TCS Daily

The Guitar's Technological Crossroads

By Edward B. Driscoll - February 13, 2004 12:00 AM

How do you continue to advance the technology of a product, when the vast percentage of its consumers wants it to remain fixed at a standard developed 35 years ago?

That's the dilemma facing manufacturers of the electric guitar. So many of its players want to purchase the guitars and amplifiers that Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix were playing in 1966.

In the case of Clapton, during his days with John Mayall's Bluesbreaker, and the early days of Cream, he played a late 1950s Les Paul electric guitar and an amplifier full of vacuum tubes designed in the early 1960s by Jim Marshall. Hendrix also used an amp designed by Jim Marshall, but plugged a Fender Stratocaster into it.

The Stratocaster was designed in the early 1950s by Leo Fender, one of the great inventors of the music industry, having given the world the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar (the Strat's predecessor, the Fender Telecaster), the electric bass guitar, and several best-selling tube amplifiers, one of which, the Bassman, would become the prototype for the design of the early Marshall amplifiers.

Fender's chief competitor was the Gibson Guitar Corporation, whose roots as a builder of acoustic guitars and mandolins date back to 1902. In the early 1950s, Gibson's then president, Maurice Berlin, noticed what Fender was doing with the Telecaster, and contacted Les Paul, a self-made musician and inventor, who at the time was riding high on the charts with his wife and musical partner, Mary Ford. Gibson's engineers and Paul designed an instrument that matched Fender's chief innovation (a solid body guitar to reduce feedback) with Gibson's own off-the-shelf components (including a single-coil pickup design that dated back to 1946) and designed a guitar that could be built on an assembly line, but with greater craftsmanship, and with better quality woods than Fender was using.

The Technology of the Electric Guitar Peaks

In the mid-1950s, Seth Lover, a Gibson engineer, designed a dual-coil pickup that virtually eliminated hum from electrical interference. At about the same time, Leo Fender took the best components of the Telecaster, and added three pickups instead of two, and a vibrato bar to raise and lower the instrument's pitch (to simulate the bends and slurs that pedal steel players could do effortlessly).

The first Les Pauls incorporating Lover's "humbucking" pickup began selling in 1957. With its introduction, and the Stratocaster's introduction three years earlier in 1954, the electric guitar's engineering reached its zenith. Just ask today's electric guitar collectors and players, who routinely pay tens of thousands of dollars for original Stratocasters from the mid-1950s, and will shell out cash in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars for a Les Paul from the late '50s.

In Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clarke wrote that when a technology reaches the peak of its design, any changes are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, and the electric guitar was no exception.

But Clarke failed to notice that part of the reason is market forces as much as innovation. In the case of the electric guitar, early instruments and amplifiers played such an important role in the development of rock & roll music, that most guitarists buying an electric guitar want to buy instruments that resemble, as closely as possible, those guitars and amps used by their heroes: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Pete Townshend. So radical attempts at redesigning the instrument's technology often make an initial splash, garner some press and trade show coverage, but rarely succeed long-term at being incorporated into the musical vernacular.

Today, there are several attempts at changing the 50 year-old design of the electric guitar. But will their sales be strong enough to succeed?

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology...

Perhaps the most ambitious project is Gibson's MaGIC, which stands for Media-accelerated Global Information Carrier. Gibson's goal is to create a unified audio and video wiring standard for not only electric musical instruments, but for live concerts, the recording studio, and even the home theater, where Gibson boasts that its MaGIC technology could easily be used to wire-up audio/video components and speakers.

MaGIC is built around the familiar RJ-45 plug that Ethernet cables use. Their first showcase products, expected to go on sale in mid-2004, is a Les Paul guitar, equipped with a MaGIC jack and a "hexaphonic" pickup (so-called, because it separates each of the guitar's six strings, rather than the traditional pickup, which sums them to a single output); as well as a breakout box designed to connect the guitar to a traditional amplifier. Expect MaGIC-equipped amplifiers shortly thereafter.

But this is merely the tip of the iceberg of what Gibson has in mind. The hexaphonic pickup and breakout box give each of the guitar's six strings the ability to go to a separate amplifier, and/or effects pedal. A MaGIC-equipped guitar could control a synthesizer. It could also be plugged into a concert light show, with each string triggering a different light or visual effect.

And it could also allow the electric guitar to be plugged directly into a digital audio workstation (essentially, a PC with the necessary hardware and software to digitally record music) with a proprietary Ethernet card.

Why the special card? While MaGIC uses Ethernet cables, it replaces the TCP/IP standard with its own, for reduced latency. Certainly, I couldn't hear any latency when I played a MaGIC-equipped Les Paul in Gibson's Sunnyvale, California laboratory.

Gibson isn't planning on entirely replacing the traditional quarter-inch jack-equipped Les Paul with the new MaGIC-equipped model. Too many purists, who want to purchase recreations of the 1950s models played by Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Duane Allman in the 1960s and '70s, would be offended.

Odds Are Against MaGIC

It's far too early to tell whether Gibson's MaGIC show will succeed, but if history is any indication, the odds are against it, at least as it applies to musical instruments. In the early 1970s, Les Paul himself convinced Gibson to market a version of the instrument that he plays in concert, with a different pickup design, less susceptible to interference than Seth Lover's humbuckers, and able to be used with longer cables. But because it was cleaner sounding than those humbuckers (in other words, less "rock and roll" sounding), and incompatible with the amps that Leo Fender and Jim Marshall designed, it bombed -- in fact, most of the Les Pauls that Gibson makes today are closer to their 1950s standard than their 1970s-era instruments.

The MaGIC system can theoretically be used to connect the electric guitar to a synthesizer or a PC, but in that regard, a Japanese firm has a leg up on Gibson: the Roland Corporation has been making synthesizers controlled by electric guitars since the early 1970s. Such an instrument has always been a mixed blessing. Getting a keyboard to accurately trigger an electronic sound is relatively easy. Getting a pickup that can accurately track a finger on a guitar string, pressing against a fret underneath and accurately convert that information into the appropriate electronic musical note, has been a much more difficult proposition. Adding to the challenge are the techniques that are unique to fretted instruments: bending strings, and slurring and sliding notes.

But Roland has continually advanced their instruments, and the black boxes they plug into, resulting in a technology that allows an electric guitar to be plugged directly into a computer via USB cable, to control the myriad of PC-based "software synthesizers" that traditionally have been the realm of keyboard players.

And amplifier manufacturer Line-6 Inc. makes a product called "GuitarPort" that allows an electric guitar to be plugged into a PC via USB, to play computer simulations of classic 1950s and 1960s tube amps.

But sales of many of these types of products have been sluggish. While the electric guitarist has outwardly always been the wild man of rock and roll, inwardly, he's a pretty conservative guy -- at least when it comes to what he wants from an instrument. In the fast-changing, kaleidoscopic world of pop music, some changes actually come very, very slowly. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues.



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