From stave to stage

From stave to stage

We follow the process of creating some very special guitars

Places | 26 Oct 2012 | Issue 107 | By Rob Allanson

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Most casks when they get beyond the point of being useful for maturing whisky, and past the point of being rejuvenated effectively, can end up as planters at garden centres; however occasionally some are turned into things of beauty.

This is exactly what happened to a few lucky ex Oloroso casks from Northern Irish distiller Bushmills as it joined forces with guitar making legend George Lowden to create three very special acoustic guitars.

Based in Northern Ireland, George and his team has crafted guitars for some of most famous names in the music industry, including Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and The Edge.

The handmade barrel oak guitars were presented to multi-platinum selling band Snow Patrol and award winning singer songwriter Foy Vance as a thank-you for their participation in Bushmills Live, the whiskey and music festival which took place at the Old Bushmills Distillery in June 2012.

Foy says it was like a dream come true being handed the one-off guitar. He adds: "It's a lovely thing to have and hugely unique, each one is different so you have George Lowden handmade one of one; that's an honour for me.

"I grew up just hankering after his guitars. The second I figured out what I liked about sound I started to appreciate acoustic guitars. It doesn't take a genius to work out that George is pretty much the best there is, and he is renowned the world over for that.

"Now I have about four or five of them now, but this one hugely special, you know. My favourite distiller and favourite luthier have collaborated for me, it’s a dream come true; I am like a kid in a sweetie shop."

Creating the guitars was not an easy task and took more than three months and presented a series of unusual technical challenges for George and his master craftsmen at his workshop in Downpatrick, County Down.

“My favourite distiller and favourite luthier have collaborated for me, it’s a dream come true” – Foy Vance

George explains: “Making any guitar by hand is highly challenging but these guitars presented a few more issues than most. It was an enormous privilege to work with such special wood and it took me and my team a considerable amount of time to create them. However, what we have managed to do is to create something quite special."

The nature and curve of the whiskey barrel oak meant that each stave of wood had to be carefully sanded by hand to the necessary thickness and required shape. Each stave was then painstakingly glued together to create panels that retained the contours of the original whiskey barrel.

Those panels rested in the workshop for several weeks as the wood bound together, before they were hand-cut by George to guitar templates he has been using for almost 40 years.

Then, using hand-tools such as Japanese chisels, planes and knives, the team at Lowden assembled the guitars, incorporating the whiskey barrel oak into traditional Lowden ‘F’ and ‘O’ body designs.

The result is three guitars unlike any others ever made. With a distinct sound and even more distinct look, they are as much works of art as they are instruments.

Foy explains: "The thing with George is his soundboard, it’s like quantum physics to me, I don't know what he does but it's magic. I know what happens in there, they put wood in certain places so the sound bounces around; but what ever his technique is, where ever he places the wood I think its impossible for George Lowden to make a bad sounding guitar. He has an exact, precise and Zen about how a guitar should sound.

"He was behind a more affordable line of guitars a while ago called Flambu. My dad bought me one when I was 13 years old. Now I have not only grown to love that guitar, I wrote my first songs on it. I have just finished recording my new album and I used is all over the album."

The real question though is do the guitars smell of the whiskey that once permeated the wood's pores?

Foy answers: "There is a slight smell if you get your nose in there. There is no lacquer on the inside so yes you get a faint hint of the whiskey."

The guitars were also given to the artists in recognition of their contribution to music in Northern Ireland. Snow Patrol donated their fee for Bushmills Live to the Oh Yeah Centre in Belfast, which was co-founded by the band to support up-and-coming musicians.

Master distiller at the Old Bushmills Distillery, Colum Egan, says the oak was former Oloroso sherry casks, used to mature Black Bush, Bushmills 16 and 21 Years Old.

He adds: “To see barrels that have housed our whiskey being used in this way is remarkable. Their creation celebrates the handcrafted qualities at the heart of both Bushmills and Lowden Guitars.

“Like our whiskey they weren’t made for the cupboard and it is great to see some world class musicians putting them to good use."
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