A New Twang For Six Strings

A few pioneers are working to bring the trusty old electric into the 21st century

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Grab just about any electric guitar these days, plug it into an amp, crank up the volume, and you'll hear a sound not that far removed from what the pioneers of the industry heard seven decades ago. Pickups, which work sort of like tiny microphones, sense the vibration of the strings and translate that into electric waves. The signal flows through a wire to your amplifier, and you get to wake up the neighbors.

And digital electronics? Sure, effects pedals such as delays, choruses, and flangers have been digital for a couple of decades, but the guitar itself remained a largely analog affair. Now a handful of pioneers are finally experimenting with ways to adapt the trusty old electric guitar to the digital era. Three have newfangled pickups that digitize the sound before sending it to the amplifier. A fourth uses standard pickups, but has tiny lights along the fretboard to help guitarists learn how to play new chords and scales.

Perhaps the coolest of these new axes come from Line 6. The California company got its start as a maker of digital effects pedals and amplifiers that mimic the sounds of classic gear from the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Then a few years ago it gave its engineers a related but more complex task: Make a guitar that can emulate classics such as the Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul, or Rickenbacker 360.

They came up with the Variax, among the oddest-looking instruments on the market. The reason: The Variax has no standard pickups, so it appears almost naked. Instead, the Variax uses a pickup in the bridge (where the strings are anchored to the guitar's body) that turns the vibrations into a digital signal. This signal is modified to make the Variax sound like classic electrics as well as other instruments such as the banjo, an acoustic or 12-string guitar, and more -- some 25 in all. Today, Line 6 makes several variants of the Variax, including a bass and an acoustic, priced from $500 to $1,500.

Another digital offering comes from Gibson Guitar. The Nashville-based manufacturer has updated its classic Les Paul guitar with a patented pickup that converts the sound to bits and bytes before sending it down the cable to the amp. What's the advantage of this? For starters, it's a lot quieter. Standard electrics make a lot of hissing and humming noises that are the bane of guitarists. Another benefit is that the sound can be divided up into six separate streams, one for each string. That lets you send the sound of each one to a separate amplifier with different effects, opening up a huge range of mind-bending possibilities. For traditionalists, the guitar also has a pair of classic humbucking pickups that sound, well, just like a Les Paul. The downside: the $3,000 price tag.

As PCs become the hub of music production and more home musicians start recording in the spare bedroom, one problem is getting the sound of the guitar into the PC. iGuitar, a small custom shop based in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has for several years made guitars that can plug into a PC. But they always required a connecting box, special software, and various cables. Later this year iGuitar plans to introduce an $800 model that can connect directly to a PC via a single USB cable.


This simplifies things considerably. The PC immediately recognizes the guitar as a peripheral such as a printer or external hard drive. The cable can handle both the audio signal from traditional pickups and a digital signal that allows guitarists to control software-based instruments in the PC that can produce the sound of, say, a piano, a drum kit, or an orchestra. And it can be used to trigger software that will translate notes played on the guitar into musical notation.

A fourth company uses electronics to make learning to play easier. Optek Music Systems sells the $500 Fretlight, a guitar that looks much like a classic Fender Stratocaster. But as its name implies, the Fretlight's fretboard has tiny red lights at every string position on every fret. When the guitar is plugged into a PC (via the USB port with a special cable), the lights show where to put your fingers to play various chords and melodies. When used with a software package called M-Player, the lights can guide you through songs. And you can put on the brakes to slow the tempo to as little as 10% of the original beat, which lets you see the lights before it's time to move on to the next chord.

Will digital guitars ever replace analog? Probably not. A lot of the reason musicians like electric guitars in the first place is their unpredictable analog sounds. Much of the beauty of the Stratocasters and Les Pauls that Line 6 seeks to emulate comes from flaws in the analog signal, which create a distinctive, distorted sound. But as PCs get more powerful, digitals will surely take an ever-bigger piece of the market. Don't worry, though: Whether you're playing an analog or digital guitar, you can still wake up the neighbors. Just crank up the volume.

By David Rocks

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