Even N00bs Can Rock Out on Magic Instruments’ New Guitar
I gave up trying to play the guitar when I was 12 years old. This was approximately two weeks after I started learning it. Truth be told, I never quite got to the “playing” stage of things; I realized quickly that playing the guitar was hard. The strings hurt your fingers, and the chords don’t come easy. As soon as it dawned on my adolescent self that it was going to take more than a couple days to nail the intro to that one Third Eye Blind song, I decided to call it quits.
While two weeks is, objectively, a pathetic effort, I’m not alone. Most people who begin to learn the guitar end up quitting less than a year after they start. According to the National Endowment of the arts, only 12 percent of people play a musical instrument. “I think only 5 percent really plays well,” says Brian Fan, co-founder and CEO of a company called Magic Instruments.
With help from Ammunition, the San Francisco design firm renowned for its work on the Beats by Dre headphones, Fan has created an instrument he believes will allow almost anyone to play music as soon as they pick it up. Magic Instruments calls it the MI Guitar—which, sure, it has six strings you can strum and a fretboard full of buttons that trigger a recorded guitar note when you push them. But it isn’t a guitar, exactly. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what to call it. “A keytar?” one editor suggested. “A synthitar?” I ask Fan if the instrument is a synth. “Kind of,” he says. “It’s a recording of a guitar note being played, but when you play it through a high quality speaker and you’ve a high quality audio path, it sounds really good.”
Fan began working on the MI Guitar a few years ago, after failing to learn how to play the real thing himself. The tech entrepreneur has a musical background, having studied piano as a teenager at Juilliard. “I figured if anyone can pick it up quickly it should be me,” he says. That wasn’t the case. He tried apps, the Jamstik, the gTar, and YouTube videos. “Then I realized there is no shortcut,” he says. “The issue is that the guitar’s user interface is like a 300 year old user interface that’s dictated by the physics of vibrating strings.”
Fan and his team wanted to design a guitar interface from the ground up, one that was totally free of pesky physics. Essentially what Magic Instruments has done is replace the awkward gesture of dampening strings with your fingers with creating a chord by pushing a single button. Each fret represents a different key, and each button represents a different type of chord. The bottom button, which is the biggest, plays the root chord. Fan figures people will be pushing this button about 60 percent of the time when they’re playing the average pop, rock, or country song. Moving up the fret, you’ll hit a button to play a power chord, a suspended chord, major 7 chord, dominant 7 chord, and lastly a minor chord. As you move your fingers down the fingerboard you can change the key of the chord.
From afar, playing the MI Guitar doesn’t look all that different from playing an actual guitar. You still have to strum; you still have to move your hand up and down the fingerboard. Even so, I didn’t exactly feel cool while using it. There’s just something inherently dorky about the whole thing.
Still, if I’m being fair, I have to admit it was both totally fun and shockingly simple to use. The accompanying app tells you which button to push and when. That makes it sound a little like Guitar Hero. It’s not. Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and their ilk are about keeping rhythm, not making music. The MI Guitar plays what you tell it to, how you tell it to, so there’s still a learning curve. When I tried to play the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” it didn’t sound great, but I was actually playing the chords, or some simulation of the chords, right away. My rhythm wasn’t perfect, and my playing wasn’t expressive (the instrument is sensitive to eight dynamic levels). I didn’t know how to pick the strings that run over the sound chamber, either—but if you put me in a room with someone who wanted to sing along, it would’ve been good enough. With a little practice, I’d probably sound even better.
To be clear, this isn’t an instrument for actual musicians, though it’s not hard to see how someone could use it for songwriting, or to produce a cool synthetic sound not possible with a real guitar. You’re not going to learn to play a real guitar by practicing on a fake one. Still, I was actually playing music. And that’s key, says Fan. Plenty of musicians will consider the MI Guitar a toy when it goes on sale in 2017 (you can pre-order it on Indiegogo for $299). But Fan likens his company’s instrument to digital cameras. If you were to ask someone 25 years ago if taking a photo with a cellphone could be considered photography, they’d probably laugh. Today, that’s changed. “Does this mean my iPhone will turn me into Ansel Adams? No,” he says. “But what it does mean is that anyone can capture those moments.”
Fan figures it’ll be the same with music. You might not be playing a guitar, technically speaking, but you’re still making music. “At the end of the day you cannot argue if people are enjoying themselves making music,” he says. “I just don’t understand how that can be a bad thing.”
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