The Luthier: George Lowden
Irish guitar makers are rare, and George Lowden, the man behind Lowden Guitars, is the best of them. Here, he tells Tara Dougherty about the beginnings of his craft and the future for Lowden Guitars.
Luthier is certainly not the word one might hear an Irish child say is their dream profession. In fact, luthiere, or the crafting of stringed instruments, mainly guitar and lute, has been a nearly nonexistent art form in Ireland for centuries. Even today the term “Irish guitar maker” is certain to turn a head or two in a music shop. With no opportunity to apprentice and armed only with books about guitar making, Belfast-born George Lowden came to the decision as a young man to become just that – an Irish luthier.
Lowden Guitars are now sold in specialty guitar shops from France to Colorado to Dublin, and are played by legends like Eric Clapton, who showed his off during a Grammy performance in 1997. The brand is a favorite of Irish musicians Foy Vance and Damien Rice, whose rather worn guitar is something of an icon among his fan base.
George Lowden grew up in Bangor, County Down and launched at age ten what was meant to be a hobby of guitar building, with the help of a friend and his father, a boat builder. The first two guitars had fishing line for strings. In his early twenties, George revisited the craft, this time armed with a bit more information.
After some trial and error, and decades of dedication, he has continued to grow his business and craft. Lowden Guitars has become a favorite brand of players throughout the world, and while opportunities to move production to large factories arose on numerous occasions through the years, Lowden has remained a small business dedicated to customer service and making the best tools for musicians.
George’s attitude toward luthiere is a breath of fresh air to musicians. He recognizes not only the need for diligent attention to detail but also the potential of luthiere as an art form. Constant innovation and exploration has driven Lowden to produce gorgeous, personal instruments. With labels signed by George inside each guitar, there is a relationship between maker and buyer that sets Lowden Guitars apart. In true Irish fashion, Lowden Guitars is very much a family affair: George’s wife, Florence, and sons work for the company.
Now, taking on apprentices of his own, George shows no intention of slowing down. I caught up with him via email as he traveled to promote the guitars in Japan and Singapore.
How did you become interested in being a luthier? Is there a tradition of musicians in your family?
There is no musical tradition in my family to my knowledge, but I was very interested in music as a teenager and listened to Cream; Yardbirds; Chicago; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; James Taylor; the original Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green etc. From this I heard about an English guitar maker called Tony Zemaitis and that sparked my interest.
Were you an apprentice?
No, there was no opportunity to apprentice in Ireland at that time. I bought a small home-published book, Build Your Own Folk Guitar, by another English luthier called John Bailie, and I began with that. Back then there was no internet, and researching anything was very difficult so a book was the only way to start. Because of my naivete I learned the hard way, myself, in my own newly created workshop. That’s a very good way to learn because you have to learn by your mistakes and you are not afraid to try crazy things a more experienced luthier would not try. So even my early guitars were original and unique, even if not so good. However, I kept learning and improving my woodworking skills and kept experimenting with the design, and by 1976 I had developed the combination of internal voicing and structural integrity from my A-frame and “Dolphin profile” bracing. These two design aspects along with many other less significant attributes combined to give my guitars their distinctive tonal responsiveness.
Could you tell me a bit about the process itself? How do you choose wood for the soundboard, back and sides? Do you have a particular sound in mind for the instrument or is it a guess-and-check process?
Designing and building guitars is a matter of the wood choice first, the design second and the workmanship third. Choosing the wood is becoming more and more difficult, and I now have built up relationships with specialist wood suppliers who know what I want and try to fulfill my expectations. I like soundboards from very old spruce, redwood and cedar trees (often from trees which have fallen down naturally), with a slow growth pattern that creates stiff straight-grained soundboards with a very light weight. Usually when I tap the wood there is a certain high frequency bell-like tap tone, which I look for always. I can tell from the appearance of the wood, including the prominence of the medullary rays, whether the tap tone is likely to be spectacular or not. Then the soundboard and soundboard strutting material both have to be split rather than sawn. When wood is split, the split line follows the grain direction naturally, whereas when it is sawn there is no guarantee that the sawn line will be parallel to the grain. This is important for two reasons – first, because if the wood fibers are very long (as in the split line) the transfer of sound is fast and efficient, and second, because wood that is split is stronger than wood that does not have long parallel grain.
For back and sides I choose hard, very fine-textured wood such as Brazilian rosewood (only very old wood is now available, as new rosewood is not permitted to be cut down) or African Blackwood or Honduras rosewood, and finally American Claro or Bastogne walnut. All give slightly different tonal responses and I will often advise players which might suit them best according to their playing style.
Design is also very important. Nowadays many acoustic brands copy older American brands, and some try to make the guitars better, but with the traditional design. In my case, I have designed my own guitars and continue to try and develop the design further and further. This is mainly a matter of building into the guitar a lot of structural integrity with a low-weight/high strength ratio and enhancing the energy produced by the strings and bridge in such a way as to ensure as large an area of the soundboard possible is involved. The main thing is to try and ensure that all the individual elements of the design work together to create a truly responsive guitar – capable of great subtlety on the one hand and very powerful on the other.
Workmanship is equally important and ensures that the instrument has long-term integrity, and also that there are no unplanned stresses in the guitar. If you just ensure structural integrity but neglect to make sure that all joints are an easy, natural fit, then the guitar will sound tight and not responsive enough. I use a combination of Japanese hand tools with razor-sharp cutting edges to help me achieve this in an economical time frame. I learned from the Japanese a certain depth of concentration, which allows you to work very fast and to an extremely high standard at the same time.
Once you began making the guitars, how did your business first take off?
A friend of mine, Alistair Burke, was a student in France back then and unknown to me he took my guitar around to some guitar stores in Paris. The main one called me up and ordered six guitars… and wanted to buy six guitars a month from me. Then a shop in Geneva saw the guitars and they began to sell them as well, and it just built from there.
What is it about Lowden Guitars that you strive to make different from other brands?
I (along with every guitar maker today) have several hundred years of stringed instrument building tradition to benefit from and I value that very much. But I also try to add my ideas to this tradition in some way, to perhaps benefit guitar makers in the future. I try to make my guitars very, very responsive and do not compromise on workmanship or attention to detail in the design. The guitars have to be easy to play as well, and most of all they have to inspire the musicians to create new music! I have had musicians let me know that once they got one of my guitars it renewed their enthusiasm and interest in playing all over again, and that means a lot to me
Throughout the years, you’ve resisted several opportunities to make Lowden a much larger factory brand. Why?
I suppose there are two reasons:
1) A larger company means more people building the guitars, and I feel it is important not to mechanize the process too much. Controlling the quality of the guitars becomes much more difficult – this problem can be seen in many larger company’s guitars. This is may be why larger companies tend to rely on computer-controlled machines, which are more reliable than people (but some of the soul has gone!).
2) Once you build a large company you are in the position where you have to “feed that machine” – i.e. you have to make decisions based upon making that larger company ‘successful’ in commercial terms. This can restrict your freedom, and in many cases you have to make decisions you would not ordinarily make. Even sometimes you would feel like ‘the machine is running me.’
So actually the size of the company is not the only important thing – rather, it is also controlling the speed of growth so that you can retain your freedom. Not easy to do!
Your instruments are played by some incredible and world-renowned musicians. Is there one or more in particular that you are proud to say plays a Lowden?
It’s difficult to pick out a particular musician because there are so many who I appreciate a lot, but if I could mention a few they would be Pierre Bensusan, Richard Thompson, Thomas Leeb and Alex DeGrassi (all four fantastic world-class innovative guitar players). But also better known musicians and players like Paul Brady, and of course it was a particular pleasure for me to see Eric Clapton playing his Lowden when he received his Grammy award and played “If I Could Change the World.” He also used his Lowden to record his two acoustic albums Reptile and Pilgrim.
As both a businessman and a craftsman, what would you say is your ultimate motivation?
As a businessman – to build a commercially strong long-term guitar brand where everyone who is concerned with the business as a supplier, customer or employee feels respected and appreciated and very proud to be involved with the business.
As a craftsman – to be able to continue to innovate and develop new and better guitar designs which are capable of inspiring musicians more and more.
Would you describe Lowden Guitars as a family business?
More and more, it seems! I have two of my sons working with me in the guitar making. My wife, Florence, also works full time in marketing along with my daughter-in-law, Lara. Very soon my son-in-law will begin to work within the business as well. So, it is developing as a family business and as long as everyone within the business, whether family or not, enjoys working there, then that will be good for the future.
What are your goals for the future for the Lowden brand?
To improve the guitars continuously. so that hopefully the brand will become more legendary as time goes on.