Born of Bill Collings’ fascination for Depression-era guitars comes the new line from the Texas luthier; Guy Little ponders over a ladder-braced Waterloo.
Collings acoustic guitars have been on the wish list of many guitarists since the 1990s, but Bill Collings founded the company two decades before that, in 1973. His curiosity regarding how the various physical components of an instrument add up to superior tone led him to study many instruments from the pre-war era in order to see exactly what made them tick. Add this to his enduring mission to ensure that every single aspect of building is done at optimum levels and you have acoustic guitars that are second to none.
Bill has always been infatuated with guitars – and not just expensive ones. When he first started building, the guitars of the 20s and 30s (the cheaper ones) would intrigue him – the character, the tone. The issue was that they rarely played well. These Depression-era guitars were mainly sold via catalogues and mail order under all different kinds of sub-brand guitar names (Kalamazoo and Gibson, for instance).
The guitars had simple appointments and weren’t built from fancy woods. They often looked a little disheveled, too. They didn’t sand the braces; they didn’t clean up their excess glue. They were made quickly and were all about function. Some really great guitars were made that way and these were the guitars that ended up in the hands of the influential players of the day.
‘Right now, I think there’s a rebirth of different guitar sounds and tones. People love guitars and all their factions. Every which way there is. I wanted to bring back the voice of some of these old Depression-era guitars in an instrument that would actually play. There’s an awesome space there to explore and enjoy,’ Bill explains.
There begins our story with Waterloo by Collings. You can only imagine the scene when Bill announced to his staff he wanted to remake Gibson’s Kalamazoo-style guitars. Favouring utilitarian design and build traits over style wouldn’t sit easily among some of the most sumptuously built guitars on the planet, right? Wrong.
The Waterloo range is an authentic remake of a Depression-era guitar; they have the Kalamazoo-style aesthetics: glue globs, matte finish, vintage styling and a unique tone and character. This isn’t a venture for Bill Collings to simply sell more guitars (hell, he’ll always sell lots of guitars); it’s the lovechild of his passion for building great guitars and his enduring curiosity surrounding pre-war instruments.
Gibson introduced the Kalamazoo range in 1934 to prop up sales in the Great Depression and given the cost-cutting nature of these guitars, they didn’t bear the Gibson name on the headstock. Instead, they chose the Gibson hometown of Kalamazoo. In the mid-1800s, a town called Waterloo became what we now know as Austin, Texas. So there we have it.
Waterloo by Collings isn’t a budget gateway into Collings Guitars; it’s a different beast all together. These guitars start at £2,000, about half the price of a Collings. I’ll say it now: if you want to buy into the Collings brand on a budget without “getting” this Waterloo range, you’d waste your money. If I just described you, then buy a secondhand Collings with your £2k instead. If you do “get” these guitars, then £2k is going to be well spent. Firstly, it’s because this range shares the intrinsic glue (if you’ll excuse the pun) holding Waterloo and Collings side by side – and that’s the non-negotiable issue of where these guitars are made. They are all made by the same luthiers, in the same workshop, in Austin, Texas.
Here we have the WL-14 LTR with ladder bracing. As a general rule of thumb, ladder bracing tends to be a bit more responsive and articulate. The topic of who invented the X-braced guitar is often a fiercely debated one, but there’s no denying that C.F. Martin is responsible for the popularity it enjoys. Martin started using it for their gut-string guitars well before the Civil War and, ironically, the real advantage of X-pattern bracing wasn’t fully realised until steel strings and the extra tension they brought with them began to be more widely used in the early years of the 20th century. Today, we like alternatives. And if they’re seen as a bit “old school” or “vintage” we tend to love them.
Ladder bracing is duly named because the parallel horizontal braces resemble the rungs of a ladder – and this bracing was found on those mass-produced Depression-era guitars I mentioned earlier because it was quick and cheap to manufacture. Today, ladder-braced guitars are back – and while it would be foolish to pretend that they’re going to threaten the dominance of X-bracing, they do offer players a different tone.
The WL-14 is the flagship model of the Waterloo guitar line and it’s available in both ladder and X-bracing. You can also choose the finish (matte black or sunburst), neck shape and either a truss rod or T-bar. The guitar I have to test has the matte sunburst finish, and an awesomely chunky V-profile neck which will feel right at home for vintage guitar purveyors – and I just love the chunky neck profile. It has a roomy 1 & 3/4” nut width and you’ve got 2 & 3/8” string spacing here – vintage all the way, baby. (Although, should you require a slim neck, they’re available.) The top of these guitars is solid spruce with a semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer. The back and sides are from mahogany with single binding around the top edge. It’s as stripped back as you could possibly get; there are no superfluous adornments and these guitars are made for one thing: glorious vintage tone.
The unbound mahogany neck, cool ivoroid soundhole binding and tiger stripe pickguard throws emphasis to the old-time, stripped down vibe. There’s no question here: the construction is flawlessly in keeping with a vintage instrument. We’ve got a bone cut-through saddle, ebony nut and fretboard, rectangular bridge, and some lovely Golden Age Restoration tuners that round the whole look off beautifully. The neck and string spacing make for a welcoming playing experience, transporting you back to a stage with Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, and a 12-string ladder-braced Stella.
Now, there’s an elephant in the room. It’s the finish. Or rather, the imperfections herein. Before I say anymore though, it’s supposed to be this way. For some, glue spill on a £2k guitar will scare you away. However, it’s rather the skill of the Waterloo team in that recreating these guitars involves the proficiency to do so with even the littlest of things in mind – for instance, the glue spill. It’s all part of what makes these guitars truly authentic. It will challenge you to hate it – it did me at first – but after that thing clicks in the back of your mind and you just “get” it, you’d be complaining if this guitar indeed was perfect. “Well it can’t be truly authentic if the braces are shaved perfectly and the glue is immaculate,” you’d say. Let’s avoid using the word “finish”; the “craft” has been honed to the point of leaving just about the same amount of rough-cut wood and squeezed glue here and there inside the guitar to reflect an accurate time stamp. The back and sides show off a lovely mahogany grain, not hidden by the nitro finish – even on the matte black finish, you can still see that raw wood underneath. Anyway, these things smack you square in the face with character and charm – let’s see if the same can be said about the sound…
Before playing this guitar, pulling it from its TKL case feels like you just discovered an untouched Kalamazoo or Gibson L-00 in your grandparents’ attic, only it’s better – much better, in fact. It’s as light as a feather, too. The WL-14 LTR’s sound is squarely of a classic vintage persuasion powered by a pronounced mid-range honk. It’s tailor made for pickers who love a bit of blues and old time tunes – although anyone with a penchant for quality and traditional aesthetics will love it.
In my experience playing ladder-braced guitars, they’re not usually as loud as their X-braced counterparts, but this is an exception. It’s loud, proud, and responsive to the touch with a quick, dry attack – and also with a tight percussive sound. The sound is forceful without being brash and heavy – and it’s reminiscent of those old Gibson parlour guitars. It already has lots of that chunky dried out wood sort of tone right out of the box. In some guitars, we could describe the sound as a little boxy with no sparkly trebles, but the charm here more than makes up for that – and making this guitar with sparkly trebles isn’t what the Waterloo range is about.
Bill says that the tone of ladder bracing is less focused and so the overall tonal spectrum blends together in a way you wouldn’t get with X bracing. However, that strong, dry midrange and thump of the bass notes isn’t muddy at all. If we were comparing it to an X-braced guitar, the X-bracing would produce a clearer, balanced and more defined sound for sure, but the sound of this guitar is defined by its ladder bracing and the midrange it produces for people fingerpicking fingerstyle blues. We’re looking at this guitar in isolation, and the sound of it shouldn’t be bell-like and completely balanced across every string, note, and fret. That’s not what it’s about. There’s a certain gritty nature about its tone; it’s raw, naked, and has a lightness and unrefined demeanor.
The Waterloo will sit well in a country meets blues and folk outfit. Although it’s probably not the best all-rounder guitar, if you’re after a certain pre-war authenticity in a brand new guitar then this is one for you. It couldn’t be farther away from a modern sounding guitar and it won’t be the most versatile, but that’s not bad thing here.
The Waterloo guitar line is a look back in time to when there was a need for soulful tone that could be coaxed from simple instruments. The blues, country, and folk music played on these instruments shaped the sound of music for generations to come. I think the Waterloo line is a breath of fresh air for serious tone fiends. It’s a tone-centric guitar that has a stunningly musical midrange and a nice growl when you dig into it with a plectrum. It’s a humble workhorse guitar that’d be equally at home, in the studio, on the sofa, or on a stage. Whatever the case, it’s built for the kind of no-frills music that comes straight from the gut.
Pros: The build quality is akin to that of the best; the character and charm will win people over before they even play it
Cons: People will either love or hate the finish imperfections whether they’re intended or not
Overall: A stunning midrange and an instrument with a great story to tell
Sound quality: 5/5
Build quality: 5/5
Value for money: 5/5
Manufacturer: Waterloo by Collings
Model: WL-14 LTR
Retail Price: £1,999
Body Size: Based on the L-00
Made In: Texas, USA
Back and Sides: Solid mahogany
Neck: Solid mahogany
Fingerboard: Solid rosewood
Tuners: Golden Age Restoration
Nut Width: 1 & 3/4”
Scale Length: 628mm
Onboard Electronics: No
Strings Fitted: High quality USA
Left Handers: To order
Gig Bag/Case Included: TKL hardcase
Guitar XS / Waterloo Guitars