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Bowfinger the Brave

Guitarists have been into the idea of infinite sustain for decades. We typically try for it via a handful of methods: playing so loud (or with so much gain) that our instrument feeds back, using a battery-operated magnetic device such as the Heet Sound EBow, installing a pickup-based unit like the Fernandes Sustainer (a favorite of Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien) or the Sustainiac (favored by Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates), or wielding a genuine violin bow.

The first of these approaches isn’t great for many reasons, including the damage it can do both to your hearing and your relationship with bandmates. Waving a horsehair bow around looks and sounds cool and can make you feel like Jimmy Page at Madison Square Garden circa ’73, but it’s also ergonomically awkward and can require arching your bridge saddles to facilitate precise execution. Electromagnetic devices such as the EBow eliminate much of that awkwardness, yielding a sound more akin to feedback, but can only be applied to one string at a time. Meanwhile, pickup sustainers sound similar to an EBow and must be permanently installed in place of your favorite neck pickup—a pretty significant tonal sacrifice.

Back in 1979, a new product promised a fascinating combination of approaches: infinite, simultaneous mechanical “bowing” of one or more strings via motorized plastic wheels you activate using six buttons atop a housing semi-permanently attached to the guitar body. Gizmotron packaging declared it “The most exciting musical development since the development of the electric guitar,” and that same year Page himself gave the Gizmotron cool cameos on both “In Through the Out Door” and “Carouselambra.” Nevertheless, reliability and maintenance issues led to the company declaring bankruptcy within a couple of years. In 2016, however, vintage-keyboard restorer Aaron Kipness debuted a completely overhauled version that addresses the original’s shortcomings with more precisely engineered parts, more resilient materials, and more consistent production methods. Gizmotron 2.0 functions on the same principles, and we’ve been dying to try one ever since its return to the marketplace. To heighten the experience, we’ve decided to install the Gizmotron on a semi-hollow Ibanez Artcore Vibrante AS63 ($349 street) whose solid but somewhat lackluster-in-the-midrange stock humbuckers we’ve also swapped for a set of vintage-voiced, PAF-style pickups.


Dave’s Installation Tips

1. Remove the guitar’s strings. Gizmotron’s included directions don’t explicitly address whether one should start this way, so I initially started with them on. It wasn’t long before I realized the strings would be in the way when I attempted to position the string-activator wheels (step 10).

2. If you’re also installing new pickups, do this first, connecting them just as the originals unless you’re opting for new switching capabilities (e.g., coil-taps).

3. Use a clean cotton cloth to ensure the face of the guitar is dry, oil free, and free of any debris.

Photo 1

4. Loosen Gizmotron’s keys/buttons using the Phillips screwdriver included with the kit (Photo 1). Spread the keys out for easier placement of the Gizmotron housing on the guitar.

Photo 2

5. Remove Gizmotron’s three mounting pads using the included hex wrench (Photo 2). The three mounting pads are each connected to forks attached to the end of a height-adjustment screw, which you’ll use (in steps 8, 14, and 15) to balance the Gizmotron.

Photo 3

6. Attach each mounting pad to a mounting strip, leaving a margin of the strip on each side of the mounting pad to protect your guitar’s finish (Photo 3).

Photo 4

7. Reattach the mounting pads to the Gizmotron (Photo 4) and loosely place the whole housing over the guitar’s bridge.

Photo 5

Leave the paper backing on the mounting strips for now (Photo 5).

Photo 6

8. Line up the back of the Gizmotron with the back edge of the guitar bridge and ascertain where the treble-side mounting pad should be placed based on this positioning. Mark the spot with low-tack tape (Photo 6).

Photo 7

Detach that same mounting pad from the Gizmotron again, peel off its paper backing, and attach the pad in the spot you’ve just marked (Photo 7).

Photo 8

Attach the treble side of the Gizmotron to the newly attached mounting pad (Photo 8).

9. Experiment with positioning of the two remaining (bass-side) mounting pads to determine optimal balancing/leveling of the Gizmotron housing on the guitar’s carved top. Make sure the mounting-screw hex heads are accessible for easy loosening and tightening.

10. The serrated, tooth-like side of each Gizmotron string-activator wheel should be positioned so that it angles inward toward the bass side of each string saddle. Move each wheel to the approximate position appropriate for your guitar’s string spacing and tighten the keys.

11. Detach the treble-side mounting pad from the Gizmotron (i.e., leave it in place on the guitar body) and remove Gizmotron from the face of the guitar.

12. Restring and set up the guitar with the desired action.

Photo 9

13. Attach Gizmotron to the treble-side mounting pad. If our approximations from step 10 were reasonably accurate, each activator wheel should be close to its corresponding string, but not touching it (Photo 9).

Photo 10

14. Double-check that the Gizmotron is straight and perpendicular to the strings by lining up its rear edge with the back edge of the bridge. Make sure the height-adjustment screws are adjusted so the Gizmotron is balanced and level with the plane of the strings, as well. When you’ve identified the proper pad positions, remove the paper backing and attach the second mounting pad, then the third (Photos 10 and 11).

Photo 11

Be sure to leave access to the hex screw so you can tighten and loosen the Gizmotron on the mounting pads.

Photo 12

15. With all three mounting pads installed and the Gizmotron in place (Photo 12), balance the Gizmotron so the strings are below the midpoint of the wheels. You may need to remove the Gizmotron a few times to get this right. (Gizmotron has a handy video illustrating many of these steps.)

16. In playing position, set the Gizmotron’s speed knob (on the bass side of the unit) at halfway. Fine-tune each wheel’s proximity to the strings (by loosening the same Phillips screws discussed in step 4) until each rings out clear when you press its button.


Shawn’s Post-Mod Observations

Recorded using an EarthQuaker Devices Hoof, ThorpyFx Heavy Water, Anasounds Element, and Ibanez ES-2 through a silverface Fender Vibrolux Reverb miked with a Royer R-121 and a Fender Rumble 200 1x15 miked with a Shure SM57, both feeding an Apogee Duet going into GarageBand with no EQ-ing, compression, or effects.

I have to admit my expectations for how the Gizmotron would sound were off quite a bit from what I experienced after Dave’s expert installation—but in ways primarily positive. The idea of using it as a means of infinite sustain isn’t terribly compelling for a couple of reasons: First, the activator buttons require a decent amount of acclimation to get the right attack—at first it can be difficult to not overdo it. Second, by their very nature, the activator-wheels’ serrated edges yield a choppier dynamic than a real horsehair bow during extended application. Combine that form factor with the button sensitivity, and it can be difficult to get a smoothly sustaining note at a consistent dynamic. However, for me textures are the most lamentably lacking element in other electronic offerings, and in this regard the Gizmotron really shines. Two tricks: Engage a drive pedal to boost volume and add some grit (I got great results with my EarthQuaker Devices Hoof, as well as a nice helping of reverb and delay), and use a fast, staccato-ish attack with the activator buttons. Coming at it from this angle and varying both your guitar’s tone control and Gizmotron’s speed settings (I preferred keeping it somewhere in the first half of the knob’s range) yields everything from melancholy to chipper cello sounds from the neck pickup, and resounding violin- or viola-like response from the bridge pickup. Speaking of pickups, the Artcore’s stock units are pretty damn good, especially for the price, but the Mojo Tone ’59 Clones brought out a lovely depth and warmth in the midrange.