In the summer of this year, at the age of ten, George took the first step on what was to become a lifelong pursuit to build guitars which would inspire players with their sound, feel and looks. “My friend Alan French and I made two "guitars" with the help of his dad, who was a boat builder in Groomsport, County Down. The "guitars" had fishing line for strings, bent over nails for frets, and a square soundbox!!”
At eighteen, George remained driven towards learning the art of guitar building and made a further attempt. “I had another go and made an electric guitar- more recognisable as a guitar, but barely so! I fancied myself as Ireland's answer to Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix... (painful adolescent memory....)”
“After a fair bit of prayer (I needed all the help I could get!) I decided to make guitars professionally. Armed with some wood, basic woodworking tools and an excellent booklet by English Luthier John Bailley, I began the journey.” Over the next two years he taught himself how to use woodworking tools and learned his trade, mostly by trial and error. He began thinking about body shapes, internal bracing patterns, side profiles, construction options, varnishing techniques, plus design options for stabilising the acoustic guitar while still allowing it to breathe… This was a challenging and exciting time. “I learned everything the hard way. I had no one to teach me how to avoid the obvious pitfalls. I tried new shapes, bracing designs and many other ideas and gradually emerged from the ‘hard school’ of self taught guitar making.”
Throughout these years of experimentation, (cue more prayers to the Designer of the trees and laws of physics) , George became increasingly aware of the physics involved in the production of sound in the acoustic guitar which led to his innovative soundboard bracing design, including the “Dolphin” strut profiles , the bridge design, the finish inside the soundbox, as well as the methods of assembly chosen and the blending of different woods. He then began a series of experiments aimed at increasing structural stability , finally designing what has become known as A-frame bracing.The first guitars with A-frame bracing and the Dolphin voicing profiles were made in 1976.
"I am grateful to Stephen Delft and Chris Eccleshall (both excellent London based luthiers at that time,) for their help with specific information about where I could source various tools and woods etc. They were very patient and helpful during my ‘learn as you go’ period!"
“What is now called the O 25 had arrived, along with another three models all of the same shape, bracing and simple cosmetics. I was happy with the voicing of the bracing, craftsmanship, general design and most of all, tone, of these guitars.” Another friend, Alastair Burke, showed his guitar (the first South American Rosewood and Cedar “O38” ) to the main acoustic guitar shop in Paris, Folk Quincampoix. The result was a shock phone call for an immediate order of six guitars with the request for four more every month!!! Sales began to explode, and George tried to expand the business to cope with the increasing demand.That first Irish studio/workshop, in 6a High Street, Bangor employed the first 4 trainee guitar makers, Colin ‘Dusty’ Miller, Frank Kernaghan, Sam Irwin and Michael Hull. It produced approximately 100 guitars , which can be identified by small blue rectangular labels.
Yves Imer and Rene Hagmann of Servette Musique in Geneva had always been very supportive towards George since they first discovered his guitars in 1978. In 1980, Yves asked George's permission to source a small and expert company to make the guitars under license, so they would be more widely available. “Thus began a five-year period when my guitars were made by the small dedicated band of luthiers in the S.Yairi workshop near Nagoya, Japan. Visiting the workshop regularly to give the designs and check quality, I observed their craftsmanship and serious approach to work! I found them to be honourable and courteous, and I had the greatest of respect for their hard work and excellent guitars. I learned a lot about production and tools, and they in turn were delighted to be able to make original design guitars to this quality level. I also observed, what was to me, a new type of workmanship. I had previously thought that working to a high standard took a lot of time. However, I found that, with practise, the same or better results could be achieved at speed, through a high level of concentration . They also took me to visit a tiny store in Nagoya to buy Japanese hand tools with their laminated steel and fantastic cutting edges- which were a complete revelation to me”.
As a result of a rampant fashion for all things electronic in music, sales of acoustic instruments slumped worldwide. Yairi decided to consolidate by closing their workshops and moving production of Lowden guitars to a larger factory where other brands were made. Worried about this proposal, George decided to try setting up a new facility in Ireland and so the license was ended. With very little capital and the help of investors (David & Frances Jebb), George managed to rent an empty shell of a building in Bangor, Co. Down and began to train new craftsmen from scratch.
Micky Uchida, arrived in Ireland to live with the Lowden family, having written to ask George if he could come to work for him. Micky had been trained in classical guitar building but was interested in learning about steel strings. After observing his obvious talent as a craftsman and luthier, George offered Micky the factory manager's position. Lowden Guitars of this period were labelled with a slightly smaller version of the oval label and approximately 500-600 guitars were made in each of the first 3 years then approximately 1000 per year thereafter.
Demand for acoustic guitars was still very low and worldwide prices were about half (in real terms) what they are now. Eventually in November , the fledgling Irish company ran out of funds and George was uncomfortable continuing with an under-funded business unable to meet its commitments, so he decided to close it down. On being informed of this, the Company’s bank asked him to agree to a Receivership, as they believed the Company could be sold if George agreed to a future co-operation. A group of local people put together a consortium, headed by Andy Kidd, (a record producer) to buy the assets out of Receivership. They called their company The Lowden Guitar Company, and signed a licensing agreement with George by which he retained personal ownership of the Lowden designs and trademark. He provided quality control and new designs while remaining independent from the new company which moved production to Newtownards Co Down. The model range at that time was much more limited than it is now, but the beginnings of a dealership network had already been established in parts of Europe and the USA.
George moved with his family to France and continued his work as an independent luthier designing and building his new range of classical guitars as well as his steel strings. He had earlier developed his classical design after winning a Winston Churchill Travelling Scholarship ( to which he was introduced by the late David Hammond, Irish musicans’ & craftspersons’ champion, from the BBC Belfast. ) The scholarship took George to Switzerland where Lowden dealer & concert guitarist Werner Ernst provided a temporary workshop in his home , and tested the first 3 prototypes.
George returned to Ireland and continued to build his own acoustics and classic custom guitars for individual clients. He also continued to work with The Lowden Guitar Co designing new guitars, helping with training and quality control.
Micky decided to return to Japan to start his own luthier business. In 1992 , in order to provide additional ‘hands on’ help, Andy Kidd invited George to set up his own workshop within The Lowden Guitar Co factory, to be on hand everyday for troubleshooting and training.
George moved to a new workshop at his home in Bangor and worked most days from there, but visited the factory virtually every week to use some larger machines and do lacquering work in their spray booth. He remained available to help with troubleshooting and new staff training. He also trained his eldest son Daniel in classical guitar building. During these years 1991-1998, he designed some new models to increase the range available; the Small body, Jazz and Premier Range ( now known as the 35 Series ).
The acoustic guitar market had begun to flourish again during the 90's, but The Lowden Guitar Co was significantly hampered by under-investment and had not been able to achieve its potential. In November 1998, keen to participate in a progressive plan to develop the business further, George Lowden, along with Steve McIlwrath and Alastair McIlveen set up a new holding company to buy a controlling interest in the Lowden Guitar Co. In November 1998, a visitor to the factory showed up guitar case in hand with the Lowden guitar serial No.1. - the very first guitar George designed and built. This was an excellent reminder of how far the Lowden Guitar had come. As a celebration of this long journey, George designed the 25th Anniversary Limited Edition model.
By this time, the community of Lowden enthusiasts had grown considerably and players were not only attracted by Lowden’s distinctive tone, great looks and attention to detail, but also by the fact that they were not mass produced. Requests increased for more special edition Lowdens and in order to fulfil this demand, George designed the Millennium Twins with their matching sets of figured walnut back and sides and adjacent sets of redwood tops sourced from trees which had fallen naturally.
The License with the Lowden Guitar Co was ended and production of Lowden guitars at the Newtownards factory ceased at the end of December 2003.
From this date Lowden guitars are built by our family–owned company, George Lowden Guitars Ltd., under George’s direct supervision in new workshops located close to our home in Downpatrick, Co Down. Ireland. The integrity and passion – once described as “Olympic guitar making” - which goes into every Lowden guitar, has never been stronger, and we are very proud of our team. We celebrated our 30th Anniversary with a Limited Edition pearwood guitar, which proved phenomenally popular. As the new workshops got ‘up to speed’, the full Lowden range was brought on line again………but with some surprises in store! The small 'S' model was redesigned with a more curvy body and shorter scale length. George took the 'F' model design a bit further and also redesigned the nylon-string Jazz model based on his classical bracing design. The ‘new era’ of production is signified by a new rectangular label
The ‘50’ Series Custom Shop was introduced to meet the demand for customisation and to offer the choice from our Reserve Selection of Master Grade tonewoods. George's son Aaron walked straight from school into the workshops to begin his apprenticeship to his father.
saw the launch of the Richard Thompson and Alex de Grassi Signature Models – both ‘F’ cutaway models in stunning wood combinations. Both Richard and Alex have chosen to play Lowden for many years and we wanted to recognise that, and pay tribute to their skill.
was a busy year for new introductions! The famous 'Lucky Strike' Limited Edition featuring once- in- a- lifetime - quality Sinker Redwood tops from the eponymous Lucky Strike log and The Baritone guitar, plus the re-introduction of the 22 model and the addition to the Jazz Series of a Brazilian Rosewood/ Alpine Spruce version.
The long standing relationship between finger style artist Pierre Bensusan and his Lowden guitar was marked by the introduction of a Pierre Bensusan Signature model featuring a soundbox bevel designed by George. The bevel provides much welcomed comfort when practising for hours , or for reaching over the soundbox generally and has since become a very popular optional addition to any guitar in the 35 Series and 50 Series.
George had been asked at various times whether he would make a guitar with a ' fan ' style fretboard. The concept has been around since medieval times , but was generally only available currently by commission from individual luthiers. The idea is that by using a variable scale length , the bass string length is increased and the treble string length is decreased, which enhances the tonal qualities at each end of the spectrum. George designed a unique 'Dali-esque' bridge which allows any Lowden to be made with a fan fret option without interfering with the unique Lowden soundboard bracing. Simply angling the bridge would have necessitated altering the placement of internal struts.
We also recognised the contribution of Thomas Leeb's amazing percussive acoustic style to the acoustic guitar world - and particularly the Lowden community - by creating the Thomas Leeb Signature model complete with a replica of his wooden scratch plate.
It was our pleasure to celebrate a great Irish connection between Paul Brady and Lowden with a Paul Brady Signature model, specially designed to be played successfully on stage with a band, but using a mic - only set up, if desired. This is Paul's preferred option of late. Initially at the request of our Japanese fans, but proving a major success internationally, we also launched The Stage Edition 32SE - a revised version of an earlier design - featuring a shallow body, fast neck and inboard pick- up.
We celebrate George's 40th Anniversary as a guitar maker with a truly special and personal Limited Edition Option package which George has said "comes from the heart" and is available for any guitar in our range. We are looking to the future too by launching the smallest Lowden so far - the 'Wee Lowden'. Anyone familiar with Ireland will understand that 'wee' is a colloquial affectionate term for anything small ( or indeed anything at all - with apologies to Paul Brady for whom it's ubiquitous use is cause for considerable irritation!) This year is also Pierre Bensusan's 40th anniversary and we are marking this with him by reproducing his original Lowden - the 'Old Lady' ( now retired) - as a second signature model.
The workshops are gaining much needed extra space with the help of government funding, and our longsuffering craftsmen definitely deserve it!