Review: TogaMan GuitarViol
The hybrid of a guitar and a violin takes bowing to a new level
As John Cleese said, “…and now for something completely different”. Every once in a while an instrument comes around that truly breaks the mold of conventional thinking. In the best cases, the creation surpasses the fad or novelty category and actually opens up a new world of music. Some examples are 7 string guitars and the Chapman Stick. Both took the familiar and expanded on it. Hey, how about adding another string to extend the range of the instrument? Or, how about marrying the bass and guitar together but playing it almost like a piano with both hands independently?
|Download Example 1
Double Stops (336k)
|Download Example 2
|Download Example 3
|Download Example 4
Horror Film (416k)
|Clips recorded by Steve Ouimette, in the early stages of learning the instrument. See GuitarViolist Julio Revueltas for the instrument''s full potential.
In the case of Jonathan Wilson’s creation, the GuitarViol, it takes the familiar concept of a guitar (same tuning, frets, strings) and marries it with a violin. Bowing! For decades now we’ve seen examples of this being done by Jimmy Page with his Tele or Les Paul and a violin bow. Just take a listen to “Dazed and Confused” off Led Zeppelin I or watch footage of Page pulling off the bow technique in “The Song Remains The Same.” The haunting and evocative sound that he pulls from his instrument has made an impact on anyone who grew up listening to rock. Outside of that particular sound and novelty, bowing a regular guitar simply does not offer the flexibility of a real violin. There is one main difference: the arc of the fingerboard. You simply cannot gain controlled access to individual strings on a guitar because of the radius. And, if you could, the pickups and design of a regular guitar still fall short of producing tones that mirror the sound of a violin. Guitars just weren’t made to do this…until now.
We normally shy away from reviewing prototypes or gear that is overly custom-spec’d because we’d rather not write about something that no one else can buy. It’s more helpful if we rate gear that is set up the same way as what you’d get if you bought it. However, we’re bending that rule with the GuitarViol because each instrument is built to order.
Mine arrived about four months after I ordered it. This particular model is called the Cana Various which is basically a cosmetically altered version of the Cana Deluxe model that Togaman offers in the product line. The GV is a nearly all-hand-built instrument and really feels like old world craftsmanship. The body is constructed of mahogany with a maple back and top that has been hand-carved to appear much like a 1700s-era violin. The neck is maple and topped with an Indian rosewood fingerboard. There are no fret markers on the top of the fingerboard, but thankfully there are dots on the side that let you know where you are. The custom BOWD HORIZON bridge allows for intonation adjustments and also houses the pickup used to capture bowed sounds. The “neck” pickup is from EMG and is best used for plucking sounds. The GV has 2 volume and 2 tone knobs much like a Les Paul, except they are active. A center detent in the tone controls is the neutral position, allowing both cutting and boosting of tone depending on the direction rotated.
All GVs are strung with D’Addario “Chromes” flatwound strings. The gauge is 12-52, but because of the scale length of the GV, there is no need to be concerned that it will tear your hands up. In fact, the strings felt natural and very easy to work with even though they were fairly heavy. What’s more interesting is that the combination of time and rosin actually creates a warmer tone as the strings age. This is not an instrument that you need to change out the strings after a gig or long recording session.
In my discussions with Jonathan Wilson, he filled me in on the details of the neck construction and build. The radius starts at 7.5" at the nut and projects to the bridge at 2.5". At the 24th fret, it’s 3.25". That would seem strange on a normal guitar but in the case of the GV it feels perfectly natural and allows for bowing of more than one string at a time. Wilson used violin and viola proportions to create the scale of the neck and body and customized it from there. The GV’s neck joins the body at the 12th fret like a classical guitar. The neck joint is set deep and long in the instrument leaving a rather stout neck that requires no truss rod. This is reinforced by the fact that the fingerboard is quite thick and there isn’t that much neck length extending out of the body. Another feature is that the neck is bolted on with 10-32 thread machine allen cap bolts. This provides an incredible clamping pressure; superior to wood screws typically used for bolt neck construction. Also, this allows some flexibility in set-up. All of the fingerboard edges are hand-rolled for a softer and broken in feel.
Finally, the GV is set up with Sperzel tuners on an open headstock design. It comes in its own coffin case that has been slightly altered to fit the instrument properly as well as custom bow. The bow is slightly shorter than the one I’d been using for my guitar bowing but immediately felt comfortable and natural.
Right out of the case, the GV is a familiar feeling instrument. Though the neck scale is only 21", it is remarkably easy to get around even with the more extreme radius required for bowing. The GV is set up to be played either while sitting or standing. I used the straplock system that it came with so I could play the GV standing up to keep the angle of the neck the way I’m used to playing. While sitting down you must have the GV at an almost upright position to allow for bowing without hitting your leg. (Check out YouTube get an idea of the basic techniques and playing position of the instrument).
Speaking of bowing, that’s what this instrument is all about and where things get very interesting. As a guitarist of 28 years, I’m pretty familiar with the ins and outs of a normal guitar, and picking is obviously a large part of my sound. Bringing out the bow immediately put me back in the 5th grade, so to speak, because half of my technique was immediately thrown out the window. Of course I expected this going into the GV since that is what makes it so unique. After a bit of time with the GV, I found myself improving my bowing with practice each day. And although you could spend a lifetime dedicated to this instrument alone, it isn’t without some immediate gratification. Plugging the GV into a Marshall stack allowed me to instantly get into crazy, feedback-driven guitar tones reminiscent of Hendrix with the bow. It was cool to have an instrument where you can control sustain by means other than amp volume or gain settings. In fact, going with a cleaner tone still allowed for infinite sustained notes and more tonal varieties than I’ve ever encountered with a regular guitar. This is a FUN instrument to play!
Moving on to cleaner sounds on the amp, it was clear how versatile this instrument is. It’s also remarkably violin-like in its tone as you clean up the sound and dig in with the bow. Another immediate technique change was rendered necessary as I realized that traditional vibrato isn’t really the way to play this instrument. Side-to-side vibrato, just like any great violinist, is required to pull the most out of the GV and make it sing. Using my normal wrist vibrato created a scratching and broken sound as it interfered with the bow dragging across the strings. That said, it’s just another part of what makes this a unique instrument. Tonally, the palate is very large and the GV lent itself to atmospheric sounds as well as straight up classical pieces.
Since I work in the video game and film/television space composing music, the GV is a welcome addition to my arsenal of unique instruments. It has a sound that is both familiar and new, which is hard to come by. Yes, it takes time to learn the instrument and it could be frustrating if it wasn’t so darn fun to play. There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Wilson is on to something here (and he may be one of the nicest people I’ve dealt with in this business!). That’s a winning combination in my book!