TogaMan GuitarViol

If you have ever tried to emulate a certain ’60s rock star by stroking your electric guitar with a violin bow, you know that the results can be less than mind-blowing. For starters, guitar pickups are not designed to capture sounds created by bowing, so chances are the tone will be scratchy and thin. More significantly, because the guitar’s fretboard and bridge are on a level plane, it is impossible to play individual strings other than the first and sixth. Sure, you can make some cool sounds—particularly if you add lots of echo and reverb and maybe a wah pedal—but the bottom line is that you will never be able to play arpeggios and single-note lines in the same way a cellist or viola player can. Or at least you couldn’t until now.
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Wanting to have his guitar and bow it, too, TogaMan (a.k.a. Jonathan Wilson) created the GuitarViol ($2,998-$3,598 retail/street N/A), a hybrid combining elements of the guitar and traditional bowed instruments. It has six strings, a fretted neck, and is tuned like a guitar, but its fretboard and bridge are curved to allow access to individual strings, and there are cutaways on either side of the playing area to accommodate a bow.

Predictably, the electronics used in the GuitarViol are not your standard fare. The proprietary BOWD Horizon pickup is built directly into the bridge, and it’s connected to an EMG 6CH 6-channel mixer with individual gain trim-pots for each string (accessible from the rear cavity). There is also a modified EMG 4SW active magnetic pickup system with a single sensor for each two strings. The two pickups are routed through an EMG active BTS System, which combines individual Volume controls for each pickup (stacked), active boost/cut Bass and Treble controls, and a Master Volume control. And if you want to move even further into uncharted musical realms, you can add the optional Graph Tech Hexpander MIDI pickup for an additional $350.

Each instrument is hand-built to order and available in Naked Spartan (hand-rubbed satin) and a huge variety of “Wilkins” finishes. The workmanship is first-rate throughout, with only a few tiny imperfections, and the gorgeous purpleheart bridge and fretboard add a touch of elegance.

Playing the GuitarViol takes some getting used to. Wilson recommends placing the “balance scoop” portion on your left leg—though it may also be played using a strap—and holding the bow in an underhand position. The instrument’s short scale, mandolin frets, and curved fretboard require making some fingering adjustments, and navigating the different string heights with the bow can be daunting. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon find the GuitarViol to be quite comfortable and natural feeling.

The two pickups offer very different tonal options, with the bridge pickup optimized for bowing, and the EMG for playing pizzicato (plucking). The sound quality of both is excellent, though I found that blending them using the individual Volume controls produced the most satisfying results. Whether played through a guitar amp, a tube instrument preamp, or directly into a mixing console input, it was difficult to get a bad sound from the instrument.

Though the GuitarViol is relatively pricey, it is also quite compelling, and I’ve begun saving my pennies!