“In the beginning, I met one of George’s friends in 1977 at Warrenpoint in Co Down, where I was playing,” says the French-Algerian guitarist. “He invited me to visit the factory the next morning. I couldn’t come, but gave him the contact of two friends in Paris. I forgot about it until six months later when they called to say they had received six guitars and I absolutely had to come. I went to visit and was blown away by what I saw.”
In 1978, Bensusan received the first instrument Lowden made for him. He has played it all over the world and on many albums. “It’s interesting for a musician to define what they’re looking for in terms of sound,” says Bensusan.
“The maker needs to read between the lines, to know what you are looking for just by listening to you play. George came to my shows, listened to my records, he knows how I play. He reacts to how I work to get colours.”
In 2009, the two collaborated on a new guitar, which was marketed by Lowden as the first Bensusan signature guitar. Given the player’s international visibility and dedicated following, it quickly became a bestseller.
So what does Bensusan want in a guitar? “I look for the sound to be neutral, not to have an overwhelming personality. Some guitars can be very distinct and bring the attention to another place.”
Working with unique pieces of wood, nothing is certain. “Not every woodworker can make great instruments. It takes many skills to bring the sound we want to life,” says Bensusan. “Results are never guaranteed, but we know we’ll go in a direction toward that place.”
When the instrument leaves the craftsman’s hands its character is uncertain. “A guitar that has been played for just 24 hours already sounds different. You can tell if a guitar is lacking and will never get to what you need. But a good guitar is like a wine which has to mature for a long time to develop to reach its full potential.”
Bensusan says a new instrument is frustrating. “You have to play it and get intimate with it. Then you can start refining what language it will speak. It will need a good two years until the treble really starts to sing. I had to work really hard and temper myself and adapt my approach.”
A Lowden is a modest-looking instrument, but that’s part of its magic. “The look of a Lowden guitar is very sober, almost austere,” Bensusan says.
“But it has a beauty from within when you get close to it. Then, you play it and the sound says it all. It’s a distinct sound, very different from the American style of crystal overtones.”
To mark both 40th anniversaries, they have released a second signature guitar, a replica of the first model Lowden built for Bensusan and fondly known as the ‘Old Lady’.