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Opening act for Gibson's self-tuning guitar

The guitar strings serve as the network on the Robot Guitar, which could save professional musicians time when changing keys. Photos: Self-tuning six string Video: Gibson's self-tuning guitar

SAN RAFAEL, Calif.--There's no denying it. The Robot Guitar from Gibson, which went on sale Monday morning, is pretty cool.

To tune the instrument, the player pulls out one of the knobs on the body of the guitar and strums the strings. The tuner pegs begin to twist left and right on their own, and in about 15 seconds the guitar has been tuned to a different key--or even a customized combination of notes that emulates the preferred tunings of, say, Albert Collins or Jimi Hendrix. The pegs make a low mechanical whirring noise.

The guitar part is a standard Gibson Les Paul and there is no degradation in sound, according to guitarist and actor Martin Luther McCoy, who played a few songs on it during a release event at Bananas at Large, a music store here. (McCoy also played JoJo in the recent film Across the Universe.)

McCoy, who doesn't own one of the robotic guitars but said he's intrigued, said the benefit of such an instrument for a professional musician is time. To switch keys quickly now, you have to swap guitars. Robotic tuning allows you to retune relatively quickly and accurately on one guitar.

But how does it work? After a guitarist selects a key, a computer embedded in the back of the guitar sends commands to the tailpiece and the bridge--the two pieces of steel toward the base of a guitar which, respectively, hold the strings in place and elevate them so they can be played. A guitarist then strums. The tailpiece and bridge monitor the vibrations and tension on the strings and send the information to a processor embedded in the peghead in neck of the guitar.

The neck CPU then turns the motorized tuning pegs accordingly. When the desired tension and vibration are achieved, it's tuned.

The strings, thus, serve as part of the network. If you want to disable robotic tuning, you can. Tronical, a German company, developed the robot and works with Gibson to install it in the company's guitars.

The architecture means that robot tuning can be added to a guitar fairly easily, said Glenn Franzen, a product specialist with Gibson. The robot is accurate to within 2 cents, a measure of pitch. There are 1,200 cents in an octave.

Another company, called TransPerformance, sells a competing robot-tuning system that the company installs itself into a Les Paul, or a Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster guitar.

will retail for around $2,300, Franzen said (the actual list price is a bit higher). An equivalent Les Paul without the robot would go for around $1,400.

Gibson will release 4,000 of the guitars worldwide, and to celebrate, it held events in New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Paris, and other cities.