By Harold Steinblatt
George Lowden, whose shop is located in Downpatrick, Ireland, introduced his O model guitar in 1977, and it quickly established his reputation as a master luthier. This O50c, which features exotic AAAA-grade woods and other high-end appointments, is a custom version of Lowden’s O model, which has remained essentially unchanged in design.
It provides irrefutable evidence that Lowden deserves the praise he receives. It is stunning in form and function, beautiful to behold, a delight to play, and, most of all, capable of producing all manner of unearthly tones.
Lowden touts the O model as particularly well suited to fingerstyle guitarists, and in the early years of its existence the guitar was a favorite among players of Celtic and Celtic-style music, most notably the French artist Pierre Bensusan. (After playing an O model for years, Bensusan asked George Lowden to build him a smaller instrument. The guitar that emerged became the template for the Lowden Pierre Bensusan Signature Model.)
Lowden’s reputation for excellence, and the fact that I am primarily a fingerstyle player, made me eager to check out the O50c cutaway. The guitar, which comes with a rock-solid Hiscox case, is dazzling to look at. The body and sides are made of cocobolo, a dark and lavishly grained wood imported by Lowden from Central America, and the binding is made of rich mahogany. The guitar’s top is constructed of the highest-grade redwood spruce.
The pretty picture is enlivened by a five-piece mahogany neck with rosewood splices, an ebony fretboard with maple fingerboard bindings, a rosewood bridge, and purfling made of rosewood, maple, and mahogany. The ebony headstock is graced with Gotoh gold/black 510 tuners with ebony buttons. The only adornment for adornment’s sake is an abalone rosette. But for all its effusion of color and shade, the O50c’s appearance is simple, like a work of folk art. It’s a handmade guitar built by a luthier and a staff of 11 craftsmen in a workshop in a charming Northern Irish village, and it looks it.
I was surprised to find that the neck width at the nut is only 1 3/4 inches. It felt wider, maybe because the action was very low, but not so low that it causes the strings to buzz. The action was consistently comfortable, even to the uppermost frets made accessible by the cutaway. Augmenting the guitar’s playability on this particular O50 is a bevel—a groove on which the player can rest his right arm—located on the bass side, near the back of the guitar. Any guitarist with back issues will certainly appreciate this feature.
Playing a note on the high E string, I was instantly struck by the guitar’s remarkable sustain. I strummed an E chord and allowed it to ring—and it kept ringing. Paul McCartney, who is as fond of counterpoint as any pop or rock steel-string acoustic guitarist—think “Blackbird” or “Junk”—would love this guitar and its perfectly balanced tone. I played those tunes and was gratified to hear the bass and treble lines and brushed chords with unwonted (for me) clarity. In the late Seventies, the premier piano manufacturer Steinway & Sons issued a catalog which proclaimed that “every note on a Steinway is music.” The same may be said of the O50c.
A final point: after playing a few chords on the O50c, I was surprised at how loud it was, how the bass strings boomed like bronze cannons and the treble strings sliced like knives. This Lowden certainly possesses many qualities that fingerstylists covet, but this is no delicate parlor guitar. It could just as successfully be employed by rock, bluegrass, and jazz rhythm players, as well as soloists who will marvel at its dynamic range and swoon at its sweet sound, uncanny sustain, and marvelous intonation. In short, it would be cherished by anyone who appreciates a great guitar.
LIST PRICE $10,585
George Lowden Guitars, Ltd., georgelowden.com
Brace for Impact: George Lowden discusses his unique construction techniques.
What is it about the Lowden O’s construction that explains its great sustain?
While working on some of the predecessors of the O guitar, I noticed that the action tended to come up a little bit as the guitar got older and that the soundhole tended to sink ever so slightly toward the back of the guitar. I found that what worked to counter that was what we call an A-frame bracing, which is essentially two struts on either side of the soundhole going right through the brace under the fingerboard and right into the dovetail joint. That stabilizes the soundhole area, but it also contributes to the guitar’s excellent sustain.
What accounts for the guitar’s terrific balance?
Much of that is a product of the guitar’s dolphin-profile bracing, which we employ instead of the usual scalloped bracing. We hand carve the soundboard struts to a shape that resembles a dolphin coming out of water—the results being that when one strut approaches another it reduces in height; and also that when the struts approach the edge of the guitar, they do so in a gradual and very smooth way. Where the soundboard needs to be stiff, it is; where it needs to be more flexible, it is. In practical terms, this allows the soundboard to vibrate in a very even manner, resulting in that “terrific” balance.
The sound produced by a given Lowden guitar is ultimately based on the core tone produced by its design, the tone woods we use, and the guitar’s size. With the guitar you have for review, the combination of the cocobolo back and sides and redwood top produces a very deep tone that also is warm, with a dynamic range that has made it particularly appealing to fingerstylists, certainly, but also to just about any playing style you can name.
Lowden guitars are known for their simple unadorned beauty, regardless of the kind of woods used on a particular model.
I like things to be subtle and understated. In terms of beauty, I like to allow the woods to speak for themselves.
Photos: Massimo Gammcurta