Roland GR-300 Guitar Synthesiser
Instead of giving you a hexaphonic pickup to screw to your own guitar, Roland make you buy a whole guitar with the pickup built in. The main disadvantage is that you cannot use the GR-300 with your favourite '58 Les Paul which you picked up for $30 in an Alabama pawnshop. The advantages are several — the most used synthesiser controls may be mounted on the guitar, where they are easy to alter during a performance, and the critical pickup is already adjusted and mounted for you in the best place (near the bridge, where many guitars do not have room).
The straight guitar controls are quite sparse — just a pickup selector, overall tone control and master volume which also controls the synthesiser volume. The rest of the knobs belong to the synth section: a balance control which mixes synthesised and straight guitar sound in any proportion; cut off frequency and resonance for the filter; vibrato depth, and a 'voice' switch. This enables you to feed the filter either with oscillator signal, or with the output of six independent distortion circuits, one for each string so there is no intermodulation; a very nice effect by itself. Finally, there are two touch plates, one on either side of the bridge pickup which switch vibrato on and off, or alternatively enable you to just dab a bit in here and there whilst playing. All this lot is fed via a decent (five metres) length of 24 way cable and two sturdy connectors into the GR-300 which goes on the floor like any other effects pedal.
Mere effects pedal it is not, of course, but the GR-300 does not have the same facilities as a keyboard synthesiser. For example, there is no envelope shaper at all; the synth follows the guitar's envelope, and the harder you hit it, the louder it plays. Slow fade-in 'violin bow' effects have to be done manually with the volume control, which is conveniently placed on the guitar so that you can turn it with your little finger whilst playing. Secondly, there is only one overall filter instead of one for each string, so that more harmonics are cut off the top strings than from the bass ones.
There are five foot switches along the front, with an indicator LED for each so you can see how they are set. Two of these are for pitch transposition; in addition to a master tuning control, there are two preset pitch knobs, A and B, each with a range of one octave up or down from the fundamental guitar pitch. The associated foot switches A and B can be made to work in two modes — latching, where the transposition is permanent until you tread on the switch again, or unlatched where the transposition is only effective for as long as you hold the switch down. Pitches A and B cannot both be selected together, but the Duet foot-switch brings in the guitar's fundamental pitch in addition to the transposed sound for instant single-handed harmony playing; or if no transposition is selected, a slight detuning can be performed to make a richer sound.
Portamento, or glide between notes, may be added; unusually, with separate control over rise time and fall time. Six slide switches enable the player to disable each oscillator, so that the synthesiser triggers only on a limited number of strings: for example, it is possible to have a bass line derived from the low E string accompanying a straight guitar part, or a melody can be picked out from the middle of a suitable chord sequence.
Two foot switches and two knobs control modulation of the filter. The filter is sensitive to your playing, i.e. the harder you pick, the more harmonics that are let through, and the 'Sens' control determines the extent of this effect. 'Attack Time' slows down the onset of the filter sweep. One footswitch turns the modulation on and off, the other inverts the effect so that the filter sweeps down in frequency instead of up. Finally, there is a compressor which prolongs notes in the usual fashion when turned on. It is actually possible to turn the knobs with your foot provided you have not been hitting the bottle during the sound check, but in case there still are not enough controls for you there are sockets for more on the back of the unit. A pedal can be connected to the filter for wah-wah type effects, and there is provision for three extra foot switches. One switches the compressor in and out, the second cancels the glide effect if there is one set up, and the third brings in all six oscillators regardless of the string selector switches.
It is not necessary to buy the synthesiser straight away, of course; you could just play one of the guitars by itself until you have saved up for the rest of the gear. If the synth is still too much, then Roland also make the GR-100; although it plugs into the same range of guitars, it is not a synthesiser at all. Instead of oscillators, it has just the six channel distortion which is filtered in the same way as on the GR-300. There is no transposition or glide, but all the controls on the guitar except the voice switch work in the same way; so there is vibrato, rather cleverly done with a delay line which can also provide a chorus effect. I did not try out the GR-100 for myself, but at £350 the price saving does not seem worth the loss of flexibility.
Although the GR-300 is short on synthesiser features compared to a keyboard instrument, the controls provided are those that are likely to be of the most use, and have obviously been carefully thought out with live playing and the reasonably non-technical guitarist in mind. The outstanding feature of the device is its responsiveness to the player's technique; you can play it just like any other guitar without having to alter your style at all. There are a wide range of sounds available ranging from the beautiful to the grotesque, and you can be as subtle or unsubtle as you like; bend the strings, use vibrato, play it with your nose (as I once saw John Williams do on a classical guitar) and it will follow where you lead.
If you want convincing, try the GR-300 out with only the sixth string oscillator on, tuned an octave below your guitar; then calculate how much you can save by firing your bassist! Bass unemployment is not Roland's intention, of course, because they also make the G-33B bass synthesiser with a choice of two bass guitars to go with it, but it is a tempting thought; in fact, with a decent drum machine and the GR-300 you could sack your whole band...
The GR-300 is £515; the cheapest guitar (the G-202) is £299 whilst the1 G-303, G-505 and G-808 are £399, £425 and £499 respectively. These prices are inclusive of VAT.