David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: digital, guitars, marketing hype, opinion, @musings info

Digital guitars

From a recent newspaper interview with Gibson chairman/CEO Henry Juszkiewicz regarding the company's MAGIC-equipped Les Paul:

"The Magic guitar, Juszkiewicz says, takes the next step - it doesn't just preserve sound, it improves it."


"His claim, in essence, is that Magic makes the Les Paul sound more like itself."

Yah, OK... If you really believe that running an audio signal through an A/D converter and a digital pipe is really better than a cord... sure, why not?

I've said it before: MAGIC seems to me like a solution in search of a problem.

On the other hand, you might actually want to plug your guitar straight into a digital board or processor and generate your tone entirely in the digital domain. In that case, MAGIC might be a good idea. Or not... What if you want a higher-quality A/D than what Gibson builds into the guitar? Then you're back to an external converter that will work with any guitar.

Oh, don't forget that the MAGIC protocol will also carry control signals. So you can do stuff like change stage lighting, effects and sequencers all from your guitar. As if I didn't have enough to do with my hands already...

Of course, there's precedent in Gibson's history for this kind of thinking. Les Paul himself tried to run everything from the guitar. In his case, it was just the guitar and his vocal mic. That never really caught on. Neither did the low-Z pickups found on the Les Paul Recording guitar.

I actually think that the MAGIC guitar has more of a chance than the Les Paul Recording guitar, because there are more musicians today with access to inexpensive digital recorders and processors than there were back in Les Paul's early days with access to pro-quality recording gear. (Consumer-quality recording gear virtually always had high-impedance inputs back in those days.)

Overall, the success of complex electric guitars has been abysmal. In the late 60s and early 70s, Vox (and one or two other companies, IIRC) made guitar synthesizers with more buttons and knobs than a space shuttle. Look how well they caught on. Later, Roland simplified the guitar synth with a pedalboard and just a couple of extra controls on the guitar. Lots of manufacturers followed Roland's "standard". What percentage of players use a synth guitar?

Still, I hold out some hope that a modern guitarist (one without my biases) will find a way to do something new, wonderful and totally unexpected using a MAGIC Les Paul with some serious digital processing and a multi-channel sound system. It could happen...

So Gibson is looking to the future. Juszkiewicz and his lieutenants must realize that Gibson is riding a wave of nostalgia fueled by aging baby-boomers who can finally afford guitars that are even nicer than the ones that they always wanted as kids. But there's a new generation of young guitarists coming up the ranks. They have high-quality, low-cost import guitars and plenty of digital know-how. Gibson is trying to find a way to enter both the low-cost and digital-guitar markets. With their brand name, being late to the party is probably irrelevant.

I have to conclude that, while Juszkiewicz may be a savvy businessman, there are some things he just doesn't get... Like suggesting that someday "built-in artificial intelligence could translate what chords, say, a clumsy 12-year-old really meant to play when he was thrashing away". To me, that sounds like it would be incredibly demotivating to a young guitarist. When I was starting to play at about that age, the one thing that kept me coming back was hoping that I could play just a little less awfully the next time I picked up the guitar. Where's the motivation if everything gets automatically pitch-corrected, harmonized and rhythmically aligned? Might as well just put a bunch of lighted plastic buttons on the guitar and make it look like the toy it has become at that point...

At any rate, guitarists have enough to do with their hands. You don't need a guitar to control everything on stage. And unless someone comes up with a compelling scenario, you don't really need separate channels for each string, either. We've had that for decades, and no one except for a handful of synth-playing guitarists has cared.

Tradition is strong in electric guitars. Modern manufacturers and designers, of course, cite this as a character weakness inherent to guitarists. But look at other musicians... How have cellists, violinists, pianists, etc. embraced recent innovations in their instruments? Except for those musicians with a specific need, damned little. The traditional instruments are well-understood. New innovations attempt to build upon this understanding, but always result in an instrument that's different in subtle (and often undesirable) ways.

Is Juszkiewicz barking up the wrong tree? Only time will tell. As I said earlier, maybe some young guitarist will find the inherent coolness in the MAGIC Les Paul and use it to generate art. In the meantime, remember: The cool thing about digital audio is this... Every 18 months you can toss out all the gear you've invested in and get new digital gear that's even closer to being almost as good as analog.

April 04 2004 18:46:19 GMT