by Craig Anderton
Even before it came out, the web was already buzzing with controversy: “I want one.” “It’s for lazy guitarists.” “I already know how to tune a guitar, thank you.” “This will be a life-saver for live performance.” “It’s overpriced.” “I’d buy one at any price.” “It’s a dumb idea.” “It’s a great idea.”
So of course, it’s up to Harmony Central to check it out, and separate fact from fiction. And frankly, we were very surprised…but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect.
I pulled the guitar, with its blue/silver finish and white pickup rings, out of its plush, hardshell case. The body shape is (no surprise here) a single cutaway Les Paul.
The 60-page owner’s manual (yes, I read manuals before messing with gear—especially pricey gear I don’t own!) does a good job, with info on the history of Gibson, and general care and maintenance for guitars. And I found out something important: Don’t try to tune the guitar manually, unless you disengage the tuning pegs from the peg head.
So I read enough to know that you start the standard tuning process by pulling up on one of the volume knobs; this is a special knob called the MCK (Master Control Knob). Then you strum. So I did.
Next, the servo motors inside the tuning heads start whirring: It’s the sound you’ve heard in a zillion sci-fi movies. The tuning pegs start turning, as if grabbed by unseen hands. And then…the guitar’s in tune. Really.
The first time you see a guitar tune itself is something you’ll likely not forget any time soon, and you have to get over the novelty of the thing before you can arrive at any objective conclusions—it really is a mindbender.
The Robot Guitar is based on the Tronical system that’s been kicking around trade shows for a while. My friend Thomas Wendt, who’s a marketing consultant for several companies, said that I had to see this guitar that tuned itself. I did, and immediately had three thoughts:
1: What a time-saver.
2: Given the price, I think I’ll stick with my tuner.
3: These guys should partner with a big company that can make this happen.
Well, it seems like (3) came to pass. Gibson got my attention big-time about a year ago with their Digital Les Paul, so I wasn’t all that surprised they were the company that jumped on the technology. Still, it’s quite a leap to convince guitarists that the wave of the future lies is guitars with things like Ethernet cables (in the case of the Digital Les Paul) or servo motors attached to tuning heads (the Robot Guitar). The polarized reactions on the web are to be expected, but when dealing with something of this nature, you really have to keep an open mind before jumping to conclusions—either pro or con.
To the casual observer, the only giveaway that this is not an ordinary guitar are the larger-than-normal tuning heads, and the MCK volume knob, as it’s silver instead of black.
Fig 2: The tuning pegs are considerably larger than normal, but not obnoxiously so.
The MCK has little LED letters representing each string, which glow to let you know what’s happening: Red for string not tuned, flashing red to indicate that the frequency is being measured, flashing yellow to show the servos are doing their thing, and green when the string is in tune. When all strings are in tune, all LEDs flash blue three times, then the robot aspect gets out of the way. (There are two more indications: Purple means the string is way out of range, and solid blue means the signal is clipping—don’t hit the strings so hard.)
In addition to regular tuning, there are six “alternate” preset tunings: E major tuning (EBEG#BE), DADGAD, dropped D (DADGBE), G major tuning (GBDGBD), “Hendrix” tuning (EbAbDbGbBbEb), and double-dropped D tuning (DADGBD). But you can also establish an arbitrary pitch reference—fantastic if, for example, you’re playing with a piano that’s not quite in tune—as well as create your own custom tunings, which you can then store as presets. As there are only six preset positions, you’ll need to overwrite one or more factory presets to store your own (but you can always return to the factory defaults if you want). Furthermore, you can calibrate the system to any frequency, in 1Hz increments, between 435Hz and 446Hz.
And if you’re changing strings, there are two special modes: String Down, which basically unwinds all the strings, and String Up, which winds up new strings to near-normal pitch, at which point you can activate the normal tuning mode. String Up can also be activated for a single string (i.e., if you break a string on stage), but not String Down. I don’t like to take off all strings from a guitar at the same time, as I feel it’s important to maintain tension on the neck while you’re changing strings…but fortunately, you can disengage the automated heads for individual strings, allowing you to do String Down on any string you want.
We’re still not done: You can use the system to adjust intonation, and there are some system-level tweaks, like being able to trade off tuning time for accuracy (from 0.02\% to 2.5\% accuracy, in six steps). You do need to calibrate the system if you change string gauges (the Robot Guitar comes set up for .010” high E), but this isn’t a difficult process at all.
The system runs off two rechargeable AA batteries, and there’s an included charger. You don’t need to open up anything to charge the batteries, as you can use the included cable to go from the charger to the guitar’s output jack. Gibson says you can get about 200 tunings before you need to charge the battery; of course, if the battery runs out while you’re on stage, you’re not hosed—you just have to tune your guitar manually.
Robot tuning technology isn't exactly cheap, but if your professional life depends on being in tune quickly—either on stage, or in the studio—it’s not prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, this is new technology. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more guitars, at lower price points, incorporating this technology in the future. Seeing a guitar tune itself is pretty wild, but the option to have a guitar that’s always in tune in a matter of seconds is what really matters.
For live use, I feel that it takes less time to give your guitar a quick tune-up using this technology than doing it manually—even if you have a good tuner and a great ear—because the Robot Guitar isn't limited to tuning one string at a time. When I think of all the big-time guitarists I’ve seen playing live who hand off an out-of-tune guitar to a tech who swaps it for one that is in tune, I can’t help but think that turning the volume down and doing the Robot Tune Shuffle would take less time and be less obtrusive.
Some have said this will make people lazy, and tuning will become a lost art if this technology catches on. As someone who has no intention of trading in my word processor for a typewriter, or my calculator for a slide rule, I don’t have a problem with anything that makes my life easier. This guitar would have paid for itself when I was recording my AdrenaLinn Guitars sample CD. Being a sample CD, every sample had to be perfectly in tune, and I had to check the tuning between every take. This burned up hours of my time, and tended to be a real inspiration-killer. Given how much I play guitar, and how much time I spend doing tuning, I definitely appreciate this technology. Hopefully, Gibson will make it available as a retrofit to existing guitars (like the Digital Les Paul).
All this is very cool and useful, but I think that the system’s “secret weapon” is the alternate tuning options. Alternate tunings simply aren’t very practical for onstage use, but the Robot Guitar ends that problem once and for all. For slide guitar, the guitar was ready to go within seconds. History may look back on the Robot Guitar as interesting for being able to tune itself, but of greater significance for making alternate tunings so much easier to do.
When I first started testing the Robot Guitar, I thought “cool novelty.” Then I started thinking “major timesaver.” Now I’m thinking that this is indeed significant, and something that, if the price could be brought down enough, will become as standard as, say, vibrato tailpieces. Sure, some people will think “it’s just not right.” And that’s fine. But for those who reflect back on all the time they’ve spent tuning guitars, this changes everything.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.
My Les Pauls, two of them are robots.