Time to go rocking with these new guitars

The You Rock lets you do some stunts you cant do on a real guitar

Apart from an electric spinoff about 80 years ago, it’s pretty much always been the same: a body, a neck and six strings.

But music has taken some interesting turns in the last few years. Video games like “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” started an international wave of new interest in the guitar.

Software like GarageBand and Logic let musicians record and edit music on their computers. And YouTube has made possible a new meritocracy in music: If you’re talented, you’ll get discovered.

Into the intersection of these trends comes a fascinating, one-of-a-kind new instrument called the You Rock guitar ($200) from Inspired Instruments. Its solid plastic body is small and not as heavy as wood, but much more substantial than the hollow plastic that most Guitar Hero heroes are used to. You play real steel strings with your right hand. But they’re only 6 inches long; they don’t continue up the neck.

Instead, your left fingers, on the neck, press what turn out to be only touch sensors. So what does this accomplish? In certain niches, this hybrid does a better job than anything that’s come before it.

The sound from this guitar doesn’t come from the ringing of the strings; instead, the strings are just triggers for MIDkI data. (MIDI, pronounced ‘middy,’ stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface; it’s a standard communications language for musical information. Basically, it lets electronic instruments talk to computers.) As a result, this guitar can do some neat tricks. For example, you can pop the neck off for travel – something you generally try to avoid with regular guitars.

You can plug the You Rock into an amplifier, as with a real electric guitar. But you can also plug in headphones or earbuds, a rare feature indeed. Since the You Rock can get its power from four AA batteries, it’s an incredibly portable and private practice instrument. You can play when you’re in a rowboat, up in a tree, next to a sleeping partner – all places where ordinary electric guitars would fear to tread. And you’re not just carrying around one guitar; you’re carrying 100. The You Rock is a full-blown synthesizer. It can sound like a gentle nylon-string acoustic, a rich 12-string folk guitar, a screaming, distorted heavy-metal axe – even an organ or a string section.

Most people play Guitar Hero or Rock Band with a cheap fake guitar that has no strings at all. Your left hand presses five colour-coded plastic buttons on the neck, and your right hand strums a plastic flipper. You rack up points by playing famous songs along with your “band” – but in this simplified world, you have only those five buttons to worry about. Your left hand never actually moves on the neck.

The You Rock guitar can replace that chintzy game guitar. Colour-coded spots on the side of the neck correspond to the five keys. You do, however, need to insert a $20 wireless converter cartridge, tailored to the game and console version you own. (Cartridges for Wii and PlayStation 3 games are available now; Xbox is coming soon.) You also need to practice, because pressing frets instead of plastic keys feels a lot different.

At the peak of their popularity, those guitar games earned their share of controversy. Some parents muttered, “Why can’t my kid learn a real instrument instead of faking it?” Others beamed, “Hey, maybe the next step is learning the real thing!”

Whether Guitar Hero is your inspiration or not, if you’re a beginner, the You Rock guitar is a spectacular choice. First, both the ‘strings’ and the ‘frets’ on the neck are fine, raised rubber lines not taut steel or nylon. They don’t hurt your fingers and you don’t build up calluses. Second, you never have to tune this guitar. In fact, you can change the key of the whole guitar without having to play any differently.

Third, there’s You Rock mode. The guitar’s control panel (colorful square buttons on the top edge) contains 25 song loops – a professional backup band laying down grooves for you. It’s great fun, and great practice, to play along. There’s also an audio input so that you can play along with music from your iPod or another source. But if you press the You Rock button, the guitar benevolently mutes any notes you play that would sound wrong. It’s hand-holding that might make grizzled veterans cluck – but it does make stumbling through your beginning months a lot less discouraging.

Midi controller
This may be the You Rock’s secret weapon. For years, keyboard players have been able to connect their MIDI keyboards to their Macs and PCs. They use software like GarageBand, Logic, Cubase or Performer to record, edit, enhance and play back their performances. Guitar players haven’t had such luck. Oh, sure, you can buy a MIDI pickup for your guitar. That’s a special microphone that converts the strings’ pitches into MIDI information for your computer.

Now, I’m a musician, but not a guitarist. To evaluate the You Rock, I assembled an advisory panel of guitarists. They included two students – my own children, 12 and 14 – and two instructors at the local guitar centre. My daughter loved the silent-practice feature. She put on headphones, sat on a step and disappeared into experimentation and practice, delighted that nobody else could hear.

My son noted that in most regards, the You Rock plays exactly like a real guitar. But without real strings, you can’t do pull-offs from an open string (where you pluck it with your left hand). You also can’t ‘bend’ a note by pushing the neck string sideways, though the You Rock’s ‘whammy bar’ produces the same sound.

Then again, the You Rock lets you do some stunts you can’t do on a real guitar, like Tap Mode. That’s when you don’t pluck the strings at all. Instead, you play entirely on the neck, as though it’s a weird sort of fretted keyboard. The local guitar teachers didn’t look impressed when they saw the plastic body and missing headstock (the panel at the end of the neck that usually holds the tuning pegs). But they quickly came around.

“It’s the ultimate travel guitar,” concluded one. Another doubted that a real guitarist would travel with it or perform with it, but said that even professionals would love its MIDI features. “If you’re a guitarist,” he said, “it’s a much easier way of getting stuff into the computer than clicking with a mouse or being a lousy piano player.”

He also agreed that for young gamers, the You Rock makes a great bridge. “I have students who come to the guitar from Rock Band and realize right away, ‘There’s no similarity here. Just because I was good at the game doesn’t mean I can play at all.' This thing is a lot closer to what the actual instrument’s all about.”

So for amateurs, MIDI-inclined professionals, and maturing guitar heroes and heroines, this versatile, inexpensive instrument is truly valuable. Put another way: You Rock, you rock.

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