Even in 2016, there isn't a better way to learn guitar than sinking hundreds of hours and a few calloused fingers into it. So musician and sometimes-startup founder Brian Fan thought he'd make an instrument that’s easier to pick up.
The result is Magic Instruments' Rhythm Guitar. It's similar in shape and size to a hollow-body guitar, but with one huge difference: there are no strings along the fretboard, and every fret has been replaced with an oblong button. It looks very nerdy, but it's supposed to help you start playing almost immediately.
Rather than making you push down on three or five or six frets to form a chord, as you would on a traditional guitar, the Rhythm Guitar only ever requires you to push a single button at a time. That's because each button represents an entire chord, rather than a single note.
Major and minor chords are placed on the first and biggest button (where the high E string would be). The skinny buttons that follow represent variations on that chord: power chords, suspended chords, 7th chords, and so on. To play, you just press a button and strum the six short strings over the body of the guitar, and the corresponding sounds will play through its speakers.
To beginners, it means that you can start strumming chords that it'd normally take a few weeks of practice to comfortably form. And to existing musicians who have yet to pick up guitar, it means having an easier way to tinker with a new instrument.
Fan, who studied piano at Juilliard for nine years, says he created the Rhythm Guitar because he found the traditional instrument surprisingly difficult to pick up. "I practiced one whole summer, and after 300 hours, I was a lousy player. I gave up. Quit."
Magic Instruments wants to reinvent guitar for 2016
With the Rhythm Guitar, he wanted to make something that would let him have fun. To do that, Fan says, he and the team at Magic Instruments, where he's CEO, attempted to "redesign the guitar UI from the ground up," essentially asking, what would a guitar look like if it were invented in 2016?
So does the Rhythm Guitar do it? Is it simple enough to just pick up and play? I got to try it out while speaking with Fan in New York last week, and my impression is that Magic Instruments has gone wildly off course. In attempting to remove complexity from the guitar, Fan's company made something nearly as complicated and nowhere near as versatile.
For total amateurs, like myself, the Rhythm Guitar's problem is immediately clear: learning how to quickly press, locate, and move between its 90 buttons is about as challenging as learning to form chords on an actual guitar. I have no doubt that this would be easier than learning real guitar fingerings, but you're developing the exact same skill. And if you're going to sink time into learning how to move your fingers along the fretboard of a guitar, why not do that on a real guitar?
One of the The Verge's video directors, Mark Linsangan, tried the Rhythm Guitar out, too. Mark's been playing guitar for five years, and he was able to pick up the Rhythm Guitar almost immediately. But he was also confused by what Magic Instruments decided to make. "Yes, it makes noise and guitar sounds," he says. "But you don't get that feeling that you're actually playing guitar."
Mark says he noticed a slight delay between strumming the Rhythm Guitar's strings and hearing what he played. And the buttons felt cramped and unintuitive to use. If it's supposed to be simpler, he says, "Why would you have six buttons when on regular guitar you have six strings?" As a struggling beginner, I had the very same question.
A mobile app is supposed to teach you the basics
Fan sees musicians picking up his product to easily start writing more complex guitar parts for their songs. (Magic Instruments even has a quote on its website from Muse's bandleader saying as much.) But every musician I know says that switching from one string instrument to another is pretty easy, so it's hard to imagine this product being of much use. Except, maybe, to someone whose music knowledge is based on a different category of instruments, like Fan.
Magic Instruments is making an app to help people learn the Rhythm Guitar, but — at least in its current form — it wasn't all that helpful. It's sort of like a really boring Guitar Hero. In some instances, the app shows how powerful the Rhythm Guitar can be (Fan was ecstatic about how easy it was to play Queen), but in others, it shows just how bizarre this product is. Fan discouraged me from trying to play "Seven Nation Army" because it was too complicated, but I'm pretty sure I could pick up a guitar and start playing a dumbed-down version of it right this second. I mean, come on. It's "Seven Nation Army."
The Rhythm Guitar launches on Indiegogo today. Initial sales start at $299, but most units will go for $399. The campaign is looking for $50,000 in funding to complete the product. The guitar itself, Fan says, is about "95 percent" finished. The app still needs a lot of work; Magic Instruments also needs to make deals with music publishers so that it can include popular songs and their lyrics. It's supposed to begin shipping early next year.
You shouldn't buy this product if you're hoping to learn guitar; Fan makes it clear that it isn't meant for that. The Rhythm Guitar will only teach you how to play the Rhythm Guitar — it's just one giant shortcut to playing music. I guess that's fine. But I don't understand why you'd put in the effort to learn a fake instrument, when the real instrument would be so much more rewarding.
Photos and video by Mark Linsangan.