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Christian Towner’s Interview with The ToneQuest Report
The Fertile Mind of… Christian Towner
Some people just can’t leave well enough alone. No matter how useful a tool may be, they need to make it better. These people are the habitual tinkerers among us, yet they are often hard to find… they are too busy tinkering to be out and about frivolously being seen on the scene.
Christian Towner is one of these inquisitive creatures of tinkeration. In his case he became fascinated with the Bigsby vibrato tailpiece and perhaps more fascinated with its perceived shortcomings. Like what, you ask? Well, like having to bury screws into the body of your guitar to mount one, and no less important, the lack of string tension with a standard Bigsby installation that can rob your guitar of tone and blissful resonant sustain. We can assume that Towner obsessed with these challenges for some time before creating his Down Tension Bar and V Block. We asked him to explain the source of his obsession and the practical benefits of his patented inventions, and our review follows:
TQR: Tell us about your background. We would assume you are a guitarist, but did you also have any experience in tooling or design?
I have been a drawer, painter, sculptor, writer, poet, traveler my whole life then, musician. The path that brought me to the guitar was my pen, picking up the guitar at about 28 and decided to give my writing a more prolific voice with genres like country, blues, folk and garage rock n’ roll. As far as tooling goes, I can’t say I had experience with it but design, yes. Understanding how ‘things’ work mechanically, structurally and how they appeal to the eye is something I use on a daily basis which was influenced at a young age by my grandfather who was a traditional drawer and painter.
TQR: What specifically inspired you to begin working on the down tension bar and hinge plate adaptor, and can you describe the R&D process? How long did you work on prototypes, and what were the challenges involved?
In the process of getting know the guitar, playing a ton then buying my first Gibson ES-335 I came across the challenge of installing a Bigsby tailpiece without ruining the integrity of the guitar. I was encouraged by other guitar technicians to install the Bigsby B3 so I wouldn’t have to drill extra holes in the guitar body that the Bigsby B7 would require. Then right after having played the guitar with the Bigsby B3 installed, the strings would come off the bridge while strumming the guitar. Immediately I saw a potential solution in using the studs from the stop tailpiece. The guitar strings would come off the bridge because there was too much distance between the bridge and the Bigsby B3, hence not enough down tension on the strings. Off to the first machine shop I could find to make the very first Towner Down Tension Bar. A very clunky, heavy roller just to see if it would work. And it did, its basic function providing the strings with the down tension it needed to keep the strings on the bridge worked. However, I found right away that the break angle was too steep and from there I refined the down tension bar to its shape and design today over 2 – 3 years. Going through the process was long and heady but only because the machine shop I worked with on my prototypes was slow and I didn’t know better. As soon as I started looking around I got it wrapped up very quickly with another machine shop specializing in prototyping. Early on, once the prototypes started to look good I filed the patent pending status to protect my interest.
The challenges with the down tension bar were obvious at first – you couldn’t go with the 1/4” roller like the Bigsby B7 has. It was obvious there was a HUGE benefit staring me in the face, because the Down Tension Bar could be raised and lowered with the studs to hone in the sweet spot of string tension between the bridge and the Bigsby B3 tailpiece. When my guitar technician and I saw this we were amazed at how well it worked once I refined the bar down to an 1/8” wire with a shoulder and roller. I had to understand and keep in perspective one important fact – I was attempting to accommodate every guitar player with a stop tailpiece in the entire world. As guitarists we all know every guitar set up is very different from the string gauges, to the action of the strings, from the nut to the bridge height and then where the strings are mounted at the Bigsby tailpiece. A lot is happening there. That is what brought me to such a slimmer down tension bar. Then no sooner did I receive my patent in July 2011, I scrambled to try and show at Winter NAMM 2012 but no luck in selling enough down tension bars right away. One of the local guitar technicians came back to tell me there was another company who just released a similar system. I was aghast. Stunned. Heart broken. Broke. I put everything I had into bringing the Towner Down Tension Bar to this point. Was it over!? How would I compete with a company called, Vibramate. Oh, I was stumped… But only for a minute. I looked up the products from Vibramate and found them and soon realized I was safe, albeit their intention was good I felt I had reason to believe I had a better product and brand name.
The Towner Hinge-Plate Adaptor and V.BLOCK came last spring before Summer NAMM 2013. The V.BLOCK was introduced to me by guitar luthier Pavel Maslowiec. He found the Towner Down Tension Bar online within a couple of months of releasing it and called me to thank me for inventing what he so kindly calls the “Towner Genius Bar” in one of the videos I have of him doing an installation. He installed Towner Down Tension Bars with the V.BLOCK on two of Daniel Lanois’ Gibson Les Paul guitars and a friend of mine, Isaiah Mitchell of Earthless and Golden Void did an installation video and another video with him playing guitar with the Towner V.BLOCK system. Brad Lindsay and Jonathan Clay of the Jamestown Revival rolled through San Diego a couple of weeks ago and picked up a couple of installations for a Gibson Les Paul and a Gibson ES-335. They played the Soda Bar in San Diego that night then aired on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson the following night. You can see a couple of nice closeup camera pans on Brad’s Les Paul with Towner V.BLOCK systems installed. Following the V.BLOCK I went after the Hinge-Plate Adaptor and did a quick small run and it was a hit! I didn’t realize it at first, but it not only relieved the guitar owner of having to drill those four extra holes in the hinge-plate of the Bigsby B3. The Towner Hinge-Plate Adaptor also raised the strap button or strap-lock buttons out of the slot for easier access. The customers turned me onto this when they started emailing me for just the Towner Hinge-Plate Adaptor for their Bigsby B7 tailpiece.
TQR: Let’s summarize the advantages and benefits of your installation… What can guitarists expect to experience in practical terms?
Towner Vibrato guitar parts are screw-less systems to protect the integrity of the guitar. The Down Tension Bar mounted to the studs also creates control over string tension with Variable String Tension (V.S.T.) via the studs, raising and lowing the bar. The Down Tension Bar really enables you to manage sustain between the bridge and Bigsby tailpiece. The concept and design are really very simple – the Down Tension Bar has the flexibility to be precise and accurate with complete control over sustain and string tension.
TQR: Specs can vary among various USA and Asian made guitars. What if any fit issues exist among various manufacturers’ instruments that you have identified?
The only fit issues I have encountered are that the neck post width of metric studs are often too wide for the cuffs on the Down Tension Bars cuffs. I have a link to a page on the home page at townerusa.com, “Tailpiece Mounting Studs”, providing links to a site that sells metric studs with the correct neck post width. These are inexpensive and good quality studs from Philadelphia Luthier.
TQR: You acquired distribution fairly quickly through Allparts, WD Music and CE Distribution/Amplified Parts among others. Are you able to keep up with demand now?
Yeah, I am able to keep up with the demand. It has been a very interesting experience growing a line of products, learning how to make a product cost effective where everyone from myself to the seller and the consumer makes out with a quality product.
TQR: With the success of the down tension bar and hinge plate adaptor, what new ideas are you working on?
I have been working on my own design of a vibrato tailpiece and two other alternative systems.
The bottom line on Towner’s inventions is just as described. They work both in terms of providing a seamless solution for Bigsby mounting without the need to drill holes in your guitar. The V.BLOCK is a very clever part of that solution made from super lightweight aluminum. It is extremely simple to install and fit our Historic ‘57 Goldtop perfectly. Felt adhesive pads are also provided to protect the finish where metal meets wood. The big reward comes with the Down Tension Bar. Rather than being confined to the fixed break angle of the strings over the bridge and subsequent string tension created by the Bigsby, the Down Tension Bar enables you to alter string tension by adjusting the height of the bar and tailpiece studs. Remember… higher string tension actually reduces sustain, so just like raising and lowering the height of a stop tailpiece to determine the optimum string tension for your guitar, you can do the same with Towner’s Down Tension Bar. There is no single high or low position we would recommend – the point is that you can easily experiment and find the right setting for your taste. We preferred to set the studs raised just slightly above flush with the top of the guitar, but we encourage you to try different settings, because the results are quite revealing. You can acquire a looser, jangly tone by raising the bar and reducing string tension, while a lower setting with higher string tension creates a more penetrating and direct dynamic character. Have fun with it and you’ll discover a lot about the role of geometry in the sound of the guitar. Quest forth…