Tuning tech catches on with guitarists

Guitars had to be retuned manually after every song until Neil Skinn found a way to make it happen automatically. Photos: A self-tuning machine

Richard Defendorf Staff Writer
7 min read
No matter how accomplished they are, musicians who play fretted instruments spend a lot of time playing out of tune.

Strings stretch and bind. Fluctuations in humidity and string tension cause instrument necks to bow, arch and twist. Something--it is not always clear what--throws string pitch out of whack. Professional players on stage and in recording sessions find themselves twisting tuner knobs between every song and sometimes in the middle of songs.

"It is maddening that we play instruments that do not stay in tune for very long," Mike Marshall, one of the top mandolin and guitar players on the acoustic-music scene, wrote during a recent online discussion on the topic. "This seems a bit insane, considering the fact that we are surrounded by so much incredible technology."

A self-tuning machine

Technology, it turns out, does offer a remedy for tuning problems--at least for those who play electric guitars. Backers and users of an electronic system called the Performer say it offers a big leap beyond the ubiquitous electronic pitch readers that, while reasonably accurate, still require the player to tune manually. It's also seen as a way to let players use the same instrument for a variety of musical purposes.

Those attributes have helped sell the system to rock icons Graham Nash, Jimmy Page and Joe Perry, along with other concert-stage veterans.

With the touch of a button, The Performer is designed to automatically tune open, unfretted strings to whatever notes the player programs into the system's computer. The retuning can happen any time the player has a moment to strum on open strings, even in the middle of a song.

It works via a system of sensors, computer electronics and miniature motors and mechanics designed for installation in the bodies of Fender's Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, and Gibson USA's Les Paul.

In their quest for new and distinctive sounds, guitar players can easily load up on pre-amplifiers, digital sound processors and other effects gear designed to change the sound of the instrument with the touch of a foot pedal. Using alternate tunings is another way to change the sound and enhance the playability of a guitar, but it often is handled in a very low-tech way--manually. Onstage or in the studio, when it is impractical to spend several minutes retuning, professionals typically pretune several guitars and switch from one to another between songs.

Onstage or in the studio, when it is impractical to spend several minutes retuning, professionals typically pretune several guitars and switch from one to another between songs.

As it is currently offered, The Performer is designed to readjust the tension on all six strings simultaneously in about five seconds, with the push of a button. A small LCD screen cut into the guitar body displays the note, octave and "cent value" of each string. (A cent is a unit of relative pitch; there are 1,200 cents in one octave). Neil Skinn, the man who developed the system, says the gadget's tuning is accurate to within 2 cents.

Skinn says he began exploring automatic-tuning concepts as a hobby in 1983. His design for The Performer's tension-correcting mechanical devices, which help pull and release the string ends, was inspired by the rocker arms on oil derrick jack pumps. Coming up with an electronic sensor system and writing a software program that could control the system, though, proved much harder.

By the end of 1985, Skinn had decided that the cost of producing an automatic tuner--which at the time would have worked only for standard tuning--made further development unfeasible. But two years later, while enrolled in an electrical-engineering program and working for a scientific-instruments company, Skinn discovered that the vibration analysis at the heart of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy--a tool commonly used to analyze organic compounds--also could be paired with magnetic pickups to accurately determine pitch.

A colleague, meanwhile, developed software that could calibrate the pickup and mechanical systems so that string pitch could be changed while the strings vibrated. By 1988, Skinn had quit school and had begun raising funds that would enable him to work on the project full time.

It took more than a decade, however, to get The Performer to operate the way it does today, with a sound sensor system and software that tunes to a wide range of note combinations but also "touches up" the pitch on each string as tensions change and the guitar neck bends and twists.

"Everyone who got a (Performer installation) up to '98 has a prototype of some sort," said Skinn, who formed a company called TransPerformance to develop the system and retrofit guitars, which he does in his Fort Collins, Colo., home workshop. "It was a really slow process, and each guitar was different from the one before."

So far, he estimated, he has installed 200 Performer systems.

The pros sign up
TransPerformance's first client was Jimmy Page. Skinn said he managed to get a videotape to the Led Zeppelin guitarist that showed how the system worked. Page invited him to a recording studio in Reno, Nev., for a closer look and commissioned a Performer installation in a Les Paul model guitar. Skinn said he delivered the retrofitted instrument in late 1990. It went back and forth between Page and Fort Collins three or four times for re-engineering.

"Sometime in '91, he said, 'This is it.' He started playing it onstage," Skinn said.

The next customer was Aerosmith's Perry. Over the years, mostly through word of mouth, TransPerformance attracted avid amateur players and a fair number of other well-known professionals, including Tom Keifer (Cinderella), Mark Slaughter, Pat Metheny, Mick Fleetwood, Robert Hunter, Kenny Loggins, Eddie Van Halen, Peter Frampton, Sonny Landreth and young guitar phenom Matt Curran. Page now owns three guitars equipped with the system.

The justification for spending a lot of money on an automatic tuning device such as this is, in the end, as much about expanding musical options as it is about convenience.

A Performer costs $3,400, including installation, which takes about a month. The electronics and motors are off-the-shelf, though most of the mechanical parts are custom-made. The system weighs about 3.5 pounds, adding about 8 ounces to the overall weight of the instrument, once the guitar body (typically solid mahogany or ash with a maple top) is routed out to accommodate the electronics and machinery.

Accustomed to assuaging concerns that retrofitting a guitar will change its sound, Skinn pointed out that the electronics, hardware and setup for the instrument's pickups, volume and tone adjustments remain unaltered and separate from the automatic tuning system, which is powered by a 12-volt cable that plugs into the guitar body. Optional battery packs are available for those who want to play on a wireless system.

The justification for spending a lot of money on an automatic tuning device such as this is, in the end, as much about expanding musical options as it is about convenience. The Performer is designed to tune to any of eight notes (seven half steps) on the first string and any of nine notes (eight half steps) on each of the other five strings. In other words, it is capable of 229,376 tunings, of which there are at least 60,000 nameable tunings.

Word of the tuner's versatility caught the attention of William Eaton, a guitarist who also is director of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, in Phoenix. Eaton said he heard about the system a few years ago and visited Skinn's shop.

"I played Jimmy Page's guitar before it got shipped and it sold me right there," Eaton said.

A composer of world and new-age music, Eaton performs three or four times a week, often with small ensembles. He is building a harp guitar with two necks and a poplar-frame body that will accommodate a Performer, soon to be installed. He says he'll store about 30 tunings in the system, allowing him to write songs for a wider range of chords and work with pitch intervals that would be difficult or impossible to play on standard tuning.

"Rather than change guitars during a performance," he said, "this would allow me to make dramatic changes (to the same instrument) in a few seconds."

The need to carry only one instrument, Eaton added, will make air travel to and from performance dates easier.

Skinn, 50, said moral support from his family and investors, and feedback from clients, particularly those who play for a living, helped him persevere through countless hours of re-engineering.

An ongoing source of frustration, Skinn noted, is that most requests for automatic tuners come from acoustic-instrument players. But unless they're interested in retrofitting one of the solid-body acoustics for which Skinn has adapted The Performer, or they have luthiery skills like Eaton's, he has to turn them away. The weight, bulkiness and design of the system make it unsuitable for acoustic guitars, whose sound is derived not only from the vibrations of strings but from vibrations of the thin tone woods that comprise acoustic instruments' hollow bodies.

Which means that players like Mike Marshall will--for the time being, at least--continue to tune manually, one note at a time.