Stringing together a hit guitar
Irish designer Rob O’Reilly aims to do for electric guitars what Steve Jobs did for the mobile phone
It is hard to imagine modern life without the electric guitar or imagine how the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s could have occurred without it.
Les Paul’s great invention changed the world. Without the electric guitar there would have been no Elvis Presley, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones and no pop culture as we know it.
The electric guitar may have been a revolutionary instrument, but its evolution has been extremely conservative.
Designs for the electric guitar have barely changed in the last 50 years. The market remains dominated by Gibson and Fender.
Their marquee brands, the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster, are icons of modern culture and remain trusted by generation after generation of musicians.
For that reason, the guitar-buying public remains notoriously conservative.
As the Gibson company found to their cost, the guitar-buyer eschews anything that smacks of being a gimmick.
Two years ago Gibson launched the Firebird X, a guitar which had built-in effects and came with a hefty price tag, but it flopped.
Into the void has come Irish electric engineer, musician and entrepreneur Rob O’Reilly (30) from Killarney who set up the Pay As You Please restaurant in his hometown.
His BE guitar is a revolution in guitar design and his ambitions are equally impressive. The elemental colours of black and white are redolent of the original iPod.
“I’m doing for guitars what Steve Jobs did for phone,” he says.
“There is no guitar like it anywhere. When people see it they go ‘Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that before’. The overall visual look of it is totally different to anything on the market. It is mixing the fashion industry with the music industry.”
He designed his first guitar when he was 15 and played in his band called Hot Tramp for years.
His original motivation was to design a guitar that could bring the synthesiser sound to the instrument, a project which is ongoing as part of a research project at the University of Limerick.
His guitar has two radical features. The first is a transparent centre made of acrylic, heresy for orthodox guitar players for whom the wood at the centre of instrument is a key part of the sound.
The guitar has space for inlays which you can customise with your design or even include lights or a mirror inside.
The other is the balance bar which locks the guitar in place whether sitting or standing and is patent pending.
It also a plectrum holder built into the body of the guitar, handy for those annoying moments for guitarists when they cannot find their plectrum.
The pick-ups are made by Wilkinson and the guitar has lock-in tuners which makes it really simple to change a string.
The fretboard is made of maple with a white finish and is lacquered over. The frame is made of layered wood.
The guitar may look great, but guitarists will run a country mile if they believe it smacks of being a gimmick. In that respect, a laudable review by Total Guitar magazine could be a game changer for perceptions of the guitar.
Acknowledging that guitar design is “in the doldrums”, the reviewer Dave Burrluck gave it four stars out of five, praising its sound and design features.
He described it as “undoubtedly one heck of a visual statement, but for the money, it plays well and the tones it produces are more than acceptable”.
O’Reilly said that for all the new features on the guitar, the most important thing is that it “plays like a great guitar. Hopefully not all guitarists are conservative and they look at this as the new thing. If they want to try something new, that’s us,” he said.
The guitars are made in China and his ambitions are to sell 2,000 in the first year. The guitar has gone on sale in Waltons in Dublin and XMusic.
It is priced at €400, which is about the equivalent of a good copy of a Stratocaster or Les Paul.
His ambitions are to get the guitar into the hands of bands such as Kodaline or The Script to make it credible to aspirant musicians.
The endorsement of guitar heroes such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page turned the sunburst Gibson Les Paul from a moribund model into the most coveted guitar in history.
O’Reilly raised the first $25,000 through Kickstarter and then got a €50,000 endorsement for a 25 per cent stake from tech millionaire Sean O’Sullivan on Dragon’s Den after a bidding war.
At present O’Sullivan is giving him the use of his offices in Cork, but has left him time to develop and market the project himself.
“I love his confidence and capability and that he designed and manufactured the thing himself. It is remarkable,” said O’Sullivan, a musician himself, albeit a pianist.
“In 50 years of guitar making, nobody has come with a balance bar and the plectrum holder that are really simple but effective.
“I’m a great believer in good design and was a big investor in Apple. You can never predict the future. With the persistence and the vision that Rob is illustrating, we have reason to be very hopeful.”