Read Time 13 Minutes
While you might not know the name Togaman GuitarViols, you have probably heard them over the last several years. Featured in films (Iron Man, Clash of The Titans, 300, The Watchmen) television (True Blood, CSI Miami) and on live performances (Niyaz’ Loga Torkian and Benise are just two prominent players) the GuitarViols are gaining prominence because they have the unique attribute of being a fully functional bowed guitar (i.e. played with a violin type bow).
This may not seem new to fans of Jonsi from Sigur Ros or Jimmy Page from Led Zepplin, but their use of the bow is limited to playing on either the top or bottom strings (or rhythmic hits across all strings). The nature of the traditional electric guitar design lacks the ability to be able to bow the strings individually or in smaller groups. An e-bow or sustainer can create a feedback type of sustain but lacks the ability to really simulate the sound of a bowed string.
The origins of the bowed guitar go much further back than Jimmy Page (There’s a well written and detailed history of the origins of the bowed guitar on the Togaman site, but is now being advanced by Jonathan Wilson, the man behind Togaman Guitars. In addition to being a talented luthier and player, Jonathan’s energy and enthusiasm is infectious. He recently took time out of his manic schedule to talk about GuitarViols and how his innovations in design and production are taking the instruments in a very bold direction.
And so ladies and gentlemen here are 10 questions with Jonathan Wilson:
1. Jonathan, you mention this on the website but I think the Guitar-Muse readers would like to know how you were inspired to make this instrument. What was the process that took you from someone who wanted to play a guitar with a bow to someone who is now making bowed guitars?
From the time I was seven or eight, I remember being fascinated by the guitar as an object and how it worked. Since the early 1980’s, I tried to achieve any manual technique to get a sustained note. Even using the ridges of a quarter to bow and slide notes beyond the fingerboard (It’s amazing that I can hear after logging so many hours in front of a beefed up dual Boogie Gain modded 1971 Fender Twin and 1979 Stratocaster to perfect the art of feedback!) I was aware of the E-bow, but that wasn’t what I was after. I had read of Lol Creme’s “Gizmotron” and how it’s hurdy-gurdy wheels bowed individual strings and became fascinated with the bowed guitar string concept.
Then, somewhere around 1982-83 I got into the Scorpions “Blackout” and “Lovedrive” albums because they rocked! Out of curiosity, I went to the record store and found their earlier 70’s era album “Virgin Killer” and a guitar player named Uli Roth. His fluid classical harmony combined with Hendrixian blues vibe really blew me away. One particular track called “Yellow Raven” changed my life. Bowing my guitar is as close as I have ever come to those sublime sustaining tones Roth got.
A few years later, Roth came out with his “Sky Guitar” which had 36 frets + and that inspired me. The concept of “creating an instrument one’s art requires rather than constraining one’s art to that which already exists” is what drove me thereafter. In 1989, I revisited the bowed guitar idea and began reading about violins in an old encyclopedia. It mentioned the “Arpeggione” (a six string fretted cello tuned like a guitar) by Johann Staufer and I was instantly obsessed. From then on, it became my life’s mission for better or worse!
2. From a design standpoint – what are the big differences between a GuitarViol and a traditional electric guitar (i.e. “can’t I just play a regular guitar with a violin bow?”)
Early on, I sketched out a design that was essentially an electric double cutaway guitar with arched bridge and a magnetic pickup. I found out the hard way that idea doesn’t work well even if the instrument handles bowing well. An arcuate (curved) string plane is essential to bowing individual strings and the fingerboard plane must follow the string plane.
My earliest prototype from the early 1990’s was built by another luthier. It sounded beautiful but was a real bear to play. After playing it, putting it in a stand and trying many other approaches, it became painfully clear (literally) that a design more in harmony with how I play was essential. In 2001-02 I revisited the concept and made several cardboard and foam mock-ups to insure that what went to the drawing board really should be there.
I wanted it to sit in my lap a certain way and I didn’t want the nut to be above eye level. One day, I picked up a viola and held it in the same way I play GuitarViols and said “Hello”. So, I went for a scale length that was between the 16″ viola length and 25.5″ guitar. 21″ seemed to be good number and felt like what I was after. So, I designed it around that.
Ironically, I now build fully Acoustic and ElectroCoustic models but initially I designed a solid body because I was after something that would work for my looping application. Sometimes my earlier semi-hollow model was acoustically loud enough that it obscured my loops if the soundman at a venue was too slow on the fader.
I had no idea there would be interest in repeat builds!! But when there was, I had to address the physics problems of bowed strings and pickups. The horizontal motion of a bowed string is out of the (magnetic or piezo) field for a pickup. (This is why a typical electric guitar will get quiet when bowed and loud when plucked at any gain setting.) I also realized I would need one pickup per string. After much R&D, I came out with the BOWD Horizon bridge. The bridge is CNC made to my specs with specially placed pickups and each saddle is adjustable for intonation.
The Stealth fret concept came about because traditional mushroom shape extrusion guitar frets are not optimal for playing and are a nightmare to install around a highly curved fingerboard! The stealth frets are the way to go from all aspects. They flat out play better on these instruments. Barre chords on a curved fingerboard are easier to do with scallops and vibrato is enhanced as well. From a production standpoint the process is also smoother so it’s a win-win!
Additionally, we’ve recently been developing new bent (as opposed to carved) spruce tops that add more volume and dynamic range due to the increased stiffness to density ratio.
3. Do players have to adapt their technique to use a bow with a Guitar Viol and can they play the GuitarViol without a bow?
Yes and yes. It would be frustrating if it wasn’t so damn fun! It does take getting a feel for and it can be addictive but over time you become smoother at it. Plucked sounds are more like viola/cello pizzicatos and not as guitar-like. That said, this approach has some useable apps and is another box of crayons to draw with sonically.
4. I notice that you string the instruments with D’Addario flatwound chromes. Other than a string preference, are there other effect, amplification or eq adjustments that players should plan on making with a bowed guitar?
Actually, that was the only option I seemed to have for many years. It is a chicken and egg problem: what came first? The GuitarViol or the GuitarViol string? The R&D cooperation for string companies doesn’t make business sense because I’m not likely to fill huge string orders. The chromes were what I thought to be the most direct fit but over the last couple of years, some clients and I have been experimenting with a mixed set of cello strings. It turns out, the one’s that worked the best were D’Addario Helicore mixed 1/4 cello and 4/4 sets to balance tension. Helicores are far more forgiving to bow than chromes.
Much my recent builds have been Acoustic or ElectroCoustic. That said, it seems that doing direct with no pre-amp or guitar plug in is best. With electric, I like going through a Donny Osmond Design (I’m kidding!!! DOD/Digitech) Bad Monkey overdrive and a Line 6 DL4 Delay. I did a session for the video game “Borderlands” and this signal path is what you hear on the game.
These instruments dial in much differently through guitar amps and need to be darkened a bit but you just need to let your ears lead the knobs…. My favorite recording method is direct to Protools with no stuff other than some reverb and maybe light overdrive.
Video (Interview continues below video)
5. Could you talk about the differences between the different models? Do you think that certain models are better suited for certain playing environments?
My original TogaMan solid body Cana Models were great for that “300” sound and more “electric” applications and just rocking out but could also get real ethereal acoustic like sounds.
Some repeat clients complained about the piezo-electric vibe so I developed the ElectroCoustic. It features a live top with a pseudo-sound post and bass bar (so it mechanically acts as an acoustic top). I don’t market it as acoustic but puts out enough acoustic sound to be studio miked and blended with DI for a really dimensional sound. My instruments are being used quite often for recording film scores so it seems this type of versatility makes the ElectroCoustic the best of both worlds.
There is what I call the “Magic pickup” system which incorporates both piezo and magnetic pickup technology internally. The brightness of the piezo can be blended well with the magnetic pickup that reads the motion of the top, which adds pretty low/mid warmth. I do include a simple contact pickup for live or secondary mic recording apps. Recently, we’ve been developing new bent (as opposed to carved) spruce tops that add more volume and dynamic range (due to the increased stiffness to density ratio). So like acoustic and electric guitars, they all have their place. I am most proud of my acoustics these days.
6. Since these instruments are so unique, it seems like some players would want even further customization. What’s the strangest accommodation to the design you’ve done?
One of my first clients was Loga Ramin Torkian who made a splash in the Persian world music genre with his Guitar Viol. (In fact, he really evangelized it to the film composers who are now my frequent customers). Anyway, he liked calling it a “Kamman” and frets it with ancient tie around frets to 1/4 tone scales. I can’t play it to save my life but he makes it shine! I’ve done a “Steam Punk” themed one and a genuine copper patina face electric. Also, I had some alder stock with big ugly knots, so I implanted Leonidas head in it with epoxy for a guy in Atlanta who is a 300 fan. There was the “Naughty Chuck” which was made for a composer named iZLER. It had a “2 Buck Chuck” (Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw) wine cork epoxied into the knot and hand made genuine wine cork knobs! There was one I flambéed and later shellaced in the color of “Cabernet Flambé” and one I char-bursted with the black being genuine flame charred Mahogany/Maple and the red to yellow being genuine French Polish. So, I am known to get really crazy!
7. In terms of availability how long is the waiting list for guitars right now?
Since 2003, I have always had a backlog. I took an average between now and then and it was about 9 months, although I have had isolated builds that took anywhere from a couple months to 2 years. These days maybe 6 months but it’s still hard to gauge because even with training help often improvements or line complications do not get factored in. I have been implementing what I call the “Bistro” series that are exclusively “off-queue” spec, acoustic only builds by my apprentices. They have a distinctive headstock and are all walnut with a spruce top and natural bare finish. They’re built to the same standards and play/sound killer! These are planned to be more readily available off the rack (which was previously rare if not impossible).
8. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have of being a guitar builder?
That it is a simple life of drinking coffee, working at a band-saw for 8 or 10 hours, and driving Ferraris we bought by peddling expensive instruments. It is indeed very hard work with long, long hours. For the small builder who wears many hats, every day is a very complex mix of handling business, office, communications, sales, managing cash flow, solving problems, and somehow managing to build the instruments! There are simply not enough hours in the day. I have youngsters who write me and say “Man, you have the coolest job in the world” and they are right! But, don’t be fooled, building pricey instruments does not make one rich and comes with it’s own form of hard work and stress.
The other misconception I battle is that many people assume I got into this to be a large manufacturer of affordable commodities to the masses. I am simply a guy who wanted an instrument that fit my own requirements. The fact that others became interested is a wonderful unplanned irony. I didn’t have plans to grow up to become a “Dirty Bearded Luthier” I wanted to be the next Hendrixian Vivaldi!! Had I known I was supposed to have an MBA or run a big firm, I may have said no to the first order! An artist mind is hard to reconcile with being a CEO or manager but these are good quality problems to have!
9. It’s interesting that you started this journey as a player, who out of necessity became a builder and now the session calls are coming in for you as a player again. It’s come full circle. Can you talk about any of the playing you’ve done recently, as well as the 2 GV project?
It is a happy irony. Years ago, I could not get past any receptionist at any record company. Of course I came out of a horrible era of commercial pop rock, spandex and bad haircuts. The more ambient stuff I most enjoyed doing on home 4 track was steamrollered by the status quo of the commercial rock scene mentality (and later the lumberjack rock movement of the early 1990’s). The fact that I am recording an album I actually enjoy doing for Lakeshore Records came out of me building these for respected composers and finding out that an executive was my fan and became a client as well. So, I offered myself up for any sessions they had and they wanted to talk about doing a GuitarViol album!
In addition to the “Borderlands” session (which won some cool points with our teenage son. He was already anticipating that particular game coming out and really dropped his jaw the afternoon I told him I did that), I also did an interesting session stacking string tracks for Marcella Detroit (of “Lay down Sally” Clapton Fame).
2GV was a fun Monday Night jam that Oscar Islas, a few friends, and I did for a season. We played Citywalk, Borders Santa Barbara and the SB Museum of Art for a couple of summers. It was fun! Our lives became more complicated and I became busier with the GuitarViol building thing. Now I just mainly record my own tracks, do occasional sessions and hold informal jams with friends at random intervals in my “Bistro” studio. So, yes, full circle! Funny how life works out!
10. What advice do you wish you had gotten before becoming a guitar manufacturer?
Actually, I do not think of myself as a manufacturer making commodities. Limited specialty production may be a better term. To become a manufacturer, one has to rally up the capital and support team and it becomes more like a Ford assembly line. In the boutique world, one man (or a few) may build all aspects of the instrument from cutting wood, bending, carving, gluing, sanding, finishing and setting up. That also implies a lot of man-hours multitasking as opposed to a factory that builds by having a committee of people who specialize in single tasks and become really good and efficient making the same parts. It seems that everybody expects me to be a mass manufacturer and distribute my goods to music stores (who likely would not know how to support it), but I prefer dealing directly with the artist and building a rapport. Now, if the right people approached me or showed interest, I might consider licensing to a larger company with that infrastructure or perhaps working with some executive partners to bring the thing to another level and build a bigger team.
You really have to know who you are! Dirty Bearded Luthier types buried in saw dust are most often genius craftsmen and typically poor businessmen. I had no real idea of how things in business really worked other than my two decades in retail (which gave my marketing and customer interaction chops some edge). Had I known, for example, how purchase order loans worked, I may have made different moves at NAMM.
If you do not understand how it works, surround yourself with pros that do. Nobody gave me the memo or sent me an MBA! There was no “GuitarViol business owner’s manual” with this thing and, like the instrument, it also followed it’s own natural business model and attracted it’s own following (contrary to conventional means of marketing).
Stick to your guns and vision. Others may distort it. You will get well meaning advice from some who do not understand your model or vision. At the end of the day, it’s your heart, soul and hands that make it happen.
Whatever you do well will attract like-minded people and those are your customers. The others are not and you can’t please everybody so don’t try.
There is something for everybody. Niche is important because redundancy only means more competition. I would starve making Strats and D-28’s because there are already so many great builders doing it.
Do what you do really well and whatever you don’t do well reach out to those that do.
The safe road is not safe at all. Dare to do something great with your imagination.
Persevere. Never give up. Giving up is a decision to fail; Perseverance is the decision to succeed. Success has no expiration date. Each day is one more shot.
And finally, (when working with power tools) 10 fingers in and 10 fingers out is always a good day!
Thank you Jonathan!!