First Thoughts: The Waterloo WL14X guitar from Collings
I don’t usually do reviews here, but this guitar, built by Collings Guitars, is such a unique instrument that I think it bears some discussion. The guitar is a “retro” design, meant to evoke the feel and sound of the ’30s Gibson L-00 and Kalamazoo KG-14 guitars. These were low-priced, plain Jane, depression era instruments. The ladder braced KG-14, in particular, was not what we’d call a “fine instrument”, and they were built so lightly that few have survived in any kind of decent condition. The X-braced L-00, on the other hand, was a plain instrument, but a very decent one, and they are commonly available as vintage instruments. They’re very popular with fingerstyle blues guitarists and “old time music” rhythm guitarists for their punchy, incomplicated clarity of sound. Both the KG-14 and the L-00 were lightly built and very resonant instruments; you can feel them vibrate when you play one, especially since the wood has been drying out for 80+ years. As an example, here’s a piece played on my ’34 L-00:
I received my Waterloo WL14X (X-braced) yesterday. The guitar comes in two versions: X-braced, like an L-00, and ladder braced, like a KG14. In shopping on line, I found my guitar essentially new but sold as “used”. Think of it as a “demo” model…The street price on a new one is just under $1900, which sounds like a lot to the average citizen, but is a pittance compared to many new acoustic guitars.
Once I tuned up the guitar and started to play, I was disappointed in the sound and feel. I had hoped for something like a new version of my old L-00, and the guitar at first sounded thin and kind of flimsy. After a few minute of playing, I realized I was very unhappy with the feel of the strings on it, so I put a set of my usual strings on. Immediately, the whole tonal and tactile feel of the guitar changed dramatically. Don’t ask me why. All I’d say is that, if you get a Waterloo and don’t like the sound and feel, make sure you have strings that you like. My favorites are Elixir Nano light gauge, and, at least for me, they work beautifully with this guitar. Once I’d played for a few minutes, I decided to record the A-B comparison seen below:
Now the two guitars sounded extremely similar to my ear, albeit not identical. I think the Waterloo still has a slight bit of that thinness that I associate with the Kalamazoo, but it has enough L-00 in it to compensate.
After I made the video, I continued to sit and play the Waterloo. The room was in semi darkness, and, as soon as my mind wandered a bit, I realized that I was unconsciously assuming that I was playing my old L-00. Everything about the neck felt identical. The best way I can put it is to say that this guitar has more “mojo” than any new guitar has a right to…the look of the sunburst, the neck shape, and the light weight of the instrument are all perfect. The matte finish looks like a $35 Stella from 1965, but it also looks like it will age and attain a patina. The extremely light finish serves the double purpose of recalling the guitars of yore and allowing the top to vibrate very freely. For me, throughout, the guitar is a very unusual combination of excellent workmanship (it plays like a dream, and intonates as perfectly as any Collings) and these little idiosyncrasies, but, like all Collings Guitars, it is a working man’s instrument in the important ways.
Here’s an interview with Bill Collings about why he created the guitar:
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that the Japanese interviewer is trying from every angle to get Bill to explain why he has chosen to build a guitar that is not as perfect as his Collings Guitars. What’s clear to me is that the guitar not only occupies this unique ground of being truly retro in what might be regarded as both the best and the worst ways, but it allows Collings to cut back on labor and material costs, enabling him to build a (relatively) low priced instrument that works as well as any Collings.
Here’s a little rag I wrote in honor of the Waterloo’s retro sound and feel:
This guitar is not for everyone. I think you need a light touch to play it properly, and you may need to pay special attention to setup and strings, but I have a strong feeling that it’ll be a favorite around here for certain kinds of music (blues, ragtime, swing) for the foreseeable future!