BERKELEY -- There are no gold-plated records framed on his walls, no shelves filled with awards, no media clippings -- not even a page on Wikipedia.
An inventor who has devoted his life to connecting musicians to technology, Keith McMillen doesn't need to tell others what he's done with his life. He knows. His peers know. And for him, that's all that really matters.
Even putting his moniker on his current venture, Keith McMillen Instruments, wasn't his idea.
"I did it for my daughter," said McMillen, 54. "She told me, 'Dad, everyone knows about your products, but no one knows that you invented them.' "
But while the general public may not be familiar with him, those in the music world who have worked with him say he is the best in the industry at what he does.
In 1979 McMillen founded Zeta Music. Among his accomplishments was the invention of the first electric violin that had the ability to output a signal from each string on a separate audio channel. That and other revolutionary electronic instrument designs created a new market in the music industry.
Just as Fender and Gibson were the most popular guitar manufacturers in the U.S., if you played electric violin in the '80s and '90s, in all likelihood you played a Zeta, McMillen said.
After a few years running Zeta as a one-man show, McMillen grew the company to a staff of about 20. And in 1992, he sold the company to Gibson Guitars "for a seven-figure amount,"
From Led Zeppelin to the Grateful Dead, he's worked with some of the music world's most important artists.
Vernon Reid, founder of the band Living Colour and on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," has known McMillen since the 1980s. He said he immediately saw how smart McMillen was and his passion to "intimately intertwine" music and technology.
"One of the most telling things about Keith McMillen and his success is that so much of what he first came up with is now fully integrated into the music industry," Reid said.
McMillen remembers in the 1970s getting a phone call from a stranger asking him if he could solve a musical challenge.
When the musician arrived, it was John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"Word got out what I was able to do, and I became known as 'the guy who could do crazy stuff with an instrument,' " McMillen said.
No matter what was asked of him, McMillen was able to deliver.
"I have yet to be dead stumped on how to do something," McMillen said. "Sometimes it's taken me years to figure it out, but eventually the 'Aha moment' comes to me."
While Zeta primarily focused on the design of new instruments, Keith McMillen Instruments focuses largely on accessories and software for instruments.
Whether it's a violin bow that transmits precise movements wirelessly to a computer, or a foot pad for musicians to play piano chords with their feet, he wants to give musicians an opportunity to make every imaginative musical idea they have possible.
"My overarching theme here is to take traditional Western music and technology and smash it together," he said.
The challenge with technology is to make the products attractive enough that traditional musicians will embrace the new tools rather than run away from them.
"Once a violinist gets over the embarrassment that they're actually having fun (with his equipment) ... they realize what new possibilities there are," he said.
Instead of working solo, McMillen has engaged a team of engineers who are also musicians.
Together they apply their collective knowledge to create products. In 2010 the company brought in about $500,000 in revenue. This year, the company hopes to double that, McMillen said.
"It's really great working with someone that's not just profit-driven, but making new things that can really make a difference," said Diane Douglas, one of the lead engineers. "He's definitely the best boss I've ever had."
While there is plenty of technology that can manipulate sounds in a recording studio, McMillen is able to allow musicians the opportunity to make the same tweaks in real time during a show.
For example, Reid uses McMillen's foot controller called the SoftStep during his live shows. Unlike other foot controllers that just turn on and off, each key is pressure sensitive and can do various things depending on how you lean into the button, Reid said.
"I can be playing music on my laptop during a show, and I can make complete theme changes without taking my hands off the guitar," Reid said.
In November, the Kronos Quartet, which has sold more than 1.5 million records, will test these outside-the-box music possibilities in a performance. Instead of the traditional sounds of their string instruments, the quartet will use the work of Doug Quin, who recorded the sounds of animals in Antarctica.
The Kronos Quartet will play their instruments and the sounds of Quin's mammals will come out in a musical arrangement. McMillen's invention, the K-Bow, makes this possible.
"It feels like a whole new palate of colors in the music world, and I'm right at the very beginning putting the primer on the canvas," said David Harrington, founder of the Kronos Quartet. "Of course I always wanted my violin to sound like a seal."
Harrington says that McMillen is popular with musicians because he's extremely responsive to their needs and is able to make quick adjustments to his products to make them work correctly.
"I think calling him a pioneer in the music world is not too strong of an adjective to use," Harrington said. "He keeps exploring and expanding and looking for new ways to help the music come alive."
While musicians are McMillen's primary focus, some of his inventions naturally gravitate toward other customer groups.
For example, because each key on the SoftStep is programmable, a person without use of their hands could navigate a computer desktop and surf the Internet with their feet.
It's the difference he makes in a person's life or musical career that gives him the most satisfaction.
"Knowing in November that I'm going to New York and watching the Kronos Quartet use four of the bows we created is what it's all about," McMillen said.
Contact David Morrill at 925-977-8534.
Keith McMillen Instruments
Address: 2325 Fourth St #3, Berkeley