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Computerized guitars (and whether they're worth buying or not)

gfxThe vast majority of solid-body electric guitars today are pretty much manufactured the exact same way they were 60 years ago. Planks of wood make up the body and neck, and simple passive (meaning non-"active") electronics are used for pickup selection, the pickups themselves, volume control, tone control and output jack.

While true the countries of origin where the guitars and their electronics are made have changed, the formula for how an electric guitar is put together has not.

The only thing that's really changed when comparing guitars then to now are the materials.

A few examples:

Guitar nuts from years ago were almost exclusively made from real bone (as in cow bone), while today they are almost exclusively synthetic bone (Fender's synthetic nut material is called Cyclovac).

Before advances in plastics came along, many guitar manufacturers used a material called bakelite (pronounced "bay-kuh-lite"). Fender used this material on their early pick guards (which you can still get new if you really want it) and control knobs. Early Fender amplifiers also used bakelite knobs. Gibson also used bakelite for their pick guards, sometimes the pickup rings, etc. Basically speaking, anything that was plastic on the guitar was bakelite in the early days. And no, you don't want bakelite because it's just not that sturdy compared to modern plastics.

Finish materials have changed quite a bit over the decades. Most guitars now use a proper polyurethane coating to keep the body paint shiny. I say "proper" because finish coatings really didn't start getting good until the 1990s. In the 1980s and earlier, urethane coated guitars would dull right out in a short period of time (a shine would last 5 years at best with any regular guitar use). Nitrocellulose lacquers aren't used that much because like the guitars made from years ago, that lacquer will crack, pit and chip. Some players like that for the retro look a guitar can get over time, but in all honesty you're not going to get that "well worn" look unless you play the guitar hard and often. You're better off with a modern polyurethane coating, trust me on that one. And no, the nitro lacquer does absolutely nothing for tone no matter what anyone says, nor does it let the guitar "breathe" because the wood is dead. Nothing dead can breathe. Ever. Nitro lacquer finishes do not promote better string vibration and do not affect a single-coil or humbucker pickup's sound in any way. What a nitro finish does do is crack, chip and look like crap after a few years. That's what you get with nitro and nothing else.

The computerized guitar

Guitar makers have tried over the years to modernize the solid-body electric guitar. Several models (some of which are for sale right now) exist, but the problem with the computerized guitar has always been the same:

Nobody really wants one.

What counts as a "computerized guitar"?

It is an electric guitar that:

  1. Has some form of computerized control on it somewhere, such as motorized tuners.
  2. Has the ability to connect to a computerized device (MIDI, USB or both).
  3. All of the above.

Here are three guitars (one from Fender and two from Gibson). I'll first show them to you, and then tell you why I think they suck. Click any link below to see the current price for one.

Fender VG Stratocaster

This is the most computer-enhanced "Fender approved" Stratocaster you can buy. There is a circuit board sitting inside this Strat, and the Roland "enhancements" basically give you any type of sound you were ever looking for.

Epiphone Les Paul Ultra

The computerization here comes in the respect this Les Paul has a USB port when you can connect the guitar to compatible software on your computer.

Gibson Firebird X

The Firebird X (which is pronounced as "Firebird Ten" as the X is the Roman numeral 10) is without question the most computerized electric guitar on the market right now. The only way I can describe it is by saying it has everything. And I mean everything.

The GOOD stuff about computerized guitars

Well, I'll first begin with the GOOD about computerized guitars.

They are priced fairly

Given the amounts of tech that are stuffed into these things, the prices are actually quite reasonable.

They do the job they were designed to do

A computerized guitar does deliver on all its promises. There's no hype involved with these things at all. You do truly get a technologically advanced instrument that can do far more compared to its non-computerized predecessor.

They play like guitars should play

Care was taken to make sure a computerized guitar at its core is still a guitar. Pick one up and play it, and it's basically no different than a non-computerized solid-body electric. And yes, that's a good thing.

The BAD stuff about computerized guitars

Machines and computers just don't mix when it comes to guitars

An electric guitar is a machine that by nature is a very physical instrument. This isn't like a synthesizer where it just sits there and you play it. With a guitar, you sit down with it, you stand up with it, you move around while playing, and so on.

That being said, computerized guitars by nature are pretty much meant for studio use only. Bring one on stage and you're asking for a very expensive accident to happen.

The tones out of most computerized guitars are digital character and not player character

The sound you hear is what the computer in the guitar (if produced by the computer) "thinks" a guitar is supposed to sound like. For most players this is a huge turn-off because what makes a guitar tone is the natural properties of the pickups and not a circuit board.

Players more often than not prefer digital tone to come from anything but the guitar (such as digital effects pedals) because they can exert more control over it. Furthermore, if the digital tone doesn't agree with the player, he can simply remove it.

Most players consider computerized guitars "not real instruments"

Even though a computerized guitar is a real instrument in every sense of the term, players get turned off from them because they feel guitars should all be 100% manually operated things.

Do I personally agree with this? Yes, I do. I feel that you can express yourself better as a player with a non-computerized solid-body electric. I also feel that it makes you a better player overall. All electric guitars have their quirks, but that's part of the fun of playing. If you have a computer do everything for you, well, that's just no fun at all.

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