Science and the Six String
The Story of the Guitar Synth
Learn the history of the guitar synthesiser and what the stars think of them.
Despite valiant and often valuable efforts by several manufacturers, notably the Japanese Roland company, the guitar synthesiser remains for many players a somewhat unapproachable amalgam of guitar triggering and synthesiser voicing.
The major obstacles preventing the instrument's wider use seems to be the guitarist's suspicion of anything that has oscillators and more than six knobs on it, and the synthesist's inclination to use tried and tested keyboard control. Very rarely, it seems, shall the two meet.
Here, Tony Bacon presents a brief history of the guitar synthesiser as reflected through the words of a variety of guitarists interviewed by him over the last five years.
Introduced 1973, discontinued later. Original price £280. Waist-high control panel and footpedal. Controls on panel: Top boost; octave shift (down); "Buzz" switch (high frequency overtones on sub-octave); ring modulation; decay; sustain fuzz; attack; pedal switches left; solo/strum (sensitivity); mix fader; control modulation selector; treatment selector (vibrato, phasing, wah-wah etc); modulation speed; modulation ramp time; modulation depth; frequency shift; modulation waveform LEDs; pedal switches right. Pedal unit has: two pedals, input socket, pre-amplifier sensitivity, and bypass switch.
"I bought, ages ago, one of those Synthi Hi-fli things — like a Hoover, aren't they? I found them very unreliable, you'd actually find a sound you were happy with, go back for it and put every switch the same... not there... totally unreliable. So that just wasn't practical, not even at home. Even having it stationary with no travelling involved.
"I've tried the Roland GR500 and there's so many switches — in the heat of the moment you knock one of those out and you'd never find it!" — Mick Box, Uriah Heep, August 1977.
Introduced 1977, discontinued late Seventies. Original price unknown. Purpose-built guitar with pedal control unit triggering user-supplied synthesiser. Pedal controls: Pitch; glide (portamento); "5th" (adding natural fifth to synthesised note). Modified Hagstrom Swede guitar with touch-activated scanner under fingerboard to trigger external synth via pedalboard.
"With my Hagstrom Patch, you can bend a note by using the pedal, but you can't physically bend a synthesiser note from the guitar. You can bend the guitar note, but you've got to work the pedal to bend the (accompanying) synth note. This is another thing, it takes a lot of getting used to the co-ordination and you can't put on the vibrato sound. It's very conscious, it's not natural for a guitar player to use in that sense. But I find it useful in the studio." — Bill Nelson, then with Red Noise, February 1979.
Introduced 1977, discontinued end of 1979. Original price £1550. Waist-high control panel and purpose-built guitar. Five main sections on control panel: guitar; polyensemble (including ADS envelope); bass (including ADS envelope); solo melody (versatile control centre); and external synthesiser. All sections playable individually or in any combination. Controls on guitar; normal guitar pots plus eq selector; polyensemble, bass, solo melody and external synth levels and on/off switches; master volume, guitar/dual/synthesiser selector; remote on/off; portamento on/off.
"I'm a very chord-oriented player, so to have a mono guitar synth virtually defeats the object for me, you might as well have a keyboard synth. The 500, which I got in 1977, is polyphonic. It's the sort of thing which if a guy goes into a shop and tries out, he's not likely to get the best results out of it because it has a wide variety of sounds.
"You play it as a guitar to start off with, and that's not necessarily giving the instrument the best chance — it tends to blur in the places you're normally playing chords, say right down the bottom of the neck.
"When I first started playing it, I played a lot of first inversion chords, and the textures of those are so thick that it blurred a lot. But second inversion chords began to make sense — rather like a keyboard, if you're playing down the bottom end of a piano or an organ you've got a lot of overtones clouding and thundering away." — Steve Hackett, April 1978.
"Unfortunately I got my Roland GR500 just before they changed it. I fiddled around at home on it and I got quite good, but at the time I got it I was on the road constantly, and it wasn't really a stage instrument, so I never really got to use it.
"But I think it's a great instrument, and it's completely different to the newer GR300 that I have. It does a lot more, it's like a real synthesiser in a way." — Andy Summers, The Police, August 1981.
Introduced 1977, discontinued later. Original price £1395. Special hexaphonic pickup attaches to own guitar, feeding control unit styled on ARP Odyssey. Controls: VCO1; VCO2; LEO; VCF; High pass filter; ADSR and AR envelope generators; sample/hold; ring modulation; noise generator; pseudo-polyphonic guitar-to-VCF; portamento; string selector; trigger sensitivity, Hex fuzz.
"A guitar is a really personal thing, you have to work with a guitar that you actually love playing... so for me that would rule out using a guitar synth where you had to use their guitar. The ARP you can use on your own guitar, and you can still bend notes and play open strings." — Mick Box, Uriah Heep, August 1977.
Introduced 1980, currently available. Prices: GR300 control unit £550; Guitars: 303 £420; 808 £525; 202 £315; 505 £445. Floor-mounted control panel triggered by selection of purpose-built guitars (made by Fuji-Roland company). Panel controls: string selector; compression on/off; master tuning; LFO rate; Pitch A and Pitch B variables, with latch/unlatch selectors and rise/fall controls; VCF attack and sensitivity. Footswitches: "Duet" twin-voice facility; pitch A; Pitch B; envelope modulation; envelope inversion. Guitar controls: touch plate LFO on/off; guitar volume/tone pots; VCF cutoff frequency; guitar/synth balance; VCF resonance; mode selector; vibrato (LFO) depth.
"I rang up Roland once and asked them if they had any left-handed versions of the old, now obsolete GR500, and they told me there was only one in existence, specially built for Paul McCartney. But he never bought it, so it's floating around somewhere. Unlike the newer Roland polyphonics, the 500's got more controls for creating the sounds — for example, on the new polyphonic it only has attack and decay, whereas on the old one it had attack, decay and sustain. But the pitch-to-voltage locking wasn't as accurate as the new system, so I guess it's a bit of one and a bit of the other." — John Wilson, Heaven 17, August 1982.
"First of all guitar synths were just monophonic, you could just use one note — the old ARP thing, say. And they were actually a lot more versatile, sound-wise, than the (newer) Roland ones. The Roland I've used, the GR300, is polyphonic. But as far as playing goes, you have to adopt a totally different technique to play the bloody thing, you get torn between two ways to go.
"If you want to develop in one direction, with the synthesiser, and take your technique into that field — or if you want to go the other way, which is to develop your normal guitar playing technique. So I suppose I want to keep my guitar more straight, and in fact I'm using less and less effects as the days go on.
"I think Andy Summers used one as well; I remember that the sounds he was getting out of it were very similar to what I was finding — there is a sort of standard sound on it, which is good." — Andy Taylor, Duran Duran, November 1982.
"It's a very nice guitar to play. I've also got one with a wanger bar on it, which they gave me in Japan, they only made one and they gave it to me which is really nice. And now I've got the other one too — I've got three guitar controllers, all together. The 808, which is supposed to be the better guitar, I don't like as much as the cheaper one.
"The necks are different, the one I like to play just suits me more. They vary, like all guitars. The one I like to play has a thinnish neck, very nice and very easy to play, I like the action on it. It's more like the guitar I'm used to, I suppose. The other one I find a bit more like hard work." — Andy Summers, The Police, August 1981.
"I play the Fender version of the Roland guitar synth, I think it's pretty nice: I think it's still in the beginning of its development. But they've solved all those problems that people always used to talk about with the ARP Avatar, all sorts of problems like if you weren't playing anything it would have been looking for information and sometimes came up with random stuff, trouble between strings, and so on.
"That all seems to be solved. The Roland neck to me is a little thick, it's more of a baseball-bat style that Fender had in, I think, 1965.
"The range of the sound from the 300 is a little limited, for someone who plays synthesisers with keyboards as well. It provides some of the things that people try to get through other effects very simply, like long sustain, or a kind of flanging. One can use it in a not particularly 'synthesised' way, but in a sort of guitarist's way." — Jerry Harrison, Talking Heads, July 1982.
"It'll be interesting to see guitar synth makers develop something that covers the no-man's-land between guitar and synths. Like Yamaha I s'pose have taken that step by having the breath controller on the CS01, which is good. There's just so many ways you can trigger a sound — I suppose it's just having markets for it in pure economics.
"There probably aren't that many brass players, for example, who are interested in synthesisers. And most people who've decided they want to use synthesisers have done it through keyboard control.
"The market for guitar synthesisers is guitarists, not synthesiser players really. So it's obviously got to be simpler so that guitarists can relate to it, I suppose. Whereas if you've had experience of both guitar and synthesiser, what you'd really love is something that's got all the difference in control, all the versatility and sound that a synthesiser's got, plus the completely different triggering effect that a guitar can give you. To me, that's the ultimate, when you can get a synthesiser unit that you can plug any control you want in — even miked-up harp." — Jo Callis, The Human League, November 1982.
"There's no doubt about it, in the late Eighties we'll see young players who will be guitar synthesiser players first and foremost, just like what has happened with the keyboard synthesiser. I'm not sure if I'll be a leader in that area or not, but I've stayed on top of guitar synthesis." — Lee Ritenour, July 1979.
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