Real people: The axeman cometh, then thinks better of it

Why suffer for hours learning to play the guitar, when a simple gizmo will turn you overnight into Jimi Hendrix? Because it doesn't work, moans TIM DOWLING
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For reasons that are unclear, there seem to be an awful lot of guitars in private hands these days. From the busker to the Prime Minister, almost every man seems to own his own axe. The venerable Fender Stratocaster has taken on the status of iconic, classic furniture, basically because most of them are sitting idly on stands in the sitting rooms of men who can't play them. If owning a guitar is easy, playing the guitar is still very hard.

Exploiting this obvious gap in the market are a number of quick-fix methods to teach young and middle-aged males how to make the transition from air guitar to the more problematic real thing. There are simple alternative notation systems for people who can't read music; easy practice tapes and videos; even note-for-note CD-Rom tours through your favourite rock classics. Now comes Guitar Wizard, the invention of former London music teacher Colin Wells, a device which, for pounds 14.99 plus shipping and handling, guarantees that the user will be able to play the guitar instantly.

With a claim like that I imagined that Guitar Wizard was some kind of wired-up glove that plugged into your PC, but it's just a small aluminium and rubber thingy that looks a bit like a tiny brake pedal. The press release states that "everyone who has seen the device is excited about it", but now that I have seen it, this is no longer strictly true.

I have no way of knowing how well or badly you play the guitar, and you have no idea how good I am. For the sake of argument, let's just say that I'm very, very good. Before you can use the Guitar Wizard you must tune your guitar to open E flat, which flummoxed me immediately.

Tuning was never my strong point, and I do not have ready access to E flat, either in my head or outside it. The Guitar Wizard leaflet suggests you take your guitar to your local music shop and ask them to tune it for you, but I do not recommend this. Music shop staff, in my experience, are fairly surly even when you go in there to buy something. In the end I tracked down one of the children's toy pianos, and slowly and painfully tuned up.

Open tunings are what you use for slide guitar. Basically it means that you're playing a chord, in this case E flat, when you have no fingers on the strings. The Guitar Wizard has rubber dampers on one side which go against the strings, while you grip the brake pedal side with all your fingers and squeeze. When you strum, you play a chord which you can change by moving up and down the strings. You could do the same with a slide or a knife blade or, better still, the neck of a broken Wild Turkey bottle.

The "revolutionary" thing about the Guitar Wizard is that you can change the type of chord you're playing just by rocking the pedal with your palm. Rock it back and forth and you get a fair rendition of the intro from "Pinball Wizard". The intro to "Disco 2000" by Pulp, or a version of it, is only a matter of doing the same and then moving back two frets. Flip the Guitar Wizard around and you can play minor chords the same way.

Frankly, if you can play the guitar at all, you'll find the thing awkward to position, difficult to manoeuvre and severely limiting. If, however, you don't know the first thing about the guitar and you need to play relatively well by, say, Tuesday, then this is the gizmo for you.

You can't play minor 6ths, major 7ths, diminished or augmented chords with it, so you can forget about "Fly Me To The Moon", but with most stadium rock anthems you can gloss over the occasional two dollar chord and play a more basic version. The Guitar Wizard doesn't require practice per se, just a little getting used to, and it won't make your fingers bleed.

I let my wife try it. She doesn't play the guitar at all, and she wishes that I didn't either, but she made some quick progress with the Guitar Wizard before she realised what she was doing and handed the guitar back to me. The au pair had less success, but the au pair's boyfriend managed to pick it up right away.

If you think that the Guitar Wizard could be your shortcut to Hendrixville, I should warn you that playing with it does not look cool. It's the musical equivalent of bicycle stabilisers. All in all I'd much rather go back to traditional, proper guitar playing, but I can't be bothered to retune it now.

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