Electronic music has hit its stride in pop culture, fusing digital beats with analogue sounds. Forgetting the tacky key-tar of the ’80s, does this revamp on the digital guitar salvage the concept for next-gen musicians?
A next-generation key-tar, the aptly named Kitara is a digital guitar that swaps out strings for a fully articulated set of fret buttons across its neck and a touchpad for strumming its virtual strings. Intended for electronic musicians who otherwise use keyboards, the Kitara sits awkwardly between a guitar and any other synthesiser, and finding out whether it’s right for you could take a jam session or two.
As stressed by its creator, the Kitara is not a guitar. If you pick up the Kitara with that mindset, you’re in for a world of disappointment. It features an ambidextrous design and shares a very similar weight to a typical electric guitar, though the body is a bit wide which doesn’t help playability.
Not all principles of guitar playing translate directly to the digital form: pull-offs onto open strings don’t work, but close seconds can be worked around by changing tunings or loading up a setting that creates an open sound when the touchpad is pressed. But then if you go into two-handed tapping, the problem pops back up. Ditch analogue and you’re also ditching analogue techniques like palm muting since there aren’t any physical strings to dampen with your palm. Same goes for artificial harmonics and the like.
Customisation of your sound down to a tee and MIDI compatibility make this a real force for music creation compared to earlier digital guitar incarnations. With a MIDI connector and cable supplied, the Kitara can be attached to any other MIDI controller or professional set up to register and record every key, so if you’re using Pro Tools or Ableton, for instance, you can input and edit everything you play. All the synth sound computing is done inside the unit and can be completely customised from the touchpad.
Touching to two outer corners of the touchpad at once brings up a menu with a volume slider, range of plucking-hand layouts, a whole list of presets and further custom controls. Gain, reverb, tuning – everything can be tailored to create a unique sound. The online Misa Digital community is always expanding on these sounds, and upgrading the guitar is as simple as attaching it to a computer and upgrading the firmware and downloading new presets.
There are three modes for your picking hand, all which can be used in conjunction to create sound the way you feel comfortable and for creating new sounds unthought-of on a traditional guitar. Tap: all buttons on the neck make an individual noise when pressed. Ball: a fixed or travelling ball shows up on the touchpad that is dragged across the screen to alter pitch and alter various other sound elements – a good experimental tool for finding new sounds. Strings: emulates a six-string with digital strings that light up and make a sound that corresponds with the fret you’re holding down when tapped – can be strummed and allows the open note to be hit unlike in other modes.
Since the buttons are so easy to push down and offer virtually no action (the equivalent of having light strings very close to the face of the guitar neck) the Kitara’s neck is very easy to traverse, though inadvertently pushing buttons you didn’t intend to can become an issue if your hand isn’t as trained. Those used to traditional guitars and who weren’t swept up by the ’80s penchant for headstock-less guitars might be a little put off by the cut-off before the first fret on the end of the neck.
It’s an instrument you’ve got to ease into, with little aspects you have to get used to before playing becomes comfortable and fluid. The ‘string’ setting awkwardly places each virtual string out of line with the string lines on the neck. It makes them easier to press without fumbling over each other (important when there’s no tangible string to feel for) but it is also another uncomfortable difference you’ve got to get used to and overcome. Buttons and the touch screen are very responsive though. The buttons are easy to press down but firm, and the unit as a whole feels very well-built – nothing cheap or overly-plastic about it. Sliding up and down the frets produces a smooth, trailing sound rather than a rigid beep after beep noise of hitting different buttons in succession; it flows. Since the buttons are so finger friendly, it easy on the fingertips too.
Essentially, learning the Kitara is learning a new form of guitar. There are many basic principles that translate directly over, and so you’ll want to be a guitar player already to make the most of the Kitara. But if you go into it with the strict mindset that you’re going to be playing a guitar, you’ll be sorely surprised.