Lowden Guitars

When Eric Clapton received a Grammy for his album “If I Could Change the World ‘ at Madison Square Gardens in 1997, he played the title song with his Lowden guitar. Clapton is just one of many talented guitarists – rock, classical and acoustic – to turn to George Lowden for their most prized possession. The latest, Ed Sheeran, is such a devotee of the Northern Irish guitar maker he has given his name to a new range of guitars, ‘Sheeran by Lowden’.

Remarkably, when George began his career he knew very little about the craft that would become his life’s work. “When I was a teenager in the late 60s, I was into music like Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Cream”, he says.

“I was interested in guitar playing and practised quite hard but I wasn’t very good, even though I probably thought I was.”

It was an article in the New Musical Express about an Englishman called Tony Zemaitis, who had become a legendary guitar maker to the stars, that triggered George’s interest. If someone trained as a cabinet maker like Zemaitis could make guitars good enough for the likes of Clapton, he reasoned, maybe this was something he could pursue too.

Aided by a small handwritten booklet by English guitar maker John Bailey, ‘Making a Folk Guitar’, George began to experiment. It wasn’t plain sailing. “I didn’t have the woodworking skills then, I didn’t even know how to sharpen the tools,” he says. “The workmanship on those early guitars was very amateurish.”

But with advice from some leading guitar makers in England and a local teacher (since a lifelong friend), who helped develop his woodworking skills, George began to perfect his craft. “Even though the workmanship was comparatively poor, those early guitars sounded good,” he says. This was largely due to George’s determination to experiment with his own designs, particularly around the way the soundboard vibrates, rather than copy others

By the mid-70s, his innovative guitars were becoming known for their distinctive sound and had begun to attract local musicians, like Northern Irish folk duo Maurice Leyden and Jane Cassidy.

Then came a big break. A friend, Alistair Burke, demonstrated his Lowden guitar at the leading music shop in Paris and George, now working from an apartment in Bangor, received an order for six guitars a month. This was followed by interest from a shop in Switzerland and George has never looked back.

The first world renowned artist to take up a Lowden guitar was French Algerian guitar maestro Pierre Bensusan, still an aficionado. Others, like Grammy nominated Alex De Grassi, Paul Brady and Richard Thompson, followed.

The relationships with many of these guitarists has now lasted several decades, helping George to design guitars tailored to their individual tastes.

“When it comes to some of the really good players, I do try and voice the guitars to suit them to some extent but it’s a very nuanced thing, just small changes. It’s interesting how the top guitarists adapt to a guitar. After playing it for a while they start to change the nuances of the way they play, to get the best out of the instrument.”

George’s guitars are as equally revered in classical circles as in the rock and acoustic worlds, but there are key differences in how he makes them.

“I really had to relearn how to make guitars when I started to make classical guitars”, he says, “as what you are trying to achieve is so different. With acoustic guitars, you’re trying to discipline the incredible energy coming from the steel strings, trying to make sure the guitar will stand the test of time. An acoustic guitar could still be working well after 50 years.”

“With classical guitars, you build them to be disciplined but to respond more easily to the vibrations of the strings because the energy produced by nylon strings is so much more delicate.”

Having worked in Bangor, Downpatrick and even France over the years, George is now based in Ballynahinch, where his small team of guitar makers includes sons Aaron and Daniel. Daughter Bryony and son-in-law David also work in the business.

In recent years George has probably become best known for his work with Ed Sheeran, a relationship which developed after meeting Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody at Belfast music hub the Oh Yeah Centre. 

“Gary bought some guitars from me and then asked if I would make a guitar he could give to Ed Sheeran. Ed uses very small guitars which I didn’t have at the time. So, I designed a new guitar called the “Wee Lowden’.  Ed loved it and wrote some songs on it. He bought five or six guitars and we became friends after he came to the factory. Since then, he has bought many more. He’s a really nice guy and very good to work with.”

The aim of the Sheeran by Lowden range is to try and get hand crafted locally made guitars, as opposed to mass-made guitars from the Far East, into the hands of young musicians. The cost – around the £700 mark compared to a starting price of £3,000 for most Lowden guitars – is a key incentive. The range has earned George a number of prestigious awards, not least the Queen’s Award for Enterprise (in 2020), to add to a very long list, for both his guitars and the business.

It’s largely because of Ed Sheeran that George has recently returned to making electric guitars.

“Ed asked me to make an electric guitar for Gary,” George says. “When Ed saw it he asked for another three - one for himself, one for Eric Clapton and one for John Mayer, who phoned me to tell me how much he was enjoying it.”

With a whole new market now devoted to his guitars, George and his team are working harder than ever to keep up with demand, an encouraging confirmation that hand crafted quality will always have a place in our lives.