Senior Design Project Captures Rock Star Attention

Nathan Hilbish never imagined he’d be comparing notes with one of the world’s most famous guitarists, but Coldplay’s Jonny Buckland developed a special interest in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering alumnus after learning of his research with sound signal transference.

In a senior design project, Hilbish and his class of 2010 teammates Lee Stewart and Andrew Good, along with senior advisor Vennie Filippas, Ph.D., associate professor at the VCU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, created a prototype of an optical guitar pickup, a device that detects each guitar string’s vibrations through optical components and combines them, converting the whole to a polyphonic sound. A standard electric guitar pickup uses a magnet to capture the strings’ vibrations. Both systems convert the vibrations into electrical signals for amplification and recording. Hilbish went on to receive his master’s from the VCU School of Engineering.

The advantage of the optical guitar pickup is that it captures mechanical vibrations using infrared light to produce the electrical signals and, unlike the magnetic pickup of the standard electric guitar, preserves the natural harmonics of the string, allowing for a more focused and cleaner sound.

“People are intrigued by the sounds that an artist produces,” Hilbish said. “The strings on an acoustic guitar are different than those on an electric guitar. The optical pickup allows an electric guitar to produce an acoustic sound.”

“People are intrigued by the sounds that an artist produces. The optical guitar allows an electric guitar to produce an acoustic sound.”

– Nathan Hilbish’10