Craft­ing a clas­sic by hand

Ac­claimed gui­tar maker Ge­orge Low­den’s lat­est project makes guitars from bog oak and Bush­mills whiskey bar­rels

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BUSHMILLS -

He’s the ex­pert gui­tar maker whose lov­ingly-crafted in­stru­ments have been played by Eric Clap­ton and Ed Sheeran, but Ge­orge Low­den’s first cre­ation was slightly less so­phis­ti­cated. In the sum­mer of 1961, the then 10-year-old and his friend de­vised two makeshift guitars with nails for frets, fish­ing line for strings and a square sound box.

“It prob­a­bly didn’t sound very good but we thought we were great, pranc­ing round the gar­den,” re­calls Low­den, now 65. “It was just a toy gui­tar, but it meant a lot to me.”

This fas­ci­na­tion with guitars con­tin­ued into adult­hood, and in his early 20s, armed with some ba­sic tools, wood and a book­let on the sub­ject, Low­den set about try­ing to make them pro­fes­sion­ally.

“When I told my dad that I was think­ing of mak­ing guitars, the only thing he said to me was, ‘Well, make sure they’re good ones’. We want to try and do some­thing re­ally well, and that’s what it’s all about.”

There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween a hand­made gui­tar – which takes Low­den around six weeks to cre­ate – and a mass-pro­duced model, he says.

“The rich­ness of the sound, the re­spon­sive­ness of the tone, the fact that the tone is not harsh or cold . . . It’s a bit like the dif­fer­ence be­tween the av­er­age piano in a house­hold and a Stein­way grand.”

Af­ter a few years hon­ing his craft, Low­den ex­pe­ri­enced his first rush of sales when a friend study­ing in France took one of his guitars to a store in Paris. Im­pressed, the re­tailer placed a monthly or­der, al­low­ing Low­den to open his first work­shop in his na­tive Ban­gor, County Down.

While the likes of Sheeran and Snow Pa­trol’s Gary Light­body have per­formed us­ing Low­den guitars in re­cent years, it was dif­fi­cult to at­tract the at­ten­tion of big name acts back then. The ever chang­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal land­scape had a big im­pact. “A lot of fa­mous mu­si­cians were not com­ing through North­ern Ire­land, so it was hard at the be­gin­ning. For the first 15 years, I was bet­ter known in France and Switzer­land than I was here,” says Low­den.

“Af­ter that, a lot of peo­ple started to hear about the guitars and it kind of just de­vel­oped.”

Lis­ten­ing to a gifted mu­si­cian, well-known or not, play one of his in­stru­ments is still “a big thrill” says Low­den, whose three sons have fol­lowed him into the busi­ness.

“I was never very good as a gui­tar player, but I’ve had the priv­i­lege of hear­ing a lot of re­ally good ones com­ing through the work­shops. Lis­ten­ing to them makes me re­alise that I could only fid­dle about re­ally.”

Turn­ing a painstak­ing craft into a suc­cess­ful busi­ness isn’t easy, how­ever, and Low­den has ex­pe­ri­enced his fair share of chal­lenges, from chang­ing re­tail de­mand to re­ceiver­ship in the late 1980s.

Even at the tough­est mo­ments, he kept go­ing. “I al­ways had a sense that this was what I should be do­ing. I had the de­ter­mi­na­tion to stick at it.”

To­day, Low­den Guitars is a clas­sic, glob­ally-recog­nised brand, with a team of around 30 at its Down­patrick-based work­shops (“I don’t like the term fac­tory,” says Low­den) and a wait­ing list of three to four years for a model built by the man him­self.

Af­ter more than four decades, Low­den still has a pas­sion for in­no­va­tion. His lat­est project is a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Bush­mills Ir­ish Whiskey, on a new lim­ited range of guitars made of an­cient bog oak and care­fully se­lected bar­rel wood from The Old Bush­mills Dis­tillery.

“Bog oak is an oak tree that’s been ly­ing buried in the bog for usu­ally around 5,000 years. When they lift them out, the wood you get is al­most pet­ri­fied; it’s harder and a bit lighter when it dries out, and it makes great tone wood,” Low­den ex­plains.

“Then we’ve used some of the staves – the in­di­vid­ual pieces that make up the bar­rel – from the Bush­mills bar­rels for some of the other parts on the gui­tar. They smell great; there’s still a wee hint of that whiskey smell by the time we fin­ish.”

The Low­den legacy is set to con­tinue with the help of the founder’s 25-year-old son Aaron, who left school a decade ago to be­gin an ap­pren­tice­ship to his fa­ther.

“He’s de­ter­mined to take on the gui­tar-mak­ing side of the busi­ness af­ter I’ve hung up my boots – which will prob­a­bly never hap­pen,” Low­den says with a laugh.

“It’s very im­por­tant for me to pass on not only the skills side of it, but the abil­ity to use tools to the level we have to, the de­sign ethos and the abil­ity to cre­ate new de­signs.” He adds: “I’ve never copied other peo­ple and I think that’s im­por­tant: to pad­dle your own ca­noe, for bet­ter or worse.”

Only eight Bush­mills x Low­den F-50 guitars are avail­able to buy di­rect from the Low­den Gui­tar work­shop. To find out more visit www.low­den­gui­­mill­sxlow­den

Even at the tough­est mo­ments, he kept go­ing. “I al­ways had a sense that this was what I should be do­ing. I had the de­ter­mi­na­tion to stick at it”

Ge­orge Low­den and his son in their work­shop in Co Down

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