Pierre Bensusan’s faithful six-string companion becomes a 40th anniversary signature model… Acoustic spends an afternoon with the Old Lady
There really is quite a story behind this guitar. In Paris during the late 1970s, DADGAD maestro Pierre Bensusan played his first Lowden guitar and found that it suited his unique fusion of world music amazingly well. Inspired by this, he ordered an instrument direct from George Lowden who then went about building a guitar to complement Pierre’s pioneering style. Since then, Pierre and the “Old Lady” as she became known have been virtually inseparable both in concert and on numerous recordings. Now battered, worn and road weary, the original has been retired in favour of a brand new signature model; but when George Lowden and Pierre realised that, by a happy coincidence, this year marked a 40th anniversary for both of them the idea was hatched to build a special edition based on the original spec of this famous instrument…
This guitar isn’t just a tribute to the original, it’s as near as possible to being an exact clone. The story continues that the “Old Lady” was flown over to Lowden in Ireland and every dimension was precisely measured so that the new version could be faithful to the original in every respect, right down to the interior bracing. The guitars that were being built by Lowden back in the late 1970s differ from today’s models – as George Lowden says, ‘Back then there were certain things that I was doing with the internal voicing and with the dimension of the soundbox and the particular way that I voiced his guitar to suit Pierre…’ and so whereas it’s been possible for contemporary players to get a model as near as dammit to Pierre’s original by buying an O22, this one is absolutely spot on.
As you might expect, the top of the Old Lady is red cedar – something that is very much a Lowden hallmark throughout the range. It bears the imitation tortoiseshell scratchplate – apparently a unique design – and the cutaway, which itself is worthy of another historical another footnote. When the guitar was originally completed it didn’t have a cutaway, but Pierre subsequently decided that he needed one in order to facilitate fingering on the upper frets. So the guitar was sent back to Lowden where George carefully re-bent the sides and cut into the soundbox in order to accommodate a cutaway. This is why the style of cutaway we see here is different from the guitars in the original 70s line. Other features here that are invisible to the eye include the interior bracing which Lowden tell me has a treble bias and that the soundbox geometry has been voiced to give as flat a response as possible. These two might seem to be contradictory at first sight, but I’m guessing that they do in fact work together to produce a bright, but even response. We’ll see if I’m right in a few paragraphs!
Back and sides here are from very old Cuban mahogany, which in terms of grain markings is very similar to any other mahogany except for a paleness in colour – there’s much less of a “honeyed” texture to it, if you see what I mean. The bindings are highly flamed maple and everything is finished in Lowden’s traditional matt lacquer.
The Old Lady’s neck is a five-piece laminate comprising three pieces of mahogany with two thin strips of maple, the latter forming a stripe that flares onto the guitar’s heel. The neck is described by Lowden as being “low profile” meaning that it’s pretty slim-looking; my probing fingers detect a very slight V to the shape of the back of the neck, too.
The tuners are gold coloured Schaller with black ebony buttons, lending a classy look to the rosewood fronted headstock. There’s a 45mm nut at this end of the ebony fretboard as part of what Lowden refer to as their “GL fingerstyle” package that not only uses a wide nut but also has a 60mm width at the neck joint. Combined with the slim neck, this looks very flat and wide, with the string spacing down at the nut looking exceptionally generous. Lowden’s trademark split saddle sits atop a rosewood bridge, the strings feeding through the back in the company’s time-honoured tradition.
I don’t usually find dreadnoughts or jumbos particularly comfortable to play sitting down, but the Old Lady sits in your lap like a favourite cat with none of that “right arm hanging in space” feeling I’ve encountered before. In honour of its heritage, I tuned the instrument straight to DADGAD, as I figured that this was the tuning for which it had been voiced and so it was only fair to appraise the beast in its native surroundings! At first, my senses were a bit overwhelmed; there’s an evenness across the tonal spectrum I wasn’t expecting from what is basically a jumbo cutaway. The trebles sing out, while the basses rumble and the sustain is nothing short of supernatural. Some notes around the seventh fret on the top strings appear to “bloom” after you’ve played them and you can feel every note you play transmitted back to you via the body resonance. I had the opportunity to hear one of Pierre’s pieces played to me on this guitar and I must say that the separation of the notes combined with the sonority of the trebles and nobility of the basses was really quite staggering. There’s quite a vast dynamic range available, too; it seems to respond to the gentlest touch, but can go from soft piano to strong fortissimo without missing a step.
If I found any fault at all it was around the troublesome 175Hz (F#) frequency – many dreads/jumbos seem to suffer from a slight loss of sustain and a bit of boxiness around here to the extent that studio engineers are accustomed to dialling down this particular frequency in order to tame it. It isn’t a problem, however, as it’s not particularly pronounced and if you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t notice it.
I have to keep reminding myself that this is effectively a signature model and that it has been designed both physically and tonally for another player – and in this case a very great one, too. Quite often you find that signature models are not suitable for the everyman – there are quirks and anomalies present that won’t suit everyone – but I didn’t notice anything I didn’t like about the Old Lady at all from a playing perspective. It’s an unfussy instrument totally devoid of unnecessary whistles and bells, focussing instead on pure tone and optimum response. In fact, I’ve remarked often in the past that I can tell when I’m in the presence of a really great instrument when I sit and play it for far longer than is necessary for a review and this was certainly the case here. It has to be said that the Old Lady carries a signature model price tag and it’s true that you could buy an O22 and come close, but I think you’d be missing out on a lot if you did!
Pros: A great guitar from a player with a reputation for stunning tone
Cons: Damn near perfect
Overall: A signature model with incredible depth that should appeal to fingerstylists everywhere
Model: Old Lady
Retail Price: £4,960
Body Size: Jumbo
Made In: Ireland
Top: Red cedar
Back and Sides: Cuban mahogany
Neck: Five-piece mahogany/maple
Nut Width: 45mm
Scale Length: 650mm
Strings Fitted: Elixir .012 – .053
Gig Bag/Case Included: Hiscox hard case