If we could see into the future of the guitar, say 50 years, what would people be playing and what would they be playing their guitars through? I’ll bet there will be a good percentage of users playing a 1950s designed guitar though a class A/B valve amp, but that’s not what this article is about; it’s about the future and the possibilities! Remember to bookmark this page and come back in 50 years to see if my predictions come true…
This is already such a big subject so I’m not going to be discussing effects and software here, perhaps guitar effects can be left to another article or two.
Shape, materials and construction
Shapes are in one way limited only by your imagination but to endure and be popular they must have some ergonomics. Both myself and Kerry have looked at quite a few new guitar and headstock shapes and methods/theories of guitar design. Hopefully one day people will break away from the Fender/Gibson 50s design stranglehold.
Body materials are an option for manufacturers to make their guitars different in appearance and tone. Wood? I think most of the woods have been tried, there’s a great reference to wood and tone on the Warmoth website. Perspex – Dan Armstrong first used perspex in the 60s and the material has been used by quite a few budget guitar companies since then; so it must be cheap to produce/machine, but low on the tones that sound connoisseurs appreciate. Aluminium – Travis Bean made guitars with aluminium necks, Tokai famously produced the aluminium bodied Talbo range of guitars, though now they make a wood version of the same design… Carbon fibre guitars are more and more popular, probably the most famous user of this or carbon composite materials is Parker.
Instead of just changing the material of guitar body construction, there is a ‘digital luthier’ KOZM Guitars in Oregon, USA who makes guitars on a 3D priciple rather than out of planks of wood. Made in real 3D shapes some of the guitars are in parts up to 5″ thick but don’t feel heavy, take a look at the process. So wood might feature in the future of guitars, it’s an appealing material. In fact that most modern of modern necessities the mobile phone looks better in wood rather than metal/plastic. Also in looking at alternative shapes and construction I’d recommend you look at Teufel Guitars, very interesting! Also let’s not forget Steinberger who pioneered ‘headless’ guitars starting as far back as 1979, using composite materials and minimal design, perhaps it was too much too soon, or just too cricket bat!
Let’s move along and look at the guitar neck, it’s very important as it’s where the musicality of an instrumentalist derives from. So any different feel will make a difference to how you play, how well you can play certain styles and even perhaps inspire you to play certain scales and passages differently. Necks on the most popular ranges of guitars differ in scale length and also in fretboard radius. The radius, the roundness of the fretboard profile, can make the guitar more comfortable for chord work (more curved) or lead guitar (more flat). What about the future? We have seen digital guitars by Casio etc who replace the fretboard with buttons, but they never got very popular, I’d guess because of their limiting on/off button nature. A nice innovation I saw recently was by Mikey Guitars which can switch between fretted and fretless; there’s a slider mechanism to raise/lower the frets. I think this is really a niche design, it’s not going to take off! Also IMHO small niche is the fan fret guitar innovation, to provide more precise intonation (and looks cool), I think Novax are the innovators here.
Electronics and amplification
Despite advances in computer modelling techniques people still seem to prefer the sound of old analogue valves, this might be the same in 50 years time perhaps. Instead of just trying to replace and mimic the valve sound I wonder if companies will develop new types of valves again. I’ve heard about the difficulties of sourcing certain valves and the same valve serial numbers crop up again and again in amp specification (EL34 & 12AX7 anyone?). Transistor amps are sometimes looked down upon by the guitar community but I think there has been some fantastic tranny amps made, their strength is in the clean tones. I have fond memories of my old Carlsbro Scorpion 30 watt 2×12 Celestion amp, it was so clean and chiming bell like sounding, the tremolo was great too. It did have a problem with the volume know though which jumped from inaudible to very loud. More and more people will probably use their computer as an audio interface and be playing through speakers connected to the computer. On computers it’s quite run-of-the-mill now to have 5.1 or 7.1 sound capabilities, great for certain games, movies and DVDs but what about that mono phono cable connector to your guitar… Seems a bit under-specced now in comparison! PCs have gone from ‘beep’ to super-3D -spacial-digital- optical-dolby- HD-16.1-sub sound in 15 years or so!
This leads us to the other side of the electronics equation; pickup technology. It’s quite rare to find stereo guitars, anyway, stereo is not that natural for a guitar IMHO, it’s one sound source. There are many effect pedals that create a stereo image from the mono guitar; like 2 varying channels of the effect/dry signal. Currently a more logical stereo type division would be if each guitar pickup had it’s own audio channel, so for 2 pickup equipped guitars both pickups would be active at the same time and the sound come from different speakers. Lots of guitars have 3 pickups so having 3 speakers and/or a way of selecting all 3 pickups at once would be good. Let’s extend the reasoning, instead of a channel of audio for every pickup let’s switch to thinking about a channel of audio for every string. This is my preferred way forward, the speakers can even be customised for the pitches they will be serving up. So a high fidelity 6 string guitar amp would have 6 channels/speakers. I hope to see a 6 channel guitar & amplifier in the near future! I see there is a company ZexCoil that make a one-coil-per-string pickup now, but I don’t think this is the same as what I’m talking about. Also it’s possible to fit a stereo pickup system to your guitar now using the 3DXY pickup from Pauls 3D systems.
Of course pickups don’t have to be magnetic devices or work in the standard way of the ubiquitous single coil and humbucker pickups everyone seems to use. Why not sense the string vibration in another way? Well there are other ways right now, some guitars and many acoustics use the piezo electric pickup or electret /condenser microphone technology to get sound to amplifiers. Also if you have a MIDI pickup in your guitar, that will be using piezo technology to transmit the data to the synthesiser. Lastly, as far as I know, we have optical pickup technology. An optical sensor ‘sees’ the string movement and sends that data as sound waves to your amplifier. The advantage of this system is that seeing the string vibrate cannot dampen it whereas a magnetic field can dampen of affect the string vibration. It’s said to be a very clean system with no electromagnetic interference being read and put into the signal – so no hum or buzzing because of other things like AC power or lighting nearby. The most prominent optical pickups for guitars are by Lightwave Systems, if you want to read more.
Looking further afield I was interested to see the Misa Kitara; an instrument which uses buttons on a fretboard for the fingering and a multi-touch LCD pad as the playing area where pickups would traditionally be. This instrument has no strings, it looks and sounds a bit ‘science-fiction’ but I don’t know if it is actually a guitar any more than a guitar hero game controller is. So I don’t think the Misa instruments are part of the guitar’s future.
I’ve not mentioned the robot tuning systems like on the Gibson Robot guitar, among others, because I don’t really think it’s much of an innovation, any more than a pick holder that you glue to your headstock is. I’d call robot tuning a luxury convenience like having a maid who tunes your guitar for you. I like the Fernandes Sustainer system, but I think that will be classified as a guitar effect, so will be in a later article here on GDR.
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Please let me know, below, if you think I’ve missed any great innovations that might feature in the future of the guitar. Mark.