Robert Johnson slid into a photo booth, dangling a cigarette from his lips and holding a flat-top guitar. What brand was he smoking? Who knows? But scholars think he was holding a Gibson-made Kalamazoo KG-14. And acoustic blues guitarists want to know what Mr. Johnson was playing because we want to sound like that.
Inspired by the iconic (yet forgivingly priced) Kalamazoo line, a Depression-era product of the Gibson plant, Collings has launched the Waterloo brand. Just like Colling guitars, Waterloos are built with a high regard for sound, stability, and playability, yet just a bit more casually – that tiny trace of glue squeeze-out by the rough-sanded interior braces comes at no extra cost.
With an historic example to follow, Bill Collings and his team have been faithful in reproducing many of the build details for their new line, though they have made some improvements. With a body width of 14.75″, the WL-14 also has an easy-playing 24.875″ scale and a finger-stylist’s 1.75″ ebony nut. The neck profile is vintage all the way – a deep V reinforced by a T-bar (with an optional adjustable truss rod). And as with Collings models, the neck is attached with a bolt-on system.
The WL-14’s all-solid timbers include a mahogany neck, back, and sides, along with a spruce top. The rosewood fingerboard is complemented by an ebony through-the-belly bridge, and open tuners with white plastic buttons are mounted on a simple, aged plate with no frills – just utilitarian goodness, like the stenciled logo on the otherwise unadorned headstock. The top and the soundhole are single-bound in white plastic, as on the originals. Despite the cost-conscious construction, the crème pickguard is beveled, the bone saddle is intonated and polished, and the black finish is nitrocellulose lacquer. The top is wet-sanded to an attractive matte, but the rest of the guitar is left spray-booth glossy, showing open wood grain that normally would be filled on a Collings.
The WL-14 might be as old-school as any offering on the market, but with the modern player in mind. The featherweight instrument played wonderfully in tune in all fingerboard positions and featured on-the-money setup and fretwork. While the substantial V-shape of its neck might seem daunting, it felt comfortable and the extra mass influenced the solid sound.
Another factor in the voice of the WL-14 is the use of ladder bracing rather than the more common X-bracing. While X-bracing is thought to produce a more-refined sound, there was nothing tentative about the timbre or amplitude of the ladder-braced Waterloo. Midrange-strong, the WL-14 still had plenty of high-end definition, resulting in an excellent clarity throughout the sonic range. The exceptional note-to-note separation made jazzy chord voicings particularly satisfying, with single-note runs standing out up and down the fretboard. The growly low end served up equally well with plectrum or bare fingers, punching through Lonnie Johnson licks or going with the flow of Mississippi John Hurt-style picking. Look for more ladder-braced instruments on the market in the future as manufacturers realize a demand for the sonic virtues of this simpler system.
While the WL-14 invoked Depression-era country, folk, and blues, it proved more versatile. The direct attack and controlled body resonance promised to record well. The scale length was long enough to handle down-tuned open tunings without excess floppiness and string slap, and bottleneck licks and chords had the requisite cut and sustain, especially in open A or E.
The new Waterloos by Collings show all the appeal of their Kalamazoo-made inspirations with the added bonus of consistent build standards. The WL-14 features a distinctive, desirable sound, superb intonation and playability, and a bunch of vintage mojo.
This article originally appeared in VG June 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.