For today’s installment of Meet the Maker, I decided to veer toward the tech side of things and introduce you to two inventors who are shaking up the way people make music. When I met with founder Idan Beck and brand development lead Josh Stansfield last fall, I got a chance to check out their new product, the gTar, which makes it easy for everyone—expert and novice alike—to make music right off the bat. So I wanted to give you a sneak peek into how gTar came about, all the things you can do with it, and a chance to hear the nerve-wrecking, behind-the-scenes story of their product debut.
To start things off, tell us a little bit about your background and how the idea came about.
Idan: Well, I grew up in Israel and was exposed to music as a kid. My parents started me in piano lessons when I was about 3 years old, and I was also obsessed with computers. I remember going over to my cousin’s house and only wanting to play on the computer. I switched to learning guitar when I was around 10 years old, and by that time I was obsessively programming as well. I was sort of getting into trance and electronic music, and making it on the computer, but it was more challenging because I thought about music the way a guitarist would, not a programmer.
Jumping ahead, I was working at Microsoft as an engineer when the first iPhone came out, and that’s when I really started focusing on what eventually became the gTar—on nights and weekends, of course.
Josh: gTar is an app-enabled smart guitar that makes music fun and accessible regardless of previous experience.
Idan: Basically, we wanted to make playing guitar become like second nature to the people who learn through gTar. It’s designed for the novice, but configured for the pro—you can start playing right away. You might not be a virtuoso on your first go, but you can make music. The gTar runs on an app on your iPhone, and has LED lights on the neck of the guitar that light up to give you a guided tour of what you should be playing. It was actually my mom’s idea to put the iPhone dock directly in the guitar. It was her one requirement before she would help fund me in the early, early stage. When you turn on the gTar and launch the app, you are guided through playing a song with the matrix of LEDs on the frets.
How did you get to the working prototype and the eventual finished gTar?
Idan: By building lots of other prototypes.
Josh: We pretty much worked with the idea that we would play with a prototype until it broke, and then fix it, and then start all over again. We eventually got to the point where they were getting harder and harder to break. At that point we started working with a company in China, and everything sped up dramatically from there.
Speaking of breaking prototypes, you had that happen around the time of your demo at TechCrunch Disrupt. What happened?
Idan: Well, in doing our first run through and sound check in preparation for Disrupt, we discovered that the prototype we were using to demo—which I can now say was a piece of crap by comparison—had a problem with the output. When we plugged it in at the auditorium there was this high pitched ringing noise. If we’d gone on stage with it, the whole room would have sounded like a subway car hitting the breaks and being amplified by the speaker system. Thankfully, this was the night before, so after a trip to the hardware store, we basically set up a mini workshop in our hotel room. We ripped out the audio jack and had to solder in a completely new one. Then, of course, we also had the iPhone spontaneously reset itself while I was on stage, but luckily it was up and running in time for the actual demo.
(You can see their presentation at Tech Crunch Disrupt here.)
What’s been the most inspiring thing you’ve seen so far in watching people use the gTar?
Josh: I think for me it’s seeing kids use it. I gave a presentation to high school students recently and playing just a guitar is not how they think about music anymore. They are thinking about technology and music as a part of that. But we’ve also seen kids, really little kids, who haven’t had any guitar experience be able to pick it up and figure it out so easily.
Idan: For me, it’s twofold. First, it’s seeing people come up with out of the box ideas for the gTar. Like an intern we had really early on, we let him choose a project and run with it, and he build an app that we hope to release in the future that would turn the entire fretboard into a drum machine. It’s the first time we saw a completely different use for the device. Second, has been getting gTar in the hands of well-known digital musicians and watching them control their entire setup just from the gTar and the new app.
[Note: I got to get my hands on a gTar recently and was shocked at how easy it was to play! Just call me Jimi Hendrix.]
Tell me more about the new app.
Idan: Well we started out with six months of user feedback from Kickstarter, and we went forward with a redesign—a facelift with new button colors and placement. It just made it more usable. We decided to make the app not just replicate what a guitar could do, but really focused on the interface to make it as easy to use as possible.
Next we incorporated two playing modes: normal play and free play. Play gives you a list of songs—or chords and scales—that you can play at a difficulty level that suits you. The difficulty level determines how the gTar reacts when you make a mistake. For beginners, you’ll still get the right note so you’re making music that sounds good, and you won’t get discouraged as you’re learning. And it gets progressively harder from there. Free play mode does just what it says—you can play whatever you want, without the lights on the fret, and you can adjust the sound with the distortion “pedal” on the app. We also added all the instruments to play mode—not just free play, so you can test out your favorite songs with all kinds of instruments.
So what’s next?
Josh: We’re really looking to [get into] 3rd party apps next. We’re excited to have people build new things that we’ve never thought of and come up with all kinds of possibilities for the gTar.
Thanks so much to Idan and Josh for sharing their maker story. You can learn more about gTar and order one here. Stay tuned for our next Meet the Maker spotlight!