One of the biggest guitar heroes to come out of Britain in the last decade is Matthew Bellamy—the falsetto-voiced leader of internationally acclaimed apocalyptic-prog band Muse. Hailing from southwest England, the futuristic power trio (Bellamy, bass virtuoso Chris Wolstenholme, and drummer Dominic Howard) has been filling stadiums all over the world with an epic style that combines a Radiohead-like indie streak with the drama of Queen and the dystopian outlook of a fantastically bleak sci-fi movie.
Be sure to watch the detailed video where Crimson Guitars luthier Ben Crowe walks you through this project step by step. Plus, hear the MIDI pad in demoed in various music applications and styles.
Bellamy’s playing on six studio albums and multiple worldwide tours proves he’s got no end of chops in the traditional sense, but he and his bandmates are equally admired for always pushing the envelope and embracing new technologies (their live shows are some of the most spectacular in rock). Bellamy isn’t the first to have guitars with the nearly limitless power of a MIDI XY-pad controller built right into them, but he’s more identified with the mod than any player on the planet. He’s even got a signature Manson Guitarworks MB-1S guitar with a MIDI controller screen option.
As you can see, this modification puts what looks like an iPad mini (or an Etch A Sketch, if you’re of a certain age) into the top of your solidbody. Wondering what the “XY” part of the controller-pad description refers to? Reach back into those long-repressed memories of geometry-class problems that required plotting points on an X/Y axis using two coordinates. Similarly, a MIDI controller pad’s interface tracks the touch of your fingertip using the same coordinate logic. And it’s capable of controlling any number of devices: a Korg Kaoss Pad, a DigiTech Whammy, software plug-ins, synth modules, and anything controllable via standard MIDI. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Believe you me, it is!
At Crimson Guitars (crimsonguitars.com) here in the U.K., we first became interested in the XY MIDI controller’s capabilities through our work building signature guitars for Robert Fripp. We tried several of the kits available online from different companies, but they left us cold with their insanely complex wiring and excessive soldering requirements.
But when we found AmpTone Lab (amptonelab.com), a high-tech music-products manufacturer based in Poland, we fell in love with the whole idea again. In fact, after we installed our first AmpTone Lab XY MIDIpad, we became wholehearted supporters of their work and started stocking all their products.
Before You Order—Check Your Axe’s Dimensions!
So all this talk of making your guitar sound like a spaceship or a hurricane or a flock of quacking ducks has got you excited, eh? We can’t blame you—but don’t order your MIDIpad just yet! First, you need to figure out which model is right for your guitar. The standard MIDIpad needs a 128 mm x 107 mm surface area, while the Mini—which was designed for Strat-style guitars with less space behind the bridge—requires 98 mm x 76 mm. To figure out which is appropriate for your instrument, cut out a paper template using these dimensions and hold it in place on your guitar. Behind the bridge seems to be the default choice, but you can put your screen anywhere you want. We’ve installed them at various angles to optimize interactivity according to guitar model and player needs.
You must also account for your guitar’s depth: The controller and LED unit require at least 18 mm, though if you have a larger guitar it can't hurt to go a little deeper. This allows the light from the LED to spread further on the screen.
Lastly, if you’re wondering about this new cavity’s effect on your guitar’s natural timbre, let me assure you that, in my experience, it’s pretty minimal. Some instruments (like, say, a Les Paul-style axe) might even benefit tonally—and ergonomically, through added weight relief.
Speaking of Les Pauls, part of their allure is obviously those shapely contoured tops. Equally obvious: Glass doesn’t bend so well. This doesn’t mean you can’t fit these delicate screens to a guitar with a carved top, but it requires a bit more care and skill. The trick is to route an extra cavity for the surround that keeps the four corners of the screen flush with the top so that the surround still holds the screen in place. You can bend the surround along the top’s contour, but the flat screen will sit lower in the guitar, leaving some gaps between the top surface of the screen and the underside of the surround. This is remedied by packing the gaps with form-fitting material—ideally carved pieces of wood—that hold everything securely in place. Another option is to make another template (see the “Creating Screen Templates” section) and route a third cavity that allows the surround to be recessed into a flat cavity. If you choose this option, you’ll probably want to paint or finish the walls of that cavity where they are visible.
Plan Your Control Layout
Before you fire up any power tools, put some serious thought into how you’ll use the MIDI screen while you’re playing. The on/off switch should probably be put out of the way, but you’ll want the push button—which is integral to operation—close by your picking hand. Ideally, you should be able to push it and drag your finger across the screen without having to move your hand or arm too much out of regular playing position. Same goes for the rotary encoder—missing your cue because it took too much effort to switch between sounds is not going to be impressive onstage.
The xy MIDIpads run off a single 9-volt battery. You can opt for a battery box, which requires its own routing and template making, or you can secure the battery with a clip somewhere inside the main control cavity. Having the battery too near the guitars standard wiring, though, can promote excess signal noise.
Of course, figuring out where to position these new controls depends entirely on your guitar. If you’re putting the XY MIDIpad in a Strat-style guitar, you may decide to mount the controls in the existing pickguard. If you’ve got a Les Paul or another guitar without a scratchplate, you’ll probably mount them right on the face of the guitar. Either way, you’ll likely need to route out a larger or entirely new control cavity and either modify your existing pickguard or make the associated new scratchplate or back plate. Given the invasiveness of this project in comparison to, say, swapping pickups, you’ll definitely want to spend some time considering the aesthetics of the final result before you crack on with the hole-making fun.