Music games like Guitar Hero introduced the notion of musical instruments that scale digitally to the masses. By the time Harmonix introduced the latest version of Rock Band, complete with MIDI controllers, you are able to go from something that’s a toy to simply playing the instrument in a conventional way. The idea of scalability isn’t even new in instrument design – from capos to an instrument like the Autoharp to the very invention of frets, instrument builders have always designed instruments in ways to make them easier to play. In a digital/software realm, though, the plasticity of an instrument means it can reshape itself at will. So, why not take that game-style “leveling up” system and apply it to the guitar?

The gTar, the creation of an upstart San Francisco design team, is an attempt to do just that. In easy mode, I imagine it could quickly be a lightning rod for controversy – light-up frets stop you from hitting wrong notes, and the whole system is based on plugging in an iPhone, making this the latest “instrument as Apple dock” entry. But there’s promise both in the level-up system and software integration, and for readers of this site who do already play the guitar, it’s also a MIDI controller.

Showing off that versatility, founder Idan Beck sends a first video of the gTar playing Ableton Live, at top. See the complete intro video below for a broader look at the concept of the gTar and a bit of the prototype in action.

The Kickstarter campaign launching the instrument last week has had a meteoric rise, apparently striking a nerve, racking up big donations and endorsements from the founder of Dropbox, Rolling Stone, and everyone in between.

Before you judge either the gTar or the ideas behind it, it’s worth surfing through developers Incident Tech and their Tumblr blog. Even if you don’t take to their solution, they have some compelling quotes about design and difficulty in music, including what folks like Brian Eno have to say about the matter at the moment:

Idan also has this to say about the project and the latest video:

I’m the founder of Incident, we’ve been working on the gTar which we officially launched last week via. a Kickstarter campaign. The gTar is a fully digital guitar, has an iPhone dock and an LED lit fretboard and can be used for a number of different applications.

Been a long time reader of CDM which was a constant source of inspiration for me while I was working on the early prototypes of the gTar. Originally, the motivation to add the LEDs came from the Monome and the idea of using a guitar to manipulate loops/samples with Ableton. The interactive LEDs actually led to the realization that the gTar tech could be used as an interactive guitar interface, so this is what I ended up focusing on, but the original intent was a musical one.

Recently we had some time to really come full circle and implement this Ableton support. We made a quick demo of this in action. Like the Monome or APC40 the lights on the fretboard represent clips in Ableton. Since the LEDs are RGB we can also roughly represent the color of the clip (the prototype shown only supports 8 bit color).

He also encourages questions. So, you know what to do: readers, what would you ask the creators of the gTar about what they’ve created and what it does? (I’m sure this will inspire some opinions; see if you can articulate those opinions in the form of a question and we’ll start an actual conversation.)

It is to me at least thought-provoking. An instrument like the Autoharp takes on its own personality, one with which you can build a long-term relationship. gTar in fact makes it easier to play, but at its heart, it has more in common with a MIDI keyboard or other MIDI controller – and, while Kickstarter and the Web are getting it a lot more attention, it certainly isn’t the first tool to use digital controllers to teach people how to play an instrument. (Various keyboards and guitars have done that over the years.) In fact, like those tools, disposability is the biggest issue – a guitar can last you a lifetime; an iPhone dock can’t. So, my challenge to the gTar would be to see two things: one, if it can attract musicians to engaging in the “teach-yourself” approach of the instrument in a way previous products haven’t, and two, if it can, in hard mode, be something a guitar isn’t. The monome is a good model, in that even with a strikingly-simple design, software transformed it into something unique, inspiring music that was unmistakably music produced on a monome. The gTar isn’t really a guitar. So, the question is: what could it be?

We’ll revisit this soon.

On Kickstarter: