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Keyboard overlay aims to take the pain out of learning to play guitar

By

June 14, 2014

Don Bacon's Finger Friendly Guitar Company Keyboard

Don Bacon's Finger Friendly Guitar Company Keyboard

Image Gallery (9 images)

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.

The 3D-printed, ABS plastic prototype keyboard is strapped to a guitar neck and secured in...

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."

Inventor Don Bacon with his Finger Friendly Guitar Company Keyboard strapped to a Fender a...

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.

The aim of the game is to make learning to play a good deal easier and a lot less painful ...

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.

Sources: Finger Friendly Guitar Co, Kickstarter

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag.   All articles by Paul Ridden
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9 Comments

This thing looks great,

I'm one of the millions that gave up on guitar because of the PITA it was to form chords. So something like this seems like a sure-bet.

However:

I'd like to hear from a professional (3rd party) explaining the limitations of such a device.

What's the best I can expect (music wise),

and what's something I could never expect (music wise) from using this device?

Milton
14th June, 2014 @ 08:51 pm PDT

Interesting idea but I'm so glad I didn't have that when I was learning to play. As a kid, I had the bad habit of playing the guitar tilted at over 60 degrees which took me ages to get out of - this aid would be even worse to overcome (even harder habit to break than trying to ride a bike after learning with stabilisers).

I reckon the simple (70s) punk or blues approach to guitar playing is best - teach someone 3 or 4 chords and let them loose. It doesn't take long to learn a few basic shapes - Am, C, G and an Em covers a fair bit, throw in a D and an E - which can bring a lot of satisfaction to a guitar noob.

TheSplund
15th June, 2014 @ 02:50 am PDT

Maybe he should invent something to tune his guitar first, or at least get a guitar teacher that has an ear.

g.fosbery
15th June, 2014 @ 10:36 am PDT

This is just plain stupid - this crutch will only make it harder in the long run. Playing guitar means you have to touch the strings which might hurt a little to start but that's all part of learning (if you want to run a marathon you're going to have to sweat, right?)

A better idea is to start on a good electric guitar with light gauge strings that will lesson the pressure required to play without totally changing the feel of the instrument. And get a good teacher at least until you get the basics down (that may be one lesson, a few months, or a year) and take advantage of all the free lessons on youtube... it's easier than it's ever been to learn, if you're not lazy.

Jim Brown
16th June, 2014 @ 08:30 am PDT

I agree that sore fingers and chord formation are the beginner's trouble, and result in a lot of new guitars sitting in closets. But he makes no mention of eventual transition away from his device. No matter how long you use his invention, or how good you get with it, as soon as you take it off, you're right back to the sore finger and chord formation problem. Even worse, it looks from his "stacked" button arrangement that in transitions away from the device, you would have to relearn finger positions for the chords. After all, on the naked guitar fretboard, the finger positions are not "stacked." If you are a beginner, and just want to be able to play some chords to accompany your classroom. Our church group. And have no interest in going further with your playing, this might be the ticket. Otherwise, grin and bear it, and learn to play the old fashioned way.

VegasGeorge
16th June, 2014 @ 08:48 am PDT

I want something that you push one button and it auto-forms the chord for you...in a kinda "autoharp" kinda way!

Ed
16th June, 2014 @ 12:28 pm PDT

"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."

This is called "learning to play" it's not that hard; if you really want to learn something new you may be required to put in a bit of effort.

With bikes that won't fall over, cars that drive themselves and instruments that are dumbed down to ease learning the human race will be doomed to be a species that is regressing back to the stone age.

flibb
17th June, 2014 @ 12:20 am PDT

No pain - no gain. Period.

And this is... just fnother funny soon-to-be-gone toy for starters )))

Михаил Финогенов
17th June, 2014 @ 02:08 am PDT

there are a lot of tips I can recommend for people who are brand new to guitar and are experiencing pain in their finger tips.

1. Use the lightest string gauge possible (this sacrifices tone but you're a beginner sooo don't worry about that right now)

2. Start with a nylon stringed classical acoustic or as one of the other commenters suggested an electric guitar

3. Make sure you have a guitar with a modern profile neck as old guitars with thicker necks can be harder to play

4. Take breaks when you're experiencing pain. I'm an experienced guitarist and even I take breaks when my fingers are starting to get irritated.

5. spread out practice time into smaller chunks throughout the week.

6. Own a decent quality guitar and have it professionally set up to ensure the "action" is set low enough for ease of use but high enough that the strings don't buzz

7. Take lessons for at least several weeks to learn things the right way first.

8. if all else fails tune your guitar down a half or whole step

Michael Johnson
17th June, 2014 @ 10:09 pm PDT
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