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Jonathan Wilson
Sylmar, California

A Story of Love:
A Master American Craftsman, Inspired by the Beauty of a Tranquil Place, Invents a Musical Instrument with an Historic Past.

Jonathan Wilson

I create GuitarViols, which are essentially morphs of Guitars and Violas. They are the modern version of the Arpeggione, which was crafted in 1823 by Austrian builder Johan Staufer. Centuries prior to the Arpeggione, there were early versions of the guitar (Vihuelas and Lutes) and of bowed guitars. They had frets and usually 6 or 7 strings. When I set out to create the modern version of this instrument, my vision was to have a more contemporary bowed guitar with features such as steel strings, which lend themselves to 20th-century guitar and bending techniques. For these modern playing techniques, a more guitar-like playing stance and underhand bow grip are necessary. And, since I seemed to be the only guy in the world to even care for such an instrument, I would build it to suit me. That was until I found a welcome "hidden" market consisting of "Art Rockers" and film composers. The unique timbre of the instrument has a rather contemporary, yet ancient, sound. My GuitarViol has been used in musical compositions in movies, including "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Watchmen," and "300." Kevin Kliner uses his GuitarViol for "CSI Miami" and other programs, and Shawn Clement recently used his GuitarViol to re-create sounds of Saturn in "Quantum Quest." I am presently working on a record deal with a major film label.

There are many excellent luthiers (guitar and violin builders) around the world, but there is virtually no one who builds my particular instrument. There is a quality which exists in a hand-built instrument. Sure, there are exceptionally made factory instruments, but the difference is they are manufactured by a committee and not singly crafted by the hands of an individual. In a factory, each worker is performing a repetitive task all day, and that worker gets very good at that task. When it is a single craftsman, on the other hand, every part of the instrument is made by his/her hands. There is a certain "soul" to that instrument which a virtually identical factory replica may not have (for better or worse.) These subtleties are usually picked up by experienced players. The "soul" or "vibe" can be unique from instrument to instrument, an inherent fingerprint of the creator and not a perfectly consistent "cookie cutter" quality of a mass-produced counterpart. (Stradivari's violins, for instance, varied one from the other.) The GuitarViol's development has been exclusively in my hands, as I own the U.S. Utility Patent, and to my knowledge, I am the only luthier in the world entirely dedicated to the bowed guitar. My overall research and development of this instrument spans three decades, and it has not been an easy journey, as such an unusual instrument, derived from a historic past, is not accepted in certain circles. Guitar builders, violin builders, and some Classical musicians find it difficult to relate to my work.

I have been involved with music and art my whole life. My mother died tragically when I was three, and I had no siblings, so I pretty much had to entertain myself. Peg Wilson, my paternal grandmother, played a big role in raising me and nurtured my artistic skills, as my father was a single parent. I spent my childhood divided between California and Connecticut. "High Meadow," a 40-acre parcel of land in a remote area of South Kent, Connecticut, was purchased by my grandparents during World War II. Peg, an interior designer who wrote articles for House Beautiful magazine during the 1930s, and my grandfather, Red, an investment banker, paid $6,000 for the entire parcel and would retreat there on weekends from their home in New York City. The land was situated on a hill shared by an old iron mine, dense woods, and colonial-era stone walls, and possessed one of the most magnificent views in New England. To the west, the sun would set over a neighboring hill called Bull Mountain. Although Bull Mountain was named after the Bull family, the silhouette appeared to be that of a bull in a charging stance. In the winter evenings, the lights from a boys' preparatory school off in the distance would appear to be that of a quaint Christmas village on a Christmas card. This was the place that defined me as a person and an artisan - a beautiful locale that captured my heart and inspired my life's work. It was the one constant in my life until my father sold the property in 1994. Even though I have spent the past fifteen years in a most beautiful place, I dream every day of returning to my former home high atop a hillside in Litchfield County. My grandparents had one son and a step-daughter, Judith, my talented aunt from Red's previous marriage who is another supportive inspiration with her excellence in pottery and varied media art. My father, Richard (also known as Dixie), enjoyed playing Cowboys and Indians as a kid with his Shetland Pony, wandering the hill. His boyhood interest developed into a love of firearms, and he and my mother, Iris, left Connecticut and went to California so he could attend the Los Angeles Police Academy.

I was born in 1966 in La Crescenta, California and named after my father's close friend, Jonathan Le Farge, an accomplished guitar player. It seemed the die was cast at birth - that I would grow up to work a lifetime creating a musical instrument. After my mother passed away, my father and maternal grandmother cared for me in California. My dad was a police detective by that time. But a year after my mother's death, grandmother Bea passed away too. My father decided I should live in Connecticut with grandmother Peg, who was recently widowed, so I traveled to Connecticut with my little dog, Dee Dee, a stray Chihuahua-Terrier mix found on the California freeway when I was still in the crib. My new home was "High Meadow." I was a typical artist-type as a child. My mother wrote in letters to my grandmother, "Johnny is quite a dreamer . . . loves birds, trees and clouds." I was a different kid. This trait caused me a lot of trouble in school. I attended South Kent Preparatory School and graduated by the skin of my teeth. All I wanted to do was play my guitar, draw, and paint. Climbing Ore Hill Road to "High Meadow" on the days I had off from school was my refuge, escape, and survival tactic. I had a hopeless attachment to the guitar. When I was a teen, I was encouraged to pursue my artistic aspirations by a boarder in my grandmother's guesthouse, Harry Bennett, a Gothic novel cover artist. After graduation from prep school, I returned again to California for five years with no stability in my life, so "High Meadow" again was my salvation. Peg arranged for me to meet someone who changed my life forever. Her longtime friend, Willard MacGregor, was an abstract expressionist painter and concert pianist who was a disciple of the great Arthur Schnabel. I have happy childhood memories of Willard's visits. We painted by day, and he performed on the piano by night. I remember waking up to Willard's exuberant Bach and Beethoven renditions at the crack of dawn. One particular night I was reading a long chapter about violins in the 1948 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica and came across a paragraph describing the "Arpeggione" (a fretted six-string cello that was tuned like a guitar and invented by Johann Staufer). That was all I needed to know. It was as if I had been struck by lightning! From that moment on, my life was forever changed. At the age of 23 I became obsessed with the dream of having my own "Arpeggione." The 1990s brought upheaval again in my life, as my father was ill and my first marriage was dissolved. I remarried and gained a stepson several years later. I worked on a prototype of my "Arpeggione" and played it until my dad's passing in 2002. It was therapy for me to work on a new version of the instrument. And it was in 2002 hat the first order was placed by a college professor in Virginia for my instrument. Since that time, I have been building GuitarViols for top film composers in Hollywood, with a typical backlog of one year or more.

Never a day goes by that I do not close my eyes and remember the view of the setting sun over Bull Mountain, the ripples on the pond, the rustle of leaves blowing through the poplar and weeping willow trees. "High Meadow" is no longer my home; all that remains is a big happy memory of it. When I play my GuitarViol, my mind wanders back to a warm recollection of a New England home where I once laid in the grass next to the pond with a sweet summer breeze. "High Meadow" is now just a "state of mind." I close my eyes and I am there one more time . . . one more day. Then the dream surfaces again the next day. I know it will continue throughout my life until I walk into that last sunset over Bull Mountain.

My own experiences propel me to write about my feelings in regard to preserving certain things in America. My ancestor, Benjamin Wilson of Taunton, Massachusetts, arrived here in the mid 1600s, looking for a land of great possibilities and opportunity. In our high-tech world and culture, it is all too easy to lose sight of the simple things that made this country the one that our founders were seeking to create in the first place. There are simple "old world" things worth pining for, and perhaps we should reflect on that: A time when radio, TV, computers, and other media did not rule our day. When families gathered on their porches and played music together. When pride in workmanship and creativity overruled our ambitions to expand at the expense of excellence in the "little things." When schools actually taught shop classes and the arts as "dignified" pursuits. A time when America was not "Walmarted" (cheapened) at the expense of our own skilled labor force. A time when "Invented in the USA" or "Made in the USA" meant something. A time when customer service meant customer service and not a polite conversation with an indifferent cubicle worker in India. A time when being an artist or musician was a noble pursuit and not a frivolous alternative to being a corporate puppet or high-ranking businessman. A time when school meant education and not dummied down "cubicle training." Too many Americans may never know the simple joy of walking down a tree-canopied country road absent of concrete graffiti-ridden alleys. The simple joy of climbing a ladder to the roof of a rural cottage rather than a corporate ladder. When crafting with the hands and heart actually meant something. When "substance of life" and not mere "stuff" mattered. When the simple joy of tuning up an old world instrument is a profoundly moving experience beyond that of any video game. A time when the "little things" really mattered. America should revisit its youth and re-set its compass.


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