Posted on Monday 1 April 2019 by Ulster Business
He’s been at the forefront of high-end guitar-making in Ireland for five decades. Now, George Lowden has taken the biggest step in his career and paired up with a global superstar to develop an instrument for the masses, writes John Mulgrew
If you first began making guitars as a boy in Bangor, it’s perhaps not surprising that after 50 years your instruments are among the greatest in the world.
Now, George Lowden’s journey has taken its biggest step in decades – teaming up with one of the world’s biggest pop stars to produce a range of more affordable instruments
George’s guitar-making story has taken many turns in the last few decades, from making small numbers himself, to larger-scale production and outsourcing, before moving to his current Downpatrick home and building some of the most beautiful and acoustically rich-sounding instruments.
They are regularly in the hands of people like English folk hero Richard Thompson and Pierre Bensusan, but have also graced the stage along arguably one of the greatest players of a six-string instrument, Eric Clapton.
In fact, the former Cream and Bluesbreakers man took to the stage at the Grammy’s in 1997 with a Lowden – forgoing the Martins which he had, and has, used throughout his career.
But the next step in the Lowden journey came something out of the left field for many in the industry, and players alike. George and managing director Ausdahl took to the NAMM show in Anaheim, California alongside Ed Sheeran – collaborating on a more affordable range of instruments.
The most interesting part of that, from a production perspective, is the guitars will still be made in Northern Ireland, while the majority of the big US makers outsource production of cheaper ranges.
“It all started about five years ago with Gary Lightbody when he was using my guitars,” George told Ulster Business. “I made one for Ed Sheeran. I thought, he uses small guitars and we don’t have them.
“So, I decided to design one. I went up to the north coast and spent about a week there – thinking and drawing, and designed what is now the Wee Lowden.”
After that, Ed used the guitar for recording, and it spurred on a relationship with the instruments which led to the new partnership.
“I definitely didn’t want to outsource the production, having had experience of that in the 1980s, with licensing there are limitations – particularly when it comes to quality control and design.
“I decided, if we do this, we are going to do it here. The challenge of course, is salaries and production (costs) are higher than the Far East, for example. I had confidence that because of the tech available – the careful marriage between hi-tech processes, and more traditional hand processes.”
“One of the interesting things is, if you examine guitar-making worldwide, in the Far East the processes tend to be more hand made, because labour costs are very low.
“In the US, the processes are more machine orientated. I wanted to develop some ground-breaking processes, which I think will be taken up by other companies in due course, but also keep some of the very important hand processes, most importantly hand carving the internal bracing system.”
For acoustic guitars, the bracing inside the instrument is one of the keys to the overall tone of the instrument, along with the wood selection – and resonance – and the quality of the build, parts and set up.
“That’s not a small challenge for us. We have to train young people to use sharp chisels. But I have found in the past, people have reasonable hand-to-eye co-ordination, so can pick it up quickly.”
And from the volume perspective, George says he’s already pre-sold three quarters of the first year of production. That’s starting off at around 5,000 instruments a year, but growing that “considerably higher” in year two.
Speaking about the burgeoning relationship between George and Ed Sheeran, managing director David Ausdahl, says it was a meeting of minds which focused on simplifying design while retaining high build quality and tone.
“There was a trifecta of requirements. Not compromising on quality, doing it here and making it accessible to a whole new market and a whole new price point. George never moved out of that space.
“We have had unprecedented demand. People were coming across the stand (at the NAMM show) and some hadn’t previously known the company. It gives them an introduction to a new market.
“Young people are able to get engaged with the guitar, and make music.”
If you aren’t familiar with the existing handmade Lowden range, prices start at around £3,000, while guitars using more exotic woods and parts can quickly rise to the cost of a small hatchback.
But George is kicking off the new Sheeran by Lowden range at less than £600.
“We realised, for young people, that a price point of say £600, is what most young people aspire to. One of our aims, both Ed and I realised, all too often, young people who want to take up guitar and write songs. They buy a guitar which is the best they can afford. But it’s uninspiring, has a hard tone and is difficult to play – far too many of them would just give up.
“(We thought) if we could produce a guitar, that doesn’t have the cosmetics, but if we can make one that sounds really good, at an affordable price, something worthwhile.”
To keep costs down, Lowden has cherry-picked production priorities, retaining hand made work for areas such as the internal bracing.
“We also clearly did not want the two ranges to encroach in others territory.”
He says existing players have already taken an interest in getting their hands on the new Sheeran by Lowden instruments.
“From a commercial point of view, it’s a large market but obviously it is more competitive than the high end market Lowdens. I personally have to be very proud of what we do, and I feel, as long as I’ve done my job, I feel confident it’ll be a great success.”