From the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JOE HENRY
No one thumbing these pages is a stranger to romantic entanglements with acoustic guitars. Whether proudly out in the broad light of day or hiding down the dark end of a street, we’ve all fallen—into long marriages, into fleeting mad flings—and as such, I’ll let it suffice to say that my own devotions have been publicly flagrant enough to garner this intriguing invitation to examine the newly minted archtop by the ambitious people of Waterloo Guitars.
By way of establishing my credentials, as you decide whether or not I am to be trusted, I’ll own that for many, many years I have been deeply enthralled by small-bodied Gibsons of the late 1920s and early to mid-’30s: namely, L-00s and Nick Lucas Specials—the former being my faithful and daily work companions; the latter capable of causing a grown man to leave his family, grow out his hair, and run with the gypsies.
What has been consistent, though, in my attraction to nearly all acoustic guitars to which I have been loyal, is a voice that balances the sustain and overtone series of a flattop—the autumnal and grainy weather they can conjure in articulation—against the nasal, forward projection that I have always described as sounding “like the great archtop I’ve never been able to afford.”
For decades, I looked only to vintage guitars to deliver on the desires confessed above, and I had next to no interest in any conversations around guitars rolling freshly out of the shops of even the most lauded boutique luthiers, until finally—sufficiently troubled by tuning and intonation issues while touring with my old favorites (and, of course, fearful of surrendering them to teenage bellhops and distracted airline baggage handlers)—I opened my mind to the possibilities of new builds and began seriously investigating the recent golden age of excellent craftsmen and -women, and the products of their divine alchemy, most especially those referencing as their templates old Gibson and Martin designs.
The winding road (who, me wind?) led me most decidedly to the threshold of Collings Guitars of Austin, Texas, and its offspring, Waterloo, and thus to the newly unveiled WL-AT, about which I’d been wildly intrigued since rumblings of its development first reached me.
Filling the Void
The chief reason I raised my hand to the specter of reviewing this particular model is that almost without exception, every fully acoustic archtop that I am aware of to be built in recent years has catered to so-called jazz practitioners, in that they are expensive, made from maple, and designed with elegant projection and pinpoint articulation in mind. There was next to nothing being manufactured—by machine or by hand—that spoke on behalf of the folk-rooted musician who keeps a poster of the Almanac Singers in their den, and who might be hungry for something versed in historical vocabulary but nonetheless aims to speak in the present tense.
Correction: That Almanacs poster may have been plastered over with a Tiger Beat, soft-focus portrait of Dave Rawlings, but that makes my point for me—there are likely many players who have been underserved in their quest for a sound less typical of smooth, modern flattop construction and who likewise respond to the cutting edge and added string tension that is a hallmark of an instrument with a carved, arched top and a floating bridge/trapeze tailpiece configuration. It’s a sound that leads clearly and with distinction through the grassy field of a strummed full-sized flattop—the way that Rawlings’ small Epiphone Olympic (and recently, his much larger D’Angelico Excel) crawls vividly across the arid Andrew Wyeth landscape painting that is Gillian Welch’s well-loved Gibson J-50.
Enter the new WL-AT by Waterloo. There is nothing like it currently in production. Styled after Gibson’s L-30 of the middle and late 1930s, its small body speaks to folksy intimacy, as do its mahogany back and sides (the former decidedly flat) and its spruce top.
This is not to say that the instrument does not have an eye out for jazzier applications. One need only visit YouTube to find a clip—from the Winter 2019 NAMM show reveal of the guitar—featuring young phenom Julian Lage getting his Eddie Lang on with a prototype of the WL-AT. In his hands, the instrument sounds like those singing off the old records that we all love—albeit, as Lage notes in the film’s conversational segment, with “all the kinks” of antiquity worked out.
Rooted and Buttery Tone
The instrument mentioned above fell straight out of Lage’s mitts and onto my doorstep for review and does indeed play wonderfully in-tune all the way up the fretboard as reported, something hard if not impossible to come across in a comparable vintage instrument. I find, too, that its tonal spectrum across the strings is beautifully balanced—focused yet not without some overtones that throw shade upon the notes in dissipation—and this seems assignable to both the guitar’s flat back and an incredibly thin matte nitrocellulose lacquer finish, above which the grain of the mahogany nearly stands proud.
When wide open and unfretted, the lower three wound strings ring out with the dry, boxy chime of an old upright piano at the middle keys. I think one can best hear this guitar’s dominant strengths when playing humble arrangements of old folk tunes and American songbook standards—dispensing with barre chords in favor of simple and spacious melodies pitched high, while the low strings name the chords and hang them out in the open like clothes on a line. It attracts the ear like hushed conversation at the next table, imparting something sweetly confidential. In the parlance of wine specialists, its notes are dusky-sweet as early blackberries and quick to finish, but they are complete and three-dimensional.
The neck of the WL-AT is carved into a soft “V”—very much like a favorite L-00 of mine from 1935—and as such, it feels like home. But though it is a deliberately old-school design choice (one that I applaud, and faithful to its template), I do feel it my responsibility to note that, comfortable and inviting as I find it, it is nonetheless different than the C-shaped necks of many contemporary guitars. But the extra heft can be no small part of the guitar’s rooted and buttery tone.
A note here in discussing tone, something that already is so personal, and varies from player to player regardless of theinstrument: It feels significant to acknowledge that I play almost exclusively in open tunings, which quite naturally and almost invariably amplify the overtones that so seduce me, and as well relax the action in ways that can make most any guitar a little more supple to the hand. I spent most of my playing hours with this guitar in open D and G—though I did, for the sake of research, crank it up to standard, and when I did, yes, things got a little tighter, sonically speaking, though by no means unfriendly, emphasizing clarity at the expense of some of the smoke in the room that I live to breathe.
A Loving Tribute
In my role as your dutiful correspondent, I took the opportunity to speak by phone with three of the luthiers/department directors on duty at Waterloo—Bruce VanWart, Clint Watson, and Aaron Huff—and I learned that one primary impulse driving the new model was to see to fruition something that had long been in the mind of the company’s founder, the late Bill Collings.
It seems that Collings kept a 1940 convertible Ford coupe parked in his office in the back of the shop (who wouldn’t if they could?), and in the back seat of this ride rested an old Gibson-built Recording King archtop—in pieces, mind you, that Collings periodically rolled through his hands like some do rosary beads.
Following Collings’ devastating and untimely passing just two years ago, those left holding the company’s wheel felt compelled to learn what they could from this fractured relic and, in honor of their leader, create a version of it that could take its place among the rest and the best of the Waterloo line. And it was clear to me talking to the builders that Waterloo is sincerely striving to build new guitars that will not only honor Collings but capture the haunted character of this new archtop’s taut-strung ancestry.
Some will inevitably ask just who the target consumer might be—and how great their number—for such an instrument as the WL-AT, given that one could acquire a clean vintage archtop acoustic for quite a bit less than its $4,500 price tag.
But I don’t believe Waterloo is aiming to compete with the vintage market as much as advance its legacy. The WL-AT seems designed to offer an underutilized color dimension to modern guitar players—a variation on a theme many have longed for, and that others may never have known might authentically speak for them.
BODY: 14-3/4″-wide body; solid carved spruce top with parallel braces and f-holes; solid mahogany back (flat) and sides; tortoise pickguard; semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish (vintage-style sunburst or Jet Black with white pickguard).
NECK: 24-7/8″-scale mahogany neck with V profile and mortise-and-tenon joint; adjustable truss rod; rosewood fingerboard with 6mm acrylic dots; medium 18% nickel-silver frets; 1-3/4″ nut; Golden Age Restoration tuners; semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
OTHER: Ebony nut; floating ebony bridge with 2-5/16″ spacing; custom nickel tailpiece; D’Addario NB1253 Nickel Bronze strings (.012–.053); hardshell case.
MADE IN: USA
PRICE: $4,500 street
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.