We are so pleased to have added Lowry Guitars to our roster of acoustic luthiers.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Andrew has been building acoustic guitars professionally in the north of France since 2014. With a doctorate in engineering, he benefits from valuable knowledge of acoustic systems gained during a first career in voice recognition technology.
He builds in a contemporary style, aiming for simplicity and elegance of form, and a tone rich in sustain and harmonics influenced by the Irish tradition of guitar-making. He currently offers three models (Braid, Slemish and Carrick), named for prominent landmarks in his native county of Antrim, Northern Ireland. Each instrument is truly unique, not only in the choice of materials, but in how they are prepared and worked, be it adapting the bracing for the characteristics of each top, or carving the neck according to the client's preferences.
Hi Andrew, How are you? 2020 has been a very strange year. How has it been for you?
AL: Hi, I'm doing well thanks! Indeed, it's not been an easy year in many respects, but strangely it's been quite a good year for me as a luthier. For one thing, my guitars are now distributed by The North American Guitar! Joking aside, we're now in our second lockdown period in France, so the workshop is once again closed to the public. This pretty much shuts down the repair and maintenance side of my work, but conversely it allows me to focus 100% on building, and I have more time to try out new ideas etc. The biggest disappointment was the cancellation of shows, in particular the very last Holy Grail show in Berlin, where I was due to exhibit.
For those readers who don’t know the history of Lowry Guitars and your journey as a luthier, can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in the industry?
AL: I'd played guitar on and off since my late teens, and decided to really get back into it after we moved to France in 2007. I treated myself to a Lowden, which was a real eye-opener in terms of build quality, use of materials etc. That instrument sparked my interest in the structure of the guitar, and I started to dig deeper. I'm an engineer by training, and curious by nature, so I tend not to do things by halves!
I'd also dabbled in woodworking, mostly out of necessity while renovating our house in the UK, so at some point I thought “why not try building a guitar”. By a stroke of luck, we'd settled in France just 5km from a luthier who offered “build your own guitar” classes, so that's how it all started. After that first guitar, I took a sabbatical year to learn the basics of the craft with the same luthier, and started my business in a self-built workshop behind the house in 2014. Initially I kept the day job and spent evenings and weekends in the workshop, but that wasn't sustainable health or family-wise, so a decision had to made. I took the plunge 2 years ago to set up fulltime, found myself a nice rental space with room for a spraybooth, and here we are!
You're originally from Northern Ireland, and now based in France. How did growing up in Northern Ireland, and moving to France, influence you as a guitarist and then as you became a luthier?
AL: The big revelation for me when learning guitar was the discovery of Stefan Grossman and Kicking Mule records when I was at university in Belfast. Obviously this was before youtube, mobile phones etc – in fact it was pretty much before home computers of any sort! With no visual clues, I had no idea how players like Stefan, Davey Graham, John Renbourne etc were getting those sounds from a single guitar. So that meant endless hours with a guitar in front of a turntable or cassette player, then along came Kicking Mule tabs and things became clearer. So I discovered how fingerpicking, alternate tunings etc worked, but also that I didn't have much of a natural aptitude – that stuff was HARD! So that's why the guitar became a bit of an on/off thing – I sort of plateaued a bit early...
I was aware of Lowden at that time, but only as an outrageously expensive (for a student...) guitar in a Belfast music shop window, it was only much later that I became aware of the great tradition of guitar making in Ireland. I've since visited the workshops of Lowden and Dermot McIlroy, whose work I greatly admire. Sadly, I never met Chris Larkin, who we lost in 2018, but now of course we have a new generation of young makers from Ireland such as Ciaran McNally and Donal McGreevy, so it's all looking good for Irish luthiery.
The move to France kind of rebooted my interest in playing, but I think I pretty much addressed that already.
How would you describe the Lowry ‘sound'?
AL: I like sustain and a tone rich in harmonics, a sound I tend to associate with the Irish tradition.
How would you describe your approach to lutherie?
I have a fairly traditional approach, despite my engineering background. I use my experience in acoustics, signal processing etc to inform the design process, choice of materials etc, but I don't use analytical methods in the workshop such as deflection testing, Chladni patterns etc. I prefer to rely on my senses – tapping, flexing the top etc.
When searching for a specific tone from an instrument, what qualities do you look for in a particular set of wood?
AL: I gravitate towards dense hardwoods such as the ebony and rosewood families for back and sides, although I've just sent you one in koa which I think sounds pretty good, so there are no hard and fast rules! Heavy, reflective woods tend to favour sustain and harmonic content as opposed to more absorbent woods like mahogany, which will tend to dampen vibrations and give a drier tone. I really like the ebonies – you have one in African ebony, and I've made several in macassar ebony which really pleased me tonewise. I've just started another Carrick in striped Papua New Guinea ebony which should be interesting.
You offer three main models - Braid, Slemish and Carrick, which one would you say is your favourite as a guitarist?
AL: I'm most familiar with the little Slemish, as it's been around longer as a model. I have a weakness for small-bodied guitars though, and the new 13-fret Braid was fast becoming my goto instrument in the workshop before sending it off. Very comfortable to play, and a full sound belying its small size.
This is a question we like to ask all our luthiers. What are your favourite materials to work with?
AL: I use Swiss, Italian, French and sitka spruces for tops. Of the European spruces, I've come to favour Swiss from a certain supplier. Sitka I find brings something more immediate to the mix, more projection. All my sitka-topped guitars have had a bit of an “in your face” quality, but in a good way – they would really cut through the mix in a group environment. Euro spruce I find more nuanced, well suited to guitars intended mainly for fingerstyle perhaps.
I already talked a bit about backs and sides. For necks, I obtained two huge planks of old-growth Brazilian mahogany a few years back, which was used for the first time in the guitars I sent to TNAG. It's wonderful to work with, perhaps more open-grained than the best Honduran so needs more care when pore-filling, but I easily have enough to make necks for the rest of my career, just when good quality mahogany is getting more difficult to find. And it looks great!
How do you deal with obstacles in the build process?
AL: I try not to treat them as obstacles! I have a perfectionist streak which tended to get in the way early in my career – I would obsess and beat myself upover the slightest mistake. You're going to hit at least one issue with every guitar, or maybe that's just me, but the trick is to simply fix it and move on, not obsess about it. There's a saying that the difference between a good craftsman and a great one is that the great one is better at hiding his mistakes! I prefer to think he's better at fixing his mistakes... ;)
Do you get to play your guitars much yourself?
AL: No! I kept guitar n°1 at home until recently, then someone took a liking to it and I sold it, so I don't actually have a guitar in the house at present. Obviously I try out each new guitar in the workshop, but since I started building fulltime, my playing time has pretty much dropped off a cliff, unfortunately. In any case, I take more pleasure listening to others play my instruments – that's kind of why I make them!
We recently received our first two Lowry Guitars from you, a Braid in Koa and Swiss Moon Spruce and a Carrick in African Ebony and Swiss Moon Spruce, what can you tell us about these instruments and the build process?
AL: These two are the culmination of a kind of reset I went through when starting up in my new workshop. I was taught by someone who built in a very traditional Martin style in terms of body shapes, construction methods etc, and I found myself getting a bit stuck in the same path. The workshop move and refit brought an enforced stop to building for about three months, and I used that time to reflect on how I wanted to evolve as a luthier – how I wanted my work to be perceived, what market I wanted to aim for etc. I really wanted to build in a more contemporary style, but keeping things simple and elegant. For example, I really admire the work of Ted Astrand, Dion James and several other modern luthiers who have a fairly minimalist, but elegant aesthetic coupled with exceptional build quality and tone.
My guitars have often been described as “sober” in look, and I'm happy with that. I spent some time designing two new models, the Braid and the Carrick, looking for elegance of form and a modern look to the bridge and headstock designs. One other major change for these two is the fully bolted neck join, whereas I'd previously used a traditional glued dovetail. This has made many aspects of the build process easier (ie quicker), not least being able to apply finish to body and neck separately
So TNAG is privileged to have the first of the new models to leave the Lowry Guitars workshop!
What does the rest of 2020 and 2021 have in store for you?
AL: I currently have two guitars midway through the build process, a Braid in claro walnut, and a Carrick in Indian rosewood with cutaway and microbevel, so I aim to have those finished early in 2021. At some point next year, I hope to reorganize the workshop and retool somewhat to facilitate building several guitars in parallel – at present it's awkward even doing two at once, and I want to increase efficiency on that front.
I'm always looking at new build methods, features etc to imrpove my work. Social media has made it so much easier to exchange ideas with fellow luthiers, and there's a huge amount of information out there for inspiration, so hopefully my guitars will continue their evolution through 2021 and beyond
Apart from that, the big hope is that the current crisis will ease for everyone, and for us luthiers it would be great for shows to start again.