The acoustic guitar market features some of the most beautifully crafted instruments money can buy. Avalon Guitars sit firmly in that bracket, producing some of the world’s most exquisite guitars and can be seen in the hands of many globally recognised guitarists, including David Gray, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen to name but a few.
Guitar Jar catches up with Managing Director Steve McIlwrath, to quiz him on the current Avalon product range and any plans he has in mind for the future of the company.
..our luthiers are avid historians of guitar design, students of the art & science of guitar making, and very talented guitar players…
Hi Steve, before we get into the details of the Avalon Guitar range, can you let Guitar Jar readers know if you play guitar and if so, who or what inspired you to start learning the instrument?
Yes, I do play, but not very well. I started taking lessons from my Dad when I was around 10 and didn’t take it very far until I really got enthused again in my 20’s when I listened to Phil Keaggy and not long afterwards, Michael Hedges and Alex deGrassi. Although I don’t play anything like they do, they stirred in me a love for the acoustic guitar.
Avalon Guitars are firmly established in the acoustic guitar market. Can you explain how the company was originally formed?
The company that now bears the name Avalon Guitars began in 1988 as the Lowden Guitar Co. The original Lowden business had gone into receivership and I was one among a group of friends and acquaintances who came together to buy the business out of receivership. Not long afterwards, we set up a new workshop in Newtownards where we’ve been making guitars ever since.
The name change came about in 2002 when we launched Avalon Guitars – it was our way of creating a brand that would give the luthiers in the company an outlet for their design ideas. The core group of the most experienced luthiers have remained with us to the present day.
Over recent months, I’ve recognised Avalon has a reputation in producing some of the finest acoustic guitars money can buy. Can you explain to our readers the typical design / manufacturing process of your instruments? Are they designed in Northern Ireland and manufactured abroad?
None of the directors have the slightest idea how to make a guitar, so we give over to our employees completely the freedom to innovate and design. We are very fortunate to have in Avalon a group of incredibly gifted guitar makers and, in addition to their guitar making skills, they are also avid historians of guitar design, students of the art and science of guitar making and very talented guitar players as well. We also allow our staff to make their own guitars, so long as they make something original, in other words, not a copy of something we already do.
Therefore, when we decide to refresh the range or detect a trend that might be of interest, we have a wealth of design ideas to draw from and the collective knowledge and experience to design guitars that look and sound great. All this takes place in Northern Ireland and most of the manufacturing now takes places here also. When we go abroad to have guitars produced, we bring our designs and quality specifications and supervise the manufacturing as closely as we can.
The Avalon Guitar range is fairly extensive, offering a mix of body shapes, woods & specifications. Can you explain the key differences between the Master, Premier and Legacy Series range?
Simply put, the Legacy range is intended to be a fixed specification range limited to rosewood or mahogany back & sides and spruce or cedar soundboards. The models offered are noncustomisable although there is wide enough scope within the Legacy range to cater for most requirements.
The Premier range provides the customer with a wide variety of tonewood options, from walnut and blackwood to koa and Brazilian rosewood and many more – the aesthetically exotic and tonally complex tonewood choices. The Premier range also has a higher specification of styling refinements such as a back seam inlay, end pin inlay and more extensive purfling detailing. There are endless custom possibilities with this range, including original inlay artwork.
The Master series contains discrete collections of guitars based around a particular design theme. The Americana series is a good example where we looked at iconic guitar designs from the mid 20th century and gave them an Avalon make-over. There is also the Bevel series which are our most distinctive and innovative models. We also include in the Master series the occasional limited edition such as the Daedalus Parlour guitar which is based on the French 19th century guitar played by James Joyce.
I’m a guitarist who’s relatively new to the acoustic scene, as I mainly play the electric guitar. Can you recommend an Avalon guitar that would allow me to adopt an “electric guitar” mindset, where I can noodle up the dusty end of the neck fairly easily?
Well, who better to ask for advice than the electric guitar player from a rock superband who asked us the same question! A few years ago we met Carl Verheyen from Supertramp who was looking for an acoustic guitar that allowed that effortless transition from electric to acoustic mid-set (and sometimes mid-song). The result was we designed a guitar around these requirements, which became the Carl Verheyen Signature model. It’s based on our auditorium shape but with a narrower body depth, a double cutaway and a sleeker neck profile.
You have an impressive list of artists who use your guitars, but interestingly, a significant amount of the guitarists seem to stem from the Christian Worship scene. Why do you think so many Christian artists use your instruments?
The only period in my life when I played guitar in public regularly was as the worship leader in Belfast City Church in the 1980’s, so I guess it’s an association we have always had and a world we’re still very connected with. It’s also a very large part of the acoustic guitar market on both sides of the Atlantic.
Guitarist Rick Jones was featured recently on Guitar Jar, wielding an Avalon L32. Are there any additional up and coming artists you’ve come across in recent months who’ve caught your eye?
We are so fortunate in Northern Ireland to have young musical talent oozing out of every street and I’m blown away by local bands like General Fiasco and Six Star Hotel and solo artists like Aaron Shandley and Shauna Tohill. A young band from the US got in touch to say they love their Avalon and I was amazed at their music, so look out for Ravenna Woods. My personal favourite right now is Karima Francis – I’m playing her album so much my iPod’s in danger of meltdown. She will be visiting us next February to collect her new custom Avalon!
…we have a new model ready to launch in 2011 which we believe is an innovation in acoustic guitar design…
The global economic downturn has affected so many industries. In your opinion, how has Avalon survived the current climate and how do you stay motivated?
We took a few decisions early on in the crisis, more by chance than foresight, to not be too dependent on the bank or on the retail trade. This has proved to have helped us make it this far, but it’s not over yet!
Motivation comes in heaps – the team of luthiers are so passionate about what we do. We have always tried to look beyond the guitar as the finished result to the real finished result which is the music the guitar helps to create when put into the hands of a talented player.
Everyday we’re hearing and seeing this outcome and that’s what keeps doing this job very special.
What’s your best selling guitar?
The Avalon Legacy L32C.
What’s your personal favourite Avalon guitar?
The Avalon Master L320B/Celtic Soft Bevel – the styling of this guitar is inspired.
Who is the most accomplished guitarist in the Avalon team? There must be a closet shredder among your luthiers?!
It’s a no contest – king shredder is Mark Lyttle. Mark played professionally for many years and still runs his own recording studio in Belfast. He demo’s our guitars on the sound files on our website and also composed some of the pieces. He plays a key role in developing new models and his musical knowledge and ability is a great asset.
Your house is burning down. What’s the one guitar item you would save?
The only one I have – my Avalon L310.
If you could form a super group using famous musicians past or present, who would you have on drums and why? Vinnie Colaiuta would be a contender. He seems to be the common thread running through lots of my favourite recordings.
Lager or Cider?
You’re talking to an Irishman – pint of stout please!
What’s the plan for Avalon Guitars for the next 12 months?
We have a new model ready to launch in 2011 which we believe is an innovation in acoustic guitar design. Plus, we’re at an advanced stage of re-birthing our outsourced line under a new name which should be ready by March 2011.
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