Strings and Steel: Embracing the Future of Guitar with Robotic Assistance

In an extraordinary marriage of engineering and music, engineer Olav Martin Kvern has pioneered a groundbreaking device. To help guitar enthusiasts and musicians master fingerpicking, Kvern created an exceptional guitar-picking robot.

This ingenious invention allows guitarists to focus on the fretboard, while the robot takes on the intricate task of string picking.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

guitar assistant

Illustration: Lenka T

Learning to play the guitar is not so challenging, provided that you’re happy with chord-strumming by a bonfire. However, if you’re looking forward to becoming a new Paco de Lucia, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler, or Eric Clapton, chances are that you’ll need to put your heart and soul into mastering that six-stringed instrument.  

Spanish, classical, acoustic or electric, the guitar requires you to pluck or strum a string and press it on the fretboard to produce a tone. You can do it with one, two or three (riff) or all of them (chord). Though it doesn’t seem as a difficult job to do, particularly when watching guitar masters, it’s not really the case.  

Namely, for some players, mastering chords, scales, and solos is a piece of cake. What they are struggling with is arpeggios and fingerpicking – i.e., plucking strings with fingers one by one instead of strumming them with a pick. Olav Martin Kvern, an engineer, was one of them.  

The guitar assistant 

Kvern has been playing the guitar for forty years, however, he has never managed to master fingerpicking. Given that he’s 65, his chance of improving his skills is very low. 

One night, Kvern was listening to now late Klaus Lendzian, a marvelous fingerpicking guitarist from Seattle at a local restaurant. Marveled at how beautifully this virtuoso was playing and his machine-like precision, Kvern got a remarkable idea – to build a machine that would help him fingerpick better. 

Do note that his goal was not to develop a machine that will play at the press of a button. Rather, he only wanted to develop an “assistant” or extended device to interact with. After 16 years of effort and development, Kvern finally managed to devise the robot.  

The making of 

The engineer explained how he made his robot for Makezine. The construction of the guitar-picking robot required much care and effort. Kvern determined the smallest force needed for a guitar pick to produce the proper vibrations and chose servo motors that met his requirements. They had to be affordable, long-lasting, and small enough to fit within a guitar. To refine the design, Kvern made 20 tries over a 16-year period. 

With the robot, players are liberated from picking the strings, so that they don’t have to concentrate on it. Instead, they can focus on the fretboard only and use both hands to roduce sophisticated chord-and-melody progressions. It also frees up a hand for other activities like modifying pedal parameters, starting effects, or altering picking patterns. 

Not a shortcut 

In the captivating demonstration video, Kvern plays his modified Squier Telecaster with a Cycfi hex pickup to which his robot is attached. Yet, the engineer is quick to emphasize that his invention that the not meant to be a shortcut or substitute for diligent practice. Practice and persistence are still critical for mastering strong guitar playing techniques. 

Though it cannot match the technical prowess of some human guitarists, the goal of the guitar-picking robot is to provide more people a way to express themselves via music. This technological marvel adds a new dimension to guitar playing with its rhythmic precision and dynamic tone production. This way, it supports the player’s skill and inventiveness without taking it over. 

Kvern firmly holds the belief that transformative innovations such as home recording studios, MIDI technology, and guitar-picking robots play a pivotal role in fostering a more inclusive musical landscape. These advancements have the power to empower a diverse range of individuals, enabling them to actively participate in the beautiful realm of musical expression. By democratizing access and enhancing creative possibilities, these developments bring undeniable benefits to the entire musical community. 

"Ever tried. Ever failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail better."