Los Angeles industrial designer and keen guitarist Mark Andersen says that close examination of playing patterns has revealed that the current knob/switch setup on most electric guitars results in "conflicting motion paths" when the player needs to tweak the tone or volume, or select a different pickup. His answer is to replace the pots and switches with a pair of touch panels on the pick guard, to convert your Strat-shaped axe into a Touchmark Guitar.
Andersen is by no means the first to control guitar functionality using touch. Examples of note include Jesse Davey from British blues band The Hoax, who built a touch operated kill switch/stutter pad into his Strat a while back; a few of the strangely beautiful guitars from German master luthier Ulrich Teuffel which feature wood-covered touch buttons; and the very limited Manson MB-1, which has a built-in MIDI controller touchscreen placed behind the bridge. Touchmark Guitars, however, has dropped the knobs and switches altogether in favor of two rectangular resistive touch pads that can be activated by finger or guitar pick.
Years in the making, Andersen's self-install Touchmark pick guard system is now at the pre-production prototype stage. It's reported to offer the same kind of volume/tone control as the potentiometer knobs, but with more intuitive touch control action. Tapping a panel quickly changes the assigned parameter, while sliding motions make for smooth and gradual changes. Where the pickup toggle on most guitars gives a choice of either three or five positions, Touchmark puts 256 incremental blends at the player's disposal.
Of course, as cumbersome as mid-song knob and switch tweaking might be, such controls can be used to great effect – such as the rather nice bowing sounds produced by a skilled musician using a pinky to adjust the volume knob as the string is picked. I asked Andersen how this sort of thing might be achieved with the Touchmark system.
"To address the issue of creating bow-like effects, the production version will have an x-y axis on which the volume panel will be fast in one direction and slower in the other, giving you both your bow-like controls and the advantage of a nuanced/slower gradient-like control," he explained. "Future versions are slated to include more advanced touch panel technology (possibly hybrid resistive capacitive or acoustic resonance) as the development process evolves."
The Touchmark team has now headed to Kickstarter to move from system development to production. Early bird backers can get one of the first 50 working prototypes (for Fender Stratocasters only) in return for a pledge of US$300. This includes a free upgrade to the final production version when it becomes available. Once those have been snapped up, the price increases to $400.
The company will provide step-by-step instructions for home installation, which involves whipping out the existing pick guard, pickups, pots, switches and wiring, and mounting the Touchmark system instead. If that all sounds a bit overwhelming, you can take your instrument and the prototype to your local guitar shop and have someone there do it for you.
At the moment, you'll need to make do with the standard single-coil pickups already installed on the Touchmark system (unless you're skilled enough with a soldering iron to swap them out for your own treasured coils), but more options will be on offer when the system goes into production.
"When we offer the premium pickups package, we intend to use possibly a Seymour Duncan brand or other higher-end pickup product," Andersen told us. "We will also have an option without pickups, with which you can keep your own or install the pickups of your choosing."
Power is currently provided by a 9V battery, which should be good for up to two months of "average" use, but the post-Kickstarter production version will sport a lithium battery for improved performance.
Support for other guitar shapes and styles is also planned for the future. The two versions of the system currently in development should be able to accommodate Fender Telecasters, Gibson SGs and Les Pauls, and PRS guitars. Other variations will only surface after thorough in-house testing has been undertaken to ensure a clean upgrade path.
Andersen says that hackers, developers and sonic scientists can also look forward to a PCB with built-in Arduino and MIDI connectivity. He's also received several requests for a bass version, something that's now being looked into.
We'll be watching the Touchmark project with great interest, and will keep you updated on progress. In the meantime, have a look at the Kickstarter pitch video below.