Guitar Technology: The Future is Now(?)
From the 12th Century to the early 1930s, it could be argued that the basic elements of the guitar changed very little. Once the likes of Mr. Les Paul and Leo Fender got involved, however, the guitar was changed forever.
Are we on the cusp of another such revolution? Or as one dealer surveyed for this article postulated, are these next generation guitars just showing a “desperation” among manufacturers?
Self-tuning guitars, new advancements in guitar synth, USB-fitted instruments, and even guitars that use technology in new ways to teach players were all on display at this past NAMM Show as Peavey, Gibson, Godin, Roland, Parker, Line 6, and Behringer, among (many) other companies, all had new or recent technologically enhanced guitars to show off.
“For a lot of beginning players, tuning and intonation are two barriers to learning how to play guitar,” states Peavey CEO Hartley Peavey. “Having a guitar that is out of intonation and won’t tune properly can take away the motivation and joy in playing. Giving players the ability to correct those deficiencies easily can encourage those beginners to stick with the instrument.”
But the new technology doesn’t cut one any slack with his or her ability to play, says Parker Guitar’s Chris Walker: “You still need to know how to play in order to use this technology to its fullest capabilities, so in that respect, once players realize they can express themselves as they always have, we got very positive feedback [on our high-tech guitars]. You could see the wheels turning, the smiles popping on their faces!”
“To be perfectly honest, I never say that a guitarist needs [self-tuning capability],” states Fret-King’s Trev Wilkinson. “We have been playing guitars for a long, long time and using alternate tunings forever. What I do say, though, is why would you not want it?”
MMR launched an exclusive survey, and there was little positive feedback about these “tech-y” developments to guitars [see page 41 for full report]. While only three percent reported not hearing of self-tuning guitars, only the same percentage report stocking them.
“Gimmick” and “fad” are two words that came up frequently in our poll of dealers. “It’s silly,” pens John Files of the Bass Emporium in Austin. “How reliable will these things be in 50 years? And great – this is all we need: to remove another skill from a player…”
Then there are the natural challenges, including high price and the cost of buy-in. Plus there’s this: “I have a customer with two of them, and he’s had to send them both back to Gibson,” reports Jim DeStafney of Blues Angel Music in Pensacola. “They could not be field repaired.”
The new lower-priced Peaveys seem to cause a few to be more open to the idea: “The newest Peavey models have a lot of possibilities,” says Mike Guillot of Ms. Music Inc. in Flowood, Miss. “In my opinion, there is a place for [these types of guitars] in the market. Imagine the number of students who don’t learn because their parents don’t know how to tune the guitar or work the tuner and neither do Johnny or Suzie. Imagine the number of weeks of practice that was for naught because the guitar was not properly tuned.”
The other extreme is represented by the likes of Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, who believes the self-tuning revolution will happen in a very big way – and inevitably will someday represent 100 percent of the market. “I draw the analogy to the T.V. remote control. When it came out in the early days, everyone said, ‘Stupid!’ ‘Ridiculous!’ and ‘How lazy can people get to not stand up and change the channel?’” Also when television remotes first came out, they didn’t work that well. “But the fact is, today you can’t find an electronic device without a remote. Convenience wins. There’s no reason not to have it at your fingertips. Something like [self-tuning technology] can change behavior, and I predict it will be ubiquitous.”
With much bally-hoo and promises to “forever change the way guitars are played and recorded,” Hartley Peavey, CEO, was personally on hand in Anaheim to unveil his company’s entry into the self-tuning market, showing off the Peavey AT-200 featuring Auto-Tune which was developed through a partnership with Antares Audio Technologies.
“The Peavey AT-200 was a huge point of interest for our dealers, as well as the media, at NAMM,” Peavey said in a post-show interview. “As word spread through the show, more and more people came by to see and hear the AT-200 for themselves. It was a big success because of its totally new technology, which allows the guitar to electronically self-tune and self-intonate at the push of a button.”
Many noted the instrument’s impressive below-$500 price. “The trick was to adapt this technology in a way that enabled Peavey to offer this product at that price point,” Hartley says. “For as long as I can remember, dealers have told me that they go to NAMM to find new and exciting products. Our AT-200 is breakthrough technology at a realistic price point that can be hugely profitable for our dealers and distributors around the world.”
Peavey says the partnership with Antares has been great, creating an affordable instrument that electronically self-tunes and self-intonates at the push of a button that is different than others on the market. Of course, he also understands the retailer, and acknowledges there are going to be some skeptics.
“Our AT-200 overcomes multiple problems encountered with guitar synths and similar products in the past,” he states emphatically. “The AT-200 is a whole new deal—a breakthrough that only happens once in a decade. We enjoyed watching the reactions of people when we demoed the AT-200 at NAMM. Everyone walked away feeling positive about the instrument and what it does. It’s important to note that the AT-200 doesn’t correct bad playing, only poor tuning and intonation. The technology is even smart enough to know when players intend to manipulate pitch, so bends and vibrato sound as natural as they always have. The AT-200 has both active and passive modes, so if there’s ever a need to bypass the auto tuning and intonation, it’s easy to do so.”
He adds that the company isn’t stopping with this, citing Peavey’s history of innovation that has earned them more than 180 patents. “That legacy of innovation includes pioneering the use of computers in guitar making and in creating the first digitally configured and controlled audio system (MediaMatrix).”
Game changer? Peavey thinks so.
“We have always tried to create better products with unmatched performance, and that will continue through all of our product lines. The AT-200 is a game changer, and once again Peavey is leading the pack. When the true extent of the amazing technology included in the AT-200 is fully disclosed, the industry will recognize the amazing technological breakthrough that it actually is.”
The AT-200 will be out in July at Peavey dealers.
Parker has also incorporated Antares’ technology, and say there’s is an entirely DSP-based suite of functions that offer everything guitarists have always wanted from their guitars, along with capabilities never imagined possible. On the Maxxfly, the six strings tune with the push of a button – there are no motors or gears. Alternative tunings and virtual capos are possible, and proprietary modeling technology allows the player to select a guitar/pickup combo and then select from the pickup configurations that would be available on the original guitar. “There’s a MIDI interface that allows every parameter of every function to be controlled by standard MIDI continuous controller messages,” says Parker’s Chris Walker. “This opens up the possibility of control by MIDI foot controllers, programmable control surfaces, iPhones or iPads, computers, or any source of MIDI as well as creating presets and recalling them using MIDI preset change commands.”
But don’t look for it on just any Parker …
“At this point, we are very excited to say that Auto-tune is exclusive to our flagship model, the Parker Maxxfly,” says Chris Walker. “We don’t currently have any plans to expand to other models, but if there is a demand for that then we will certainly take a look at what we can do.”
Walker, too, reports a strong response at NAMM. “Guitar players are very traditional in the respect that it is a craft and most prefer to hone that craft over years of practice and hard work. The Auto-tune technology in our Parker doesn’t take away from that, but enhances every player’s bag of tricks by incorporating their imagination in how they use the technology to compliment their playing. Once most players played around with the guitar, they realize it’s just another tool, like an effects pedal, that they can use to express themselves. Overall, we feel that this increases and inspires creativity.”
He saw it on players’ faces as many played the MaxxFly. “At least 80 percent had that ‘light bulb moment,’ when they realized that [this technology] wasn’t going to make them play or sound differently. You hit a bad note, it’s still a bad note! [laughs] If you have a distinctive vibrato, it still shines through.”
Walker doesn’t see a future where this technology is on every guitar, though. “The Parker Antares Auto-tune for guitar was devised for the typical Parker player – someone who is interested in using the most advanced technology on the planet that allows them to express themselves in ways not possible with traditional guitars.”
“We’ve been in the guitar business for a decade now, building solid state guitar amps and launching the world’s largest line of stomp boxes,” says Behringer’s senior vice president of marketing, Costa Lakoumentas. “We want people to experiment with their sound in ways that are affordable. Making great products affordable means buying parts at the right price.”
Behringer has applied that philosophy to guitars, which they’ve been making since 2005. “The whole art of making guitars is something you can do in one of two ways,” Lakoumentas says. There’s the handcrafted one, where the maker “gets to know the tree before it’s actually a piece of wood, which we love” or there’s the one for the mass market. The latter and takes advantage of owning a factory with all the necessary tools to build a quality instrument at an affordable price – and one that includes some untraditional technology.
Their Metalien USB Guitar iAXE629 is part of a new series that allows the player to connect straight to the computer and comes with built-in modeling amps and affects. “We wanted to create something that has great, enabling technology that is completely simplified for the aspiring guitarist and also is delivered with a whole tool kit [of sounds] they can experiment with,” he says. The kit comes with a CD, USB cable, adjustable guitar strap, and three picks. There’s also access to guitar combos from a Behringer edition of Native Instruments software, providing a virtual guitar amp and stomp box modeling which comes with multi-track recording and editing features. “It’s very cool to be able to hear your music as you record it, and do it from a listening posture, not just a playing posture, so you can critique yourself as you learn. For the customer trying to learn, this can be very satisfying, and can provide the kind of instant gratification that encourages them to keep playing.”
Debuting at the Consumer Electronics Show, and shown off at NAMM as well, is the iAXE Guitar for iPad and iPod. The stringless guitar-teaching tool was developed by Lee Behringer himself and includes patent-held technology. “The way we conceived it was there are LEDs up and down the neck of the guitars representing the notes and you strum the iPad that you place into it. It comes with a ‘party mode’ where you just hand it to someone who doesn’t play and they ‘strum’ to a song right away. It allows [novices] to enjoy the experience, but gets them keyed into one of the important elements of music, rhythm.”
Behringer hopes the iAxe bridges the gap between such games as Guitar Hero and a real guitar. It’ll come with a range of free apps, allowing users to play it right out of the box. “We’ve not scheduled a firm launched date on this, but it will come out sometime this year,” Lakoumentas says.
At NAMM, Roland’s booth there was a buzzing with the release of the G5, a synth-equipped guitar created in cooperation with Fender.
“The G5 is revolution in that it’s a hot-rodded, customized Strat with 22 medium jumbo frets and available in two colors,” says Gary Lenaire, product manager. But what Roland is calling the next step in the evolution of the instrument – acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and now “electronic guitar” – features more than may meet the eye.
It features Roland’s COSM technology, which allows the user to dial in a world of electric and acoustic guitar tones, even 12-string. “There’s a selection of guitar models and tunings, but other than the edition of two black knobs, it looks, plays and sounds like a classic Fender Strat, and you can have it ‘just’ be a Strat 24/7 if that’s what you want.” He laughs and adds that one of the sounds to be had with a turn of the knob is… a Strat. “Why would you want to model a Strat on a Strat? Well, with the ‘Strat’ mode there’s no 60 cycle hum typical of the guitar – the noise associated with those pickups are gone.”
Behind the two Strat sounds, there are another 123 combinations. “There’s no programming by the player needed,” Lenaire says. “And it’s a standard output.”
This is part of their V Guitar series. “The V Guitar has been part of Roland for many years and now it’s coming full circle for us.” They are the sole distributor of it, and it’s managed and merchandised only by Roland.
“Having that internal pickup is a great marriage,” he says. “And with so many sounds in one guitar, it’s really great for the working professional who has to fly from city to city – now he or she only needs one guitar not five or seven.”
Though it seems like they are competitors, Lenaire has high praise for the people at Fender. “[CEO] Larry Thomas and his entire staff of Fender have been amazing during the entire process, and working with them has been amazing. What a positive, exciting group of individuals. It’s been a fantastic experience.”
When asked if this new guitar is the future or a mere fad, Lenaire points to the history of the Roland V Drum. “People might not realize we started way back with a drum machine that was the only one on the market. From there we created V Drums, and the innovations slowly and gradually influenced the market. Today it’s a major competitor in the drum market and to me that’s a wonderful statement.”
Over at Roland, Gary Lenarire says dealer response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” their booth was crowded the entire time at the show on their synth guitars and Roland/Fender hybrid. “For the hobbyist, the V guitar is an amazing product for the player sitting at home wanting different sounds and not just hemmed into the guitar.”
At Godin, they took the model that John McLaughlin takes on tour, The Passion RG-2, and made it with a 13-pin connection. “The other thing is that the body has a chamber that re-voices and augments the frequency range and allows the player to go from passive to active pickups,” says Mario Biferali, sales and marketing manager of Godin. “When you sit down with the guitar, it’s very dynamic.”
As for its synth possibilities, he says the output has a filter switch that filters out unnecessary frequencies when using it with a guitar synthesizer. “We wanted to make sure first and foremost that if you never used the synth [application] you had a monster guitar. It has a very deep neck pocket, and a lot of wood connection for more vibration and sustain.”
The pickups act more as sensors, and the saddle is essentially the pick up, which allows better communication from the guitar to the synthesizer.
“This guitar is extremely light as well, which was a goal because we asked players – both professionals and those around the office – what they like and what they don’t like in these types of guitars,” Biferali continues. So they went with a special Spanish cedar and a maple top. “Basically the same way we build our acoustics.”
In addition to the RG-2, there’s the RG-3 with a 13-pin, the difference being the latter comes with the three single coils.
As for the ability to connect with a USB cable, “That’s just convenient. You have it there, and you can plug it right into your computer, and the computer recognizes what it is. It’s an easy great way to get the audio onto the computer.” He sees this trending, because it’s welcomed by guitarists making music who don’t want to just be limited to guitar sounds. “For the player who doesn’t play keyboards, it allows for so much more.” But even that has limits: “We don’t release guitars like these so they can get a great clarinet sound – it’s the opposite of that.” So for the beginner or the person demoing an arrangement, again, it’s convenient; but “at the end of the day, if you want a sax sound you should really get a sax player!”
He’s cautious about the market for the 13-pin/USB guitars. “It’ll be for the guitarist that has several guitars but wants something different, or someone who falls in love with this because of the quality of the instrument and then goes, ‘oh a 13-pin, that’s cool – that’s there if they need it.’”
Don’t look for Godin to offer self-tuning guitars in the near future, though. “Everybody does what they think is cool, but we won’t be pursuing that,” he says. “We’d rather be more about finding the ultimate tone. At the very least, every guitarist should know how to tune his or her instrument. I respect those who are making guitars [with that feature], because anything that makes anybody interested in guitars is great … but we’re about how to built guitars with the ultimate tone.”
Trev Wilkinson offers the Super-Matic guitar, which he says is the first ever to feature the Wilkinson ATD HT440 self-tuning hard tail guitar bridge.
“The main advantage is that this is ‘real tuning’ and by that I mean it is the same as using tuning keys to vary the tension of the strings, and that gives you the real feel of the tuning, not like a digital system where the strings never change,” Wilkinson says. “Real users of alternative tunings really appreciate this.”
The second advantage is that it is “totally non-intrusive for a guitar or a guitar player. My whole take on it from the beginning was that I did not want the guitarist to know he had this fixed to his guitar until he needed it. We are not the first with this technology, but I believe we are the most affordable and the most user friendly.”
Wilkinson and team have been developing the self-tuning bridge for many years, and the low-profile addition uses “ultra hi-tech micro gearboxes, designed to retrofit unobtrusively to a standard Strat like vibrato bridge rout,” he explains. There’s a micro hex pickup, and controls small enough not to notice.
“For me it is inexpensive enough and unobtrusive enough to use it when you want.
“No one can tune a guitar as fast or as accurate as this unit can. Then, add to that the benefit of your audience never actually seeing or hearing you tune on stage.” He adds that when one thinks about the implications in the recording studio, “think about never again hearing the engineer tell you were out of tune on the last take!”
For dealers and players there will be a bit of a learning curve but “certainly not as a mobile phone.”
For now it’s just in the one model: “I’m a realist and know that not everyone will want it.
“As some guitarists embrace all the new technology that is being offered to them, most do not. Good, affordable guitars are the future of guitars. Frustrating as it sometimes is for a guitar designer, guitarists till look back through rose tinted glasses at a classic 1952 or a 1954 guitar, but only the people who really own these guitars and try to play them in a stage environment understand what they can do and, more importantly, what they can’t do!”
Henry Juszkiewicz is blunt in admitting that since the Gibson’s Robot Guitar featuring self-tuning debuted five years ago, sales have been underwhelming. But that is just as he expected and he’s more than fine with it.
“I feel good about it, but yes, it’s a radical innovation in a market of traditional customers. There is a general feeling in the guitar business of, ‘well, who needs it?’” Juszkiewicz laughs. “It’s understandable that, for people who spend so much time learning guitar, anything new is potentially offensive. So our radical innovations are small in volume now.”
Juszkiewicz is a man who believes history is on his side, as he reminds us that the Les Paul languished for 15 years, selling a mere couple of hundred units annually, before taking off. “But the good news is that this period allows us to get consistency and quality before we ramp up and have to produce volume.”
And as to who is buying the Robots, “It’s the bleeding edge consumer, the pro-sumers. It’s the people who bought the first electric cars, the first $15,000 plasma T.V. screen – typically that four- to six-percent of the total buying population that loves to be on the edge of change, the thrill of being first.”
Interestingly with just a few exceptions, the pros aren’t embracing Gibson’s Robot guitars, at least not yet. “The number of professionals who actually make their living playing guitar is small, and they spent a lifetime getting their tone, their sound, and need their equipment set up a certain way. You throw something radical at them and it throws them off.”
So with some exception, “the real target is someone who loves the puzzle of the new, and that’s part of the appeal. They are the pioneers, part of the vanguard. There are bunches of people like that.”
As to all the others coming out, it’s something Juszkiewicz expected, as well as other companies creating products with similar features at lower price points. “In a few years the [self-tuning] feature will be practically free and be in millions of units, and the price will come down to the point that it’s essentially no added cost, and at no added cost, who wouldn’t want it?”
In addition to that, there’s Gibson’s new Firebird X, which he says combines a number of different technologies including fourth-generation robot tuning, sound emulation, offers a variety of guitar sounds including acoustic, blue tooth wireless technology and more. “It has so much technology it whacks people out,” Juszkiewicz says. “Any of the individual technologies are going to have a profound implication, and something like this is going to change the nature of the guitar and guitar rig very radically over the next five to seven years.
“The bottom line is it will give players more creative freedom. If you introduce innovation to the creative minds, and musicians can reflect on it a while, the innovations will lead to new formats of music and new ways of playing – that’s really exciting stuff.”
While not able to talk about it yet, Juszkiewicz hinted that announcements of new products by the end of the year could include acoustic versions which have been reported to already been proto-typed and new versions at the lower than $4,000 price point typical of a Robot Guitar.
“The original Line 6 Variax® guitars debuted back in 2002 to an outstanding reception,” says Line 6’s Gabriel Whyel of the company’s most “high tech” guitar offering. “Introduced in 2010, the new The James Tyler® Variax® is the only guitar in the world that can sound like an entire collection of vintage instruments. Designed by legendary boutique builder James Tyler, it is one of the best-playing guitars on the market. And, it also has something under the hood no other guitar has: Variax technology that gives you 28 classic electric and acoustic instruments, and instant alternate tunings.”
Whyel feels these types of guitars offer very real and obvious benefits for players who require versatility and multiple options from their instruments: “James Tyler Variax provides an endless variety of guitar sounds to inspire the musician’s creativity, from vintage electric and classic acoustic sounds all the way to sitar, banjo, and more. Guitarists can switch their tunings on the fly — or go beyond what’s possible in the physical realm and create custom instruments with Variax Workbench. James Tyler Variax is great for guitarists who need a variety of guitar sounds to realize their creative vision.”
While he concedes that – for now, anyway – the market for these types of instruments is limited, Whyel sees potential for growth. “We find that many guitarists work with a variety of tones when they play, so we have developed an instrument that provides a huge tonal palette that guitarists can use to sculpt their own sounds,” he says. “We believe this group of guitarists is growing. Actually, the reception to Variax guitars has been outstanding. By combining industry-leading Line 6 digital modeling with boutique-style craftsmanship, James Tyler Variax provides the ultimate instrument: the sounds of 28 vintage instruments plus the sound of a beautifully crafted electric guitar from a master luthier.”
All this noise about the “new” self-tuning guitars must be making the people at AxCent Tuning scratch their heads a bit.
“It was 1987 when we developed our first unit, and our first customer was Jimmy Page when he bought one in 1991,” says Neil Skinn. With partner Frank Strazzabosco, they have been fitting guitars with their self-tuning system for more than 20 years, and their artist list includes Joe Perry, Pat Metheny, Eddie Van Halen, Peter Frampton, Pete Townsend – even filmmaker David Lynch and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen have them.
“We were playing in a garage band together – and this was before the advent of the little $25 tuner – and one guy said, ‘it sure would be nice if these [guitars] tuned themselves,” Skinn recalls.
Their system is not for the faint of heart, nor is it cheap: to install it on your Les Paul or Stratocaster, it costs between $3,400 and $5,000, and you supply the guitar (it can only be one of those two guitars because it requires a guitar that doesn’t have a beveled edge). It is a computerized mechanical tuning system that adjusts the tension of the strings. “What we’re proud of is it actually changes the tension of the string, not just sensing the strings,” Strazzabosco explains. “We never heard anything about those that continually sense the strings.”
Besides the list of star artists, Skinn says their customers are affluent doctor/lawyer types as “our price tag is pretty high. And it’s complex to install, so people send us their guitars or let us buy one for them and we do the installation in the shop.” Another challenge is that AxCent doesn’t work with retailers (at least not yet), and players have to take a huge leap of faith, relying only on the extensive testimonials on their site and buying without playing first.
As for the wave of self-tuning guitars costing considerably less than tunings, they aren’t worried: “The ability to change theirs in the middle of the song is what sets us apart,” Strazzabosco says.