Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Good news, bad news, and a lot of talk about a hypothetical guitar modification.

Good news:
--Primary computer has been repaired and heading home.
--I made it home alive

Bad news:
--My current internet connection is sporadic at best which is making it more or less impossible to keep up with anything online.
--Even though the flea situation seems to be under control and heading toward completely fixed the cat is still afraid to come inside.
--Worse still, while it's usually fine to have someone stop by to make sure she can get in to eat and make sure the food bowl isn't empty, her fear of the fleas changed this in a way that I didn't expect: Even with someone making regularly checking on her, she hasn't been eating enough because she won't stay in the house long enough to do so. Now that I'm back I can work to address this BUT she's already lost a lot of weight in a short time and that's not good.
--Coming back home means coming back to a place where I have no hot water. And the cold water is fracking cold. No more showers and washing dishes is difficult at best.
--I really miss not-overheating due to the availability of air conditioning.
--All it took was for me to be back home for one day and I ended up missing my medication and my pages. Go me.

Random news:

I have a tendency to think up musical instruments. I assume the reason that no one has built them, or that I haven't heard of them if someone has, is that either no one wants them or not enough people want them for them to exist/be common enough for me to hear about.

At the moment I'm thinking about guitars. Guitars for people who lack the capacity to play guitars. Keyed guitars.

Do such things exist? No idea, I'll look into it when I have a better internet connection.

But the reasoning is basically this:

Frets on a guitar are a sacrifice made to deal with the fact that people can't place their fingers perfectly and most people don't really want to try.

Maybe that's going too fast.

Strings vibrate, the vibrating strings transfer vibrations through the bridge to the soundboard, the vibrating soundboard moves a lot more air than the strings could on their own, the moving air comes out of the resonating chamber through the sound hole, and that's what makes a guitar sound the way it does.

Short version: Strings vibrate thus sound.

The note produced depends upon the vibration of the string which in turn depends upon a variety of factors.

Someone looking at a steel string guitar (not to be confused with steel guitar, which is something else entirely) will quickly note that the strings are not all the same size and indeed aren't even all made out of the same materials. That's because the idea is to have the strings be about the same length but tuned to different pitches.

Tension also matters which is why guitars have those fun tuney knob things.

You can't change the composition of the strings while playing and most people don't screw with the tension.

Changes in pitch are done by changing the length of the string. Put your finger down on the fingerboard (also known as the fretboard) and that functions as a new end for the string. Sort of. It would if there were no frets.

On a fretless guitar (they do exist) where your finger pushes the string into the fingerboard functions as one end of the string. The bridge is the other end. The distance between the two is the functional length of the string.

This new length with vibrate differently than the old length (which was from the nut to the bridge) and as a result a different note will sound when the string is struck, picked, strummed, or hammered.

The problem with this set up is that you're probably not going to press the string to the fingerboard in just the right place to produce a note on the chromatic scale.

(The chromatic scale being: A, A sharp/B flat, B, C, C sharp/D flat, D, D sharp/E flat, E, F, F sharp/G flat, G, G sharp/A flat)

Thus frets. Frets are designed so that pressing the string on the fingerboard will result not in an uninterrupted length of string from the bridge to where you're pressing but instead the fret will get in the way creating an uninterrupted length of string from the bridge to the fret (and then a much shorter length from the fret to where you're pressing which doesn't really matter.)

This changes string length from continuous to discrete. Instead of infinite possible lengths each string can only take on a handful. Specifically the number of frets plus one. So, say, 25. 25 possible lengths is much easier to deal with than infinite.

The frets are not placed at random. They're positioned so that the resulting string lengths will be about the notes of the chomatic scale. It's not exact (and there are various methods that have been used to try to make it closer to right, though) but if you depress a string on the fingerboard of a well tuned fretted guitar you can be reasonably sure that the note produced when that string vibrates will be pretty close to one of the notes on the chromatic scale.

There is a trade off. That's why fretless guitars still exist. Some people would prefer to go without the trade off at least some of the time.

A standard fretted guitar cannot play quarter tones. Well, it can but you'd have to tune it specifically for that purpose and all strings so-tuned would be unable to play the normal semi-tones. A fretted guitar cannot make a smooth slide without a special tool intended for the job. Slides are definitely possible, but the frets make it so they're … I guess “bumpy” would be the best word.

The whole point here is that the guitar, like most musical instruments, is entirely about finding a trade off between ease and versatility that is desirable for the player.


That trade off being so visible in the design (don't know for sure but I'm guessing most people think of guitars as having frets) invites one to think of other possible trade offs.

Fingerpicking is awesome, but it requires being able to get your fingers in the right places at the right time to pick the desired string without accidentally sounding or muting another string and it requires either the maintenance of finger nails with which to pick or the use of fingerpicks designed for the job but which may interfere with something else you want to do. (The standard fingerpick holds onto the finger by going around it, which is going to be a problem if you want to use that finger for anything where having a usually-metal band around it would interfere.)

Assuming that someone doesn't have a disability that prevents them from fingerpicking, the standard solution to the difficulty of fingerpicking is practice. That is, after all, how one gets good at any style of using a musical instrument.

A different solution would be a mechanically picked guitar. Instead of relying on fingers to pick some mechanism or other (there are many possibilities) would do the picking and it would be controlled by keys. One could rest the fingers on the keys to keep them in the right place, since the picking is done by the mechanism not the fingers there would never be a worry about picking one string accidentally affecting another string. So forth.

It's not like mechanical picking isn't a thing. The harpsichord is a mechanically picked instrument that's the size of a piano.

I wouldn't imagine anything like piano keys on a keyed guitar, probably something more the size and shape of the keys on an old fashioned round-key typewriter. (Which suggests going for a steampunk aesthetic even though I lean toward a much more all-wood old-fashioned aesthetic when thinking about this.)

Six keys and you've got the picking of individual strings down. You could add six more to silence individual strings. Add what I'm suddenly going to call a space bar to strum all the strings, and a second one to silence them all and you've suddenly transformed the actions of the picking hand into something more like typing than guitar playing. Different skill set, space for different focus.

Nothing terribly complex about any of this (though it would involve some annoyingly small parts) and I assume the reason that it hasn't been done is that no one really wants it.

But that's what I've been thinking about as I sit here without reliable internet.

On the other end of a guitar is, of course, a neck. Where the frets live.

The body of the guitar invites this kind of thinking because of two things:
1 There's a limited number of things you can do there.
2 There's a lot of space to work with.

The neck sort of shuns similar thoughts because of two things:
1 There's a much larger number of things you can do there.
2 There's hardly any space to work with.

To put that into more words, near the bridge all you can do to the strings is sound them or silence them. There are multiple ways you can do that, but this whole thing is about trading versatility for ease of use. Six strings, two functions --> twelve keys assuming we don't double up functions with keys. (Which one totally could.)

I mentioned adding in keys to strum or silence all the strings, so now we're up to 14 keys.

14 keys that can be put basically anywhere. One of the nice things about mechanical linkages is that there's no reason that they have to begin anywhere near where they end. (That's also a nice thing about electronics. When my internet adapter is working there's no need for the computer to be near the modem.)

The body of a guitar has a lot of space so there are a lot of options for where to put those keys.

At the other end things are very different.

At the simplest, with all advanced technique ignored, there are as many things to do to a guitar string on a neck as there are frets. I used the 24 fret guitar as an example before. 24 things you can do to a string times six strings is 144. Gross.

One could go about looking at the neck the same way we looked at the body (KEYS FOR ALL THE THINGS) but that would lead to 144 keys to put on the neck which does not have a lot of real estate.

I'm not saying it couldn't work, it totally could work. And I find myself imagining the keys being like laptop keys and covering the whole neck so you don't even see that it's a stringed instrument and it gives off this whole “Age of Computers” vibe.

So, sure, it totally could be done. There's just not that much point in doing it.

The neck is different from the body. It's completely flipped with the options versus area thing and, more importantly, it serves a completely different purpose. It deserves a different treatment.

Notes usually aren't chosen in random ways. They are connected to one another. Guitar music makes strong use of chords.

There are way too many chords to possibly do them all, but what I can see is the potential to work out the most common cords a musician is going to be playing and making those available at the push of a button.  Or, to keep terminology consistent, the use of a key.

Things become much easier for people who have difficulty contorting their fingers into the necessary shapes to make the cords.

And at this point I would like to add that all of this talk about a guitar that will presumably never be built isn't just about people too lazy to practice. Actually it's not about them at all. It's about finding something to think about when I'm sitting all alone in a house where most of the things don't work and then taking that something to think about to its clear conclusion given the trajectory it started with.

But that is neither here nor there.

If we imagine a guitar that is easier to play by the use of modifying the means to play it in order to make manual dexterity less of an issue (though it's still an issue because keys have to be hit, it's just often easier to deal with them than with strings) the people who would benefit include more than just be people who lacked the manual dexterity because of a lack of practice. It would also benefit people who lacked it because of age, illness, or injury.

This is, more or less, what I do when cut off from the internet and without human contact.

Think about random stuff.


  1. That sounds like a possible thing. The autoharp is a strummed instrument with buttons for standard chords, for example, although it works by having strings for all the notes and muting the unneeded ones rather than by pressing frets.

    Looking at the Wikipedia page for guitar chords, I imagine that it might be mechanically convenient to have a regular tuning - e.g. the all-fourths tuning - and do chords in two steps: first choosing a root, then which type of chord. The regular tuning makes changing the root a matter of just moving down one fret (mostly).

    ...that said, I don't know enough about guitar or disabilities to know what would be the best way to make the former and the latter not get in each other's way.

  2. One of the "hallmarks" of 80s music was a syntheizer keyboard that was rigged in a similar way to a guitar, so that it could be played with many of the same flairs, so someone, I think, has at least thought a little about this. I would guess, with enough musical theory knowledge, it would be possible to design an instrument where one hand controlled the root note and the other, the modifiers to that note or chord such that it would be easier on the hands, and it could be housed in a container that looked guitarish, so that no person would be the wiser.