The reason music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band work is because they make it so easy to pick up an axe and shred. But as Internet spoilsports are quick to point out, there's a huge gulf between playing a video game guitar and actually being proficient on a real one. Because when it comes to musical instruments, the guitar is a UI nightmare.
That's a problem a new startup called Magic Instruments wants to solve. With industrial design from Ammunition, the company's Rhythm Guitar is a sleek, futuristic-looking guitar that looks a little like Jony Ive's personal axe. Thanks to buttons that replace the frets, it feels a little like a Guitar Hero controller on steroids. Except unlike Guitar Hero, there's nothing make believe about the Rhythm Guitar. It produces real notes and chords from an internal speaker. It looks and sounds just like a real guitar, and it can be hooked up to an amp and played like one, but it's actually more like a synthesizer. All the notes and chords it produces are digital, not analog.
The Rhythm Guitar is the brainchild of Magic Instruments CEO Brian Fan. Although he's spent the past few years in tech working for companies like Microsoft and Expedia, Fan was a piano student at Juilliard for the better part of a decade. There, he spent tens of thousands of hours learning music theory. When his daughter was born, he decided to take up guitar to play her lullabies as she went to sleep. It was then that Fan discovered a horrible truth: His tens of thousands of hours of training could not prepare him for the horrors of a guitar fretboard.
"The guitar has an awful UI," Fan tells me. "The reason why is it's an artifact of physics. Players need to push down strings in very specific patterns so that when they strum, they create the right frequencies." It takes huge reserves of patience and muscle memory to play even simple guitar chords, let alone full songs. Even after hundreds of hours of lessons, Fan remained a terrible guitar player. "It got me wondering, if we could redesign the guitar's user interface from the ground up, how would we do it to encourage people to play?," he says. Magic Instruments wants to answer that question by designing a guitar that anyone can play, even if they have no musical training.
The Rhythm Guitar looks and feels like a "real" guitar, but there's little that is analog about it. It's really a computer with 15 rows of buttons running up and down the neck, replacing a standard guitar's frets. When you push one of these buttons and strum, the Rhythm Guitar produces one of 90 chords, each exactly tuned to the key and scale you want to play. According to Fan, that's enough to play 95% of rock or country songs, and the Rhythm Guitar even comes with an app that will lead beginners through a song's chords and lyrics. The fret buttons are organized logically, so as you go up the fretboard, each "fret" goes up notes on the scale. If you were in E major, the first fret would have chords in C, the second chords in D, the third chords in E, and so on.
One thing the Rhythm Guitar won't do is teach you to play a real guitar—rather, it lowers the barrier to entry for beginners who want pick up an instrument and just start playing music, no training required. It eliminates the need for you to use complicated, multi-digit muscle memory to play any given chord.
But why buy a Rhythm Guitar instead of a cheap acoustic guitar, if the Rhythm Guitar doesn't let you learn to play "real" guitar? Fan argues that the deck is stacked against anyone who wants to learn guitar past a certain point in their life. He says that the vast majority of people who learn to play an instrument do so before the age of 14, "because it's the only time in your life where you have thousands of hours to spare." The Rhythm Guitar is aimed at people who love the sound and the sex appeal of a guitar, but who recognize they will probably never learn to play a real one. And there's no shame in that, says Fan. After all, he—a classically trained pianist—is in the same camp.
After all this talk about the guitar's UI nightmare, I asked Fan a simple question: If the guitar's so hard to learn, why does everyone want to play one? "It's because the guitar rules the stage," says Fan. The guitar makes you the star of the show: You can play with a total theatricality that doesn't come as naturally when you're behind the keyboards or drums. You can jump in the air, hit a power cord, and land in a split—drama, Fan says, that's unmatched by other instruments.