Weird and wonderful: the best instruments of 2012
By Paul Ridden
December 30, 2012
Should you find yourself thinking about supergroups, you'll likely center on the famous names that make up the bands and not the instruments they use. Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, for example, rather than the double-necked Gibson EDS-1275, or Cream's Jack Bruce instead of his Gibson EB-3, or Brad Wilk of Audioslave/RATM and not the custom Gretsch drumkits he uses. Being as much fans of the tech behind the hits as the talented folks who create them, we've grouped together a super collection of favorite music-making gadgets from the past year.
Each section of our virtual instrument ensemble is divided into two parts – the curious, eccentric or oddball and the awe-inspiring, magnificent or remarkable. First up are some stringed instruments that have caught our eye, followed by keyboards, then wind, percussion and finally some digital creations. We close with a few innovations worth keeping an eye on in the coming months.
For the string pickers
A modern update to a bizarre limited run classic is first off the starting blocks, the Gittler Guitar. Allan Gittler systematically stripped away everything he considered unnecessary to create a 31-fret minimalist icon in the mid 1970s. The 2012 version carries on that vision but brings a few modern upgrades to the package, such as titanium instead of steel.
It certainly looks like an, erm, interesting playing prospect, and visitors to NAMM in January will be able to have a closer look when it makes its public debut. Gittler Instruments has given the guitar an availability window of February 2013, for an as yet undisclosed price.
The PocketStrings practice neck is designed for players who want practice fingering and chording while on the road but don't want to lug around a full-sized travel guitar like the excellent Vox Apache Phantom and Teardrop reissues. Although it can't really be played, it's still deserving of inclusion in our review.
When a standard straight capo just doesn't offer the tuning freedom you need, CapoSonic can give a helping hand. It's claimed to offer players 24,756 possible tunings and, as such, no gig bag should be without one. Despite not reaching its Kickstarter funding campaign target, development continues and inventor Ben Ryan reports that he's just about ready to produce an easier-to-use fourth prototype, which will benefit from significantly higher tonal quality.
Since Olaf Diegel's extraordinarily beautiful 3D-printed guitars appeared in Gizmag, new Les Paul shapes and bass guitar versions have been added. Production-ready ODD models are now available to buy at a cost of between US$3,000 and US$3,500 per instrument, which all feature a hardwood inner core wrapped in a 3D-printed Nylon or Duraform PA outer body with some choice hardware.
It's not always black and white
For some reason, Jeff Ledger's Bananaphone synth brings to mind an appearance by Harry Belafonte on a November 1978 episode of the Muppet Show. It's likely inspired by the excellent MaKey MaKey circuit-building kit and makes use of a few bananas as keyboard keys, which produce tones when touched.
Catarina Mota's Piano Box 12-note paper synth was created when looking to improve on the Resistor JelTone polyphonic food-based instrument. Removing the lid of the box allows the speaker-packing sides to lay flat against the table, the front drops to reveal a paper keyboard and the back stays upright to support the built-in LED light show.
If you're looking to turn your incessant table-top finger drumming into something more pleasing to the ear, the cheap and cheerful Wrist Piano may help. It only has eight notes, but packs three sound banks, a built-in speaker and different volume levels (although whether a player would make use of the meowing cat sound is anyone's guess).
Don Gilmore's marvelous Self-tuning Piano can bring an instrument to tune within a minute. At the push of a button, each string of the piano is entered into a continuous sustain and IR sensors compare the measured pitch against an original hand-tuned frequency stored in the system's memory. The pitch of any wayward strings is adjusted using an electrical current.
Blowing in the wind
A car accident in the 1980s left music-lover Dave Whalen a quadriplegic. His desire to continue making music led to the development of the Jamboxx breath-driven synth, a digital harmonica-like instrument that's played and controlled using just the head. Even though it failed to meet its Kickstarter crowd-funding target, the Jamboxx team is looking to bring it to market anyway, and anticipate the first devices to ship in Q1 2013.
Hit me with your rhythm stick
A drum kit can eat up a huge chunk of the available space in the back of the band's van but Roland's TD-4KP V-Drums Portable can collapse down to something that can be carried under the arm or thrown in the trunk of a car. When you get to the rehearsal, studio or gig, the drums fold out to a comfortable playing position. True, players will have to cough up extra cash for a kick pedal and seat but this makes the instrument no less impressive.
8-bit and beyond
Regular readers will already know that we love Lego here at Gizmag but when you throw some Star Wars into the mix too, we just can't resist. This immense barrel organ made from over 20,000 Lego bricks plays the Star Wars theme as scenes from Hoth, Tatooine, Endor and the Death Star come into contact with mechanical levers that strike keys on a built-in keyboard. Genius.
Digital music performer Onyx Ashanti combined 3D-printed components, pressure sensors, accelerometers and joysticks for his impressive Beatjazz Hands.
The device produces continuous live, improvised music using his movements to wirelessly control sounds and effects, add new layers and dimensions and create loops.
A taste of things to come
Being able to precisely tune and intonate a guitar at the push of a button will not only save precious studio time, but will also negate the need to swap instruments or tune up mid performance. The Auto-Tune technology in the just released Peavey AT-200 can do much more than just digitally tune the strings and keep them there, the system holds similar sound-altering potential as the vocal version so it will be very interesting indeed to see where this will lead.
Keyboard players who can't sing to save their lives should keep an eye on the development of Yamaha's Vocaloid keyboard technology. The latest prototype allows players to input lyrics and melody in real time.
Artiphon's promising INSTRUMENT 1 for the iPhone allows mobile music creators to move beyond the confines of a smartphone's touchscreen. The device includes built-in stereo speakers, an interesting MIDI strum interface that looks very much like a single-coil pickup on an electric guitar and a touch-sensitive fingerboard. We've been promised a closer look in the early part of the coming year, so be sure to watch for updates.
And that's it, another year of instrument innovation comes to a close. We look forward to bringing you many more creations in 2013.