Electric guitars set for a makeover

IS THERE such a thing as a perfect technology or, at least, one that is too good to be messed with? In the context of this column the answer should be obvious. No. There is always room for progress. But a few days ago I came across a supposed enhancement that really made me question this assumption.

Gibson is working on a new technology that it says will improve its electric guitars. Maybe that means nothing to you. But to those of us who believe we have rock ‘n’ roll in our veins, it sounds awfully close to sacrilege. You cannot enhance perfection. And every one of the guitar greats uses a Gibson or a Fender, like the one pictured, of a design unchanged since the 1950s.

In the beginning, Leo Fender created the first mass-produced solid-bodied electric guitar in 1951. Soon after that Gibson hired chart musician Les Paul to design a competitor and the long-running battle for the hearts and dollars of aspiring axe heroes began. By the mid-1950s only one real technical hurdle remained to be overcome. The pickups, which act like microphones to transfer the sound of the strings to an amplifier, created an annoying hum. So in 1957 Gibson developed the dual-coil "humbucking" pickup which solved the problem almost entirely. Since then electric guitar design has remain almost entirely unchanged.

Original Fenders and Gibsons from the 1950s now fetch thousands of pounds at auction, more if they are associated with a star such as a Fender Stratocaster played by Jimi Hendrix or a Gibson Les Paul used by Eric Clapton. But the important thing is the sound, which purists say cannot be improved. In the early 1970s Les Paul did persuade Gibson to use a new style of pickup he had invented. It never caught on, largely because it sounded too "clean", and that is not rock ‘n’ roll.

Conservatism among musicians is common. Most instruments are made to designs that have not changed for at least a century. The older the better as far as most musicians are concerned. There have been enormous technological advances in areas such as recording, amplification and synthesisers. Rock musicians have embraced these developments, but only as long as the electric guitar technology remains unaffected.

Now Gibson is hoping musicians are going to adopt something it calls "Magic" or "Media-accelerated Global Information Carrier". It is not just for guitars, but is intended to create a single standard for all amplified instruments, concerts, recording and even, eventually, for home hi-fi.

The real advance is in the pickup design, which Gibson calls "hexaphonic" because it acts separately for each string. Current designs output the sound of all six strings together. The development will allow every string to have its own amplifier and, therefore, its own sound effects, synthesiser control and even direct input into a light show. Potentially, it also gives vastly improved digital recording.

Around the middle of this year we should start to see how well Gibson has managed to overcome the problems connected with the technology. There is a slight delay known as "latency" associated with Ethernet that would be unacceptable to guitar players. There is also a huge difference between using a key-press to control a synthesiser and translating the subtle pressure and bending of a guitar string. Less sophisticated, but nonetheless effective, methods of connecting a guitar to a synthesiser have yet to set the heather alight in the world of rock.

I fear Gibson’s brave adventure is doomed to failure. I just cannot see the traditional axe hero becoming a techo wizard. That is the keyboard player’s job.


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