Dec 10

Mobile technology strikes a new chord

Danger! Something’s gone terribly wrong at The Observatory. I’ve just re-read this post four times and can’t find a single mention of a laptop, smartphone or tablet.

Well, it’s possible that we can still survive this. Today’s post is about a musical instrument — but you need no musical skills to appreciate my point. Just as the space race yielded technology that changed life on earth, the mobile race is producing technology that has impact far beyond mobile.

This is Kitara. The world’s first all-digital pro guitar. No strings. Just a standard guitar fretboard for one hand — and an eight-inch touch screen for the other. Oh, and a built-in synthesizer loaded with sounds and effects.

It’s the touch screen, having revolutionized mobile devices, that adds the real magic. You can map multiple digital effects to the screen, so that once you’ve triggered a note by touch, sliding your finger in different directions lets you dial those effects up and down as you play. This is light years beyond the whammy bar.

There’s no debate here about open vs. closed systems. Kitara is all about customizability. It’s built upon open-source Linux. Beyond the millions of sound combinations it lets you create onboard, it lets you trigger millions more via connected sound modules. Assign one sound to all six virtual strings, or assign different sounds to each.

Now I can pretty much guarantee that a good number of guitar aficionados out there are already foaming at the mouth, ready to pounce. “That’s not a guitar.” “If you can’t feel the strings, it’ll never fly.” “This monstrosity belongs in Guitar Hero, not on stage.”

Hey, chill out. Guitars will always be guitars, and guitarists will always be guitarists. Kitara is not replacing the guitar, any more than the synthesizer replaced the piano. It simply gives guitarists an option they never had before. At last they can get in on the digital fun that keyboard players have been enjoying for decades. In fact, they can now create and play a few zillion digital sounds more expressively than any keyboard ever could.

Besides, it’s not just about the music. By the time your band makes it to Madison Square Garden, you may well be able to do your email on the guitar between songs.

From the Truth In Blogging Department: I have no financial interest in Misa, but I am a creative consultant for this project. Just thought you’d be interested in seeing the impact of touch screen technology beyond the industry we usually scrutinize. If you want to know more about Kitara, visit the Misa website.

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  • Bob

    Dear Mr Segall

    Hey, chill out, will not quite do.

    This is a musical invention: http://www.youtube.com/user/mutlunatic#p/c/9D55761CAB978D87/0/UNJswfXKJ3s. It is called the Hang. Kitara is an interface. An input device superimposed onto something guitar shaped that in itself is in every respect physically mute.

    Needless to say, the shape of any analogue instrument and its acoustics are inseparable. They are each other’s raison d’être. So why recycle the forms of a guitar to create a housing for Kitara? Surely not because it would make the beginner Kitara-player feel more at home with things? As you point out, this is a Kitara, not a guitar. My objection is that the Kitara-part of it is that touch screen alone – the interface – nothing more. The guitar part is totally absent, despite the look of things.

    I propose that someone wanting to take up (the) Kitara should be honoured with an instrument in its own right. As it is, this concoction manages to undermine both the guitar and the aspirations of the Kitara. Being a champion of simplicity, you should recognise that this device is barely readable; a quality essential to a musical instrument.

    Now, a real invention would mould a never before seen casing truly worthy of its contents around it, making it irresistible for its potential players to pick up and explore. The creation of music is that which through intimate and loving interaction delicately evokes the latent voice of a besouled piece of craftsmanship. Be that to play Mozart or Megadeth. I guess my issue with the Kitara is that I cannot see how one could possibly make it sing.

    And, finally, please don’t ask me if I have played the Kitara. The answer is, there is nothing to play. How do I know? I haven’t played the Hang either.

    Best regards


    PS Here’s another comparison: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiqfGVmBD6U&feature=related.

  • ken segall

    These things always inflame passions on both sides of the argument. Is Kitara a “real instrument” or not? You have your opinion, I have mine.

    Kitara is to the guitar exactly what the synthesizer was to the piano. You need to have the basic instrument skills to be able to play it. But you need to learn new skills to play it well — to make good, inspired, creative music. Keyboard players had to get used to keys that felt different, controlling sounds in real time by manipulating knobs, sliders and joysticks. Many keyboard players were violently opposed to the bastardization of the classic instrument. In much the same way, Kitara requires guitar-playing skills, and it also requires a new set of skills. For those who care to learn those skills, there is a world of new sounds that can be created and nuanced in live performance in ways that just can’t be done on a keyboard synthesizer. It is not a replacement for a guitar. It opens up a new world of sounds to guitar players.

    The test, of course, comes when people actually get their hands on Kitara — which started to happen at CES this week. It was named one of the “hottest products” at CES, it was featured on morning news shows, and played to a full crowd throughout the show. But this wasn’t even a music crowd. A more severe test will take place next week at NAMM in Anaheim, which is devoted to the music industry.

    Like any new idea, it doesn’t require a unanimous approval. It just needs to light a fire. If Kitara generates the same kind of excitement in NAMM that it did at CES, it will be off to a very good start. If musicians decide it doesn’t play like an instrument, or it doesn’t allow them to create in ways they wish to create, it will have a tough time.

    Having seen first-hand the way people’s eyes lit up over Kitara at CES, my bet is that a certain breed of guitarist is going to flip over it — just as a certain breed of keyboard player embraced the synth.

  • James


    Your post is so full of non sequiturs that it’s laughable. You’re confusing ‘real’ instrument with ‘acoustic’ instrument. Would you argue that a synthesiser is not a ‘real’ instrument? As ken says, the only difference here is the physical interface to the synthesis engine. It’s just that the Kitara requires guitar type motor skills instead of those required to play the piano/keyboard.

    “please don’t ask me if I have played the Kitara. The answer is, there is nothing to play. How do I know? I haven’t played the Hang either.”

    What?! Please go and study logic and reasoning and come back to us.