New Musical Instruments Attuned with Innovation
By George Varga
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Move over, Tomorrowland. Step aside, Fantasyland. The future is already here, with a dazzling array of innovative musical instruments that will be on store shelves soon. They were already on display this past weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center, which hosted 80,000 attendees and the wares of 1,400 exhibitors at the annual NAMM Show. NAMM stands for National Association of Music Merchants, although the organization has operated as the International Music Products Association for more than a decade, while retaining the NAMM acronym. “It’s a whole new world,” said Joe Lamond, the president and CEO of NAMM. “But our core mission is the same — to create excitement about playing instruments.” Headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif., NAMM has grown from a handful of piano dealers who founded the organization in 1901 to 9,000 member companies from more than 100 countries that produce every musical instrument imaginable. Among the instruments being unveiled in the shadow of Disneyland is the potentially game-changing You Rock Guitar. A hybrid instrument that weighs less than 6 pounds, it can be used as a video-game console to play “Guitar Hero,” “Rock Band” and other music-inspired games. It can also be plugged into an amplifier and played as a guitar — one that never requires tuning or hurts your fingers, can sound like one of 25 electric and acoustic guitar models and can be accompanied by instrumental backing tracks stored in an iPod, iPhone or any other mp3 player. Then there’s Beamz, which is powered by a computer through a USB port and looks like a science-fiction fan’s musical dream come to life. Beamz is billed as an interactive “recreational musical instrument,” and its users make sounds by passing their fingers through red laser beams emitted from a W-shaped console. By moving their hands up, down, sideways or at any angle and speed, users can play along to recorded and live music with a single motion, or as many as they like. “It’s a way to bring people into music in a whole new way, people who don’t play music,” said Beamz creator Jerry Riopelle, a veteran singer-songwriter turned music software creator. “Anything you play on Beamz will sound good, and you can learn to play it within minutes.” Perhaps most eye-popping is the uber-high-tech Eigenharp, which took nine years to develop — as opposed to a mere eight years for Beamz. The Eigenharp Alpha, which went on sale in August in Europe, has 120 melody keys, 12 percussion keys, a clarinet-like breath controller, two finger-activated strip controllers and — with the flick of a button myriad musical scales and instrument sounds to choose from.
Designed for live performances, it can play and record musical loops, change keys, transpose, program beats, alter tempos and switch and layer sounds. A beginner’s version, the Eigenharp Pico, which has 22 keys, is also available. “The future of music is making music software human and bringing an organic quality to electronic music,” said Eigenlabs founder John Lambert. Learning to play the highly complex Eigenharp Alpha is “intimidating” and can take months, Lambert acknowledged. However, he noted that his 8-year-old daughter was quickly able to play the far less complex Pico, which retails for about one-tenth of the nearly $5,610 list price of the Alpha. The prices of the Beamz ($199-$299) and the You Rock Guitar ($199) are much less daunting, and so is learning to play them: They require no musical skill, just the desire to make music with no fuss or training. “Our motto is: Have fun, rock will happen,” said Kevin Kent, 55, the CEO of You Rock Guitar manufacturer, Inspired Instruments. “Everything is going digital, that’s for certain. And first-time guitar players can play our instrument without making a mistake and without any musical knowledge.” Fender, the famed guitar and amplifier giant that has factories in Ensenada, Mexico, and Riverside County, is debuting its USB- and mp3-compatible Fender G-DEC 3 amplifiers. The 15- and 30-watt amps, which let you play and store music files, feature 100 music presets in myriad styles, some of which were created by such top guitarists as Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. Making music easier to play is also the goal of the Nuvo Clarineo ($149), a waterproof plastic clarinet designed for children. The wave of fresh ideas and products comes amid sagging instrument sales, which Lamond said dropped from an estimated $18 billion in 2008 to about $16.5 billion globally last year, nearly half of which came from the United States. But not every instrument at NAMM requires a computer or digital interface capabilities. Taylor Guitars, the El Cajon, Calif., company that recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, continues to thrive by making some of the world’s most sought-after acoustic guitars, including its new Jason Mraz Signature Model. The company is also using NAMM to introduce its new 8-string baritone guitar, which produces an unusually resonant sound and combines sonic characteristics of both a conventional guitar and a bass. “The first quarter of 2009 was pretty bleak, but the first quarter of 2010 seems pretty good and we’re looking at production increases,” company co-founder Bob Taylor said. “People are not going out and getting big-ticket items, but instruments tend to do well in a down economy. Guitars make them feel good. Or, maybe, guitar-players are irrepressible.”