The story of how a man with a bookshop found a niche in making blues guitars.
“X” Marks the Spot
Xanadu is a book store. Rather, it was. What started as a book store has slowly evolved into a book store/music shop combo. At first, owner John Lowe was simply using the retail space as an avenue to off-load excess guitar strings from a previous business endeavor. Over time, he added Orange brand amps and Danelectro guitars to the shelves. Between the smell of used books, the walls lined with instruments, and the occasional display of vintage toys, Xanadu has a whimsical atmosphere that could challenge that of the wardrobe to Narnia. But perhaps the most interesting aspect has still yet to be mentioned.
Meet The Lowebow
Lowebow Guitars are a unique style of award-winning, blues instrument handmade by John Lowe in his workshop tucked away in the back of Xanadu. Lowe is a self-trained luthier (stringed instrument craftsman) and credits his eccentric style to his lack of formal training. He offers eight different models that vary in structure, but the most common themes are fretless stick-neck guitars with dual outputs for guitar and bass. Some are made from cigar boxes while others are shaped like cats and dogs. Some of them are played by bending the neck where others have a left-hand whammy-and-key-changer to affect the sound. No matter the specifics, Lowe makes each of his models with the one man band in mind.
The shopkeeper started making his first guitar in the 1980s, though it wouldn’t be finished for thirty years after. It took Lowe decades of trial and error as well as perfecting his pickup technique to give the instrument the care to craft he felt it deserved. That’s right–Lowe not only makes the body, but the electronics as well. The unique sound of a Lowebow guitar is in part owed to the handmade bobbin pickups. It’s a relatively simple design: magnet wire wrapped around a sewing machine bobbin. But Lowe has a special touch to his engineering that gives his axes their signature tone–a tone that was heavily sought after after Lowebow Guitars got some unexpected publicity.
Lowe’s New High
In 2001, Lowe’s friend and fellow blues musician Richard Johnston approached him about making a new instrument. They worked together and ended up with cigar box guitar with two sticks and that signature stereo output. Less than a week after receiving his new guitar, Johnston would use to to compete in and win the International Blues Challenge. In 2002, the IBC established a rule change to separate solo performers from the usual multi-member bands. Lowe claims the change in rules was response to his guitar hogging the podium, though the IBC cites growing number of participants. Major guitar manufacturers sometimes sponsor acts with expensive instruments in hopes of seeding a winner for the publicity. When the homemade Lowebow ended up in the winner’s circle instead, heads were turned.
Johnston’s championship would launch Lowe’s guitar trade to new heights. He now sells custom Lowebows to international clientele. He takes custom orders, but also has some hanging on the walls of Xanadu ready to be taken home immediately. Some of the equipment in Xanadu can be found on Facebook marketplace as well. Plus, if you go to the store, Lowe will likely let you sit in “The Rig” and try it out with kick drums and keys at your disposal. You know, to get you into the proper one man band mindset.