The Kellycaster

A shortened guitar sits on a stage lit in red and blue

For a musician who is self-described as ‘a bit of a punk at heart’, the guitar is a pretty important instrument. The Kellycaster is a new type of guitar, built bespoke to Disabled musician John Kelly’s access needs and musical ambitions.

The Kellycaster has an adapted body shape with a short neck which allows John to strum the strings of the guitar in the traditional way, whilst selecting chords using a keyboard with his left hand. This makes the full range of chords accessible and also maintains the full expressiveness of the guitar.


The Kit

The code and electronics for the Kellycaster were developed by Charles Matthews, in collaboration with John.

A pick up takes the signal from the strings and sends it to a Bela board, where it is mapped onto chords that John selects with his left hand on a keyboard.

The Bela is an ultra-low latency audio platform developed at Queen Mary University to enable easy development of real-time interactive audio systems.

The instrument control interface is built in Ableton Live using Max For Live. This also doubles up as a compositional tool for John to write his own music as well as build his repertoire of songs.

The ‘kellycaster’ early prototype

The body of the Kellycaster has changed many times since the development process began in 2015. Initially it used an adapted  Fender Telecaster copy and a later iteration used a midi guitar.

The final body was designed to John’s spec and built in maple wood by professional guitar-maker John Dickinson.

The Story

John approached Drake Music to discuss the options for creating an accessible guitar and the collaboration began.

Gawain Hewitt developed a first prototype of the hardware,  for a DMLab accessible music technology hackathon at the Southbank Centre. At the event Charles Matthews, with input from Dave Darch and John Kelly, began the mammoth task of creating the code behind the strings.

The resulting innovative instrument won the hackathon, and was featured in the Independent’s ‘I’ paper that same week.

Since then the instrument has continued to be developed, iterated and refined and John has played gigs, festivals and theatrical performances with his trusty Kellycaster slung round his neck with a rainbow strap.

John Kelly & Gawain Hewitt at the Web We Want festival at Southbank Centre
John Kelly & Gawain Hewitt at the Web We Want festival with the Kellycaster.
Image by Emile Holba.

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