With so many makes and styles of guitars available these days it becomes increasingly hard to identify what some particular brands stand for in terms of both the style that they suit and lean towards and the tone that they have become known for. What are they all about and what do they provide the guitarist. What core sound and distinctive personalities can be attributed to them across the range as a whole. All guitar makers regardless of size of company and manufacturing facility’s tend to have a basic set of guitar building principles and a tone pallet that they have become known for. With so many American brands dominating the market in Europe we thought it would be interesting to discuss some of the high quality instruments that are being produced in Europe band are selling head to head against the established American giants.
firstly lets talk about the American market. Of course brands such as Martin, Gibson and Taylor tend to hog the high end of the market place and usually receive most of the attention. However many players would argue that the very best of the current American built ranges would come from makers such as Collings, Huss and Dalton and Santa Cruz. My own experience of these brands certainly agrees that builders such as Collings are currently making by far the best American crafted acoustic instruments. I have never come across a Collings guitar that didn’t in some way move me. They are always very hard to put down and always leave you wanting more. I would say that Collings more than any other builder has really taken over in terms of consistency, build quality and all round performance and tone. To many they sit at the top of the tree when it comes to American built instruments. One can only imagine how good they will sound in years to come and what sort of value they will be changing hands for. Every year I see plenty of Collings guitars and I have never detected even the smallest imperfection in any aspect of a Collings fit finish or performance. They sound superb and regard themselves and producing ” Vintage now Guitars”. They produce a brand new instrument built with the character and tone of the vintage classics in mind.
But are American built guitars the only ones we should be considering. What about Lowden, Brook guitars and Lakewood. These European brands also make wonderful instruments and to many its these European brands that tick the individuals box. Of course the history and heritage that America has with guitar building ensures that the DNA of any modern steel strung European guitar becomes automatically interwoven with influences from the American classics. But who’s to say that these European builders can not move things on a step and produce guitars that have a different character and set of sounds and ultimately a different appeal. I see plenty of Forum topics and general on line discussions regarding what is the best brand. Sometimes the conversation is based on a certain style of playing or a certain sound that an individual is looking for. Really the way to approach these questions and the topic of what is best, better or the very best ever, is simply from ones on viewpoint and ones own playing experience. So much of what we read and see points us towards an established American brand. Its not just that they appeal from a performance point of view, its also that they culturally fit. Maybe a Martin or a Gibson acoustic would be regarded as suited to a certain style not just tonally but in a large part also due to the history and the association with the brand and maybe other well known famous users. Martin in particular have put this effect to great use by producing a superb range of artists guitar. The Eric Clapton and John Meyer Martin guitars are very nice instruments, but I would say certainly some of the appeal is the association with the brand and the Artist. I feel the need at this point to declare my very real desire to own a Martin OMJM. its high up on my list and one of these days I will add one to my collection.
I would say that yes of course American builds some great instruments and in particular I highly rate Collings and own and love some of the Martin Classics. But the American sound and style of guitar is not the only way to go. When you factor value into the situation and you start to consider brands by assessing tonal performance and the playing experience they produce many of the worlds American built guitar fans would be well advised to take a look at just what Europe has got to offer. Martin has a ” Martin Sound ” and Taylor has a ” Taylor ” sound. Players will argue about what these kind of statements actually refer to, but you hear it so much and so often that either it is true, or the effects of thinking this way means that whether its true or not is irrelevant as it is perceived as such anyway. For my own part I feel I can usually tell if the guitar I am listening to is a rosewood back and sides Martin. A D28 or a 00028 all have that distinctive martin basic flavour, a martin signature sound. so what do Lakewood and Brook and Lowden sound like.
Brook guitars are built in the heart of the Devon countryside in a very remote and compact workshop. I have spent time with the two owners of brook and have been completely blow away by not only the guitars but the attitude and ethos behind the company. They offer a range of individual instruments mostly named after Devon rivers, the brook range has on offer an array of designs. These guys are a real small shop builder. They hand craft and finish around 100 guitars each year. Any Brook guitar has been built and finished with the individual love and attention that only a small guitar builder can afford. They have a character and style that combines complete quality with a sprinkling of magic. How many guitar building companies have every piece of wood, every back sides and top personally selected by the owner. Just compare that with a Martin or a Taylor ! I am not quite sure what the magic ingredient is with any Brook guitar but its evident as soon as you pick one up. They play beautifully and they have such a magical tone with so much going on under the hood. The brook Taw and Torridge are my particular favourites as they combine a clear and accurate sweet natured voice and have plenty of harmonically rich content all at the same time. Most players that play a mid or small body Brook guitar would describe the sound as being sweet. Delicate with overtones but also a direct fundamental. Surely this is the best of both worlds, that the holy grail for many players….. yep ! I couldn’t agree more. Depending on the choice of body size top and back and sides the combinations of tone of course can vary, but the fundamental character of a Brook could be described as clear and sweet sounding but with also plenty of character and lovely sounding overtones. As with many other European hand built guitars Brook work out to be extremely good value. At the current time of writing this you can by a brand new Brook for £ 2150 and that’s not far of half what some of the premium American guitars will sell for. Make no mistake about it these are some of the best guitars you will ever come across and supply is so limited that they are regarded as rare Gems.
Lakewood is another European builder that we should all know about and that regularly gets overlooked. Hand building guitars in Germany Lakewood produce some lovely instruments and tend to produce what has become regarded as a more classical European steel strung sound. They tend to be harmonically rich and to my ears very open sounding. The Lakewood naturel range represents amazing value. A hand built European guitar built to impeccable standards and full of character for the same price as a basic mass produced American guitar will cost. I personally love the satin naturel look and feel and think that Lakewood must make some of the best looking guitars currently on the market. A Lakewood guitar will have a very different basic tone to a Martin or Gibson. It will provide plenty of character and will combine a crisp fundamental note with light and airy overtones. Of course this will vary from body size to body size and as with all makes different choices of tone woods will change the basic tone of an instrument. But in my opinion Lakewood offers something a bit different and ” European ” sounding and at staggeringly good price. All Lakewood guitars have been hand built. This superb instruments needs to be heard to be appreciated. I see little on youtube or in the forums about them and yet pound for pound they may well be the best value hand built guitar available in the UK and Europe at the moment. They look amazing have bags of style and a voice that has lots to love about it. I particularly like the M14 and the Naturel range, however Lakewood will custom build using a massive selection of tone woods and to your own specifications.
Lowden is most likely regarded as the best European steel strung guitar builder. George lowden has built an amazing reputation for delivering a specific ” Lowden ” sound. Of course all guitars vary from body size and wood combinations but having said that all Lowden guitars have a ” Lowden ” style sound. George uses some unique bracing and builds guitars to ensure that every Lowden produces a Lowden tone and flavour. I would highly recommend going on to youtube and searching for George Lowden disusing in detail the different wood combinations and sizes available in his range. Regarded by many to be a competitor along with Collings for building the current best steel strung acoustic guitars the world has to offer. Lowdens offer a Celtic harp like overtone that just has so much to offer any player. Once you have played a Lowden you will want to own one. These guitars are often compared and admired equally with Brook guitars and also Lakewood. These 3 brands really sum up the best that Europe has to offer and lean towards creating a European style of sound. An alternative and competitor to the American sound. Not better or worse, just different and offering perhaps far better value.
So there we have it. Yes of course American make the guitars of yesteryear and guitars associated with generations of iconic players. The Classic names from America are extremely popular and will be the right choice of guitar for many players. But the American market is not the only way to go. If its the American tone and the American look that you want then great. if you want your guitar to sound like a Martin D 28 then get a martin D 28. They are superb instrument. If want a top of the range American brand that produces a vintage tone in a brand new guitar and you want perfection, get a Collings. I love Collings guitars and will at some time acquire an Collings OM for myself to sit along side the Martin OMJM I also wish to own ( yes I am addicted to OM size guitars and I am aware that this is an American body design and shape ). However don’t overlook the European makes and what they have to offer. If you want to explore a sound that is an alternative to the dominant American makes and styles and guitars that have been individually crafted you need to find out more about Lowden, Lakewood and Brook. Please do email me if you have any questions or comments at all..