A great guitar is all about the wood. And a great guitar maker, or luthier, knows how to choose that wood, how to shape it, how to let it breathe, how to let it sing. George Lowden, who has been designing and creating acoustic guitars in Northern Ireland since 1974, is a true connoisseur of timber. He travels the world in search of the highest-quality specimens, from Alpine spruce and African blackwood to sinker redwood, a rare and expensive kind of wood that has been buried in the silt of Californian rivers.
“I have at my disposal the same tools, the same wood as other guitar-makers, but the key thing for me is, how do I use that wood?” says Lowden. “Every model has different specifications. How thick do I make the soundboards, how high do I make the struts, how do I get the balance between structural integrity and tonal responsiveness?”
Walking into the Lowden workshop in Downpatrick, Co Down, the first thing you notice is the sharp, spicy scent of cut timber. On one shelf, ebony finger-boards are slowly drying out, a process that takes many months. Close by, a stack of mahogany neck-blocks are undergoing a similar evolution. The mood in the workshop, with each craftsperson at their own station, is one of quiet but intense concentration. Building each instrument takes between six and eight weeks, and they sell for thousands of pounds, but such is the global renown of the Lowden name, the company is currently back-ordered for a year.
It all began in 1973, when the young George Lowden decided to teach himself to make a guitar. "I just got stuck in, really. It was foolhardy, I didn't know what to do. All I had was my own mistakes and a little book by an English guitar-maker called John Bailey. I wasn't conditioned to follow a certain design route, I wasn't copying anyone else, and I tried things with little chance of working. I was paddling my own canoe, for better or worse. But that helped me learn how to design guitars from scratch."
Since making that first model, which he sold for £60, Lowden has established a series of Irish instruments, distinctive in both sound and appearance, which have influenced generations of guitar-makers in the North and beyond.
“There’s something quite unique about the style of Northern Irish guitars,” says 25-year-old Ciaran McNally, an independent luthier based in Moira, Co Down, who spent two years working for Lowden. “They are almost entirely made of wood, there’s very little plastic, the sound is very natural and they tend to have a satin finish, rather than gloss.”
McNally bought his first guitar, an electric one, from a music shop in Lurgan, Co Armagh. “It used to give me a shock when I played it. I had to solder the earth wire to fix it. After that, I started tinkering with guitar-building kits, and soon I wanted to make an acoustic guitar of my own.”
McNally set up his business because he wanted the independence to be truly creative. “I didn’t want to make someone else’s guitars. I wanted the freedom to change constantly, not to be dictated to, never to produce large volumes of instruments, always to keep it a one-man operation.” Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: McNally has been invited to take part in the prestigious Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin in October.
Dermot McIlroy, based in Antrim, is another luthier with a worldwide reputation who emerged through the Lowden stable, where he worked as production manager. Like most master guitar-makers, McIlroy never advertises: all his work comes through word of mouth. He says luthiers are the “heart-transplant doctors of the wood-working world ... You have to have the eyes of an eagle, the patience of a saint, the hands of a surgeon. It’s not like making doors or tables. Instead of rulers, we use digital micrometers. For us, precision is everything, there’s no margin for error, because it affects the sound. Eyes, patience, hand – that’s what it’s all about.”
In a small community with a worldwide reputation, it's inevitable that tensions exist. Avalon Guitars, in Newtownards, Co Down, was formerly the Lowden Guitar Company, before the link with Lowden was broken and they set up on their own. Steve McIlwrath, Avalon's owner and managing director, says what makes his company stand out from other makers is a particular design feature, the pin bridge: six holes are drilled into the bridge itself, which creates a firmer connection between string and soundboard, thus modifying the tone of the guitar. "Another distinctive thing about Avalon is that while other brands have one designer, we have a group of luthiers," says McIlwrath. "We used to have an obligation to follow the Lowden design, but now we have a community of gifted luthiers, developing and sharing their own ideas, rather than one king-pin."
Avalon is also home to the Lagan Lutherie School, run by Ciaran McNally's teacher, Sam Irwin, which provides an unofficial talent-spotting service for the main workshop.
While there’s a vibrant cluster of luthiers in the North, they certainly don’t have a monopoly on the industry. Michael O’Leary and his son Alec make beautifully crafted classical guitars in Milford, Co Carlow. “It was when Alec was studying guitar in the 1990s that I first thought I’d have a go at making one,” says Michael O’Leary. He travelled to Spain and studied with José Luis Romanillos, one of the great luthiers of the 20th century, and on his return began to create instruments that took the classical Spanish model in surprising new directions. Now the O’Learys have a full order book and a two-year waiting list.
Chris Larkin, who lives and works in Castlegregory in Co Kerry is in his fourth decade of guitar-making. Alongside George Lowden and Ciaran McNally, he has also been invited to exhibit at this year's Holy Grail Guitar Show. It's clearly a big deal. "Yes, it is. You cannot buy a space there," he says. "Every luthier, no matter how famous – or infamous – has exactly the same size table."
Larkin is characteristically modest about his talents. “I started in 1977 because I was dissatisfied with a well-known make of guitar which I’d saved up to buy, so I thought I should stop moaning and do something better. More than 700 guitars later, I’m still trying to do better.”
An active member of the Leonardo Guitar Research Project, whose aim is to promote the use of non-tropical, non-endangered hardwood in guitar making, Larkin is a self-confessed "wood junkie", and he practises what he preaches. One of his Leonardo guitars boasts a back of Irish lacewood, a cedar top, a neck of maple and Irish walnut, a binding of Irish fiddleback sycamore, a fingerboard of laburnum and an Irish yew rosette. "Not just no tropical hardwoods but mainly Irish hardwoods – how good is that?"
Back in the workshop in Downpatrick, George Lowden reflects on his lifetime quest to make the ideal guitar. “I look at professional players when they start to play my guitars. I watch them, because I want to see if the guitar is responding to them. One time I watched a Chilean player at a competition in Geneva, and he just said to me, ‘when I ask her, she answers’. That’s it. That’s how you know whether you’ve got it right or not.”
From Eric Clapton to Pierre Bensusan: Well-known players of Irish guitars
– As the grandaddy of Northern Irish guitarmakers George Lowden has a long list of famous customers, including Eric Clapton, Ed Sheeran, Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, Luka Bloom, Pierre Bensusan and Richard Thompson.
– Lowden developed the “Wee Lowden” after he got a call from Lightbody asking him to make a small-bodied guitar as a present for Sheeran. “I went up to the north coast of Northern Ireland, near Bushmills, in 2013, and hid myself away for a week, to work on the design,” he says. “Then Sheeran came here, and he liked it so much he bought several.”
– Avalon Guitars also has an impressive line-up of clients, Bruce Springsteen (below), Van Morrison, the Corrs, Sinéad O'Connor and Bob Geldof among them. "James Morrison has four Avalon guitars, and he recently had all four on stage with him," says Steve McIlwrath of Avalon. "It's like an artist with their paintbrushes: you don't have just one paintbrush, you have many."
– Among classical concert musicians such as David Russell and Sharon Isbin, O'Leary guitars inspire some serious devotion. Berta Rojas, from Paraguay, is "very taken with hers", as Michael O'Leary says modestly. Rojas describes her O'Leary guitar as "a supreme instrument, effortless to play, with outstanding projection, balance and sustain, and capable of the most beautiful tones imaginable".