KANSAS CITY — Don Gilmore, a Kansas City mechanical engineer, has invented a self-tuning piano kit that could revolutionize — if not destroy — an industry headquartered in his hometown.
The computerized device, which could sell for as little as $300, could be retrofitted for older pianos, doing much of the job of a piano tuner. On the other hand, the kit would add one more layer of complexity to an instrument that already has thousands of moving parts. Whether that means less work — or more — for members of the Piano Technicians Guild based in Kansas City, Kan., is anybody's guess.
Gilmore, who works for the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, is both a piano player and an inventor with notebooks full of ideas. The owner of three piano-tuning patents (and two more for a self-playing guitar), Gilmore once belonged to the guild.
Earlier this month Popular Science magazine featured his invention in a multi-page spread.
Don Mannino, director of field services for Kawai America, one of the largest piano makers in the world, knows about Gilmore.
"He's a super-smart fella and his system works," Mannino said. If Gilmore has ironed out the wrinkles of earlier versions and kept the device affordable, "it could be huge."
Shawn Bruce, the guild's marketing manager, isn't worried.
"It's just a tool like any other tool," he said. "But it's not going to put piano technicians out of business. If the system works and proves economically viable, somebody's going to have to install and maintain it, and that would be piano techs."
His group is the world's largest trade association for piano techs with nearly 4,000 members around the world.
Gilmore, 48, has built machines that make bullets, dispense ice cream and bake the paint on the outside of coffins. Part musician, part mad scientist, he loves to tinker. On the first floor of his downtown loft, he installed a fully stocked bar hidden behind a revolving wall that opens with a remote.
In the lower level, his "laboratory," he works on the self tuner, still a year away from completion. In the middle of the room sits a deconstructed piano, where he tests and refines his invention amid a gaggle of gewgaws, tools, other musical instruments and inventions.
Against one wall, a metal cabinet holds jars and bottles with obscure names such as verdigris and liver of sulfur. He keeps an oscilloscope on the desk next to the piano. Less than 10 feet away are a saxophone, a bass guitar and an accordion — all of which he plays.
His framed patents hang on the wall outside his lab.
Gilmore received his first one in 1998 on a mechanical piano tuner called RoboTune. A year later QRS, a maker of player pianos, flew him to Florida for a demonstration. Company officials rejected the device, saying it wasn't accurate enough.
Then came a breakthrough in 2001. Where a human piano tuner uses a wrench to tighten strings into tune, Gilmore used heat. He passed electrical current through piano strings to warm them up, so they could be automatically tuned. The system used a magnetic coil and tiny infrared sensors to sustain a string's sound until its note matched a hand-tuned setting stored in the system's memory.
This time the QRS CEO sat at Gilmore's kitchen table and signed a five-year contract for the patented "Self-Tuning Piano." When the company did not produce the expensive instruments, the contract expired. Still, Gilmore received nearly $60,000 in minimum guaranteed royalties.
He used that money to develop the self-tuning piano kit, a more cost-effective system with a much larger market. The kit, protected by previous patents, is made of four long strips of circuits that slide underneath the piano strings. Instead of a central processor, each note has its own tuner.
"You'd press a button, and then all of the strings start vibrating as if you're drawing a violin bow across them," he said. "They'll change in temperature until they're in tune. When they stop vibrating, you know it's done."
The process typically takes 20 to 30 seconds.
"Almost all musicians can tune their own instrument, and they can do it anytime they want, every day if they want," Gilmore said. "The pianist is one of the only exceptions, and it's a pain to get your piano tuned. It's like a hundred bucks."
Guild vice president Dave Tabachnick of East Northport, N.Y., who has worked for Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Marvin Hamlisch, is dubious.
"I don't think this is ever going to happen," he said.
Even if it does, said Milton Horne, president of the guild's local chapter, tuning is only one thing techs do to maintain a piano.
"We also must make sure a piano is well regulated," he said. "How does it feel when it plays? Does it play smoothly? How do the hammers hit? Then there's the tone quality, which a tech can adjust."
The inventor has always had his share of detractors.
"I've been defending this thing for years," Gilmore said. "With any invention people try to shoot it down — especially piano tuners."
Others worry the heat will damage the piano.
"The keys in your pocket are warmer than these strings," Gilmore said. "No metallurgical effects take place at such minuscule temperatures. There are a lot of non-scientific people in the music industry afraid of the technology."
Kent Swafford, a piano technician with the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, and president of the guild from 2005 to 2007, isn't afraid. And he's not a critic.
"I know Donald, and I'm not about to dismiss his efforts," he said. "He's been persistent, but he's demonstrated that it could work."
Gilmore said he's just trying to innovate, not put piano techs out of business.
"Nobody would ever invent anything if you were afraid of making old technology obsolete," he said. "Because basically all inventions do that."