Someone built a robot to pick your guitar strings so you don’t have to

Someone built a robot to pick your guitar strings so you don’t have to

Struggling with fingerpicking, or wrestling with the process of improving your general technique? If so, this latest feat of engineering might make your picking problems a thing of the past.

Meet Olav Martin Kvern – an engineer who has built a robot that picks your electric guitar strings so you don’t have to.

It’s safe to say that robots in the guitar world is a growing phenomenon. After all, it wasn’t that long ago we stumbled upon an all-robot band smashing Nirvana, Metallica and Deep Purple classics, or reported on the use of artificial intelligence in plugin creation.

Now, Kvern has masterminded a robot that works in tandem with the player, and instead of replacing them completely, just assumes half of the responsibility.

The idea for a string-picking contraption came to Kvern while witnessing the late Klauss Lendzian – a Seattle fingerstyle mastermind whose machine-like technique prompted the plucky engineer to build a literal machine to channel his chops.

“I’d been hearing him play at various venues around town since the 1980s,” Kvern wrote on Makezine. “As I watched him play, I thought, ‘He’s really good. Lyrical, a great sense of timing. Wow, I wish I could play like that. What makes it all work is his right hand, his picking hand. It’s like a machine.’ A machine, I thought, at that moment. I can build a machine.”

Once the seed had been planted in Kvern’s mind, things began to take shape. As a casual guitarist for over 40 years and a self-professed “semi-competent flatpicking” player, Kvern sought to fashion a gizmo that would help him “play patterns on the guitar that would be difficult or impossible for me to play”.

The result is one of the more remarkable guitar engineering achievements we’ve seen in quite some time.

Olav Kern's guitar string-picking robot

(Image credit: Olav Kvern/Makezine)

“I need help playing guitar,” wrote Kvern, who asserted he wanted to fashion a tool to help him play the instrument, rather than one that would do it for him. “I’m building a prosthesis to help me do that, just as I wear glasses to improve my nearsightedness.

“I wanted something I could interact with, an extended instrument. Not just something that would play a given song at the press of a button.”

We’re not going to pretend we understand every detail of Kvern’s generously supplied breakdown of the robot, but what we will say is it does a damn good job of channeling rhythmically accurate, dynamically aware picking tones. 

It’s all a very precise affair. To ensure the robot was powerful and fast enough to accommodate various rhythm required for fingerstyle guitar, Kvern calculated the minimum force required for a guitar pick to pluck a string to generate appropriate vibrations.

Then it was just a case of finding suitable servo motors that were cheap, robust and small enough to fulfill the requirements from the body of a guitar. If it sounds like a laborious process, it was: it took 20 attempts over 16 years to get right.

But it looks as though it was worth it. In practice, the robot emancipates the player from the responsibilities of picking, and lets them focus both hands solely on the fretboard. This lends itself to the possibility of some atmospheric two-hand textures and neat chord-and-melody progressions.

Not only that, it frees up a hand for other duties, such as adjusting parameters on pedals, triggering effects, changing picking patterns and more.

In the demo videos supplied, Kvern’s creation can be seen affixed to a heavily modded Squier Telecaster with a Cycfi hex pickup, where its abilities can be witnessed.

Having said that, nothing is a substitute for a solid basic technique – we still encourage you to crack on with those fingerstyle lessons – with Kvern concluding his piece by saying his robot wasn’t designed as a shortcut.

If something like a guitar picking robot can make it possible for more people to express themselves via music, then I think these developments are a good thing

“I’ll state right now: some human guitarists can play faster and better than my guitar robot,” he admitted. “But is technical virtuosity a requirement for making music? I can think of plenty of technical virtuosos whose music is, to say the least, not interesting to me. 

“When we focus on the technical and mechanical aspects of making music, we make it inaccessible to most people. If something like a home recording studio, or MIDI, or even a guitar picking robot can make it possible for more people to express themselves via music, then I think these developments are a good thing.”

Head over to Makezine to read the thorough run-through of Kvern’s creation.

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