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Five Ways I Was Wrong About Automatic Tuning

Craig Anderton

I first became seriously involved with Gibson because of the HD.6X Pro hex guitar, and even put a two-piece band together based on it. Then one day Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson’s Chairman and CEO, called to say if I liked the HD.6X Pro, I was really going to like Gibson’s latest development—the Robot Guitar. “Craig, it’s a guitar that tunes itself!”

I was unimpressed. “Henry, I know how to tune a guitar…I guess beginners will like it, though.” But then he added “It does alternate tunings.” Well, I wasn’t impressed with that either; I seldom used alternate tunings because they’re a pain. I’m also the kind of guy who was even reluctant to put a battery in a guitar. But he was insistent, so I figured I should at least try it out.

Ooops! Here are the five main aspects where my initial assumptions were wrong.

I know how to tune a guitar, so there’s no real point in having a guitar that tunes itself. But there is a point—automatic tuning tunes all six strings to pitch within seconds. As card-carrying humanoid biped, until I grow an extra five hands that ain’t gonna happen by myself. Time is money in my world; reducing tuning time dramatically is a big deal.

I wouldn’t use the alternate tunings anyway. Once I found it was possible to dial up alternate tunings in seconds, my slide—which had been gathering dust—gathered dust no more. Open and other tunings can add entirely new textures.

Really, how often do you tune a guitar anyway? You know the story: you tune up and you play; it’s not a big deal. Except…it is a big deal if you’re creating a sample library of guitar sounds (I’ve done three CD-ROMs of guitar loops and samples) because the tuning for every single note has to be perfect. When doing my first library, I spent at least a third of my time tuning. With automatic tuning that shrank to a couple percent of the time, and it was a no-brainer to take a few seconds and tweak the tuning before every series of takes.

I’d be hosed if the battery died. I assumed that, but even with the original Robot guitar you could tune manually if you disengaged the tuning heads from the gear mechanism (klunky, but functional). Min-ETune™’s an improvement because the tuners also work manually. They’re not quite as smooth as standard tuners, but if you forget to replace the battery before a gig you’re no worse off than if you didn’t have Min-ETune™.

Automatic tuning is a one-trick pony. Once I read the manual (it’s amazing what you can learn that way), I discovered other useful functions. The “string up” and “string down” modes make it easy to replace strings, and the ability to create your own alternate tunings has additional applications. For example, in situations where a piano is in tune with itself but very slightly flat, you can tune one string to the piano, tell Min-ETune™ that’s your reference, and the other strings will tune to it. You can create “sweetened” tunings with some strings set slightly sharp or flat to optimize them for specific keys. And in the studio, I like to slow the tracks down a half-step, and play guitar with the half-step-down alternate tuning. Raising the tracks back to normal gives a brighter, more “pop” timbre.

One more thing where I was sorta wrong. The 2014 guitar models addressed my final reservation. Consider technology’s transitory nature (the Commodore Amiga was a great computer for its time…). A good guitar is forever; technology is not. It’s almost a certainty the parts used to make today’s Min-ETune™ will become scarce or unavailable someday.

However, Min-ETune™’s mechanics are fairly standard. Servo motors turn the machine heads, and servo motors will continue to be made. A microprocessor does pitch comparisons and generates correction signals; microprocessors have existed for decades, and improved versions will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a 2025 model Min-ETune™—which is why Gibson standardized their headstocks across the guitar line. Replacing a Min-ETune™ involves unscrewing six nuts, removing the old one, and putting in a new one by screwing the six nuts back on. And if I do end up growing another five hands, I can always remove Min-ETune™ and replace it with standard tuners.

Yes, in many ways I was wrong about automatic tuning. Then again there’s my daughter, who was raised on the Dark Fire guitar (which had automatic tuning). She thinks it’s weird to play a guitar that doesn’t tune itself. And after becoming addicted to automatic tuning, I must say I see her point.

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