We visit the Downpatrick workshop of world-class guitar maker George Lowden to talk craftsmanship, his design proces and the importance of passing on one's skills.
Upon first entering the workspaces at Lowden guitars, it’s the fragrance that gets you. Long before your eyes adjust to the forms taking shape before you, or your ears can begin to tune in to the subtle tonality of the highly sought-after instruments, the scent of the carefully sourced materials that go into each Lowden guitar find you. The resins and dust of deliberately selected woods fill the air, giving the space a fragrance as rich, complex, and memorable as the sound of one of their famous guitars.
Walking through the workshop, it becomes clear that this is a place of making, not mere manufacturing . In each of the eight or so rooms, high-tech precision tooling and traditional craftsmanship come together to coax, carve, and contour raw organic material into one of Lowden’s guitars. A warm County Down man with a deep personal faith, George Lowden sees his work as a both a privilege and a vocation, of genuine spiritual importance. Before the interview properly begins he mentions another local instrument maker (Peter Boardman, a Donaghadee violin-maker) whose work he admires, and in so doing demonstrates the humble self-assurance of a proven craftsman who appreciates the work of a peer. He also makes clear what he values in a maker:
George Lowden: [on Peter Boardman] He’s a really good maker. He does things very traditionally, properly. He won’t go off and try to do things more quickly to increase capacity.
Turf and Grain: That’s something that is obviously very important in your own work, and the work of Lowden guitars generally.
GL: It’s really important. Of course, it’s a business, and years ago, business and I had a slightly love/hate relationship. There was a feeling that you have to do business, you really have to do it, whether you like to or not. Whereas now I’ve realised that if I do the business right it actually facilitates the creativity and the design process and making of the guitars the way we really want to make them. But if the business side isn't right you’re always under stress, which isn’t good, as it will come out in the guitars some way or another. On the other hand, if you go too far down that road, and you mechanise to such an extent that you destroy the guitar – or rather, the guitar’s personality – then that’s not good either.
TG: You use technology to do some of the preliminary cutting, but you maintain an emphasis on having craftsmen complete the final product.
GL: That’s right. And you have to be very deliberate about that. We decided that we’re not going to carve the necks completely on a CNC machine. We’re going to leave some to do by hand, but the technology can be used to take out the drudgery. When you’re working with your hands all day and everyday – with spokeshaves, sandpaper, cabinet scrapers, or chisels – you will develop problems in your joints. As has happened to me. So, there is a balance: taking some of that hard labour – the repetitive work – out of it, meaning that you don’t suffer to the same extent, so that you have the strength and the focus to make products with a quality finish. There is always the temptation to mechanise to a point where the business side is just automatic. If we do that, we get to a point where people are just pushing buttons, and feeding wood into a machine. If that were to happen we’ll have lost the plot.
TG: You approvingly used the work ‘maker’ to refer to Peter Boardman. How does that word apply to you?
GL: We can’t do everything by hand. So what I’ve done, I suppose, is to take the processes that we’ve always used machines for, and replaced a couple of those older machines with really good machines that do the same job in a safer, more efficient way.
TG: Yet, despite this adoption of some very high-end precision machines, there are also still machines that you use today that you yourself have made, or improved on. Pads in clamps made with squash balls, a washing machine motor repurposed as a finishing tool…
GL: [Smiles] You can’t just order a machine that can do those things; you have to develop your own machines, your own processes; clamping processes and much more. So sometimes, you can adapt an ordinary household machine to do a job. You mention the sanding machine – I remember, we went up to the dump and got a couple of old washing machines, stripped out the motors and the drum holder, and used that as the basis of a sanding machine. And the bearings are so good in a washing machine that it still works perfectly [laughs].
TG: So, a maker in many senses then! What was it that made George Lowden (aged 10, 18, 22…) first want to make a guitar, as opposed to play them?
GL: There was a number of things. First of all, I was fascinated by the guitar, and I absolutely loved listening to guitar music, particularly Cream with Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green and Danny Kirwan. Later I discovered Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and James Taylor - people like that. So it went from electric at the beginning to acoustic, and then back and forth. So I was very interested in guitar-playing but discovered that I was never going to be very good as a guitar-player [laughter].
TG: [Laughter] I don’t believe that for a minute!
GL: No, if I tried to play a twelve-bar blues normally I’d end up with thirteen or eleven… [Laughter]. But seriously, I perhaps could have been a passably good guitar player, with endless practice, but I realized I just wasn’t that great. I was always fascinated and interested in working with my hands. My father – a school teacher – always had hand tools around the house and I remember asking him once, ‘how would you shape a guitar neck?’ He said, ‘Well, you would use a spokeshave…’. I didn’t know what a spokeshave was, but I’ve since realised that the original spokeshave that I bought 43 years ago is still in the workshop.
TG: As are, as I understand it, many tools that you’ve picked up over the years.
GL: Yes, a lot from Japan, for example. But the spokeshave is interesting as it’s 43 years old, and it’s the one that Hugh in the workshop still prefers to use. It just works really well, and when you’ve got a tool like that you hold on to it. I was also fascinated by woodwork, and my mother was also a maker – I remember her French-polishing a bookcase that my dad had made. So, perhaps there is some kind of family gene.
TG: Of course, Lowden guitars are known for their high-quality finishes, so it all comes together…
GL: Exactly, it does. My maternal grandfather was a foreman in a damask colouring shop, making screen-printed linen and so on. So, he had some kind of creative sense too, which played a part. And then when I was 23 or 24 … actually, I don’t like to compartmentalize my life too much. I don’t have a separate leisure life, a business life, a family life, or Church life… It’s all one. That time, the end of the hippy period, was all about finding yourself. For me it was a question of praying and reflecting and finding out what would be the best thing for me to do. And that’s the biggest part of it. I wouldn’t be professionally making guitars if I hadn’t been praying about what to do with my life.
TG: So there’s a spiritual element to what you do?
GL: There is, very much so. When I made the decision that it was right for me to do this, I was still quite naïve about what I was doing. I prayed a lot about how to do it, and sought, I suppose, spiritual inspiration, to be able to think and work the right way.
TG: You have around thirty people working for you now. Is it important for you to pass on your skills?
GL: Yes, it is important. It’s a privilege to be able to do something like this – to be creative and to be able to make a living out of it. I’m nearly 67, and I’m thinking about passing these skills on to the next generation. All three of my sons are working in the company. It’s important for me to pass it on, as a legacy, if you like. But as well as that, it’s important to pass on the kind of mindset you need to make guitars at this level. It’s a big task, but it’s one that I work hard at. If you take a walk around the workshop you’ll find that there’s some people who are like sponges. As you share things with them, they want to try new things and develop, and you see that as you teach them new skills. So, I am demanding, but that’s because you’re never going to achieve anything world class unless you have a world class approach to it.
TG: So, you encourage innovation from the people working with you?
GL: Absolutely. For example, Some elements of our new electric guitar, the GL-10, came from the team. Dave Pearce, for example, did a lot of the making on the prototypes. There’s also Pierre, and Alan, and my son Johnny, all of whom played a part in the making of that guitar. And I think we can be pretty proud, given the reaction so far.
TG: And your first serious attempt at making a guitar was an electric.
GL: Well, after the one that I tried to make when I was ten [laughter]. Yes, the first serious attempt was an electric.
TM: And now you’ve come full circle with the GL-10. The write-ups all mention its resonance, its clarity of tone, for which your acoustics are so well known. I wonder if you could talk a little about your process. You sometimes go on retreat…
GL: I’ve been to various places – to Cino, just to the south of Switzerland, quite a few times. I designed the Pierre Bensusan signature model there, and it’s been one of our most successful guitars. I was in Portugal last year when I designed the GL-10. I go away somewhere where I can be on my own, free from whatever else is going on, and I get into a routine. So, I’ll design in the morning, then I’ll go for a long walk, before doing a bit more design work. It’s a space to get away; to focus on what I need to do. That’s why I go.
TG: An international approach, then. I understand at one time you worked with Japanese partners, which ended due to a difference in approach?
GL: I had very good relations with those folk in Japan, we worked closely together. It was nothing to do with the relationship, it was just that the owners of the company were wanting to move production of my guitars away from a small workshop to a bigger workshop where other guitars – Yamahas and so on – were also made. I wasn’t so happy about that.
TG: So, it’s about maintaining a making ethos, rather than a manufacturing one?
GL: Yes. But I did learn from the Japanese. Not about guitar design, but about woodworking tools. Discovering their tools in 1980-81 was a revelation; how good they are, how sharp you can make them. Before then, they simply weren’t available in the West.
TG: To make very fine guitars, you have to use tools that are themselves finely tuned instruments?
GL: Yes. Precisely.
TG: Despite these international connections and worldwide brand recognition you’ve always been based in Ireland, County Down, barring a brief sojourn in France. Why is that?
GL: [Smiles] Well, you know, I’m a County Down man. The reason why we went to France was because a lot of my market was in France and Switzerland. One of my biggest clients was a Parisian music shop, called ‘Quincampoix’ [laughter about pronunciation].
TG: But despite those international connections you’ve always come back to County Down.
GL: [Gestures to snow outside] Obviously, it’s because of the beautifully predictable weather! I think I’m just a Down guy. I sometimes do think about the possibility of doing it somewhere else because the climate here isn’t always ideal. We sometimes take steps to make sure that the climate inside the workshops is what we need it to be, because if we’re sending guitars to different climates around the world the humidity can make it difficult. I haven’t seriously thought about moving to America, but I have thought about other parts of Europe. In the end, we make it work here. But let’s not talk about Brexit…
TG: No, let’s not [laughter]. Let’s talk about some of the artists who play your guitars. You’ve got a variety of artists who play a variety of designs.
GL: It wasn’t always like that. In the early years when I was making them professionally nobody well-known was playing them because nobody knew about them, and also because musicians weren’t visiting Northern Ireland, due to the Troubles. The fact that there are a lot more well-known people playing them now is great, and we really appreciate it. We don’t take it for granted.
TG: Videos on your website show that you have a warm relationship with those artists. There’s a moment in one of the videos where you hand Thomas Leeb an instrument, and there’s a real expression of satisfaction on your face as he plays. Is your guitar-making a collaboration with the players?
GL: Certainly, especially for some of the players with very distinctive styles. With Jon Gomm, for example, there was quite a lot of back and forth discussing and developing the design. Jon had quite a lot of ideas – as did I — and he’d been playing my guitars for a while before we met so he knew what to expect. In his case, it was a big collaboration. The same can be said for Pierre Bensusan. We’ve also become quite friendly with more famous people, like Ed Sheeran, sharing ideas back and forward, and trying to make a guitar that suits his on-stage playing style. The Wee Lowden was actually designed for him, because Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol asked me to make a guitar for Ed, who plays small guitars. So I went away to the north coast of Antrim and designed the Wee Lowden. My whole focus there was making sure that such a small guitar had a good bass response; to not be overly boxy in tone. It worked very well – Ed loved it. He later came over to visit us about six months later when he was playing in Belfast a few years ago. So, we stay in touch, and work together on things.
TG: Although you work with contemporary stars like Ed Sheeran, you’ve recently acquired a Lowden that used to belong to Gary Moore. Eric Clapton, who was one of your initial inspirations, has also played Lowdens. Are such guitars part of the Lowden legacy?
GL: When I get an older guitar back the first thing that I do is to listen to it. It helps me to understand what a guitar sounds like ten, twenty, even thirty years later. That helps me as I design guitars today. For example, I made my first guitar for Pierre Bensusan – his ‘Old Lady’— in 1978. It has an amazing, three-dimensional sound, because it’s been played so much. So, the player brings something to the guitar: as he or she plays it in their own style. Their character, the nuances of the tones they produce, become part of that guitar, to an extent, and influence how it develops. So, while Pierre’s guitar does not have, perhaps, the sparkle and the sustain that it once did, it has this other indefinable, three-dimensional tonality that I really like. So yes, I love getting those old guitars back. That guitar in particular represents a very long collaboration.
TG: I wonder if you could talk a little about materials. If you were making a guitar that you wanted to hear played in thirty years’ time, what materials would you use?
GL: The interesting thing is that it could be almost any species. Each tree is an individual, and the character of wood that comes from different parts of the same tree can vary. When I look for a piece of wood to make, for example, a guitar back, I pick it up and I tap it. When you hear that, you can sometimes hear a high-pitched, almost bell-like tone. The same goes for soundboards. We’re trying to move more and more towards reclaimed wood, as much as we possibly can, because clear-felling anywhere is very bad for the environment. There are replanting schemes that help, but even then it’s not ideal. It’s better to reclaim wood that was once an old bridge in Alaska, or was lying at the bottom of a Californian river or an Irish bog. Fall-downs are another option – for spruce, cedar, redwood, whatever, there will be trees that fall down naturally, and you can find them all over the place. So, there’s a lot of wood that can come from natural sources. You don’t have to go and chop down trees at all.
TG: Sustainability is a must, both in terms of your approach to growing the business and the environment?
GL: Yes, especially regarding wood. We buy cedar that comes from fall-downs, and wood that’s been washed-up on beaches in British Columbia that we call ‘Beachcomber Cedar’. We buy reclaimed Alaskan spruce, and we buy redwood that’s from the bottom of Californian rivers and lakes. We’re trying to reclaim more and more.
TG: Do aesthetics also play a role?
GL: That’s interesting, because the aesthetic doesn’t always work well when you talk about reclaimed wood. In the case of redwood it does because you get these beautiful, dark, mineralised streaks. But when you talk about spruce – which is normally pale – you sometimes get colouration that is perhaps not so attractive. If people understand why that’s there then they’ll be happy that it’s there, rather than regarding it as some kind of cosmetic imperfection.
TM: Do these reclaimed woods bring anything in terms of acoustic properties?
GL: Yes, because the wood is old its resins have been subjected to all kinds of oxidations and mineralisations, which make the wood lighter in weight, and change its properties. Although it can go too far and become petrified. But in general, these reclaimed woods are lighter and stiffer than cut woods, there’s no question. It’s a privilege to work with materials like that.
We visit the Downpatrick workshop of world-class guitar maker George Lowden to talk craftsmanship, his design proces and the importance of passing on one's skills.