We tend to think of musical instruments in fixed terms: that’s a guitar, this is a saxophone, that’s a synthesizer. Colten Jackson, however, plays an instrument that’s hard to classify. The Illinois musician hacked together what he calls the Hard Rock Guitar out of e-waste: six obsolete hard drives, and an old keyboard number pad, powered by an Arduino board. At Jackson’s command, it emits a range of synthy, ambient tones. If he wants to change the notes or scales, he need only tinker with the software. “Instruments are this free-form art; they just have to make sound,” he says. “Whatever you start with, whether it’s garbage or e-waste, it lends itself to something.”
Jackson is an active member of the open source Makerspace lab in Urbana, Illinois, and the founder of an affiliated project called Electronic Waste Orchestra. The Orchestra—not technically an orchestra, it consists of a bi-monthly meet up and a four-week summer camp for kids—began after Jackson read a Hackaday article about turning old hard drives into synthesizers. When the disc platter in a hard drive spins, it produces sound waves, which an Arduino can measure and then transmit to sound-generating software. The Makerspace lab had plenty of these unwanted drives laying around, so Jackson powered them up and pieced together the Hard Rock Guitar. A number pad is affixed to the top, where each key gets assigned a chord or a note, depending on how the player programs the software.
The Hard Rock Guitar is Jackson’s inaugural instrument (and “the only one you could stand on stage with,” he says), but he’s tinkered around with a handful of other creations like circuit boards strung together, and an old push-button telephone plugged into batteries. The beauty of e-waste instruments, he says, is that virtually anything meant to be electrically powered can yield music. “You look at the thing and think about how it works: if it has an amplifier, and an interesting touch pad that sends out data somehow,” he says. One notable exception? Newer circuit boards. “The parts are so small,” Jackson says. “These days there’s six layers on top of each other sealed with resin, so it’s hard to get in there.”