I was working at a music store in San Francisco in early 1980, when one day Kevin Godley and/or Lol Crème strolled in bearing a bass with a Gizmotron mounted on it. Someone demonstrated the device by masterfully playing a bit of Bach, and all present were greatly impressed. When one of the salesmen tried his hand, however, the results were considerably less musical sounding. We were informed that there was also a guitar version, which intrigued me, but that was the last I ever saw or heard of either ’Tron (other than on recordings by 10cc, Led Zeppelin, and in particular Godley and Crème’s truly astonishing 1979 triple album Consequences, which showcased what the Gizmotron could do when played by its creators).
Despite the ingenuity of the concept, and the assurance that it would “revolutionize the world of guitar playing,” the Gizmotron was poorly engineered and constructed, didn’t sell, and was ultimately forgotten—until now.
The Gizmotron 2.0 electromechanical bowing device is an update of a decades-old design. The Gizmotron 2.0 was introduced on February 3, 2016. The brainchild of Aaron Kipness, and more than a decade in the making, it was reverse-engineered from the remains of a handful of old Gizmotrons acquired by Kipness. Guided by the original patent drawings, he and his engineering team identified the many mechanical and electronic shortcomings of the original, devised new technologies along the way, and utilized modern materials and manufacturing techniques in theproduction of Gizmotron 2.0.
For the uninitiated, a Gizmotron is an electromechanical “bowing” device. Unlike a Sustainer, Sustainiac, Moog Guitar, or even an Ebow, the Gizmotron doesn’t work its magic with magnetic or electrical energy—at least not directly. Instead, it uses an electric motor to turn six small wheels, which are manually lowered into position with levers or “keys,” making physical contact with the individual strings. There’s a Speed control, to adjust the motor’s spin rate and intensity, but otherwise the Gizmotron’s expressiveness is all down to personal touch. Press lightly, creating little friction, and the bowing is relatively subtle; dig in, and the increased friction intensifies the effect, much like applying pressure when using an actual bow.
The Gizmotron’s motor is powered via USB, which means that a power cable is required in addition to the audio cable. That cable may be plugged into any sufficiently robust device with a USB port, or an AC outlet using the included International AC Adapter.
I intended to mount the Gizmotron on my 3-pickup Les Paul Custom, but quickly discovered that it would occupy the exact spot where I place my picking hand, and because it extends two inches above the surface of the guitar, with the keys protruding from the front, it would be quite easy to press those keys inadvertently when reaching into the playing area that was accessible. I was also dissuaded by the fact that the unit stuck up far enough to prevent the guitar’s case from closing fully.
Fortunately, I was able to borrow a nice Hamer XT Series solidbody on which California Guitars’ chief tech Grant Baldwin had installed a Gizmo tron previously. Baldwin had this to say about his experience mounting the devices on several different guitars: “Although the Gizmotron is relatively easy to install, patience is required when adjusting it to function optimally. For example, the six serrated rubber wheels that vibrate each string have to make just enough contact to ‘bow’ them without also muting them upon releasing the key.
“I also found that, depending somewhat on the proximity of the rear pickup to the guitar bridge, the overall results were better with humbucking-equipped guitars. For example, the single-coil on a Danelectro U2 picked up some unpleasant electrical hum, whereas the Hamer’s humbucker did not.”
The Gizmotron 2.0 positioned on a Gibson Les Paul Custom As for playability, the Gizmotron definitely takes some getting used to, from becoming comfortable with the location and response of the keys, to dealing with the appreciable mechanical noise. The wheels chatter when they come in contact with the strings, and the motor whirs continuously, becoming more noticeable as you increase the speed. Close proximity to a computer monitor also resulted in pronounced electrical noise.
High-tech aesthetics and superb workmanship notwithstanding, the Gizmotron is a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption—though that’s also a huge part of its charm and appeal. Sure, it’s quirky and awkward in use, but it is a unique device and in the right hands is capable of producing an abundance of compelling sounds—from choppy staccatos to languid legatos to marcato buzzing and beyond.
Personally, I gravitated to the low-to-mid motor speed settings, which facilitated more nuanced playing dynamics than the zippier velocities. The biggest concern was to avoid pressing the keys too hard, which can damage the mechanisms, or at least throw them out of alignment. The keys can be realigned fairly easily, however, using only your eyeballs and the small Phillips screwdriver included in the mounting and maintenance kit.
Not surprisingly, I got some of the grooviest sounds pairing the Gizmotron with effects. Compressors smoothed out the dynamic fluctuations, delays and reverbs added depth and dimensionality, and EQs helped craft more realistic string and woodwind sounds, as did filters with envelope generators.
The Gizmotron isn’t for everyone, but adventurous guitarists seeking new sonic opportunities—especially those who are also film composers or sound designers—should definitely take one for a spin (so to speak). And if you do get one, I recommend installing it on a dedicated “Gizmotron guitar” and keeping the instrument safe in your studio or home. You, and the Gizmotron, will be happier that way.
Excellent build quality. Unique sounds. Inspiring to use.
Bulky. Requires a power cable. Noisy.
Barry Cleveland is a San Francisco-based journalist, guitarist, composer, recording artist, and audio engineer. Visit barrycleveland.com.