I have a theory about Prince.
When Linn drum machines and analog synthesizers were the height of music tech, he was the most innovative musician in the world. In addition to being a gifted technical musician with an advanced understanding of harmony and melody, he was a sex ambassador from the planet funk on a mission to find new ways to lick our earholes.
The electronic instruments of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were perfect for the purple one. His prodigious musicianship and ceaseless need for sonic innovation had perfect outlets. But then technology advanced. Samplers and sequencers—and later, computer software—didn’t need expert musicianship to operate. They were intuitive and visual in a way that a piano or a guitar couldn’t be. All of Prince’s prodigious skills became, not quite obsolete, but not exactly relevant either.
The music we live in today is still one that has little use for the gifts of Prince. But perhaps that will change. Maybe technical innovations will give us new ways of interfacing musically with machines. Button pushing and analysis won’t be things of the past, but maybe we can create a new model of instrument that rewards musicianship instead of ignoring it.
My hopes were lifted by the Artiphon, an electronic instrument that began as a crowdsource funding project and is now available for sale. It looks like a cross between an iPad and a guitar fretboard—imagine if Leo Fender and Les Paul were given access to a boxful of iPhone spare parts in the late ‘50s and went to town building an instrument.
It’s design allows it to be played as a guitar, a keyboard or bowed like a violin.
It has versatile sounds. Users can crawl through different sound banks to cue up and fine tune a variety of drum and piano sounds on it. You can easily layer different performances into songs through recording programs like Ableton Live and Garageband.
But honestly, that’s not impressive—I have iPhone apps that can access comparable sounds. What’s cool is that it is responsive to feel and it seems to be something you need to learn how to play.
As several videos demonstrate, the Artiphon is sensitive enough to touch to be able to approximate slide guitar and fretless instruments.
The abbreviated fretboard/keyboard means that anyone who’s played guitar hero will have some sort of familiarity with how it feels.
I think most people would be able to pick the Artiphon up and make some kind of sound. But to make actual music would require practice and natural born instincts. The same skillset required for any kind of instrument.
And it’s a safe bet Prince would have been the best at it.