Led Zeppelin’s final studio album, 1979’s In Through The Out Door, opens with an eerie, otherworldly drone that weaves and winds its way before segueing into the searing Stratocaster riffs of “In The Evening.” In the past, Jimmy Page played his Les Paul with a violin bow and waved his hands like a wizard over a Theremin. This sound was something new, however – something even more extraordinary.
That drone-like voice came thanks to a Gizmotron, a bizarre and complex mechanical guitar add-on that would make Reuben Goldberg choke with envy. Page explained that it was a “hurdy gurdy-type of thing,” which was astute as the effect worked similarly to the ancient musical instrument that created a violin-like sound with a hand-cranked wheel serving as a mechanical bow.
The makers of the Gizmotron saw their creation as much more. As the advertising on the effect’s box declared, it was, “The most exciting musical development since the development of the electric guitar.”
“It promises to revolutionize the world of music,” an enthusiastic British television announcer decreed in a September ’77 broadcast heralding the Gizmotron prototype. The journalist, very sure of the brave new world he stood at the threshold of, forecast the wholesale demise of the string orchestra. Such established, age-old symphonic bands would soon be replaced by Gizmotron-wielding electric guitarists and bassists.
And that was indeed the idea behind the device. At least, sort of.
The contraption was the brainchild of guitarist/keyboardist Lol Creme and drummer Kevin Godley, members of the British art-rock band of 10cc. Short on funds to hire an orchestra to add string backing for their music, the duo dreamed of a guitar that was able to synthesize violin sounds. They lacked the know-how to make it happen, so enlisted physicist John McConnell from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology to craft a prototype.
“It was a bit of a patch up of glue, cardboard, bits of metal cut out with tin snips, but an excellent kind of model to work on,” McConnell modestly told that awestruck TV reporter. But it functioned. At least, sort of.
The concept wasn’t complex, but making it operate consistently and accurately was. The Gizmotron bolted or fastened with double-stick tape onto an electric guitar just in front of the bridge. Six small Delrin-plastic wheels, each with multiple miniscule plectrum-like edges, were driven by a small electric motor; the number of plectrum edges – up to 48 per wheel – varied depending on which string it was designed to “pluck.” As the newsman explained, “By simply depressing a lever, the guitarist lowers the wheel to pluck the string more than 100 times a second, in effect vibrating them just like a bow does.”
The agog newsmen filmed Creme and Godley as they cut their 1977 Consequences album at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, England. Creme played a Strat fitted with that odd-looking Gizmotron prototype, creating impressive string, organ, and brass sounds. The effect provided “ultimate sustain,” the guitarist explained. Creme and Godley believed fervently in their creation; they were quoted in an ad for the device, “Until now, all electric guitar inventions merely altered the sound of the guitar. The Gizmotron, however, enables the guitar to create the orchestral sounds of other string instruments. It’s a musical instrument in its own right.”
The concept itself wasn’t really new. Automaton musicians had been built with similar clockwork features for more than a century to wow the unbelieving royalty and hoi polloi alike. And the Mills Automatic Virtuosa of 1905 was a sort of mechanical violin positioned inside a jukebox creation with robot-like moving fingers and music made by a similar disc drive. But the Gizmotron was electric and it was “now.”
Creme and Godley hooked up in 1976 with Musitronics Corporation in Rosemont, New Jersey, creators of the Mu-Tron III envelope filter and other effects. After three years of belabored and expensive development, in ’79, Musitronics released both six-wheel guitar and four-wheel versions for the bass.
The bass Gizmotron proved more popular and worked better than the guitar version. On a promotional flexi disc from the time extolling its virtues, Musitronics pointed out the most significant of all features: “The opportunity for the electric bass guitarist to now get the sound of a bowed upright bass from which his instrument originally evolved.”
As groovy as the Gizmotron’s sound was, mass-producing it proved daunting. Musitronics engineer Mike Beigel remembers “falling in love” with the prototype and its possibilities, “…thanks to Lol’s skillful knowledge of what notes to play, and how and what notes not to play.” But even with colors on the buttons to aid players, the Gizmotron was a difficult beast to master. And, Beigel states, the guitar Gizmotron “never worked right.” Many were returned, others recalled – all playing a role in the unit’s scarcity today. Beigel himself eventually resigned from Musitronics over the Gizmotron fiasco.
Creme and Godley wrote a letter to Gizmotron customers with advice on how to play their new “instrument”: Use a classical musician’s style of back-and-forth vibrato to sustain notes; the amount of pressure you put on a button changes the dynamics; and advised that you could both play sustained chords with the heel of your hand while also picking with your fingers. Sound difficult? They ended with that age-old mantra, “practice makes perfect.”
“The product, though desired by many musicians at the time, simply could not be reliably manufactured and further – even at best – only worked on some notes of the instrument, guitar or bass,” said Beigel.
Getting the Gizmotron aligned was a task. Keeping it working was even more difficult. The Gizmotron needed constant adjustment, was temperamental depending on how hard the keys were pushed, and was awkwardly fragile. Those Delrin-plastic wheels, in particular, wore out in the blink of an eye.
But that of course would never stop guitarists from trying to play the Gizmotron.
Creme and Godley first used it on 10cc’s “Gizmo My Way” instrumental. It then made multiple return appearances on the band’s subsequent albums. Post-10cc, the inventors featured the Gizmotron on their 1977 triple-record concept album, Consequences, which began as a promotional piece and demonstration record to market the effect.
By then, the Gizmotron was already playing its swan song.
Musitronics chief Aaron Newman believed in the Gizmotron as zealously as Creme and Godley. “Everybody thought we were going to make a fortune from the Gizmotron, so we decided to sell off Musitronics,” Newman remembered. The company sold in 1978 to the ARP synthesizer company, which was to pay royalties on each Mu-Tron product sold. But ARP soon went under, leaving Newman’s fledgling Gizmo, Inc. to flounder without the royalty income. Newman invested everything to make the renamed Gizmo Fingerthing, but was soon dragged into bankruptcy and suffered a heart attack. Beigel pronounces Musitronics’ dealings with the Gizmotron an “Epic Greek Tragedy.” “It really is a sad story,” he said. “It led Musitronics to its own destruction.”
And so, by 1981, the Gizmotron was no more.
In the realm of the guitar, that of course does not mean that interest – or fanaticism – for the Gizmotron died, as well. In October, 2013, Aaron Kipness began manufacturing replacement parts for the few original Gizmotrons that survive. He also plans to launch a new and improved Gizmotron 2.0. It will be made of modern, robust materials, with an improved mounting system, and be capable of running on rechargeable battery power.
The concept behind the Gizmotron – violin-like notes from an electric guitar – is also alive and well today. Guitar synths, active pickups, hexaphonic pickups, the EBow, and other creations live on. And playing an electric guitar with a violin bow will probably never go away.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.