By Adam Perlmutter

I’d been intrigued by Waterloo guitars ever since seeing Julian Lage play his WL-14 on an Acoustic Guitar Sessions video episode, but never seemed to be able to audition one. Due to the high demand, Collings had none for review and a new Waterloo was announced on the website of a local shop, for instance, but was sold by the time I was able to swing by a few days later.

So it was thrilling to unbox not just one, but three new Waterloos for review—a WL-14, WL-K, and WL-JK. It was immediately clear that the guitars live up to the buzz that has developed around them. Each instrument has its own personality, but all three share the same cool aesthetic, paying homage to 90-year-old budget guitars. They feel uncommonly responsive and playable: total winners in all regards, and, best of all, selling for much less than the typical high-end guitar.

Mail-Order Special

Waterloo is the brainchild of Bill Collings, the luthier and founder of Collings Guitars, which has long offered a full line of acoustics whose designs pay tribute to the best prewar instruments by Martin, Gibson, and others.

The benchmarks behind Waterloo, on the other hand, are the cheap guitars of the 1920s and ’30s—those made by the major guitar companies under sub-brands and sold in mail-order catalogs. These guitars are known for sounding colorful—and for playing poorly. With Waterloo, Collings perfectly captures the former and corrects the latter.

The guitars, made in the same Austin, Texas, shop as Collings instruments, are distinguished by their old-school style and no-frills builds, as well as their lower sticker price. Waterloo has adapted the details on its Depression-era benchmarks—for example, borrowing the logo styles of its benchmarks—while making the lineup cohesive through the use of shared features like a semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish and Golden Age Restoration tuners.

A peak inside a Waterloo reveals curious details such as imperfectly sanded braces and the occasional glue mark—surprising for guitars from Collings, known for its meticulous build quality. But this is intentional, and perfectly fitting—it’s vintage correct, and it allows Waterloo to make great guitars for the money. Most important, the craftsmanship on our review models is absolutely perfect where it counts—in the fretwork, for instance, and in the setup.

 

The 14-Fret WL-14

Introduced in 2014, the 14-fret WL-14 is the guitar that kicked off the Waterloo line. It’s patterned after an original 1930s Kalamazoo KG-14 that Bill Collings owns. The WL-14 is the only Waterloo that’s offered with options: It comes with ladder (horizontal braces that look like rungs) or X bracing, with a substantial V neck or a slightly modified profile, a T-bar neck reinforcement or an adjustable truss rod, and a vintage-sunburst or all-black finish.

Our test model features the ladder bracing, large neck, and truss rod. At three pounds, three ounces, it’s lightweight, and its 00-size body is super comfortable to cradle. Though I tend to prefer more streamlined necks, I somehow feel right at home with the chunky profile and short-scale fretboard (24 7/8-inches), whether playing barre chords or single notes.

The sound of the WL-14 is raw and punchy, but balanced nicely from the lowest string to the highest. Though it might have been made with the blues fingerstylist in mind, it’s equally responsive to fingerpicking and flatpicking in all styles. And, most strikingly, whether I play a sophisticated number like Lage’s “Day and Age,” some basic open-chord strumming, or some chord-melody soloing on the guitar, it’s incredibly fun
to play.

McCabe’s Guitar Store in Santa Monica, California, happened to have an X-braced WL-14 in stock, so I took our ladder-braced test model there to compare the two. (Upon arriving I found a salesperson playing the WL-14 while one of his cohorts sang “Waterloo” to the tune of “Edelweiss.”) The X-braced example sounded a little smoother and more refined than its ladder-braced counterpart, but the two guitars were equals in terms of responsiveness and playability.

AG284_WL-14-LTR

Body
14th-fret neck junction
14.75-inch width
Solid spruce top
with ladder or X bracing
Solid mahogany back and sides
Ebony bridge with ebony pins
Vintage-style sunburst
or Jet Black finish (semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer)

Neck
Mahogany with prominent
V profile (lower-profile option)
Adjustable truss rod
or carbon fiber T-bar
Indian rosewood fingerboard
24 7/8-inch scale
1.75-inch nut
Golden Age Restoration tuners
Semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish

Extras
Hardshell TKL case

Price
$ 2,100 list/$1,890 street


The WL-JK Jumbo

The WL-JK is Waterloo’s interpretation of the big-bodied Recording King that Regal made for Montgomery Ward in the 1940s. It’s available in a basic model, as reviewed, or a deluxe version that adds binding on the fingerboard and the body’s back; a full-body sunburst; fancier fingerboard inlays; and metal tuner covers, fabricated in-house. Though the WL-JK is by far the largest Waterloo, it’s lightweight—our review model weighs only three pounds, eight ounces. It comes standard with the same impressive V-shaped neck and truss rod as on the WL-14, but has a longer-scale neck, 25.5 inches.

It’s so satisfying to strum the X-braced WL-JK, with its clear, commanding voice. Some jumbo guitars have an overwhelming bass response, but the Waterloo is perfectly balanced, with just enough low end. It’s also a terrific instrument for fingerpicking: When I play gently, the sound is warm and dulcet, but when I dig in, the guitar responds with a nice growl and bite.

AG284_WL-JK

Body
14th-fret neck junction
15.75-inch width
Solid spruce top with X bracing
Solid mahogany back and sides
Ebony bridge with ebony pins
Vintage-style sunburst finish (semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer)

Neck
Mahogany with
moderate V profile
Adjustable truss rod
Indian rosewood fingerboard
25.5-inch scale
1.75-inch nut
Golden Age Restoration tuners
Semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish

Extras
Hardshell TKL case

Price
$ 2,300 list/$2,070 street


The 12-Fret WL-K

Between 1930 and 1932, Gibson made a small number of guitars under the name Kel Kroydon, and this brand serves as the inspiration for the lone 12-fretter in our roundup. At two pounds, 13 ounces, the WL-K is astonishingly lightweight, probably the lightest full-size modern guitar I’ve come across. Yet, the WL-K has a surprisingly robust sound for its size, and it feels remarkably alive and responsive. I feel pronounced vibrations in each hand when fingerpicking the guitar, and it reads even the tiniest fluctuations in pick-hand force and positioning. The guitar’s voice feels well-rounded, dry and open, and with a good balance between fundamentals and harmonics. And it’s got a shimmering natural reverb to boot.
The guitar’s neck has a moderate oval shape, as well as a carbon-fiber T-bar neck support that no doubt contributes to its resonance. Because of its delicate build, Waterloo recommends that strings no heavier than .012–.052 be used on the guitar. Though this might be a deal breaker for some players, the guitar is incredibly easy to play with its custom light strings, not to mention its 24 7/8-inch scale fretboard.

A Resounding Success

Budget Depression-era instruments are seen increasingly as a source of inspiration for guitars at all price points. Few are as wildly successful as the Waterloo line, which nails both the sound and look of the originals, but offers far greater playability. It will be interesting to see what other instruments will be interpreted by Waterloo—with any luck some archtops. In the meantime, having gotten to know these beauties, it’s incredibly tempting to add not just one but all three to my collection.

AG284_WL-K

Body
12th-fret neck junction
14.75-inch width
Solid spruce top with X bracing
Solid mahogany back and sides
Ebony bridge with ebony pins
Vintage shaded top (semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer)

Neck
Mahogany with
moderate oval shape
Carbon-fiber T-bar
Indian rosewood fingerboard
24 7/8-inch scale
1.75-inch nut
Golden Age Restoration tuners
Semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish

Extras

Hardshell TKL case

Price
$ 2,600 list/$2,340 street
Made in the USA
waterlooguitars.com

Comments