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The perfect tone on a new guitar?

July 10, 2009|Susan Kinzie

Bruce Jacob had a few songs he wanted to record, tunes that had been jangling around in his head for years. He bought a guitar, but the notes he played never sounded as good as the music he had imagined.

Here's how Jacob, 43, describes the sounds a guitar makes: "If you have a bunch of paints, you can create any paint you want from the three or four fundamental colors. With guitars, it's the exact same thing. You can make any sound you want out of three or four colors. But most guitars have one color."

So the University of Maryland engineering professor decided to create a better guitar, attacking an elusive aesthetic problem with a series of math equations, a circuit board and wiring. He and a couple of his students crammed a dizzying number of variables into a simple product that he hopes will allow any player to capture just the tone desired.

Jacob and the students launched Coil, a company that uses the patent-pending electronics they developed to customize the sound in guitars. He has received office space and a research grant from the university, which wants to promote entrepreneurship, but the risk is his and his partners': They have staked about $100,000 on the venture.

Now he and his partners are waiting to see whether the Korean-made guitars with the electronics they designed will sell, starting at $1,000 or so. The school has announced the launch of the website where the guitars are sold. But will guitar enthusiasts buy it?

If the technology really lets someone get the tone they want, "they'll sell a million of them," said Rick Hogue, owner of Garrett Park Guitars in Maryland.

Musicians trying to define tone are by turns eloquent and tongue-tied. "Tone is -- it's a quality you're trying to achieve. It's a derivative of skill and passion. You're always looking for it," Hogue said, adding that he wouldn't be in business if tone weren't so elusive. "People look their whole lives for that tone they had one particular night, or the tone in their mind. [Jimi] Hendrix said he couldn't get all the things out that were in his head, he couldn't play everything he heard."

That's what Coil is trying to create with its guitars. "These things are pop-culture icons, but 90% of them are electrical engineering and mathematics," Jacob said.

But musicians are more traditional and skeptical than one might think, said Michael Molenda, editor in chief of Guitar Player. "There's been no real good new designs since 1950," Hogue said. "Rock 'n' roll was born on those instruments."

Besides, the last thing most musicians want is some soulless, complicated machine that doesn't sound authentic. You can see it in any music store, Molenda said, as people pull guitars off the racks and play them for a minute or two. "They either speak to you or not," he said.

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Kinzie writes for the Washington Post.

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