Last year I had the pleasure of getting to know three different Waterloo guitars—the WL-14, the WL–JK, and the WL-K—with three different winning personalities. This time around, I spent time with two new Waterloos and was not surprised to find each one a total peach of an instrument.
The Waterloo line of instruments—built by Collings Guitars of Austin, Texas—takes its cue from the Great Depression–era guitars that were low in price and high in character, and that’s certainly the case with the WL-S and the WL-S Deluxe, 12-fret Stella-inspired flattops. While these additions to the growing Waterloo catalog are quite different than the previous offerings, they embody Waterloo’s trademarks: lightweight, super-responsive instruments that are relatively affordable and possessed of all kinds of vibe.
Two of a Kind
At a glance, the WL-S and the WL-S Deluxe look pretty dissimilar. The latter, with its ornate wooden purflings and rosette, floral fretboard inlays, and golden coloring, has a richer appearance. It looks as if it should be played by a king, as my daughter, who is five, put it. The WL-S is much more subdued, being largely devoid of ornamental work, and sporting a lovely autumnal sunburst finish on its soundboard.
But structurally speaking, the guitars are identical. Each one has a small body—14 inches wide at the lower bout—with a solid spruce soundboard and solid cherry back and sides. Cherry, by the way, is not only a historically correct choice, it’s a domestic wood that’s much more sustainable than more commonly used species like mahogany and rosewood. It has a lovely reddish coloring and is generally projective.
As opposed to X bracing, the guitars feature traditional ladder bracing, which is known to produce an open sound. Each of their necks has a short scale, 24-7/8 inches, and a slotted headstock. And instead of an adjustable truss rod, there’s a carbon-fiber T-bar, which is nonadjustable but adds less mass.
Then there’s a subtle, but key, difference between the guitars: The WL-S has a satin nitrocellulose lacquer finish, but the deluxe version boasts a hand-polished varnish—a finish type, not commonly seen on production instruments, that lends a gorgeous patina and feels luxuriously smooth.
The WL-S and the WL-S Deluxe are much alike in terms of playability and sound. Thanks to their lightness, they seem to float on the lap. Both feature a soft V-shaped neck that’s ample but in no way cumbersome. With 1-3/4-inch bone nut, super-clean fretwork, and low, buzz-free action, as well as spot-on intonation, it’s easy and pleasurable to play both guitars—more satisfying for sure than the vintage Stellas I’ve tried.
The guitars have an immediate response. Sound jumps right out of the box, just as it did on the other Waterloos I have played—and, come to think of it, the Collings guitars I’ve known. Though the WL-S and the WL-S Deluxe have an impressive midrange bark, they both feel quite balanced and articulate. They don’t necessarily have the richness of larger rosewood-bodied instrument, but their voices, somehow raw and sweet, are tremendously appealing.
Both guitars are no-brainers for old-timey styles, and so I used them in preparing some of the notation for this issue. When I played Bob Evans’ arrangement of “Maple Leaf Rag,” in the key of A major with a second-fret capo, I was struck by how ideal the guitars are for fingerpicking. Very little picking-hand velocity is needed to extract generous, lively tones from the instruments. The raw side of the guitars works well for playing in the manner of Booker “Bukka” White; the guitars really growl when picked a little forcefully and rhythmically in playing through Pete Madsen’s recent lesson. This setting also shows that the Waterloos sound splendid in alternate tunings, namely open G and D minor.
But while the WL-S and the WL-S Deluxe have an old-school look and feel, that’s not to say that their applications are limited to country-blues, ragtime, and folk. Given their balance and articulateness, the guitars work wonderfully for chord-melody jazz, for instance. (On YouTube, check out Collings’ Mark Althans playing an excellent arrangement of “Stardust” on a Deluxe model.)
The guitars are both delightful, but in the end I bonded slightly more with the deluxe version. I preferred the feel of the varnish finish, and to my ear the instrument slightly outperformed its sibling in terms of sound as well. Perhaps due to the finish, which in theory allows the wood to breath more freely than does nitro, it seemed to have a subtly woodier and warmer sound, with a touch greater resonance and responsiveness.
But the bottom line is, with both the WL-S and the WL-S Deluxe, Collings has once again borrowed an old form as the template for brilliant new guitars that are awesome by any yardstick.
BODY Non-cutaway body with 14-inch lower bout; solid spruce top with ladder bracing; solid cherry back and sides; ebony pyramid bridge with 2-3/8-inch spacing; semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish with Vintage Iced Tea sunburst (WL-S), hand-polished varnish finish (WL-S Deluxe)
NECK Solid mahogany neck with carbon-fiber T-bar reinforcement; 18-fret Indian rosewood fretboard; medium 18 percent nickel-silver frets;
24-7/8-inch scale length; 1-3/4-inch bone nut; Golden Age Restoration tuners; semi-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish (WL-S), hand-polished varnish finish (WL-S Deluxe)
EXTRAS D’Addario EJ16 strings (.012–.053); hardshell case
PRICE WL-S: $2,200 list/$1,980 street; WL-S Deluxe: $2,950 list/$2,655 street
Made in the USA
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.