Built by Humans, Perfected by Robots: The Gibson Custom Shop’s PLEK System
“Hand-made” still carries a lot of weight in the realm of craftsmanship, in regards to musical instruments in particular. While the close, personal attention of Gibson’s skilled luthiers still gives Custom Shop guitars much of their cache, all of these fine electrics now have their playability perfected by an extremely advanced machine, known as the PLEK system.
When considering all the elements that provide you with that warm, fuzzy glow when selecting your next high-end instrument, think again if you think the PLEK sounds like a step backwards. The PLEK is no ordinary machine. It is, in fact, the embodiment of precision as regards to fret dressing and nut slot cutting, and it is quite possibly the most significant advancement in servicing technology since the electric guitar was conceived.
In short, the PLEK system, developed by Gerd Anke of A+D Guitarrentechnologie GmbH in Berlin, Germany, is a computer-controlled “robot” that reads a guitar’s frets with incredible accuracy, then automatically files and finishes them to produce the desired “action” as determined by a Gibson technician. This sounds simple enough, perhaps, but it’s an incredibly complex operation, and one that offers unprecedented precision.
“We use the PLEK for fret finishing and for cutting nut slots,” says Matthew Klein of the Gibson Custom Shop. “First, it reads [measures] a guitar’s neck and frets, which it’s able to do to an accuracy of a thousandth of a millimeter, then it machines [files] them to an accuracy of a hundredth of a millimeter.” The scan itself records a wealth of data about each individual guitar, including the height of each fret from the fingerboard, each fret’s individual radius, fingerboard radius, neck pitch and relief (bow), nut and bridge alignment, and much, much more. The PLEK can even tell its operating technician whether a truss rod adjustment is required before optimum fret dressing can be achieved, and once it has measured all the frets in such detail—and dressed them—the machine knows exactly how to cut the nut for optimum string spacing and slot height in relation to the fret height and the edges of the fingerboard. All of this is achieved with access to a myriad of different software packages that the PLEK references according to the type of set up desired, the guitar’s string gauge and scale length, neck curve, and other significant factors.
Gibson now has two PLEK machines, each of which takes approximately 15 minutes to complete a guitar. The PLEK system was first used on the Custom Shop’s Les Pauls, then the SG line got the treatment. Now, says Klein, the entire Custom Shop electric guitar range gets PLEKed.
“As soon as a guitar comes out of that machine it’s almost a given that it’s going to be an extremely playable instrument,” Klein enthuses. “There’s no guesswork. Obviously the wood can age, or if a player leaves the guitar in the trunk of their car in adverse conditions, we can’t account for future changes like that. But it’s playable right off the machine. And if that changes down the road, they can return the guitar to Gibson for service to have it re-PLEKed.
“We’ve had great testimonials from top players and session people,” Klein relates. “They can’t believe it. Skepticism is there, but when they get their instrument they go, ‘I’m sold!’”
To top it all off, once a Custom Shop customer is “sold” on the system, their own personal setup specs and requirements can be saved in a personal file within the PLEK’s computerized memory, so all of their guitars can be dressed to the same standards, or an instrument returned for work in the future can be re-PLEKed for the same faultless playability. Check out a Gibson Custom Shop guitar for yourself, and experience the unparalleled playability that the PLEK system helps Gibson’s top luthiers to achieve.
[originally Dave Hunter | 12.07.2007 Gibson.com]