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June 21, 2014

Gibson Robot Guitar Battery Replacement

A few years ago, a local music store was blowing out the Gibson SG Robot Guitar. The robot part being the part that allows the guitar to tune itself. The technology was from Tronical and Gibson used it.

For a rather short period of time. I got mine in 2009.

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Of course I’d heard some of the horror stories about the guitar, all electronics being somewhat unreliable and so on. Not to mention a $3500 USD price tag. Which put it out of reach for all but the rather well heeled clientele.

However, the store was blowing these out for less than 30% of their list price. Thus for under $1,000 CDN I could buy a real Gibson SG. At the time, a standard SG without the electronic tuning sold for more. After some investigation, I found that the electronics was used for one thing. Tuning. If somehow that should fail, you could simply unlatch the tuning pegs from their mini-motors and tune it the same old way we all do and press in the pegs to relatch them.

As I saw it, a chance to own a top quality USA made guitar and it didn’t matter a fig if the electronics last two weeks or twenty years. The guitar was still a USA made premium guitar.

As of lately, the tuning has been sort of hit and miss so I started to become somewhat concerned about the electronics. Turns out, the electronics are fine, but Gibson (Tronical) decided in their not so infinite wisdom to use a NiMH battery to power the motorized tuners. Having been dealing with radio controlled models for years, I know about the lifespan of NiMH batteries.

According to Gibson, the batteries are supposed to be good for 200 tunings. Maybe. I doubt that I ever tuned it that much. Probably closer to half of that. I found the battery would never reach a full charge and it dropped pretty fast.

All the ear marks of a NiMH battery that is on its way to the recycle depot. This is what the original battery looks like. When you find it on Gibson’s web store, you’ll also find that it says, “Out Of Stock”. The only remaining source is Tronical and that’s going to cost upwards of a $100 or possibly more with shipping from Germany.

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Tronical, bless them for this, listed the battery as 2.4V 2200maH. A single NiMH cell is 1.2V. It was sort of obvious they are using a pair of 1.2V AA sized batteries wired in series. I have a number of 1.2V 1300mAH cells in the shop here so I planned to make my own pack.

First, the back of the guitar.

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You can see the Tronical battery and the big red and black power wires clearly under the plastic. There’s a Velcro button on the back of the pack to hold it in place. After you take out the five screws holding the plastic cover on of course…

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The connectors used are press fit, remind me of RC connectors. Try not to short them out when you get them apart.

While I was in there, I checked out the wiring as well. While Gibson makes high quality guitars, their wiring and soldering ability leaves a lot to be worked on. One capacitor had broken away because the leads had been nipped by a wire stripper. Very brittle. Wires were jammed through the solder lugs on the pots and slobbered on. When you pour that much solder on something to hold it; I call it slobbering. So I cleaned up the connections.

I decided to test out my NiMH pack to make sure it was going to work. Hooked up my pack through a couple of 12″ alligator test leads. And got my first surprise when I turned on the MCK. Nothing. No LED’s, no flash. Nothing. I assumed the batteries were dead, but they still had more than half a charge in them.

I disconnected the NiMH pack and plugged in my bench power supply. Set it to 2.4V. It managed to light some of the LED’s. Which tells me that at the lower end of 2.4V you don’t have much life left in the batteries. Closer to 3.12V for a full charge. I decided to see if I could charge my NiMH pack. And got my second surprise.

With the pack connected with 12″ alligator test leads, there was no way it would charge. I immediately thought that there must be some “electronics” in the battery pack. I unwrapped the Tronical battery, and wasn’t surprised to find no markings of any kind of the batteries. And no electronics of any kind.

My conclusion is that the length of those battery wires is crucial for the onboard electronics to not only detect the battery but also to charge it. Note that if you’re doing this yourself. At any rate I figured that the worst case was I’d have to order a replacement battery from Tronical. Best case is my pack would work.

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Now who ever soldered on the battery wires was very good at their job. I used a soldering gun to remove them (could have with a low wattage iron, but easier with a gun).

I soldered the wires on to the tabs of my own battery pack. Then bound the pack in electrical tape.

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Put the battery in, replaced the plastic covering, tested it, connected the charger and..presto. Working like a champ. Cost of replacement? $4 from eBay. And yes, while my batteries might say 1300maH, well, that may or may not be the case. But certainly cheap enough I can throw them out every year and still be ahead of the game.

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