Interview with Kevin Kent, Inspired Instruments

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo


Last week, Irvine-based Inspired Instruments ( announced a round of funding, saying that it has developed an electronic guitar which combines the game controller functionality for popular videogames like Rock Band and Guitar Hero with actual musical functionality. To hear about how the firm is hoping to change the music industry, and bridge between the world of video games and music, we spoke with CEO and co-founder Kevin Kent.

Can you describe what your instrument is all about?

Kevin Kent: What we wanted to do was create an instrument that was a bridge between the millions and millions of gamers and guitarists who wanted to get into the digital age. My partner and I, Cliff Elion, have a patent pending neck technology which enables the guitar to be made at a very accessible price point, and also have probably more functionality and connectivity than any device in history. When we started discussing the idea behind the company, Guitar Hero and Rock Band were the talk of the town. We both came out of a professional music technology background, and we met first in the 1980's when I was working for Lynn Electronics, inventor of the drum machine, which changed how music was created. Prior to that, I had worked for a company that had invented digital sampling, which is how much of the music today is created. I also worked for the company which invented the MIDI protocol. When Cliff and I got back together again, we kind of reminisced about a guitar company we had done together in the 1980's, which made the Photon guitar, a MIDI guitar that we sold off to Gibson in the mid 80's. I went and did my thing, moved to Orange County, he moved to LA, and lo and behold, eighteen to 20 years later we ran into each other again. I was producing video games for Disney, and he had a long stint producing toys and consumer electronic devices in China. He showed me the guitar technology, telling me in his South African accent--that he "never gave up" on the MIDI guitar. The MIDI guitar has been the Holy Grail for us since what we did back in the 1980's with the Photon. There were a lot of physical problems with the MIDI guitar, because when the string vibrates, it took X amount of time to analyze the pitch of the string and turn that into a digital signal of some sort. However, in the last 25 years we now have USB, we have MIDI, we have Wi-Fi, we have Bluetooth, we have Playstations, we have the Wii, we have the Mac, the PC, the iPhone, and now the iPad. We wanted to create a mobile, digital device that spoke to all of these devices, and which was affordable.

What triggered your decision that this was the time to revive the idea?

Kevin Kent: It didn't take a marketing genius to realize that, at the time, there were 25 to 35 million gamers playing music in Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Now, when I saw playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero, exactly what I mean is a fake music playing environment--where you get the experience and feeling of playing music, but not really playing an instrument. You look cool, and thank goodness kids out there are fascinated by music. When my generation first turned on to music, the three concerts I first went to were The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. I have always loved it, and never gave up. So, with 25 to 30 million guys out there playing push button guitars and pushing plastic paddles, and calling that a music experience--I heard from parents, and you'd hear: why isn't my kid spending as much time learning real music, as pushing plastic paddles? I had the opportunity to talk to the inventors of Guitar Hero, who are all my friends, and told them it used to be when you talked about paddles, that was what happened to you when you had been very bad. So we have 25 to 30 million gamers, of which as high as 50 percent have told interviewers they'd like to play real music. What happens with gamers is their music experience is one where they found good immediately, where they can look like rock stars, slide around on the floor, hold the guitar up in the air, etc. But, they haven't learned anything about music, except perhaps some good rhythm competency and hand-eye coordination--but, as my wife, who has a Masters in music says--they are savants. Those guys playing Guitar Hero at full speed are just like they're able to drive the wrong way up the 405 at 4:45pm without hitting anything. So, they're incredible with the hand-eye coordination, but can't play anything for real on a guitar. Having learned over a number of years--my firm Inspired Arts and Media has been in Orange County for fourteen years, providing digital media to big corporate clients like Allergan, Sony, and Warner Bros.--with human interface design, you can't change everything at once. People will give their kid a guitar, they'll plug it into an amplifier after spending $250 on a Strat pack from Fender, and they can't tune it, their fingers hurt, it sounds bad, it doesn't look good, and doesn't sound cool. They find out it is freaking hard to actually play guitar.

So how do you get over that challenge?

Kevin Kent: I was working on video games, and just worked on a game for Paramount, the School of Rock, Jack Black for the iPhone, and prior to that the Hanna Montana game for Disney. I realized that for something to succeed, number one--it can't hurt your fingers. Number two--your guitar has to be in tune all the time, and can never be out of tune. And number three, it must sound good right out of the box--or as we say, rocks rights out of the box. Those challenges cannot be overcome with a normal guitar. What we found, in taking our product to the MTV awards, is our product is a game changer. It's a game changer, because if you could imagine picking up a guitar, our guitar has a built-in soundtrack. It has built-in chord progressions. If you play guitar, you know that there are lots of given progressions everyone learns when they are playing guitar. Those are built into the guitar. In addition, we have thousands of others you can download from our website. Chord progressions are the magic to guitar--for example, there's the A minor to F thing which is used in songs like All Along the Watchtower to Rhianna, there are like fifty songs that use that progression. Our technology allows you to not play a wrong note. In You Rock mode, it will map away all the wrong notes, so as you slide down the fret board, you still sound good. You don't play any wrong notes, you're not out of tune, your fingers don't hurt. As a guitar player, you might think that's totally cheating, and in conversation with guitar teachers they get a little dismayed--I tell them the goal is to get people to stop practicing music and to start playing it. My goal is to have an entire generation of kids go from playing computer games to actually playing music, smiling the whole way. I want no more guitars left in the closet, out of tune and with a broken E string.

In You Rock mode, we've mapped out the fret board in all the different keys, major and minor. So, if you have the fret board in the key of E, it's mapped out so you can't play B flat or D natural, and you can just take the bottom three frets and play your fingers like a three bar chord, and without any fancy footwork you can sound like Les Paul in a heartbeat. We have a couple of different modes which help teach you. The default mode makes it so, even if you're on the wrong fret, it will play the right note. That's kind of cheating, but I think that makes you play more, because you sound cool. In Rock Mode Number two, which uses the same technology, when you play the wrong note, just like in the video games, it makes a funny sound. That's actually how you learn a chord progression in the real sense and aren't just faking it. What I believe, firmly, is that kids and adults will be much more likely to learn guitar when it's fun. That's what differentiates us from any other instrument or technology for the guitar--I believe we've created the world's first digital guitar, which will change the world and how people learn music.

Can you talk about how your product works with Guitar Hero and Rock Band?

Kevin Kent: It's funny, but someone at a prominent guitar retailer told me the colors at the fret board of a guitar, which match Guitar Hero, mean more to the aspiring gamer than a name like Fender or Gibson. They care more about seeing those than anything else. So, our product works with Rock Band 2, 3, The Beatles beautifully. It works with Guitar Hero 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on. We've got multitouch sensitivity--because on a real guitar you can't play on your E string three times in different places, but in gaming you've got to be able to do that. And it works great. The thing is, it is harder to play--picking a string and pushing down on a fret is harder than levering a paddle and pushing a button. We originally thought--what were those kids going to think, if it's harder to play than a paddle guitar? However, we found both that paddle guitars initially had lots of reliability issues, so no one is in love with them, and were looking for an alternative. But, more importantly, from a psychological standpoint, these gamers want the next level--they want the next level up. They actually liked that it was harder. They want to show their friends that they could play this, as well as a paddle guitar.

The other scenario, going in the other direction, is there are now these 25 to 30 million kids, who, with their right hand, can move that paddle so fast that it's scary. There's a whole generation of kids playing these who only know how to use their right hand. At one of the seminars we did, I had gamers playing guitar, and one kid who was twelve years old using our guitar in You Rock mode starting picking up and down, rocking like he would with a paddle, was essentially--in guitar player terms--shredding. I wasn't sure what he was doing with his left hand, but in You Rock mode you can't play a wrong note. It sounded amazing. Coming up to him, the older kid said--"You shred, how long have you been playing guitar?" The kid said 20 minutes, because it was the first time he had ever played. Those gamers have an incredible success when they first start playing using You Rock mode, because they have an incredible facility in their right hand to play the rhythm--that's a whole legion of potential guitar players.

Where are you in terms of distribution and availability of the guitar?

Kevin Kent: Internationally, we have distributors in place in 25 countries. We've got samples in the field, and orders of container magnitude in most of those countries. I get emails and faxes every day asking me "Where is my guitar?" in various languages. We're just now getting product--we received our first guitars in production yesterday domestically, which we are using to supply pre-sales and direct sales, early adopters, and key influencers here in the states. Meanwhile, we will be shipping into various countries, container loads, over the summer.

On the business side, how are you getting this to market--through the music industry, or through the video game industry?

Kevin Kent: It's a combination of the consumer electronics business and the music business. The music business really hasn't had much growth in recent years, and until someone plays the guitar, they tend to be very suspect of it. Once they play it, they change their tune, and really the problems with larger retailers, is they don't know where to put it. I don't have the answer there, and hope to in a year's time. With the consumer electronics industry, they're not sure if they'll put the device in the video game aisle--which is a big disservice to what it does--or maybe as an accessory device for a Mac or PC, which is also limiting--or possibly as a standalone guitar instrument, in the guitar department--but it sure takes a very smart guitar person to understand how you can use this. That's probably the biggest hurdle and challenge we face as a company. In our marketing, and where we've been running a campaign, we are asking--How do you rock? How do you play? How do you learn? How do you record?--trying to get the message out that whether you're an aspiring musician, and established gamer, or a music teacher, the You Rock guitar allows you to rock whenever. It is a marketing challenge of great magnitude, to determine where to convince retailers to put this. We really have to rely on consumers to make that decision, and it's a big challenge because it does so much stuff. Fortunately for us, stores like Best Buy are adding real music departments within their stores. It's an interesting fact, that in the last five years, with the rise of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, there's actually been no appreciable uptake of electric guitars and acoustic guitars at retailers, even though the thought that by playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band, it would inspire people to buy guitars. It hasn't happened, because of a lot of the things I attested to earlier--if it goes out of tune, it hurts your fingers, or doesn't look cool, you're off the island.

Thanks, and good luck!


More Headlines