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At Chicago Music Exchange, we are always thrilled to shine the spotlight on our incredible dealers. We sat down with Chris Willcox to learn about how the magic unfolded for Willcox Guitars. Dive into the development and evolution of this boutique brand in our latest edition of Dealer Spotlights.
Q: How did Willcox Guitars come to fruition?
A: Willcox Guitars came about as a result of my vision of combining the breakthrough technology of the LightWave optical pickup system with fine string instruments of modern design and traditional craftsmanship. Willcox instruments are built to exacting standards from premium tonewoods, hardware, and appointments, all chosen to maximize sonic response, ergonomic comfort, and visual aesthetics.
Q: Tell us about the development process of the Lightwave Optical Pickup System. What was the need that this fulfilled?
A: I had a custom guitar shop and I was experimenting with different woods and materials, construction techniques, and pickups. In the process I came to the conclusion that the existing pickups were inherently voiced and had a tendency to dominate the sound and response of the instrument. They were also interacting with the strings’ vibration, dampening sustain and distorting the natural harmonic content of the vibrating string. The desire for a very accurate and transparent transducer led me to create the Optical Pickup system. Optical pickups also offer extremely low noise, wide bandwidth, and extended dynamic range.
Q: How do they work?
A: Each string has an infrared light emitter, which shines a beam of light across the string. This emitter casts a shadow of the string onto an array of photodetectors. When the string vibrates, the size and shape of the shadow changes, and modulates a current which runs through the detectors. This creates an extremely accurate signal which is then buffered and amplified.
Q: Aside from the pickups, what's the key to optimizing the tone and sustain of a Willcox guitar?
A: One of the amazing features of these instruments is the versatility that is available to the player. For straight ahead playing, the wide bandwidth and extended dynamic range make this one of the most touch sensitive instruments out there. All of the nuances of the player’s touch translate into differences in tone and sustain. Where you play on the string, how softly or aggressively you play, all these details make noticeable differences. The player will feel much more in touch with the string. The extended response of the pickups, and the fact that there is a separate transducer for each string, will enhance the performance of preamps, pedals and other signal processing gear. Sound modelling is also greatly improved. These instruments are essentially the FRFR front end (Full Range Flat Response) for software and hardware modelling. There is no inherent voicing to interfere with the virtual rig that the player creates.
Q: How have your instruments evolved since the inception of Willcox?
A: In the early days of the company, I sold the pickups and electronics to boutique and custom builders. This resulted in quite an impressive and interesting variety of LightWave powered instruments, and paved the way for the development of complete instruments, the instruments of Willcox Guitars. The initial product line was the Saber Bass. Following the bass models, we added the Atlantis Guitar family. Along the way we have made many improvements to the electronics and the instruments. Recent additions include the HexFX Editions of Saber and Atlantis. HexFX combines the standard mono ¼” output with a 13-pin connector that has an analog output for each string. The two outputs can be used separately or in combination. HexFX follows the GK protocol, and gives the player unlimited capabilities including MIDI control and implementation, the ability to use the instrument to play software and hardware synths, and the use of a fanout box to access individual string processing capabilities.
Q: What makes Willcox Guitars distinctive?
A: The LightWave Optical Pickup is certainly the most distinguishing feature of Willcox instruments. The combination of traditional craftsmanship, modern design, and futuristic technology sets these instruments apart from all others. As the optical pickups and the instruments gain recognition and acceptance, I plan to push the boundaries of other aspects of electric string instruments to further refine their sound and versatility.
Q: In developing the guitars, how comprehensive is the experimentation process?p>A: We have a team of advisory artists who participate in all phases of product development. They are on board to try out new ideas in house, as well as for live performance and studio recording. Extensive product testing includes players from all different genres of music. Our advisory artists receive prototypes of new instruments to test, and we also encourage our instrument owners to provide feedback on all aspects of the instruments - live performance, home and studio recording, playability, tone, ergonomics, and visual aesthetics. Willcox Guitars embraces a philosophy of continuous improvement.
Q: How are you planning to evolve the line for 2017?
A: Some new models slated for development in 2017 include the Stylus Electric Upright Bass, a couple of new variations on the Saber Bass line, and a solidbody electric guitar. The Stylus EUB will be available as a USA Custom Shop instrument, going into full production later this year. Stylus will also have a HexFX Edition. Current prototypes include a nylon string guitar, and we are in the early stages of development of a digital version of HexFX.
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