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The Gizmotron is the strangest guitar device you’ve never heard of

Jan 13, 2016

This device used by Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin has a head-scratching history.

From bluesmen like Buddy Guy installing overpowered lapsteel pickups for a louder, fatter tone, to early rock ‘n’ roll musicians deliberately damaging their amplifiers to create distortion, to the ’70s silliness of Peter Frampton’s talk box, all the way through to the multitude of effects pedals and amp simulators on the market today, a major thread of the history of the electric guitar has been based on the quest to make it sound less like an electric guitar.

It’s in this context that the Gizmotron came into existence. The device, which was originally designed to simulate orchestral sounds, was supposed to revolutionize the instrument, opening up a whole new range of sonic possibilities, but ended up a spectacular failure that until recently was almost completely forgotten.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEnViHtXNLI

The faintly rattling sound somewhere between a violin and a theremin with maybe a hint of balalaika on 10cc’s “Old Wild Men” from the band’s 1974 album Sheet Music is one of (if not the) first times the Gizmotron appeared on a recording. However, the idea dates back to around 1969, according to Kevin Godley – one of the founding members of 10cc and creator of the Gizmotron, along with longtime collaborator Lol Creme – when the band were working on their first LP.

Godley and Creme were interested in the sounds of a string section, but at a time when synthesizers were in their infancy such sounds were impossible to come by without hiring an orchestra, a process that was both time consuming and prohibitively expensive. Their initial thought was that as the guitar, like the violin and the cello, was a stringed instrument they could perhaps find similar results by playing the guitar with a violin bow.

This is something that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (who would later prominently feature the Gizmo on his band’s 1979 LP In Through The Out Door) had done two years prior on “Dazed & Confused,” but the result was more of a sound effect than the string sounds they were looking for.

“We began thinking that maybe what we were looking for wasn’t bowing in a traditional sense” says Godley, “so the thinking was, and it was a very spur of the moment thing, ‘what if we got an electric drill and we put a piece of rubber on the end of the drill bit and hold it against the strings?’ The very first incarnation was essentially Lol’s Strat with me holding a drill with a bit of rubber on the end. It sounded pretty awful but there was something promising for about 10 seconds so we thought that maybe that was the way to go.”

The duo then took this concept to John McConnell, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Science and Technology (the bespectacled gentleman in the video above) who was excited by the idea and developed the first Gizmotron prototype. Rather than a drill this version of the device employed six nylon wheels, each of which had 48 ridges that acted like miniature guitar picks, plucking the strings 100 times a second continuously when the lever for each respective string was depressed.

The Gizmo prototype appeared on several 10cc album tracks and b-sides over the next several years as that band’s profile grew in the UK and eventually globally with their massive 1975 hit “I’m Not In Love”. Yet even as the band achieved success Godley and Creme found themselves increasingly drawn to the Gizmo. When it came time to record the follow-up to the band’s 1976 LP How Dare You! the pair took three weeks out at their own Strawberry Studios to experiment with the device.

“That was sort of our return to the device,” says Godley. “We were so excited by what we were doing and the noises we’d conjured up in that three weeks that when it came time to go back to the ‘day job’ as it were, and write songs for 10cc it was like, ‘Oh god this is really fucking boring, we don’t want to do this anymore.’” The rest of the band were less than sympathetic to Godley and Creme’s growing obsession and put it to them as an ultimatum: they could either do 10cc or do “the Gizmo stuff.”

[pullquote]”Some days it sounded absolutely beautiful and other days it sounded like shit.”[/pullquote]

“We threw it all away in order to do something that we felt was much more exciting musically and more challenging,” Godley says. “When you choose these routes in your life, particularly when you’re young, its like “what the fuck?” We had four years doing [the band] and we did really well, and the sort of treadmill of recording, touring, recording, touring it was something we didn’t want to do any more, and this was exciting and meaningful. It felt like 10cc had felt in the beginning when we didn’t know what we were and that was always an integral part of Lol and my attitude toward making music. If we knew exactly what we were going to end up with at the end of the recording process then its almost pointless doing it, the exciting thing was finding out what happens when you go from A-Z.”

Around the time the band was breaking up their tour manager, Jim Sullivan, had become fascinated with the device, and with Godley and Creme’s blessing had begun exploring its commercial potential. He contacted Musitronics, a well regarded American company run by engineer Aaron Newman, that had developed one of the first commercially available envelope filters, the Mu-Tron III and several other effects units. They were also excited by the Gizmo and cut a deal with Godley and Creme to develop it into a commercial product.

The pair’s 1977 album Consequences, which was eventually released as a three-disc concept album posited as “the story of man’s last defence against an irate nature,” featuring voice work from the comedian Peter Cook and contributions from legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, was originally conceived as a demonstration record for the Gizmo. It was during this period that both the device’s potential and its limitations became clear.

The prototype, which is what is being played on the 10cc records and on Consequences, was capable of creating a range of incredible and ethereal sounds, especially when combined with effects units and multi-tracking, but it was extremely unstable, being thrown off by changes in temperature or the level of moisture in the air. From day to day these atmospheric conditions would alter the effects and it was a challenge to replicate sounds from one day of recording to the next.

According to Godley: “Some days it sounded absolutely beautiful and other days it sounded like shit. Sometimes it was like a chainsaw, and sometimes it sounded like a cello and other times it varied between to two, so it was never a particularly stable piece of kit, but we persevered with it. The prototype eventually bedded itself in on Lol’s guitar and I’d say 65/70% of the time it sounded pretty good.”

Unfortunately the same could not be said for the commercial model. While there was considerable pre-release hype heralding the device as “revolutionary,” and the Gizmo’s own packaging called it “the most exciting musical development since the development of the electric guitar,” the commercially available Gizmo never really worked the way it was supposed to. Musitronics had invested heavily in the device but the concept presented substantial obstacles, particularly with the materials available at the time.

Like the prototype the commercial model was temperamental, requiring constant adjustment to work. The spinning wheels, made of a plastic called Derlin, were extremely fragile, wearing down quickly, especially in the hands of amateur players who applied too much pressure to the strings. Despite the exciting sounds people like Creme and later Page and Paul McCartney were able to coax out of the Gizmo, it required a level of mastery to play, as there were only certain places on the fretboard where the notes would sound and the manipulation of the levers for each string required players to engage in unfamiliar techniques that many found challenging.

By the time the Gizmotron was ready to be released in 1979 it was also very much an idea out of time. Synthesizers had improved immensely by this point and their prices had dropped dramatically, so the problem the Gizmo had been created to solve was no longer really a problem. From Godley’s perspective the rise of the synthesizer had also shifted the culture, making something as mechanical as the Gizmo seem strangely backward-looking.

“Ours was almost medieval by comparison to the modernity of the idea of a synthesizer,” Godley contends. “A synth was much more reliable in many respects as opposed to our thing that you had to tinker with with oil and screwdrivers and stuff. Ours was more kind of Leonardo da Vinci territory whereas a synthesizer was ‘the future.’”

The Gizmotron’s showcase album, Consequences, released in 1977 just as punk was really breaking, was a tremendous flop, and all of this was dreadful news for Aaron Newman who had put everything behind the Gizmo. Musitronics was sold to ARP Instruments in 1978 with an agreement that ARP would pay royalties from any Musitronics developed products to the original company which was re-named Gizmo Inc.

Two versions of the Gizmo, one for guitar and one for bass were rushed to market but neither sold particularly well, with the guitar Gizmo eventually being recalled by the company when the problems with its design became clear. ARP declared bankruptcy in 1981 and Gizmo Inc, now without the Musitronics royalty money followed suit, as did Newman who shortly after declaring bankruptcy himself suffered a heart attack.

Despite its obvious issues the Gizmo was at the time an object of fascination for several musicians and featured prominently on tracks by a diverse array of well known artists between 1978 and 1984. These include Paul McCartney’s “I’m Carrying”, Led Zeppelin’s “In The Evening”, Siouxsie & The Banshees’ “Into The Light”, and several tracks on Throbbing Gristle’s classic LP 20 Jazz Funk Greats.

Fittingly, the slow decay of the memory and reputation of the device was mirrored by the device itself as the Derlin plastic it was manufactured from degraded over time, meaning that the Gizmotrons became brittle and gradually disintegrated by themselves even when unopened in their original packaging.

As a result very few working (insofar as they ever worked) Gizmos are around today. However, a new company named Gizmotron LLC has recently revived the device. The Gizmotron trademark was abandoned in 1987 and the patent on the original design expired in 1990, but the idea had become so toxic that it was left unexplored for two decades until Aaron Kipness, after a decade of searching was able to find an original guitar Gizmo that was virtually intact.

“I naively assumed that all I needed to do was reverse engineer the original Musitronics Gizmotron with better materials but I was totally wrong,” Kipness recalls. “The engineering challenges were enormous, because it wasn’t just one single problem, it was several problems, and many constraints. It was always two steps forward, and one step back.”

Kipness persevered and in 2015 succeeded in creating the Gizmotron 2.0, which he calls “the first Gizmotron that actually works.” With vastly improved sound, control and mounting, the new USB powered Gizmo is available for purchase on the company’s website and will be available worldwide in 2016. With a bit of luck, perhaps the Gizmo-driven musical revolution that wasn’t will be happening after all.

Better 40 years late than never.

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