Author: Zuniga, Henry

Recently there have been a few movies that were based on the subject of cyber “intelligence”. The Will Smith movie, I-Robot and Steven Spielberg’s AI or Artificial Intelligence both took turns exploring the possibilities and moral repercussions of intelligent design. Computer designers believe that computers that “feel” are soon going to become commonplace. Spooky!

So, what has this got to do with bluegrass? Well, whether you know it or not, you are probably connected to technology that has its roots in some types of “artificial intelligence”. I believe, and this is only my humble opinion, that more than 90 to 95% of bluegrassers have mini robots in their instrument cases. For me it all began with something called “The Intelli-touch” tuner. In a few short years , this little contraption made its way into the hands of bluegrass players and changed the way that we did the most fundamental part of playing: tuning our instruments.

I first saw one of these wonderful “tools” about six years ago and now it’s almost unfathomable to consider life without one. Meanwhile, there’s a box in my closet that has at least a half-dozen other tuners that were “state-of-the-art” when I put out good money to acquire them. The “Intelli-Touch” tuners that were revered as recently as a year ago have been replaced by other newer, smaller, and more accurate robots.
Going into a music store and trying to decide on which tuner to buy has become a nightmare.

I remember the first tuner that I bought. I still have one, too. They still sell them and just about everyone that I know has had one, or still has one, somewhere in their possession. It was a great little “pitch pipe” made of molded plastic, chromed tubes, and brass reeds. Based on the cutting edge technology of the harmonica, these little tools were “the” tuners to have. They were cheap and pretty reliable.

My next tuner was more simple but far more accurate; a tuning fork. The reason that I went from the pitch pipe to the fork was that I learned from a friend that if you put the tuning fork on your tooth you could hear and feel the perfect E note and tune the rest of the strings using fret positioning. This worked but only for a few years because as time passed I found that I no longer possessed the ability to hear well. Too much LOUD rock and roll.

Luckily for me, technology came along with tuners that had little built-in microphones. So simple. Put it next to your guitar, put the little switch on the note you wanted, and tune away. These were great, but my experience soon taught me that they had their drawbacks. For one, you had to be in a relatively quiet area; otherwise “peripheral noise” could render these useless. The next generation of tuners had quarter-inch inputs that you could plug into, but you had to have a pick-up in your guitar.

The latest tuners to hit the market, have, quite literally, intelligent technology incorporated into them. You don’t have to plug them in. You don’t have to worry about too much noise. You can see them easily whether it’s day or night. You don’t even have to push a button to go from one note to the next. Somewhere in these little marvelous gadgets, there’s a little brain, figuring it out for us. Some are even programmable so that you can save you favorite “alternate” tunings. Wow!

The next generation of tuning gear is even more mind-boggling. Gibson has just released a self tuning “automatic” guitar. This guitar has small servos and a built-in tuner which automatically turn the gears and keep the guitar in tune. Other technology promises to bring us electric guitars that won’t need distinct strings for each note. The strings will only be there to actuate the brain which will produce an automatic note based on whatever tuning configuration the player wants. “Well excuse me!”

Whenever people ask me about which tuner they should consider for a fledgling musician, I try to convince them that they should start with a simple reed based tuner. My reasoning for this is that I believe that everyone should develop a trained “ear” before they turn to mechanical devices. While technology has provided us with some awesome tools, it has also placed us at a disadvantage when it comes to this important part of learning to play. A strong fundamental understanding of ear training is one of the most essential parts of learning to play.

So, what does this mean for our present and our future? It means that we have a lot to look forward to and the future holds tremendous potential for us all. I remember going to Grass Valley a few years ago and finding Rick Cornish’s Palm Pilot lying by a sink in the restroom. I knew it was his because I had seen him with it earlier. When I returned it to him, I asked how many songs he had in its memory. He told me “about 500.” It blew my mind. I didn’t know how to use this technology and I couldn’t justify spending the money on one, but, boy did I want one!

I’ve recently started to use my laptop to record songs and lyrics. A great tool. Make my play list, put it on continuous play, and learn a song. These days, we can easily make custom recordings and put them into our personal computers or even into I-pods and cell phones. With the right programs you can even slow down your recordings and change the key to suit your vocal abilities. Some among us even have small recorders that can digitally capture performances and burn instant Cds.

It’s an amazing time and we are all benefiting because of this technology. But, when it ‘s all said and done, the only computer you can count on is the one on your shoulders. It doesn’t need batteries. The sad thing is that some people are already forgetting how to turn it on.
Posted:  3/9/2008

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