Gently Weeps

It's called a Zoybar and it was created by an industrial design student who doesn't even play an instrument. You buy it on the Internet, add extra parts if you wish, and assemble it yourself. Is this a guitar - or an ideological breakthrough?

Silence descends on the tables around us in the cafe where we are sitting with Ziv Bar Ilan, as he takes the unique musical instrument he designed out of its case. People stare unabashedly at the bizarre object. A moment later, those who had their backs to us also turn around to look. For his part, Bar Ilan appears not to have noticed that he has become the center of attention.

At first the eye makes out the shape. The contours formed by the four pieces of black metal, with their futuristic look, leave no doubt: This is a guitar. Like every guitar, its curves lure the hand to touch, to caress, but in contrast to regular instruments, it is what is missing here that piques our curiosity: The absence of a resonance chamber, and the resulting minimalism of the instrument's form, is actually disturbing. At first glance, it seems impossible that this object will produce a sound.

By now, the waiters have abandoned their customers and surrounded Bar Ilan; the questions start. One waitress can't conceal her enthusiasm and takes down the address of Bar Ilan's Internet site (his very creative English site is www.zoybar.net). She wants more information and will tell all her friends about the odd instrument that landed from nowhere on her morning shift.

The instrument in question, which is called a Zoybar, started out as Bar Ilan's graduation project in the Department of Industrial Design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. It consists of what is referred to as a hardware platform for making either a six-string guitar or a four-string bass. Nearly every modular component of the Zoybar is replaceable or removable, and all the parts have been constructed to enable do-it-yourself assembly. As a result, both the shape and the sound the instrument produces are determined almost exclusively by the user. For example, you can modify the length of the strings or the space between the frets, add other devices to alter the tone and so on. Bar Ilan has established a company to manufacture and sell the Zoybar, which was recently featured on the cover of the international design magazine i-D.

A few days before, musician David Peretz was invited to try out the Zoybar. A blues troubadour from Be'er Sheva and a leading musician on the local indie scene, Peretz was delighted to put the new instrument through its paces. Slinging it around his neck, he immediately began to improvise, and as his fingers danced up and down, he hurled questions at Bar Ilan. The session lasted almost two hours. "Can you add more frets?" "Are they removable?" "What about extending the neck? Or removing it completely, so the strings dangle in the air?" "Can you mount another effect?" "How about more pickup?" Bar Ilan smiled, enjoying the questions and back-and-forth banter, offering suggestions, examining possibilities. And, by the way, the answer to every question was positive.

"It looks like something from outer space," Peretz said. "Futuristic, modern, shiny. What's really odd is that 80 or 90 percent of all guitarists still use the same two guitar models that were invented in the 1950s. It's as though the whole world still drives the Ford Model T or the Volkswagen Beetle."

Bar Ilan, who is 32 and lives on Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, west of Jerusalem, does not play an instrument and has never studied music. When he was creating the prototype for the Zoybar he was helped by musician and guitarist Avi Belleli.

"I took the prototype to Belleli and asked what he thought," Bar Ilan relates. "He played with it a little and said it was very interesting. He also sent me to look at experimental guitarists, who mount all kinds of things on the guitar platform in a slapdash way and create all sorts of uncommunicative sounds. Only there do you realize how much potential sound has."

Belleli remembers his first phone conversation with Bar Ilan, in which he offered to have a look at the prototype.

"I was very intrigued from the creative point of view, because this is related to my own explorations in the world of music," he explains. "I was always interested in changing the way I work with the strings, to see what happens when you mess with the guitar's physical attributes. When you work the strings there is a certain range, but when you place a weight on them the range changes. It becomes something less logical than what the ear expects or what the brain is used to hearing. That's not something I invented, of course. This is what intrigues me."

Belleli was especially excited by the intuitiveness he found in his playing when he started to pluck the Zoybar.

"You don't have to be extremely creative - you can just strum it and enjoy," he says, adding: "This is a guitar for musicians, not necessarily for guitarists. It's meant for people who are interested in creativity as such, not only for those who just do what they are told. This guitar is also suitable for sculptors, painters or pianists, people who are out to create, even if they do not know exactly what they are looking for. I never know what I'm looking for."

From the outset, says Bar Ilan, he was not out to make just another product, just another guitar. "In this case, the modularity creates a language, not a product," he explains. "Music works in the same way: If you arrange the notes in a different order you get a different piece, but everyone knows how to read the notes and use them. I did not try to approximate as much as possible to the sound of a guitar, but rather to see how far it was possible to go and still remain interesting and musical."

In other words, Bar Ilan has created an instrument whose "correct" sound cannot be determined; everyone can design the sound he wants.

You are not a musician, so how did you know the product would work, that it would produce the right sounds? Are there "right" sounds?

David Peretz agrees: "If you ask most guitarists what percentage of the tone is determined by the wood from which the body of the guitar is made, they will say 10 percent at most. Most of the sound of an electric guitar is determined by the pickups [the metal plates under the strings] and by the strings. Their interrelationship and integration create the instrument's particular sound. When someone suddenly says: 'Okay, here is the thing itself, just the skeleton - work with it,' it's weird. A guitar is an instrument that requires high intelligence; the playing depends mainly on the guitarist's technique and virtuosity. And if a guitarist sees an instrument that has no wood, no flesh, no body, his big question is: 'Will this thing really work? Why should it work?'"

After testing the Zoybar's two models extensively, Peretz says that in terms of functioning, the instrument works and is comfortable to play, and also has a certain distinctiveness.

"There's a problem here: All guitarists want to be unique, but they all have the same guitar. So what do we do? Concentrate on the details: 'My guitar has a light neck and a dark body,' 'The neck of my guitar is made of a certain kind of wood.' People get nit-picky about everything from the type of wood to the quality of the paint. Once I heard a salesman explain that red is a better color than white in terms of the sound of a guitar, which is absolute nonsense."

Bar Ilan notes that at a certain point, he had a working model but no potential clients: "I saw that young people, aged 20 at the most, were uploading clips to YouTube in which they showed how they dug into their guitar with a screw and mounted an external object on it to produce effects. They are amateurs, who get their inspiration from musicians like the soloist of the band Muse, for whom a special guitar with built-in effects was created. I saw that a process was beginning that had nothing to do with me, that was coming from below."

Bar Ilan organized a competition for kids who play homemade guitars. The three winners, the Web site announced, "will be the first to receive a first edition Zoybar hardware kit in the whole universe!!!" There was a good response and his first customers came from this group of competitors.

Building your own guitar is part of another trend in contemporary design: the growing popularity of handicrafts rather than mass-made industrial products. Many people now want to make the things they use by themselves, to strengthen their "bond" with the product.

"If it used to be that identity was forged by the consumption of brands," Bar Ilan says, "today one can discern a new trend of sharing, of 'do it ourselves,' which is different from 'do it yourself.' Another emerging tendency stems from the fact that people always want something new, but can't spend a lot of money on every purchase. As a result, companies market cheap, low-quality products whose rapid wear and tear justifies frequent replacements."

The Zoybar, its creator says, can meet a variety of needs, not necessarily those he himself is suggesting. "This is the true change. Generally, the manufacturer's desire to retain exclusivity blocks the potential of a product to develop into new places - and not necessarily the places he had in mind."

Here Bar Ilan is referring to the fact that the research-and-development labs of the big corporations are usually the most compartmentalized units in the firm. "We have no way of knowing what products might come into the market, because the companies market only products which they believe possess economic feasibility. From this point of view, the Zoybar is an R&D lab that is committed to the user, not the manufacturer, and it is not limited by the number of developers."

In March 2008, Bar Ilan had an opportunity to examine how a famous musician reacted to the Zoybar. The occasion was the visit to Israel of Marc Ribot, who played with Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, among others. Ribot arrived with the avant-garde musician John Zorn for a music festival in honor of the latter in Tel Aviv.

"I had no way to get in touch with them," Bar Ilan recalls. "After the show, I waited until the whole audience had left. When the band came back onstage to pack up their equipment, I tried to figure out how to approach Ribot. It was like hitting on a female tourist. I said hello and took out the Zoybar along with a few additions. Ribot was turned on right away. I explained a little about the instrument and we arranged for me to come the next day during the sound check for the performance."

The next day Bar Ilan showed up at the Barby Club and this time also brought a video camera. In the clip documenting the meeting (which can be viewed on the Web site), the noise made by the musicians around him steadily diminishes as Ribot starts playing on the Zoybar. He even wanted to use the Zoybar in the concert that evening and asked Bar Ilan how much it cost.

"I couldn't sell it to him," Bar Ilan says, "or even allow him to play it at the concert, because the product was still in the stage of being patented and could not be shown in public."

Bar Ilan acknowledges that patent registration is not compatible with the concept of sharing, but adds: "Nevertheless I want to make money out of this, even if it's on my own scale. I am not complaining about the rate of sales, but I am not a corporation. If I want to sell the company one day, I will have to provide something: a piece of paper which proves that it's mine. But obviously, if I actually succeed in selling, it will be because there is a community behind me and not because of a piece of paper."

So you are playing the game by the old rules, but don't really believe them?

"Yes, but there is no contradiction here. Once, when people said you had gone commercial, they meant you had done something bad. For me, commercialization is not a pejorative. There is nothing wrong with making money from what you do."

Who are the buyers?

"More than half the buyers are from the United States, Canada and England. I don't have a large stock, but manufacture according to demand. I make most of the parts in Israel."

How many Israelis have bought a Zoybar?

"None. And I haven't invested even a minute of effort to try to sell it here. Ultimately, my time is limited and the arena is mainly the Internet. It's all the same, whether someone gets to me from Holland or from Israel."

How many kits have you sold?

"In the past eight months we've sold a few hundred kits, at $670 each. In terms of my own scale, that's good; for a large firm, it's not enough. Theoretically, I could make millions, but it's a word-of-mouth thing, on the Internet. I don't have an investor yet and it's a relatively small company."

Many companies are still deterred by the ideology of the "open code," by which the manufacturer allows the users to go on developing the product and even offers new tools for that purpose. One of the most interesting products of this sort, which Bar Ilan mentions, is RepRap (Replicating Rapid prototyper), a three-dimensional printer. Printers of this kind, which enable the production of models directly from a computer file, have been on the market for a few years, but are large and expensive, and unsuitable for home use. Their principal use is to create prototypes for various products, architectural models, works of art and so on. The advantages of RepRap over commercial printers lie in its relatively small size and cheaper usage costs.

Bar Ilan explains the connection between RepRap and Zoybar: "At one time, people thought we would get newspapers by means of the fax machine. But people don't need a fax in order to read a newspaper. You don't gain anything from that - it's the same content, only in a different medium. Faxes and home printers succeeded when people created their own content. RepRap as a printer is not intended to create products that are already on the shelf. If you want something that has already been made, go to Ikea - it's well made and it's cheap."

The future, then, lies in the possibilities that RepRap makes available. For example, Zoybar users can invent accessories for their guitars with free, three-dimensional software, print the designs out on a three-dimensional printer and attach the resulting model to their instruments by themselves.

"Let's say you want to connect your cellular phone to a guitar in order to use the ringtones while playing," Bar Ilan says. "No one will design a special attachment just for you. In the future, when you take the computer file to a digital printing house, three-dimensional printing will also be available. You will e-mail the file to the printing house and within 24 hours, you will have a product."

Even if the future he describes is not yet around the corner, it is already possible to talk about the Zoybar as a breakthrough in the world of music, because Bar Ilan is supplying a platform that does not limit the user. He is talking about open-code hardware - although he carefully avoids the term - and his intention is clear: to produce physical products that are designed and planned with the expectation that future changes will be effected in them, not by the manufacturer but by the user.

"The term 'open code,' like the term 'alternative,' has been overused to the point where it has been worn out. So has 'information sharing,'" he explains, again reluctant to be portrayed as an ideologist.

"When you give someone a cake recipe, the information-sharing does not turn the recipe into an open code. There are people who are ostensibly giving you information, but that does not mean you have the ability to understand what to do with it or the technical means to make use of it. Many programmers defend the open code, and on the face of it the means of production are in their hands, but they had to buy the computer and pay for the Internet connection. There are those who say that this is also not really a free open code. The open code has become a type of new religion, and I don't like these religions. It's not really important to me."

While playing the Zoybar, Peretz picks up a piece of metal and runs it over the strings. Then he inserts it under them and listens to the resulting sound. He slides his cellular phone over the strings, becomes immersed in the instrument, experiments. When he gets a sound he likes, he smiles to himself. Lifting his gaze from the Zoybar, he says: "I don't call this a guitar at all. It's something else. A modern instrument."

Bar Ilan agrees: "It is an instrument in a constant process of research and development, a process in which the users are also partners."

Peretz waxes enthusiastic: "That's what turns me on most, the open architecture. I can extend the neck, string it a little differently, play with or without frets, place frets diagonally and produce a truly bizarre sound. The possibilities are enormous."

What's next? Where will all this lead?

Bar Ilan: "I have not created a toolbox of sounds for you to use at some point, but an instrument with which you can research, and which has a comfortable and understandable interface. At the same time, I am conducting a dialogue with companies in the music, musical instruments and effects fields. Overall, they are interested and want to stay in touch. But we are still too small, so it will take a little more time.

"At the economic level," he continues, "I would be happy to sell more. File sharing and open codes are concepts that are self-evident for anyone who has moved to digital media. With hardware it's more of a problem, but that is also happening these days ... It's not a 'latter days' vision. There are conferences, there are people doing this in their spare time. It's no longer the curiosity it once was."

Peretz: "A guitar is an instrument that can do certain things, and I already have instruments like that. I want to play differently, do new things. There are a great many elements here that can lead to fascinating musical places. On the other hand, I assume that if you were to display the Zoybar in a music store, everyone would look at it, but maybe 10 percent would ask to play it. There is something about it that is naked, exposed; it is the plain truth, with no embellishments. It is very suitable for artists who engage in experimental music, even though I can definitely see a lot of Japanese kids playing it enthusiastically."

Before parting, Peretz tells Bar Ilan he would like to meet again. "Bach couldn't create 'The Well-Tempered Clavier' until the particular piano was invented that made that possible," Peretz sums up. "You have to remember that technology creates the music and makes it possible. From that point of view, the Zoybar is a new instrument that makes possible the creation of new music. And that is wonderful." W