VINTAGE GUITAR MAGAZINE INTERVIEW : SHOWCASE BUILDER CHRISTIAN JAMES TOWNER
BIGSBY® Retrofits by TOWNER Vibrato Guitar Systems
Founder/President’s Name: Christian James Towner
San Diego California
Necessity is, the idiom goes, the mother of invention. Christian James Towner’s inventions stand in testament.
When bought a late-model Gibson ES-335 and went to install a Bigsby B7 vibrato, Towner found himself staring at the guitar, lending deep contemplation to the prospect of drilling holes in it’s top. Slowly, he set the drill back the bench and took a step back. Then…
“A guitar-tech friend suggested I use a Bigsby B3, which doesn’t require the holes that a B7 does,” he said. “So, I installed one, and as soon as I strummed a chord, the guitar went out of tune because the strings moved so much in the saddles.”
Towner immediately recognized the problem and jumped online, figuring someone must sell a device of some sort that applied downward pressure on the strings between the bridge and tailpiece. But, “I was shocked to find there was nothing out there,” he said.
Not giving up, he paid a visit to a local machine shop, where he personally fabricated what was essentially the prototype for the Towner Down Tension Bar.
“It was a 1/4″ tube with cuffs, and it worked, but it created a break angle that was too steep,” he said. “So, I refined the design by changing from 1/4″ to 1/8″ wire with a shoulder. I also discovered that the stop-tailpiece studs used in Gibson’s fixed-bridge Tune-O-Matic system could act as controllers to raise or lower the Bar, honing in the desired downward tension.”
Together, the Down Tension Bar along with Towner’s Hinge Plate Adaptor and V.BLOCK make up the Towner Vibrato System of aftermarket upgrades for BIGSBY tailpieces. And though Towner’s path to entrepreneurship was neither impulsive no planned, the process was admittedly happenstance.
“I saw more challenges than possibilities,” he said, recalling his thoughts at the time. “The idea of refining the design to where it could mass-marketed developed slowly and carefully while I was working day job. I had to decide how I was going to share it with the world of players and technicians.”
Towner recently shared the rest of the story with Vintage Guitar.
Once you decided to produce the Down Tension Bar, how did things progress?
In 2011, I ordered my first run of bars – all of 125 units! But, each year after that, my orders went 1,000 each clip. It was great to see people from all over the world excited about the Down Tension Bar.
One of the people to find it was a luthier named Pavel Maslowiec, who called to thank me for invention what he referred to as the “Towner Genius Bar” (laughs). It was exciting, getting one thank you or bit of praise after another, and it proved all the work to develop and patent the bar was worthwhile. I had something to contribute.
In 2013, the company began to show real growth possibilities. I’d decided to that if the Down Tension Baar was going to screw-less with the BIGSBY B3 and B6, it needed better physical support, so I designed the Hinge Plate Adaptor to act as a retainer, and gave it a #8 2″ strap-button screw. It eliminates drilling the extra hinge-plate screws for the BIGSBY and provides a flat surface for strap-lock buttons.
In 2013, Travis “Scratchy” Wammack called to thank me for devising the Bar and the Adaptor, and said he was going to install them on all of his 335s.
I also began to offer the V.BLOCK, created by Pavel Maslowiec. It acts as a shim for players who want to put a B3 on their Les Paul. Those play a Les Paul Junior could also use to replace the wraparound bridge with a Tune-O-Matic then use the V.BLOCK and Hinge Plate Adaptor to install a B7.
In June, we installed a systems the 33 and SG played by the guys in The Strokes, Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., Phil Caivano from Monster Magnet uses one on his SG.
What sets your vibrato apart from similar aftermarket devices?
Mine not only provide a screw-less retrofit, but contribute to the BIGSBY’s overall performance. The Down Tension Bar adds an element of control no there device provides for BIGSBYs, and the Hinge Plate Adaptor is not only a screw-less solution, but its flat provides easier access to the strap-lock button, and doesn’t require cutting a portion of the button in order to make it fit between the slot of the B3 and B7 hinge plates.
What are your hopes for the future of the guitar industry?
I’d like to see the larger – those that struggle to be “big” – become modest, maybe slim their operations to a point where they know they can still keep up wit demand. That would prevent shortcuts in materials, which can in turn be detrimental to the quality of their products, their customer, and their work environments. At the end of the day, they’re just products. Its about the people who bring it all together.
What are your goals for your own company?
I have more prototypes in development. Basically, I’m only interested in contributing useful product that sense to the musical instrument market. – Vintage Guitar
Vintage Guitar Magazine for Guitar Players and Technicians.