Gibson has spent millions of dollars over the course of a decade trying to perfect the self-tuning guitar. But it wasn’t until this year the brand behind the iconic Les Paul started making automatic tuners a standard feature on most of its electric guitars.
With one press of a button, tiny motors twist the tuning pegs and within seconds, the guitar is ready to play. The tuner is a small black box tucked out of sight, above the neck at the head of the guitar.
“You know, people see it and they’re kind of taken aback at first,” says Craig Anderton, a longtime musician turned executive vice president for Gibson. He remembers showing off the device to a longtime guitar tech in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “So I pushed the button, and I strummed the strings, and I watched it and he goes, ‘I can die now. I think I’m in heaven.’”
Anderton says there’s a common misperception that a self-tuning guitar is only meant for beginners. He says it can save valuable time even for experienced musicians – whether they’re in the studio or on stage.
“Once you try it, you can’t help but get addicted to it,” he adds.
Well, not everyone. Some musicians complain the device is unreliable, and then there are the purists who say Gibson is tinkering with the guitar’s timeless design.
George Gruhn’s shop in Nashville sells mainly vintage guitars.
“The 1959 Sunburst Les Paul was perfect,” he says. “I’m hard pressed to think of anything that has improved in electric guitars from 1959 to the present.”
Gruhn shakes his head at what Gibson is attempting. And he says there’s no need for it. He pulls an iPhone out of his pocket, sets it on the table and plucks at a nylon string while glancing at the screen.
“Anybody who can’t learn to tune a guitar with a tuner app on their telephone isn’t going to learn how to play guitar,” Gruhn says. “This is a nonproblem.”
The new Gibson models also cost more – up by 30 percent in some cases. But the company says the new technology accounts for only a small portion of that increase.
Despite the critics, Gibson is pushing ahead with automatic tuning. First, electric guitars. Acoustics are next.