnut back and sides, red cedar top
BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated 2-piece saddle
FACTORY STRINGS Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze, .012-.053
WEIGHT 3.6 lbs
BUILT Northern Ireland
KUDOS Flawless construction. Beautiful intonation. Lush sound quality.
CONCERNS None.

WL-35x
PRICE
$5,949 street, as tested
NUT WIDTH 13/4"
NECK Five-piece mahogany and rosewood
FRETBOARD Ebony, 24" scale
FRETS 21
TUNERS Gotoh 510 Super Machine Heads
BODY Indian rosewood back and sides, optional Adirondack spruce top
BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated 2-piece saddle
FACTORY STRINGS Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze, .012-.053
WEIGHT 3.64 lbs
BUILT Northern Ireland
KUDOS Sounds awesome and plays beautifully.
CONCERNS None.

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