For most of his 23 years, Michael Kuzma has played guitar. These days, he’s happy to leave the playing to someone else.
Or something else, more accurately. Something he created.
A 2020 Bradley University graduate, Kuzma designed a self-playing guitar system. It incorporates computer software and electronics and mechanical pieces that attach to a conventional acoustic guitar.
The instrument then becomes the Kuzma Self-Playing Guitar, which can play any song once it’s programmed. Kuzma is accepting orders for the guitars, which may be available sometime in 2023.
Bradley’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship has deemed the guitar its Innovation of the Year. Kuzma developed the guitar while he attended Bradley, where he majored in electrical engineering.
For most of the past year, Kuzma was based in Perth, Australia. He was sent there by his employer, AutonomouStuff, a Morton-based company that specializes in developing self-driving vehicles. But the self-playing guitar is Kuzma’s baby.
Guitars of all kinds have been, ever since the suburban Indianapolis native can remember.
“I started to learn guitar because I thought my cousin was cool when he was playing Green Day songs,” Kuzma said recently from Down Under, just before returning home. “It’s always been a heavy portion of my life.”
Passion met practicality after Kuzma arrived at Bradley in the fall of 2016. He was looking for a side project that would help him learn electrical engineering. After Kuzma attended an entrepreneurial mixer sponsored by the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, he awakened in the middle of the night with an idea.
“I thought of a self-playing guitar. Does it exist? Is there such a thing?” Kuzma said. “I got up and wrote a two-page paper about it. (Then) I looked at other self-playing guitars. They weren’t very good, or they weren’t designed by a guitar player.”
Kuzma began work on his self-playing prototype after talking with virtually every engineering and business professor at Bradley. The prototype had one string and played only the legendary opening riff of “Smoke on the Water” by the rock group Deep Purple.
It was simple, but it won the 2018 Big Idea contest sponsored by the Turner Center. As time progressed, Kuzma added more strings and loaned a self-player to a local retirement home to get some feedback and work out the kinks.
“It took 24 physical hours to write 10 minutes of music,” Kuzma said.
Now, the programming process is significantly faster. And the guitar is significantly less primitive.
Perhaps one of the most logical uses for a Kuzma Self-Playing Guitar is to provide background music, its inventor suggested.
“You can envision it in the context of a self-playing piano, whether it be in a home, in a hotel lobby or in a public setting,” Kuzma said. “That technology has existed for pianos for a long time.
“It’s more interactive than a radio. This is something you can have 24-7. It doesn’t demand attention. Obviously, it draws attention, but you don’t have to pay as much attention to it as you would at a live-music setting.”
Kuzma also believes his invention can benefit guitar teachers and those who used to play but no longer can because of physical ailments. They still can write music and perform it by using his technology.
“There’s a million different ways you can skin this cat,” Kuzma said. “I’ve been kind of approaching the ones I think will push it to new lengths and also have a demand.”
Kuzma hasn’t revealed publicly the retail price for his invention. But he’s taken the guitar across Australia, including Melbourne and Sydney, for public appearances. It’s been well received, he said.
As for possible purchasers and/or investors, Kuzma said he’s heard from a Grammy Award-winning music producer he didn’t name. But Kuzma also has been shunned by some who perform music for a living. He said they need not worry.
“It’s not necessarily meant to compete. It’s in its own realm,” Kuzma said about the self-player. “It’s not as moving or as human as a real, live musician, but this is something that can be available for when that live musician is unavailable.
“Obviously, it’s not the same as a live musician. It will never replace a live musician.”
Still, Kuzma refers to his creation as an artist, as if it were human. It is his baby, after all.
But father still believes he knows best.
“The day it plays better than me, I quit,” Kuzma said with a laugh.