A life story told in wood and song

16 Oct 2014 15:03:44.147


Bob Dylan’s Fender Stratocaster, Willie Nelson’s ‘Trigger’ and Neil Young’s ‘Old Black’ Gibson Les Paul — if guitars could talk they would have compelling tales to tell about the legendary musicians with whom they have become synonymous.

Now scientists at The University of Nottingham have teamed up with a master craftsman to create a beautiful new interactive acoustic guitar that can digitally capture and chart its own life history.

The project is using unique technology to hide digital codes within the decorative patterns adorning the instrument. In a similar way to QR codes, these can be scanned using an app on a mobile phone or tablet to unlock or upload information via the Internet. This unusual technology enables the guitar to build and share a ‘digital footprint’ throughout its lifetime.

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The finished instrument — dubbed Carolan after the composer Turlough O’Carolan, the last of the great blind Irish harpers and an itinerant musician who roamed Ireland at the turn of the 18th century composing and playing beautiful Celtic tunes, will be unveiled for the first time on Saturday 18 October 2014 in the Guitar Spot on Chilwell Road in Beeston, Nottingham as part of the national Oxjam Music Festival.

Professor Steve Benford, a computer scientist in the University’s Mixed Reality Laboratory and keen amateur guitarist, is leading the project. He said: 

“Like its namesake, Carolan is a roving bard; a performer that passes from place to place, learning tunes, songs and stories as it goes and sharing them with the people it encounters along the way.

“Making this interactive guitar has been an incredibly difficult challenge, involving an unusual meeting of minds between a traditional craftsman and computer scientists.

“This is just the beginning of the journey. We're going to learn so much when our guitar finds its way into the world to gather stories and songs from players and audiences.”

The computer scientists have teamed up with Liz Jeal, freelance graphic designer and teacher who has created the Celtic-inspired patterns adorning the guitar. Using a distinctive new technology called Aestheticodes, the scientists have been able to embed hidden codes within the beautiful designs.

Next, Nick Perez, a luthier (guitar maker) and teacher at the Newark School of Instruments and Crafts, has built the guitar which is broadly based on the popular Dreadnought or ‘Dread’ style. The design features a striking soundboard which mixed decorative Celtic knotwork with multiple soundholes to create an unusual scannable pattern.

The Aestheticode designs have been etched on to the flamed maple of the body, then carefully inlaid by Nick with Indian Rosewood — the result is a crisp, clean design that can be scanned from some distance away, perhaps through a shop window or even by an audience at a concert.

The decorative patterns will feature in various locations on the instrument, each revealing one aspect of the guitar’s life story. The headstock of the guitar, which traditionally features the maker’s logo, will link to a digital version of the maker’s label while the soundboard of the guitar will tell its official story: the history of how it was made and where it has visited.

The soundboard become its musical voice, which will play back one or more songs or tunes that have been recorded on the guitar and will allow players to upload their own recordings to add to its collection. 

The back of the guitar is reserved for its unofficial history — its public blog on which people can comment or post photos, videos and recordings wherever they encounter it.

Finally, a small pattern discretely located in a hidden nook of the guitar will unlock hidden content for the truly dedicated fan clever enough to find it.

But perhaps the most exciting moment for the team — who are almost all keen guitarists themselves — will be the opportunity to play the instrument for the first time.

The project is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) through Professor Benford’s Dream Fellowship award, the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training and the Fusing Semantic and Audio Technologies (FAST) project.

The full story of the Carolan has been documented at every stage along the way via a blog, which also features videos of the etchings being made on the body of the instrument.

Videos on the Carolan guitar project are available here and here.

— Ends —

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also the most popular university in the UK among graduate employers, in the top 10 for student experience according to the Times Higher Education and one of the world’s greenest universities

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Steve Benford in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 4203, steve.benford@nottingham.ac.uk 

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: emma.thorne@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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