Keyboard overlay aims to take the pain out of learning to play guitar
By Paul Ridden
June 14, 2014
Like many would-be six-string slingers, Don Bacon of Denver, Colorado, found getting started tougher than it looked. The discomfort experienced when pushing soft finger ends onto hard metal strings can certainly be off-putting, but there's also the issue of chunky digits accidentally muting nearby strings, or causing them to buzz, when trying to form chord patterns or sound individual strings. Bacon designed a soft-touch overlay called the Finger Friendly Guitar Company Keyboard – let's call it the FFK – to help make learning to play as painless and as easy as possible, with the added bonus of sounding good while you're doing it.
Bacon says that his keyboard overly, originally patented back in 2012, "was designed to eliminate the two primary reasons why 9 out of 10 who decide to learn to play the guitar surrender in frustration and disappointment: 1. 'it makes my fingers so sore' 2. 'I just can’t manage to properly form the chords'." Unlike learning systems like the Fretlight or Rocksmith, there's no complicated electronics or software to worry about, the FFK is all mechanical.
Currently a 3D-printed, ABS plastic prototype, the keyboard is strapped to a guitar neck and secured in place with Velcro. The FFK is reported compatible with any standard acoustic or electric 6-string guitar, but is not suitable for classical or 12-string instruments.
On the player side, each fret has been divided into six keys spread over two columns. One column represents high E, G and A strings, and the other set fire the B, D and low E strings. The buttons along the top of the FFK are also hinged so that players can use a thumb to sound the appropriate string. To the rear of each color-coded key is a spring-loaded hammer that pushes a string down when the player presses the fat-finger-friendly button.
The system covers the first 10 frets of the neck only. Its inventor feels that this is sufficient for most of the songs casual players will want to learn, and it also mean that keys activating strings don't become too small to use effectively. But that's not to say that a future version of the FFK won't extend beyond the 10th fret.
The aim of the game is to make learning to play a good deal easier and a lot less painful than just grabbing a guitar and launching into it. "It was important that 'my' players still have to play their guitars in a manner as closely as possible as required in the traditional way," Bacon told Gizmag. "I just wanted to lower the bar enough to let many more folks into the guitar playing party while still allowing them to feel/appreciate the guitar playing experience."
For the most part, it looks like chord shaping remains about the same as it would without the FFK cover. So moving from this system to playing strings directly shouldn't present too much of an issue (apart from the fact that you won't have developed any nice calluses on your tips), though players may need to modify precise finger placement for some chords. Knowing where you are as you move up and down the keyboard is made easier by the inclusion of fret markers on the thumb levers.
"Yes, the fingering to form a chord is a bit different using the keyboard, but they are significantly easier to form," said Bacon. "My research has indicated that anywhere from 70 - 90 percent of folks who decide to learn to play guitar end up quitting within the first year (most sooner). Re-learning how to form any given chord, should a student decide to try to 'graduate' to playing without the benefit of a keyboard, is easier than you might imagine. But my primary goal was not to create a path leading to 'traditional' guitar playing. It was to enable those who had tried/failed/been disappointed in their efforts to learn to play guitar."
Just like a computer keyboard, the FFK also caters for shortcuts. A learner could, for example, play the second string of the first fret and the first string of the second fret using just one finger, leaving your other three digits to get busy playing somewhere else. It's even said to be possible to press down all three strings in a key column with a single finger. I imagine some of my favored jazz chords may prove a challenge with this system (but they're not that comfortable anyway), and as for playing bar chords? That may take some thought.
Though the final production version may differ from the prototype in the gallery, the overlay will undoubtedly add some extra width to the playing area – something students with small hands may need to take into account. But at least you won't have to play 'til your fingers bleed (as Bryan Adams once put it) while learning to play using the FFK system.
"My message is: what you wanted to be able to do; tried to do; found too difficult to do; but still want to do – here is a way to be able to play after all," said Bacon. "If all you really wanted to be able to do was play nice, pleasant sounding songs or pieces on a guitar, the keyboard is the friend which will allow you to satisfy that want."
Bacon has developed a number of prototypes, and now feels that the time is right to get his system in the hands of learners. To this end, he's launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise funds for the first production run. A pledge of US$75 will be enough to secure shipment of a FFK in January 2015, assuming the funding goal is met and there are no unforeseen hiccups. The campaign ends on August 9.
The FFK is introduced in the pitch video below.
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