Having koa back and sides on your handmade Lowden would have previously meant a price upscale, but now this exotic timber has made it into the catalogue as a standard across the company’s F, S and O body sizes. If you’re at all unfamiliar with koa, we’ll spend a few moments considering the role it plays in the game of providing an acoustic guitar with its singular tone.
George Lowden himself says of the wood: “Koa is a comparatively lighter tonewood, which means if you like to play gently, it’s an excellent choice. It gives you the ability to express yourself and have lots of different nuances of tone. Just touch the guitar and it will respond.”
Conventional wisdom adds that it’s a tropical hardwood, found in Hawaii, and that it sits between the thrones of mahogany and maple in the kingdom of sound, as it boasts some of the midrange of the former with the top-end sweetness of the latter. We’re also told that newer instruments made from koa have a tendency towards brightness that will mellow down in time to produce a rich and even balance between treble and bass response.
A quick check of our F-34’s birth certificate included in the case reveals it left the factory in December last year and so we’re looking at a youngster in its field. What’s more, Sitka spruce also has a lifetime of tonal maturity ahead of it because it’s a timber that needs a few years under its wheels before it reaches its prime. All things being considered, this guitar just might be a ticking tone bomb!
Feel & Sounds
As far as body size goes, this instrument belongs to Lowden’s F-Series fraternity, although, to our eyes at least, it would be known colloquially as a medium jumbo. Don’t let the pictures fool you; at 406mm (16 inches) across its belly, it’s by no means the baby of the family.
As we’ve said, the F-34’s top is Sitka spruce and the back and sides are koa, and as far as the other constituent parts are concerned you can add in a mahogany neck, ebony fingerboard, rosewood bridge and a bone nut and saddle. It would be true to say that many acoustic enthusiasts would have expected a cedar top to feature here, as has become something of a perceived standard for Lowden and is reputedly George Lowden’s favourite soundboard material. But spruce has usurped it here and we were curious as to why.
“With a koa and cedar pairing, out of the box you’re going to get a faster response,” George acknowledges. “The cedar will give a little more warmth, but maybe isn’t quite so clear as Sitka.
“On the tonal spectrum, a koa/Sitka spruce pairing sits very close to an Indian rosewood/Sitka spruce pairing. Indian rosewood will give you that rich bass – which is one of the reasons why Indian rosewood is so popular – but for somebody that might want a tone where the upper midrange is more prominent, koa is preferable. The important thing is to give the spruce time to play in. Even six months of playing will make a big difference in tone.”
In other words, this instrument has all the means to mature like a fine wine if it’s treated right and given regular bouts of playing. And from what we’ve seen and heard already, you’ll want to play it a lot.
As is usual with Lowden, the workmanship is exemplary. The flamey maple bindings on the front and back act as a perfect decorative foil for the spruce and koa, and the rosette – a composite of rosewood, sycamore, walnut and mahogany – is beautifully modest subtlety itself.
The neck is described as the ‘GL Standard’ and feels wide and moderately shallow to the touch, but it’s worth noting here that if anything in the F-34’s complement isn’t quite to your liking then Lowden will refine it for you as part of its bespoke build service. As an example, if the 45mm nut width is a little too spacious for your fingerstyle fireworks, Lowden will happily reduce it to a very slender – and electric guitar-like – 43.5mm on request.
Exploratory first strums reveal that evenness in the tonal spectrum we heard about earlier is already there despite the guitar’s youth. Both bass and treble are perfectly balanced without any rogue frequencies jumping out at you unexpectedly. Chords shimmer sweetly under the hands and the sustain is really impressive, too. Notes linger long after you’ve played them, melding together almost like you’ve engaged a fine studio reverb.
We see what Lowden means about employing a gentler fingerstyle approach; revving back a bit means you’re rewarded with super clarity and a surprising fullness at the same time. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the F-34 wouldn’t satisfy the bold strummers among you.
On the contrary, we tried playing some chords vigorously with a pick and all the volume and projection you need is present and correct. But it’s still a very refined voice – loud as you like, but demure and polite at the same time. This guitar simply refuses to deliver anything that nudges the brutish end of the soundscape.
It’s always good to explore a different wood combination on an acoustic guitar. In this world, the choice of timber is one of the principal controls you have over tonal expectations, and something a little away from your comfort zone challenges you to adjust your technique a little to meet it on even ground.
With the F-34, we were surprised by its clarity and sweetness, and found ourselves taking advantage of its airy, refined nature. It made us play to its strengths, pulling out of us some hitherto little visited nuances, and that can only be a good thing.
As with many instruments, the future is an unwritten page as far as its sonic development goes, while both the koa and spruce begin to open up and mature. As far as we’re concerned, the guitar sounds great now, which bodes well for it to become a truly remarkable instrument in the fullness of time.
- PRICE: £3,750 (inc case)
- ORIGIN: Northern Ireland
- TYPE: Lowden F Style (medium jumbo)
- TOP: Sitka spruce
- BACK/SIDES: Koa
- MAX RIM DEPTH: 120mm
- MAX BODY WIDTH: 406mm NECK: 5-piece mahogany/rosewood
- SCALE LENGTH: 650mm (25.6”)
- TUNERS: Gotoh SG381 with ebony buttons
- NUT/WIDTH: Bone/45mm
- FINGERBOARD: Ebony
- FRETS: 20
- BRIDGE/SPACING: Rosewood/55mm
- WEIGHT (kg/lb): 1.93/4.25
- OPTIONS: 12-string, cutaway (on all models except 12-string), fan fret, special neck width, shallow profile neck, LR Baggs Anthem or Highlander iP-1/iP-2 pickups. See website for details
- RANGE OPTIONS: Koa/Sitka spruce combo also available on Lowden’s S and O body shapes at same price
- LEFT-HANDERS: Yes, no additional cost
- FINISH: Hand-rubbed satin
- CONTACT: Lowden (opens in new tab)