Lowden O-22C Review

AG 235 July 2012 Cover

Posted by Doug Young

Among the multitude of instruments available today, a few stand out as true classics—guitars with a distinctive character and voice that have stood the test of time. One of these is the Lowden O-22. Northern Irish luthier George Lowden began building the model (then designated as a model S) in 1976, and the current model remains very close to the original. Lowden now builds a full line of guitars using several body sizes and a full range of wood options, but we were excited to check out the O-22C, the latest incarnation of the guitar that put Lowden on the map.

Tonewoods and Construction

Combining old-world charm with top-notch craftsmanship, the O-22C is completely devoid of unnecessary bling. Lowden has chosen to focus instead on high-quality woods and tasteful design. The O-22C’s aesthetics have more in common with classical guitars, with an uncluttered appearance, complete avoidance of synthetic materials (with the exception of the clear pickguard), simple rosette, and a fretboard entirely free of position markers. The cedar top on our review guitar has evenly spaced grain over the breadth of the jumbo-size body (16½ inches wide at the lower bout). The all-wood body trim (maple binding, with rosewood, sycamore, and mahogany purfling) creates a visual transition to the lightly flamed mahogany back and sides. The mahogany back offers an impressive span of wood on the large body, with no center strip and an undetectable center seam, and, like all Lowdens, the instrument has a hand-rubbed satin finish that enhances the natural woody look.

The guitar’s neck is built with Lowden’s usual five-piece design, which uses two strips of maple to reinforce the otherwise mahogany construction and results in a neck that is exceptionally stiff and stable, a feature that makes Lowdens popular with guitarists who use alternate tunings. Although the fingerboard has no inlay, the neck does have side position markers. The neck measures just a tad over the more-standard 1¾ inches at the nut, with a comfortable, though not ultrawide, 25/32-inch string spacing at the saddle. Like all Lowden steel-strings, the O-22C has a split-saddle design (one bone saddle for the two unwound treble strings, and another for the four wound strings), which the company says improves intonation. At the other end of the strings, Lowden’s choice of ebony buttons for the guitar’s Gotoh tuners provides a nice visual complement to the dark rosewood headstock overlay and ebony fingerboard.

The O-22C’s construction was meticulous. I couldn’t find any flaw, visual or mechanical, anywhere, and the combination of top-grade woods and perfect cleanliness inside and out is impressive. For such a large guitar, the instrument is surprisingly light, perhaps due in part to the relatively light “dolphin” profile bracing (a relatively narrow, yet tall design with a pointy top and a slight arch) used in all Lowdens.

Feel and Sound

When you pick up the O-22C, you immediately know you have a lot of guitar in your hands. Between the jumbo body size, the ever-so-slightly longer scale length and stiff neck, and a relatively flat fingerboard, the instrument feels substantial, but the organic feel of the satin-finished body and neck provides a sense of comfort. Although players with small physiques might find the body size somewhat challenging, the reward for those who are up to the task is an equally large sound.

The O-22C has the classic Lowden tone—rich, woody, punchy, slightly aggressive, and yet responsive to a light touch. The warmth of the cedar top combined with the dry mahogany back and sides creates a tone that is balanced and full, with a strong, ringing sustain and excellent note separation. The guitar has a lot of headroom and produces an impressive amount of volume when played hard; it also seems to fatten up, getting warmer and fuller as you play harder. The extreme clarity and dynamic response takes a little getting used to because the O-22C is not particularly forgiving of sloppy technique—the guitar tends to produce exactly what you play with slightly unnerving transparency and volume—but it provides plenty of rewards for playing with clean technique.

Because of the guitar’s Irish heritage and its similarity to fingerstylist Pierre Bensusan’s longtime instrument of choice (the 1978 cedar-and-mahogany jumbo Lowden he calls the “Old Lady”), I quickly tuned the guitar to D A D G A D and began exploring Celtic-tinged tunes. The stability of the five-piece neck, combined with the smooth-operating Gotoh tuners made moving between standard tuning, 
D A D G A D, and even C G D G C D very easy. The neck profile and tiny amount of extra spacing at the nut and saddle make the O-22C very friendly for fingerstyle, but I also like the way the guitar responds to a pick. As is the case when playing fingerstyle, digging in with a pick produces a fat, loud tone, without losing the bright edge, clarity, and note separation.

From a Whisper to a Shout

The Lowden sound is distinctive, and in the right hands it can range from a gentle, earthy whisper to powerhouse aggression. Some guitarists may find their voice in the O-22C’s clarity and power, while for others, it might provide variety and contrast to other guitars at their disposal. Everyone should be able to appreciate the attention to detail, subtle but high-quality appointments, and impeccable construction of this world-class instrument.

SPECS: Cutaway jumbo body. Solid cedar top. Solid mahogany back and sides. A-frame X-bracing with hand-carved “dolphin” profile. Five-piece mahogany and maple neck. Ebony fingerboard. Rosewood bridge. All wood binding, rosette, and purfling. Bone nut and two-piece saddle. 25.59-inch scale length. 1 25/32-inch nut width. 2 5/32-inch string spacing at saddle. Satin lacquer finish. Gold Gotoh 503 tuners with ebony buttons. Elixir Nanoweb light-gauge strings. Made in Northern Ireland.

PRICE: $5,165 list/$4,600 street.

MAKER: George Lowden Guitars: georgelowden.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar July 2012

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