Say Goodbye to Jonathan Wilson, Creator of the GuitarViol
“Another victim of the City’s treatment of him and his family”
Jonathan Wilson, Creator of the GuitarViol.
Jonathan Wilson, Creator of the GuitarViol.

Underneath the Citrus Packing House is a mysterious place, known as the Secret Underground Laboratory. It actually is underground, and is somewhat secret. A group of craftsman have their shops down here, where they make specialty products. All sorts of odd noises come from these shops. Big woodworking saws droning and hand files scraping, routers screaming and small hammers tapping. Yes, strange things are being created down here in the cool, dark basement.

Some of these craftsmen are Luthiers; they build musical instruments with strings. And sometimes, you can hear them being tested, echoing down the long underground hallway. Right now, as I stand here, I can hear what sounds like some kind of electric guitar. Chords and riffs. But then it smoothly blends into sweeping arpeggios with the choppy staccato of a bow. A violin, or a viola? Now, it almost sounds like an orchestral string section! What kind of instrument does that?

And so, today I enter the strange world of Jonathan Wilson and his Togaman GuitarViols. Jon has spent most of his life in the musical instrument business, starting out in retail sales in a small music store. He learned to repair and then build guitars, and that evolved into him inventing a new instrument of his own, the GuitarViol. Nobody else makes anything quite like them. Visually, the GuitarViol looks sort of like a guitar, with a body and a neck. But the body is a distorted shape, with a narrow waist and a large lower bout. And the fingerboard is very odd. It's made to be played with a bow.

The basic idea comes from an old instrument called the Arpeggione, which was a bowed guitar invented by Johan Staufer in 1823. It was a guitar, designed to be played with a bow. Jon has brought that instrument concept back to life, and refined it into his modern GuitarViol. The Togaman name is derived from a famous painting “Noces de Cana” that depicts the Biblical wedding feast where water was turned to wine. The Toga wearing Viol player (Paolo Veronese) in the painting is holding his Viol horizontally and playing it with a bow, underhand, pointing down. This depiction of the unusual playing form led to Staufer's invention of the Arpeggione. The importance of this figure in the painting led Jon to adopt the Togaman name as his brand and logo.

Jon makes different models of these GuitarViols, all-electric, semi-acoustic, and fully acoustic. Most of them have six strings, tuned like a normal guitar. They are all held and played the same way. The electrics have wild body shapes, carved from solid wood. The acoustic models are built up from thin bent wood, similar to a cello body, a hollow thin structure with sound holes. The fingerboard is radically rounded, like a violin or viola, and it has raised cross-wise ridges that act like frets. It's made from a special black epoxy, cast in silicone rubber molds. The GuitarViol is a complicated instrument to build, a mix of classic Luthier woodworking and some modern high technology. All done right here in this shop. And in the bay next door, he's working on the next generation version, made entirely of carbon fiber resin. Available in another year or two.

The sound of a GuitarViol is somewhere between a guitar and a viola. It can do fast, nasty riffs like an electric guitar. Or a sustained rich note like a viola. It can hit precise notes like a fretted guitar, but it can also do smooth slides, like a violin. Its range spans from the highs of a violin to the lows of a viola. In the studio, through some electronic gear, a GuitarViol can even sound like most of a string section. You've heard them. Jon's GuitarViols are very popular with the composers and recording artists who do the soundtracks for movies and TV series. They are his main customers. A single artist in the studio with a GuitarViol can create a full rich background with delicate detail and sweeping drama. Efficiently, minimizing studio time.

An early customer of Jons' is Tyler Bates, who used his GuitarViol in 2006 to create the score for the movie 300. More recently, he's used it for the sound track of John Wick 2, and there's even a scene in the movie where Tyler is playing it on a stage in the background. GuitarViols can also be heard in the background of Game of Thrones, City On a Hill, and many other movies and shows. Most of Jon's instruments are busy at work in studios around the movie and game industry. They do appear occasionally on stage in gigs, but they are mostly used in the studio.

Every GuitarViol is hand made by Jon and his son Andrew, in their small shop here in the Secret Underground Lab. No employees, no parts made overseas, or anything like that. He has some standard models, but most are special order with some custom features. They sell for $4000 to $7000, and there's always a waiting list. All sales are directly through him, and his web site. He doesn't sell through dealers or stores. Jon's business is a clear example of the modern Craftsman-type business. A hidden little mini-factory, building expensive hand-made products, and selling them worldwide through the internet.

Last Friday, Jon moved his GuitarViol operation out of the Secret Underground Lab, and out of Fillmore. He's settled into a small shop in Valencia, which is higher rent, but less of a drive from his home. But, the main reason he decided to move out was his frustration over the prolonged mess with the City about the building codes for the Packing House, and how he felt he was treated by the City. Jonathan said, "I love Fillmore and I'm proud of what we all created at the Citrus Packing House; but my loyalties are to my family and my customers."