Gibson Robot Guitar

February 25, 2008

Before we get into the wildly new and innovative features of the Robot Guitar, let’s look at the time-honored aspects of this instrument. At first glance, Robo looks pretty much like a stock Les Paul—albeit one with a blue silverburst finish and an ebony fretboard. Under the surface, there’s a chambered mahogany body that contributes to the guitar’s very reasonable weight of 8.34 lbs. Our test instrument arrived with a great setup, with .010s and a medium-low action that makes it loud and strong. The frets are perfectly smooth and feel really nice. Plugging in, it sounds like a Les Paul should sound—i.e., great. There are no real sonic surprises here. This guitar sounds big and clear through every amp I tried. Clean tones are full and rich, and crunch tones have all the bite and punch you would expect. I especially like the way the pickups balance each other out, with the bridge pickup providing just a little more oomph than the neck for great snarl on lead tones. Very nice.

A closer inspection clues you into the fact that this is not your granddaddy’s Les Paul. The main indicator would have to be the alloy tuning machines. We first saw these tuners (and this whole tuning system) as an aftermarket product called Powertune from the Tronical company of Germany. These Powerheads don’t look much different when you see the headstock from the front, but the side view reveals the large back assemblies that house the motors that work the robotic tuning magic. Given all that they do, these tuners aren’t big at all (and they actually weigh less than a standard Gotoh tuner), but everyone who has seen the test guitar has been startled initially by their presence. The Tune-o-matic-style bridge has individual piezo saddles that transmit
tuning info, and the tailpiece has an almost imperceptible wire running through the guitar’s top and into the cavity. The only other visual cue that there’s something going on with this guitar is the Roswell-approved knob that doubles as the bridge pickup tone control and the Robot Guitar command center that they call the Master Control Knob, or MCK. The MCK is your gateway into Robotland.

Enough of all this. The questions on everybody’s minds are, “How does it work, and does it work?” To find out, I took the Robot out of the case and detuned a few strings—which required disengaging the tuner buttons from their locked positions by pulling them out and away from the peghead. After relocking the tuners, I pulled up on the MCK (which mutes most, but not all, of the output—go figure) to get to Instantly Activated Tuning mode. I then strummed all six strings lightly, and the Robot Guitar sprang into action like a scene out of Robocop. The Powerheads began spinning, tuning and retuning themselves. I strummed a couple of more times until I saw the blue LEDs on the MCK, and, in a few seconds, the guitar was in tune. It’s undeniably cool.

I was hungry for more, so I consulted the manual to figure out how I could call up other tunings. It’s really easy. Pull up on the MCK, turn the knob until the “A” is illuminated, press the switch on the top of the knob, gently strum the strings a few times, and, before you know it, you’re in DADGAD. It actually takes about 15 seconds to go from standard to DADGAD or vice versa, which is pretty incredible.

The other presets include open-E, open-G, dropped-D, double dropped-D, and Eb. You can also overwrite any of the factory presets with your own custom tunings—great for the Ani DiFrancos and Joni Mitchells of the world.

To talk about how effective the Robot Guitar is at getting itself in tune entails a little explanation. Gibson ships the guitar calibrated for a set of .010s, and with an accuracy setting of roughly one cent. You can adjust for greater or lesser accuracy in the Setup Mode, but there’s a price to pay for increased accuracy: speed. It obviously takes longer to tune more precisely. At the fastest setting, Gibson boasts accuracy of 2.5 cents, which sounds precise until you remember that it means plus or minus 2.5 cents—which can cause two adjacent strings to be off by 5 cents, which is not only audible, but unacceptable. Because my ears were telling me that Mr. Roboto didn’t tune up perfectly on a few occasions, I decided to go for maximum accuracy—even if it meant taking a little longer. This got me closer to being in tune as I jumped from standard to DADGAD to open-E, but my ears and two different digital tuners said that the Robot Guitar only nailed all six pitches about half the time. Generally, there would only be one or two strings out, and, even then, they weren’t out by much. I’d be happy to simply grab the tuning machine, and nudge, say, the low E, but doing so requires that you disengage the tuner button, make the adjustment, and then reengage the button. All of a sudden, our dream of quick, effortless tuning is more complicated. I was determined to make friends with the Robot Guitar, however, so I decided to take the tuning law into my own hands.

A common problem with lowered tunings such as DADGAD, open-G, and dropped-D is that the decreased tension of the low-E or A strings can cause them to flop around and pull sharp when you smack a chord. To combat this, I’ll typically tune those strings just a little flat so the initial attack sounds in tune. Because those detuned low strings were sometimes problematic with Robot, I wanted to make a custom preset of DADGAD and open-G, and see if I could sweeten them a bit. This did seem to help, but I still heard (and saw on the tuner) occasional random tuning problems. It made me wish the tailpiece had fine tuners so I could quickly tweak a string here or there. Having said that, there were plenty of times when the Robot Guitar did exactly as it was told, and that was truly amazing. (Gibson recommends putting some graphite in the nut to eliminate any binding, and to make things a little easier on the Robot. The company also claims that after multiple tunings the guitar will “learn” to tune up more quickly and accurately, taking into account factors such as neck movement, etc.) Speaking of multiple tunings, Gibson says you can expect more than 200 tunings before the Robot’s battery needs to be charged. Charging is accomplished with a standard 1/4" cable, and the included charger. A complete charge takes about 90 minutes.

As much as I dig the Robot Guitar when it’s all working, I do have concerns about the system’s reliability. In writing this review, we witnessed two Robots go down—one freezing up after about 15 minutes of tuning, and the other refusing to turn off after about a week of moderate use. The system is not really user-serviceable (we weren’t able to resurrect either Robot on our own), so it’s a good thing Gibson seems committed to customer support on this guitar. So far, Robot #3 has performed well.

So is this the guitar to take over the world? Maybe. It’s chock full of Gibson’s old-school craftsmanship and the mind-boggling Tronical Powertune technology. When you consider that the Transperformance system that Jimmy Page installed in a Les Paul just a few years ago entailed all kinds of invasive routing, cams, and cantilevers to accomplish more or less the same thing as the Robot Guitar, you realize we’ve come a long way in a very short period of time.

Now, a note to the haters out there who see this guitar as further evidence of the dumbing down of musicians everywhere: Your point is not lost on me. Every guitarist needs to be able to tune by ear, and there’s no arguing that. To be fair, though, most pianists can’t tune their instrument, and no one condemns them. The Robot Guitar might just get some players who might otherwise be intimidated by open and altered tunings to explore them. If you’re a slide player, the Robot lets you can play a tune in open-E, and the next one in open-D with the touch of a button. And if you’re in a bar band that does a Hendrix tune down a half-step, and then a Stones tune in open-G, and then the rest of your set in standard tuning, you can pull all of that off with one guitar. There are still some bugs, and the system could stand to be dialed in a little more precisely, but my prediction is this thing is here to stay. It’s a slick, elegant device in a kick-ass guitar for a reasonable price.

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