David Mead takes a look at the maestro’s signature Lowden…
It’s important to remember that whenever you find a signature model in your hands, you’re experiencing someone else’s vision of perfection that might not correspond to your own. As such, you have to adjust your mindset accordingly and make allowances for the odd quirk here and there; but in the case of this instrument I’ll say from the outset that it’s a guitar that seems blessed with a sort of universal appeal. In short, I think that Richard and George’s decision to base this model on a tried and trusted body size and shape has certainly paid off…
The Richard Thompson signature acoustic has been around for a few years now, but seeing as we were talking to Richard for this issue, it seemed appropriate to revisit it and examine its virtues as a model that already has something of a track record in the Lowden stable.
As you might have already read in the interview, the body size is based on the old Lowden F series. This measures in at approximately 15.75″ for the lower bout and 11″ for the upper, with an overall body length of 19.75″ and a maximum depth of 4.75″. If you need any further comparison, this means that it falls around the established triple O and Grand Auditorium models, but more precisely, Martin’s Grand Performance range.
Cosmetically speaking, the guitar is very sleek and unfussy looking, but as they say, the plainest labels adorn the finest wines and so let’s look a little closer at this understated – but nevertheless handsome – little beast.
Cedar has become synonymous with Lowden guitars and so it’s no surprise to find the wood in use for the top here, with a transparent pick guard barely visible below the soundhole. The bindings around the edge are figured Tasmanian blackwood and the rosette is a composite of abalone, rosewood, sycamore, mahogany, and walnut. Now that might sound like a very elaborate configuration but in reality it’s perfectly in line with the overall subtlety of design present on the guitar.
The back and sides are figured Ziricote – sometimes quite wrongly referred to as “Mexican ebony” because of its dark hue. Well, it’s not an ebony, although the wood does come from Mexico! When I spoke to George Lowden I mentioned that I had heard that Ziricote tends to be difficult to work with.
‘Well, when we first started to work with it, we found that bending it was very difficult,’ he says. ‘But after a little experimentation we figured out that if you use a higher temperature for the bending process that it bends really well. But you do need to increase the temperature by about 20 degrees centigrade higher than most other woods. Other than that we find that it works really well and we rarely have a problem with it – but in the early days it was nightmare! In fact, one of the things I’ve found is that often the more beautiful the wood the more difficult it is to work with.’
In any case, the Ziricote on the Thompson signature is beautiful, with a grain reminiscent of a fine rosewood and an attractive splash of paler sapwood on the upper and lower edges and a centre seam on the back that reflects the woods used in the rosette.
The neck is a five-piece affair: principally mahogany, with a rosewood and walnut mix for the centre strip. There’s a bookmatched Ziricote headstock overlay to both the back and front complemented with very classy ebony buttoned Gotoh 510 tuners.
The bound fingerboard is ebony and, as mentioned in the interview, there are no position markers on the front side at all. This is a personal preference of my own as I think it lends a cleaner look to the front face of the guitar.
The bridge is rosewood with Lowden’s characteristic split saddle and rear mounted strings.
As I have said, the general look of the guitar is very subtle, but as you can tell from the medley of woods at play here, a great deal of thought and design panache is at work hereabouts…
Richard Thompson’s guitar style covers quite a range of expression: on the one hand there’s gentle fingerstyle, on the other, furious strumming – and let’s not forget that one of his favoured tunings involves dropping the bass string to C. All this has to be accommodated in a single instrument – and that’s quite a task for any luthier. But it’s possible to tell straight away that this is an instrument with a vast landscape of expression built in. The Ziricote performs very much like a rosewood in that it adds airiness and clarity to every note. Many players have mentioned in the past that some instruments bearing rosewood back and sides – especially the more exotic dalbergia – seem to have their own in-built reverb and there’s certainly something of that mixed in with the tonal response here, despite Ziricote being of a completely different genus. The sustain is impressive, too; notes seem to ring on for days if you let them!
The cedar certainly lends a lot of warmth – but not at the cost of responsiveness; I found that I could play incredibly quietly without compromising the tone – and there is plenty of headroom at the upper dynamic range, too. Bold strumming didn’t result in any perceivable harshness creeping into the sound picture, either.
It’s a comfortable guitar to hold – perfectly balanced with a neck that is just right for fingerstyle and, well, virtually anything else you can throw at it.
I said right at the beginning that signature models are renowned for being a game of give and take for everyone except the person for whom they are designed. But in this case, I think Lowden has created a model that would suit a great many players – particularly fingerstylists in search of a tonally rich and dynamically super-flexible instrument. A combination of easy handling and an absolutely beautiful tonal compass is really quite rare, after all. Sure, the price puts the guitar up there with the higher middle range of hand builds, but I think that when you get exactly what you pay for, everyone is a winner.
Pros: A world-class instrument that would suit a variety of styles and players
Cons: In reality, there’s not much I’d grumble about!
Overall: Richard Thompson’s vision of the perfect acoustic has virtually everything: tone, sustain and an amazing dynamic range – brilliant!
SOUND QUALITY 5 stars
BUILD QUALITY 5 stars
VALUE FOR MONEY 4.5 stars
Model: Richard Thompson Signature
Retail Price: £4755
Body Size: F Series Cutaway
Made In: Northern Ireland
Back and Sides: Ziricote
Tuners: Gotoh 510
Nut Width: 45mm
Scale Length: 648mm
Strings Fitted: Elixir 12s
Gig Bag/Case Included: Hiscox Liteflight Pro II