Lowden Pierre Bensusan Model Review

by Doug Young

Among a handful of legendary pairings of players and guitars, the association between Lowden Guitars and master fingerstyle guitarist Pierre Bensusan has a unique place in acoustic guitar history. In 1978, George Lowden built Bensusan what was then called a model S22 (today it would be called an O22), and aside from a few brief diversions, Bensusan’s famous jumbo-body “Old Lady” has been his near constant companion ever since. In 2009, Lowden began to work on a replacement for Bensusan’s aging instrument, providing a “New Lady” for Bensusan, and leading to the introduction of the Pierre Bensusan Signature model. We took a look at this unique guitar.

Refined Elegance

The Bensusan signature model is based on Lowden’s F body size, which roughly corresponds to the dimensions of a small jumbo or grand auditorium. The guitar is 157/8 inches wide at the lower bout and 423/32 inches deep at the tailblock. A small but effective armrest bevel helps minimize any ergonomic challenges presented by the deep body. The guitar is relatively free of ornamentation, featuring only a thin, simple abalone rosette and the Lowden name in abalone on the headstock. The pitch-black ebony headstock overlay is embossed with Bensusan’s signature in pearl on the back.

The instrument’s clean, uncluttered lines help draw attention to the high-grade woods used throughout. The darkly stained, satin-finished Honduras rosewood back and sides are beautiful in an understated way and accentuate the nearly white, perfectly grained Adirondack spruce top. The satin finish, along with the use of wood everywhere—for bindings, purfling, and more—gives the guitar an organic and extremely classy look. The smooth-feeling five-piece maple neck consists of alternating strips of light and dark wood, and even the lighter wood has a subtle old-world character that is a pleasure to look at as you play.

As with all Lowdens, the neck is extremely stiff and stable. The guitar features a 25.59-inch scale length (650 mm), with a string spacing of 1.77 inches at the nut and 2.36 inches at the saddle. Interestingly, the neck width increases more than the string spacing as you move up the neck, providing more spacing between the outer strings and the edge of the neck at higher frets, perfect for vibrato on higher-pitched melodic lines.

Lowden’s customary split saddle—one saddle for the two plain treble strings, and another for the four wound strings—provides excellent intonation over the entire range of the guitar, and the gold Gotoh 510 tuning keys (with ebony buttons) make tuning smooth and easy. The Madagascar rosewood bridge uses Lowden’s typical pinless design, which facilitates quick string changes and offers some additional comfort, with no bridge pins under your picking-hand palm.

As expected of a guitar in this price range and with this level of endorsement, the instrument’s construction is simply impeccable. And the top-notch materials and flawless construction create an intangible but immediate sense of understated elegance.

Tone Monster

The Lowden’s look, feel, and craftsmanship elevated my expectations of the guitar’s sound, and I wasn’t disappointed. As you might expect, the Bensusan model exhibits the distinctive Lowden tone—difficult to put into words, but hard to forget once you’ve heard it. There is a diffuse quality to the tone, but without sacrificing projection. The sound is loud and full, with meaty lower mids, a strong bass, and ringing highs. The most immediately noticeable characteristics of this guitar are tremendous sustain and the way it responds to dynamics. This is a lively instrument, with overtones and sympathetic vibrations that leap out effortlessly. Not surprisingly, the guitar sounds superb in alternate tunings like D A D G A D and adds a bit of authenticity to the sound of Bensusan pieces (which are almost exclusively in D A D G A D), but it is equally impressive in standard tuning. The instrument’s playability is excellent, with smooth, relatively low action, and a neck width that offers just a smidgen more room for fingerstyle players. The rounded neck profile feels substantial but comfortable, and the bevel and body shape make the guitar comfortable to hold.

While retaining the characteristic Lowden sound, the Bensusan model has its own distinct personality and tonal signature. With the help of a couple of Lowden-owning friends, I compared our review guitar with several other Lowdens, including a new F model made of Sitka spruce and Indian rosewood and a cedar-and-mahogany original S22 from the same era as Bensusan’s Old Lady. Each of the three guitars has a different voice, but the Bensusan model stands out not only for having a deeper bass than the F, but also for having more sustain, and more bright, ringing overtones than either of the other guitars. The stock F’s more fundamental tone, tighter bass, and shorter sustain seem better suited for traditional fingerpicking and flatpicking, while the Bensusan model excels at more ethereal sounds that are perfect for modern fingerstyle. Cascading cross-string runs in D A D G A D on the Bensusan model create a dramatic, shimmering harp effect, for example. The increased bass response may be due to its “bass-bias” bracing, which Lowden changed to compensate for the presence of the bevel, while the wood choices may at least partially account for the increase in sustain, brilliance, and overtones.

Extraordinary Fingerstyle Guitar

With the Bensusan signature model, Lowden Guitars has created an instrument that clearly stands at the high end of the spectrum in all respects. Designed for a fingerstyle guitarist whose musical depth places extraordinary demands on an instrument, the Bensusan signature model more than rises to the occasion.

SPECS: Lowden F-size body shape. Solid Adirondack spruce top. Solid Honduras rosewood back and sides. A-frame X-bracing with tapered “dolphin” shape. Five-piece maple neck with dovetail joint. Ebony fretboard, binding, and headstock overlay. Armrest bevel. Madagascar rosewood bridge with split bone saddle. 25.59-inch scale. 1.77-inch nut width. 2.36-inch string spacing at saddle. Gotoh 510 tuners. Light-gauge Elixir Nanoweb phosphor-bronze strings (.012–.054). Made in Northern Ireland.

PRICE: $8,425 list.

MAKER: Lowden Guitars: 44 (0)28 4461 9161; georgelowden.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar January 2011

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