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Northern Ireland’s George Lowden is the luthier behind some of the finest flattop steel-strings of the last 40 years. Lowdens have a signature voice, often described as complex, three-dimensional, and more diffuse than a typical American steel-string. Many important players have fallen for the Lowden sound, including Richard Thompson, fingerstylists Pierre Bensusan and Alex de Grassi, and Irish music legend Paul Brady.
Lowden Guitars has changed manufacturing facilities several times over the years, but the current shop, where Lowden and his small team build instruments largely by hand, is turning out the company’s best instruments yet. I’ve been a Lowden fan for many years and own a 1999 O10, so I was thrilled to check out one of the company’s latest models, the 32 SE Stage Edition.The F Evolves
As the name suggests, the 32 SE Stage Edition is built for live performance. Lowden’s other models are plenty happy onstage, but while many Lowden pickers use their instruments in solo, folk, or fingerstyle contexts, the 32 SE is conceived to work well where things get loud. It has a shallower body (ranging from 3" at the neck joint to 3 3/4" at the end-block) based on the company’s midsized F models. The neck is narrower (about 1 11/16" at the nut), with a slimmer profile than most other Lowdens. It’s also equipped with L.R. Baggs’ acclaimed Anthem electronics.
The 32 SE features a Sitka spruce top and East Indian rosewood back and sides. This is a common combination, but the wood on the review model made me take a step back. You will not come across a higher-quality spruce top—this one is even-grained, with beautiful medullary rays and an almost holographic sheen. The rosewood is stunning too, with a rich, dark color and cool grain variation. Like all Lowdens, the guitar has a five-piece neck (attached via dovetail joint) consisting of three mahogany sections and two strips of walnut (for increased stiffness and stability).
In a nod to Lowden’s love for classical guitars, the 32 SE’s fretboard and bridge are made from different woods: pitch-black ebony for the fretboard and rosewood for the bridge. The latter features a pinless design and Lowden’s two-piece bone saddle. The guitar’s body is bound with flamed maple, accented by three layers of purfling on the top. A single-ring abalone rosette adds a splash of color to an otherwise subdued and organic appearance. The clear plastic pickguard is nearly invisible.
The top is X-braced using Lowden’s typically narrow, tall, and tapered “dolphin” braces. Inside and out, the construction is astonishingly clean. Given the model’s stage-oriented name, I was surprised Lowden didn’t install a second strap button in addition to the endpin jack (though adding one is a simple procedure).Thin Body, Fat Voice
I’ve played many thin-bodied acoustic-electrics that sacrifice acoustic tone for of hassle-free amplified performance. However, my first timid strum established that this exceptional acoustic guitar will make you happy even if you never plug it in. The somewhat OM-like dimensions provide an OM-like character with great dynamics, sustain, and volume. There’s a little less bass than you’d get from a deeper body, though you never sense that there isn’t enough. The guitar has an easy feel, with low action and fluid playability everywhere along the neck. The relatively narrow nut definitely makes the guitar more appealing for flatpicking than complex fingerstyle work, though some players will find the neck comfortable for both. Anthemic Tones
I also tested the 32 SE’s Anthem electronics through an AER Compact 60 amp, and through an amp/P.A. combination (using a Headway EDB-1 preamp to split the signal) at a club gig where I played solo fingerstyle, and fingerstyle/flatpicked duets with another guitarist.
The Anthem system combines L.R. Baggs’ Element pickup and Tru-Mic internal microphone with a preamp module mounted inside the soundhole’s bass side. A built-in crossover dynamically assigns bass frequencies to the pickup and the high-end to the microphone. A blend control lets you mix mic/pickup signals, but even the all-mic setting uses some pickup signal to lend under-saddle push to feedback-prone bass frequencies. There’s a volume dial, plus phase-reverse pushbuttons.
Whether played through an amp or a P.A., the Baggs system provides an accurate representation of the guitar’s acoustic sound, capturing much of its complexity and dynamic range. For fingerstyle playing, I found that mixes with between 50% and 70% under-saddle pickup delivered the right combination of warmth and presence. True Mic-heavy settings, however, provided a much more natural attack when playing pickstyle. I encountered none of the feedback problems I’ve experienced with other guitars at the same club.The Verdict
The 32 SE Stage Edition is a fine high-end acoustic-electric for players willing to deviate from more common brands and styles. The thin body is comfortable and feedback resistant. Sure, you could add the same pickup system to other high-end acoustics and get great results. But for out-of-the-box performance, it’s hard to beat the 32 SE’s rarefied craftsmanship and quality.