Guitar tablature is a powerful form of musical notation, where learners are shown where to place a finger on the neck of an instrument, and in what order. Such things as timing, note duration and playing force are not given, so unless a student knows or has access to a recorded version of the song being learned, the result may be somewhat different from what the composer intended. Usefully, such missing elements can be included in software like Guitar Pro to show users exactly how a song should be played. Two projects have now appeared on crowd-funding portal Kickstarter that take this idea and put it directly onto the guitar, so that learners won't need to keep switching views from screen to instrument. Tabber and the LED Sleeve guide players to the correct finger positions via LED lights on the neck.
Along similar lines to Piano Maestro, both of the projects looking for funding on Kickstarter make use of LED lights to show students of the guitar where and when to place fingers while learning a song. While they might appear similar in concept, the design approaches and implementations differ quite a bit.
The Tabber system
Music Everywhere's Rob Sanchez, Ryan Rogowski and Kipp Bradford have developed a working prototype of a visual guidance system for the guitar, called Tabber. At the moment, version 0.9 has had sections of the neck removed at the first 12 frets and LED light modules inserted, but the production version currently being developed is to be a flexible sleeve that slides on top of the neck, under the strings.
"The sleeve construction that we are prototyping is extremely thin pieces of flex PCB with RGB lights on top, allowing users to control the color for things like different colored strings and eventually finger placement," Sanchez told Gizmag. "The goal is to create a standardized enough size so that it can be taken on or off any guitar. We may need a couple different versions for less common neck scale lengths in the future."
Designed for beginner to intermediate players, the system indicates finger positioning on the neck by lighting up an LED at the appropriate fret, with an open string getting its own strip of lights at the nut. Like tab notation, Tabber won't tell you what finger needs to be placed on the string but it will be able to say when to do so. There's no indication on how, or even if, the system will be able to instruct on techniques like hammer-ons, vibrato or bending, but maybe such things are not what Tabber is about.
"The point of Tabber is to get the basics of guitar presented in a way that people feel confident about," Sanchez explained. "There are a fair amount of people who just want to pick up the guitar and play along to their favorite songs and not sound horrible. Tabber gives people the confidence to become a full-time musician, or someone who just wants to play for fun."
The Tabber team has created a teaching app for smartphones that will connect to the sleeve via Bluetooth. The free-to-download iOS/Android app can also be used to activate the lights to, say, spell out the name of the band along the neck or perhaps treat the audience to a custom light show. In addition to LED-guided lessons, the app will also include video tutorials to help explain or improve technique.
"We are working on integrations with Spotify and Echo Nest to stream the audio of the track you are playing as well as recognizing the key that the song is in so we can help you jam along," said Sanchez. "You'll also be able to share what you are playing with your friends who can then play along to the same song. I'm very interested in a Turntable.fm-like functionality where you can practice with other people and all enjoy being able to play music."
"We have built a system where we can process any song tab available on the internet, so the technical abilities of our library are basically as extensive as it gets. Lining up the rights to the songs is the only thing that will keep us from being able to play any song on Tabber."
As a special incentive for top tier backers, the Tabber team - who run a community workshop called The Garage in Providence, Rhode Island - has enlisted the services of Nick Holcomb to build ten special Tabber guitars based on the version 1 prototype.
Unfortunately, indepth technical detail is currently being held back for a future feature in MAKE Magazine, for which Bradford is the Technical Editor.
The LED Sleeve
The appropriately-named LED Sleeve concept appeared on Kickstarter at around the same time as Tabber but the projects, while similar, are not linked. The working prototype from Matt Smith, Jason Newman and Clint Berry of musicalight runs for six frets only, looks to impact on the host guitar an awful lot less than Tabber, and also deals with open string indication a little differently. When an open string needs picking, all of the LED lights along the appropriate string are dimly lit.
Like Tabber though, the production version will use a flexible circuit board wrapped around the host instrument's neck. This will be connected to a clip-on controller attached to the guitar's head, from which cables can be run to a laptop or computer running proprietary software. The team has developed a guitar tab parser that converts standard tab in text documents into the system's custom format. Users will be able to control song tempo, perhaps starting off slow and gently increasing to correct song speed.
Players who are also coding addicts will benefit from the system's open API, which will allow such users full control of the sleeve - so once you've got your song down, you are free to show off by spelling out the name of your band in LED lights or just provide the audience with a custom light show.
Future plans include an integrated microphone for real-time feedback from a software tutor or to act as a built-in tuner, a web application for interacting with video lessons or connecting with friends on social network feeds, and the product's website will feature a user community for learners to share tips and tricks, or more experienced system users to share hacks.