U-Md. Professor, Students Create Electric Guitar That Allows Customized Sounds

Students of Bruce Jacob, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland, jam on the electric guitar Jacob invented. Video by Courtesy of Coil, LLC.
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

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 U-Md.-designed electronics will sell, starting at $1,000 or so. The school is announcing the launch of the Web site where the guitars are sold today. But will guitar enthusiasts buy it?

"If it were my company, I'd be terrified," said Rick Hogue, owner of Garrett Park Guitars in Annapolis and Severna Park. It's a fiercely competitive industry and a tough market. "Good traditional stuff is not selling. Stuff that a year or so ago was selling well now is stagnant."

It's an easy place to cut back in a rough economy, he said: "You want to eat before you buy a guitar."

And yet, if the technology really lets someone get the tone they want, Hogue said, "they'll sell a million of them."

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 percent of them are electrical engineering and mathematics," Jacob said.

But musicians are a lot 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-and-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. It either feels nice and sexy in your hands -- 'I've just gotta have this, it feels like an extension of my soul' -- or it doesn't," he said.

Jacob bought his first guitar when he was about 12 to play songs by such 1970s rock bands as Rush. Years later, he bought one while on sabbatical from his job teaching electrical and computer engineering at U-Md. The instrument frustrated him because it was, in effect, just red. "You could have deep red, light red, intense red, pale red. But basically everything you could do with it is red. As soon as you can throw in blue, well, you can make red and blue -- and purple. Throw in yellow, you get green and orange and all sorts of stuff."

Guitar notes come from magnets wrapped in copper wire, electromagnets also known as pickups or coils that take the vibrations from the metal guitar strings and send the currents to a speaker, an amplifier or a recorder. The way the coils are configured changes the sound, anything from loud and punchy and grungy, to funky and nasally and twangy; that's why lots of players end up pulling the backs off of their guitars to rewire them and adjust the tone or dragging multiple guitars around, he said.

Jacob puzzled over the wiring problem for about a year, finally using a circuit board to simplify it. The first time he tried it, at home late one night, "I plugged it in, and it just leaped to life. I was like, 'Duuuuuuuuuude! It worked!' I was giddy. I was leaping around the house."

He worked with engineering students Timothy Babich and Justin Ahmanson, guitar players who were undergraduates at the time, to develop the system. Their guitars are designed with little pegs on the circuit board in the back that can be set to configure the coils to just the right sound and then rejiggered, if desired, to a completely different tone another time. It's not a matter of adjustments of multiple switches during a live show. But it's not something that's hardwired into the guitar, either; it can be changed in a matter of seconds.

"I was just trying," Jacob said, "to get that sound in my head."

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