If you talk to any musician, regardless of age, genre or nationality, they will tell you about the importance of music education. Nearly every artist got an early start and had that moment as a child where they fell in love with music.
Guitar maker Brian Calhoun, who’s collaborated with his close friend Dave Matthews on multiple projects, including the children’s game, Chickapig, understands that. So Calhoun, a self-professed child at heart, took his love for guitar and for entertaining kids and combined them into the wondrous one-string children’s guitar, TinkerTar.
I got to watch the joy as a two-year old saw she had her own guitar. And even though the bubble wrap the guitar came in was initially more fun, she took immense pride in realizing the guitar, like the one her aunt played, was hers.
For Calhoun, he has watched as kids have had that same sense of independence playing their own guitar. I spoke with Calhoun about where the idea for TinkerTar came from
Steve Baltin: Where did the idea for this come from?
Brian Calhoun: So, I knew I wanted to build guitars for kids. I’d thought about it over the years, mainly ’cause it’s always been in the back of my mind that I think it’s strange that children start guitars so much later than many other instruments. I started in middle school, which was young, at the time. And everybody I know, start guitar when they’re older. And even if you go to music education, like early learning centers, they’re starting children on ukulele at seven or eight. And if you talk to those teachers, most of them will tell you even then it’s a big challenge. Whereas Suzuki method gets children started with violin and piano at age three or four all the time. And I had wondered why don’t you see that more with kids on guitar? So that had been in the back of my mind. And then one of my really good friends, John Alagía, who’s a music producer, was talking to me one day and he was joking with me. And he said, “You’re always drawing animals. Why don’t you make an animal guitar?” And that is what sparked me to get into this. I thought it was a really good idea and I started looking into it. And right now you can find a few one-off animal-shaped guitars out there and funny-shaped guitars. But in the kids’ world, there’s nothing that’s being mass made. Everything looks like a guitar. I mean, some of them might be shaped like a ukulele and have something printed on it, but you don’t get those funny shapes. And my first thought is, “That’s the key. We’ll make these animal guitars and that’s gonna do it.” So I started, I actually pulled this out from storage upstairs to show you I made a dinosaur-shaped ukulele [laughter].
Baltin: So that’s how it started? That’s awesome.
Calhoun: Yeah, man, this is the first TinkerTar, it’s got four strings and I thought, “This is what’s gonna do it. Kids just need to think it’s more fun and they’ll stick with it.” And I took this to my friend’s house where her kid was having a birthday party and the kids all literally lined up to take turns playing it. And when I gave it to them, I witnessed what I think everybody has witnessed when they give a ukulele to a young kid. And I’d say, “Hey, try and play this chord.” And I’d get them to push something down. But chords, they couldn’t do it. It’s complicated to position your fingers to play a chord or they get a symbol simple chord where you just push one. And it was just boring. They didn’t have the dexterity to push one string and push the same string down here. They just couldn’t do it. And so this whole line of kids played this thing, but everybody gave up pretty quick. And that night I was just thinking about it more and more and then it just clicked that with piano, if I go to a piano any kid can do that. And it’s just one note at a time. And pianos and violins. So when you start violins with a melody, it’s one note at a time. They’re melody-based instruments. And it occurred to me that if I got rid of all the strings, but one, the kids would be forced to play a melody. So next I made this. And the first TinkerTars were elephants. One string. They had frets at this stage. And I took this to the kid, the very same group of kids the next day. And within one minute the first thing they did was this. And they changed the pitch and they weren’t able to change the pitch on that ukulele. And so I started working with these kids and pretty quickly I taught them this song. And they could play it. I taught a three-year-old how to play [Deep Purple] “Smoke on The Water” on a one-stringed guitar. And that was when I was like, “I’m onto something.” So I started making all these one stringed, elephant guitars and I could teach kids a lot of songs and you can play tons of melodies on one string, infinite melodies. It’s basically 15 notes of a keyboard. So I was working on that, and at this point, I had the shape, I had the one string, but how I got the third component that I think makes TinkerTar unique, I stumbled into that.
Baltin: What was that?
Calhoun: I started working with the gaming company that did Chickapig with me, Buffalo Games, and we started to have samples made. At the same time, I was working with some local companies to have samples made domestically. I had three different companies making these for me. This was just as COVID was hitting. Now I’m getting these samples back, and the problem was, first of all, they would have cost a fortune to make and sell, I never would have gotten them into mass market, and second of all, the frets on them were just so bad. It’s hard to put a fret job on a really expensive guitar, so to put frets in a cheap guitar, it was just awful. You’d play this thing, and every other fret, you couldn’t make a note. And I was just thinking that the project was probably gonna be dead, or we were gonna have to sell these things for hundreds of dollars each. But then I started thinking about violins again, and that’s when it occurred to me that we didn’t actually need frets, and so I made a fretless TinkerTar. And I just used a sharpie and drew the position markers on it, and right away, not only did it solve the manufacturing problem, but also, it did two things. One is, it actually made it easier to play. On a fretless instrument, you can almost just flop your finger on there, and it’s gonna change the note, so it made it much easier for children to change the note without being incredibly precise. The main thing it did is it let me print these fingerboards, and once I printed the fingerboards, that let me print this music, which of course lines up, it’s color-coded, and it’s numerical, and all of a sudden, TinkerTar became a teaching tool..
Baltin: What’s going to happen with the animal-shaped ones? Those are so cool.
Calhoun: Oh, dude, those are coming out. We’ve got all kinds of stuff. We’ve got dinosaurs, we got tigers, cheetahs, we’re going to have fish. Some pizza. It’s nice because we can have infinite designs, so the animals are definitely not going away. One thing that’s nice is, the retailers get to pick what they want, and we can put different models in each retailer, so, they can have something that’s exclusive to just them.
Baltin: Do you get to see the response from kids when they get theirs? Because I think for a lot of kids, it’s just a matter of having something that’s theirs.
Calhoun: Yeah, it’s amazing. One thing that we did early on here is, there’s an early music education school here called the Front Porch, and I had reached out to the director there and given them several samples. During my product testing I told them that parents could bring their children by my house. Because until then, I’d worked with my friend’s kids who were comfortable with me, and I could sit down and take my time with them, but now I had these strangers and their stranger children coming to my house to pick up a TinkerTar, and every single time, their reaction was the same. I had a few they got to pick, they loved to pick out their different models, some went with flames, some went animals. They were all very specific with their choices, but the younger kids could get it right away. I’ve taught many three-year-olds how to play, but five and six-year-olds that cannot play ukulele, and their parents would say they’ve given them ukuleles, they put it down. Those kids will literally sight-read out of this book, and they look at their parents in amazement the second they play something, they just follow the little colors. And once they play that song, they play it over and over again. And I got all the… I’ve followed up with all the parents and the reaction was incredible.
Baltin: When did you first start playing guitar?
Calhoun: I started at 12 and there was two other guitarists in my middle school. We were young and never saw a kid playing guitar when they were five. And with these, what I find is you can get these really young kids playing, but a lot of times they bring their brothers and sisters who weren’t planning on playing one of these ’cause they were “too old”. But you get a nine-year-old or a 13-year-old and you can show them these sweet melodies right away. And once you show a kid that’s even older how to do that, they’re like, “Wow.” And they want to spark that thing where they go home and hopefully play guitar. So it’s just been amazing for me to see and so fulfilling.
Baltin What was the first song you learned to play?
Calhoun: It was probably this, [Cream] “Sunshine of Your Love.” I teach that song on one string and these kids are picking it up a heck of a lot quicker than I was when I was 12 years old. And they’re five. Just because on six strings you’ve got to get in there and hit one string without hitting the other. And it’s just so much more complicated.
Baltin: TinkerTar is such a valuable thing because I’ve talked with everyone from Barry Manilow and Flea of the Chili Peppers to Matt Sorum and all these different people. One thing that covers across the board is the importance of music education.
Calhoun: Exactly, we built Matt Sorum a guitar, by the way. I remember when I was growing up and I was so into guitar players like The Allman Brothers and Jimmy Page, and Slash and these guys. This is almost 30 years ago. Those guitar players were not gonna be around anymore ’cause people don’t learn how to play like that, and there’s just less guitar players with technology and so much stuff on our plate. Every kid that gets one of these, you’re giving them that chance so that maybe they’ll be a guitar player. Because I think having early success in whatever you do, I mean even for adults, honestly, gives you a much bigger chance of sticking with it, and to me, I believe in it so much. A, because I see it work, B because of what it can do for just getting a lot of children into music and I was a problem child. Music was my thing. It’s what kept me out of getting in real trouble, I had one passion, and I was getting a lot of trouble back in high school and stuff and my friends were. But I loved playing guitar and music. I ended up going to the Berklee Music School, for a semester. That’s what got me into guitar building, but music’s just been such a big part of my life. And all my friends or most of my friends these days are musicians in different bands. So I just really believe in the potential of what it can do to some kid out there. One of my best friends here, her kid was seven, and she was like, “I wish my son had a hobby.” Like his brother has all these things he’s doing, and I gave him a TinkerTar and he put that strap on and he did not take it off for like two months and he was playing all these little songs, she said he’d sleep with it, It’s so cool, and even if he puts it down and doesn’t come back to guitar till he’s older you can pick it up and you know how it works. It’s going to go a long way.