November 24, 2008 Gibson Guitars have pushed the envelope forward again - barely a year after the release of the self-tuning 'Robot Guitar' in 2007, the company has announced its next-gen technology with the Dark Fire, which incorporates an upgraded Robot tuning system and adds a piezo neck pickup system to let the player blend acoustic and electric sounds for a much broader tonal range. Gibson sees the Dark Fire as a guitar that tunes itself in seconds and offers such a wide range of tone that you only need the one axe for the whole gig - but how will this progressive instrument be received by the market?
Technology and musicianship are somewhat uneasy bedfellows, particularly when it comes to guitars. While much of the processed pop world marches forward armed to the teeth with the latest and greatest synth gear, pitch correction software, bells and whistles, guitar purists are looking backwards in their search for musical truth, buying worn and faded axes from half a century ago when the music seemed more honest and real, appreciating the sweet and mellow tone that wood can only acquire through age and a thousand sweaty gigs. Instruments that have paid their dues. Leave the fancy electronics to the pedal board.
This makes it hard for new technologies to take off in the guitar market - Strats, Teles, Les Pauls and Gretches have earned their popularity over decades, as much through musical history as through subtleties of tone, playing feel and build quality. Nobody wants to spend big money on a guitar that feels more like American Idol than Woodstock.
When Gibson's fascinating Robot Guitar launched late last year, it made immediate sense from a technological point of view. Hit a button and it could tune itself to whatever key you wanted. No more tuning gaps between songs, no more nursing the strings to keep it in tune, heck, even the restringing process and setting intonation was a breeze. Excellent technology, but did it strike a chord (ahem) with the guitar world? Sales figures would be interesting, but anecdotally the reaction among guitarists seems to be "Yeah? Pretty neat, but not what I'd spend my money on."
Either way, Gibson have pushed forward a year later with the imminent December release of the next generation: the Les Paul Dark Fire, which incorporates an upgraded self-tuning capability and ups the ante with a 'Chameleon Tone' system that Gibson claims makes the Dark Fire "able to produce every imaginable guitar sound." Not given to making big promises, those Gibson guys.
How is it done? Well, in the addition to the 1950s-style Burstbucker 3 double-coil and vintage P-90H single-coil pickups, the Dark Fire has a piezo bridge pickup setup that, in isolation, gives the ability to draw a range of acoustic guitar-like sounds from the Dark Fire. A rotary potentiometer on the pickup switch then lets you blend whatever amount of acoustic sound you like with the signal from the electric pickups.
If this system sounds familiar, something similar has been available for 15 years on the Parker Fly, a niche model that offered quite passable acoustic and electric sounds from the one guitar but has never enjoyed the cultural cachet of its less progressive cousins.
Beyond the acoustic/electric pickup blending capabilities of the Dark Fire, Gibson have also redesigned the tone potentiometer for a more significant tonal range. Around the rest of the guitar there's a few more goodies - improved locking tuners, a Teflon-based frictionless nut, a set of frets computer-honed by a PLEK system for 'optimal playability' and a chambering system designed to optimize tone, balance and weight while retaining the Les Paul's tonal character. Gibson claim it's one of the best-sustaining Les Pauls they've ever built.
The look is a little less ostentatious and obviously progressive than the original Robot, the deep nitrocellulose finish accenting the maple's character for a classy and refined appearance. The Robot and Chameleon Tone blending technology is fairly well hidden.
It's another impressive step forward from a technological standpoint - the question remains, is it what the market wants? The Parker Fly is dismissed by many as a gimmick and a compromise; as a working muso, why not just bring a great electric and a great acoustic to the gig? As a rock star, you've got a man by the side of the stage waiting to hand you the perfect guitar for the next song, freshly strung, tuned and ready to go - and different axes can inspire different playing styles just through their shape and feel, a benefit that's lost when you try to play everything on the one guitar.
It will be fascinating to see whether the Dark Fire lives up to its own hype upon its launch; whether it genuinely offers an unprecedented breadth of tone and a new playing experience that will attract marquee players, working musos and hobbyists alike, or whether it will collapse under the weight of its own technology in a market that sees more value in history and intangible character than technical progress.
The Dark Fire launches on December 15 with pricing yet to be announced - but we expected it to be a lot.