Chapter 2: A Buyer’s Guide to Guitar Synths Before we get into the specifics of guitar synthesis, I’d like to mention a few things that might save you time and aggravation when purchasing and using your guitar synth: 1. Cables and hardware It sounds strange, but the FIRST thing you should consider when purchasing any guitar synth is whether the pickup/controller and cables are included, or whether they are easily obtainable. Doing this will save you countless hours of headache and hundreds or thousands of dollars, trust me. The vast majority of guitar synths DO NOT work with standard ¼” jacks like you have on your guitar. Nor does the guitar connect with MIIDI cables, as is commonly believed. Typically, a guitar synth uses something called a “divided pickup” – a pickup with a separate polepiece AND output for each string. That’s 6 cables right there. There is often a +/- power supply of varying voltage that runs from the controller and powers the pickup. There are often other controls, like volume, program change, filters, etc that run independently of the standard guitar controls. Having a separate ¼’ jack for each of these would be very impractical. So instead, they are run on thin insulated wires, bundled into an insulated sheath, and connected with multi pin plugs and jacks, just like a computer cable. Only problem is, until recently these plug configurations haven’t been standardized. This means that you won’t be able to drive the music store and pick up a cable for that Ampeg Patch 2000 you got a great deal on off of ebay. Through the 1970’s and early ‘80’s synth manufacturers typically used whatever connectors they wanted. The good news is, they typically used DIN connectors, since they were easy to obtain. A DIN connector is a standardized pin configuration for each number of connections you want to make. For example, all 7-pin DIN connectors fit together, all 5 pin DINs fit, and so on. A MIDI cable is a type of DIN connector, as is the current Roland 13 pin MIDI cable. (What this means is that if you really have your heart set on a particular synth and need a cable, you MIGHT be able to buy a replacement from an electronics wholesaler, or make one yourself if you are VERY good with a soldering iron.)

Roland however, went with a proprietary 24-pin cable that looked like something you’d plug into a dot matrix printer. As time went on, they became the dominant guitar synth maker, and their 24 pin model became the standard. Fast forward to the early 1990’s. Roland adopts another cable standard for its MIDI synths, the 13-pin DIN plug. Unlike the 24-pin model, the DIN plug was not proprietary, so other manufacturers could sell cables and other products that used the technology. This is the system that Roland and other manufacturers use today. Controllers As I said before, guitar synth pickups are not like regular magnetic pickups – they are typically divided into 1 pickup per string. In addition, there are a lot of knobs and switches needed to control filters, change patches, ad vibrato, etc. Some synths even use things like magnetic touch plates for FX, or electrically charged frets to determine pitch. And of course you need a female connector to hook a cable to the main box. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to cram all this into YOUR precious guitar, so synth manufacturers typically created a guitar synth “controller” and sold it as a package deal with the synth. However, with today’s digital technology, most modern guitar synths function just as well with a small add on pick up to your existing guitar as they do with built in electronics. Bottom Line For all synths, you want to make absolutely sure that a cable and a pickup or controller is included as part of a synth package, or that you will easily be able to get one. As of this writing the 13 pin DIN is the standard, and cables and pickups are made and licensed by many manufacturers. If you’re buying a vintage synth, make sure it comes with the controller or the divided pickup (like the Roland GK-1) and any proprietary cabling. If you are buying ANY Roland guitar synth, be SURE to check the “pin” before buying. Any synth made BEFORE the GR-1 WILL be a 24-pin synth. If you do decide to buy a vintage Roland synth, check that a cable, and/or guitar controller are part of the package. If not, I’d move on. There’s no one answer here – you really need to do your research to find out what pickups and controllers work with the synth you want to buy, what kind of connectors it uses and their availability, what the general price range for the gear is, and what

their availability is. You don’t want to buy some obscure synth with a proprietary pinout; only to find out it needs a special controller of which only a dozen were ever made.

2. The dividing line Guitar Synths roughly fall into two categories: 1. Those that process the guitars’ own sound and combine it with various digital/analog filters, oscillators, or processors to create a “synthesized” sound. The early Roland GR units (100, 300, 500) use this approach, as does he Korg X911, EH Micro Synth, and more recently, the Roland V Guitar and Bass systems. The advantage here is that you can get a whole lot of new sounds without altering your playing style, and in some cases, without any new pickups or guitar mods. Also, the sounds you’ll get from these boxes will blow away just about any run of the mill FX pedal. How exactly are they different from, say, that $40 chorus stompbox on the demo wall of your local music store? Well for one thing, the effects are “layered”. With a distortion pedal, you plug in your guitar, distortion comes out the other end, and you tweak it with two knobs. End of story. With a “synth” pedal, the first step is usually to convert the signal into some sort of constant (like a square wave) or to use it to “oscillate”, or affect another parameter. From there, you might have multiple stages of filtering, pitch shifting above and below the original note, and various other effects before the note arrives at the output – all in one pedal, and all of it controlled from that pedal. The resulting sound is far more complex than you can get from even a pedalboard full of “series” effect pedals. If you’re looking for some wild new sounds to fatten up your lead lines, this may be the approach for you. Many guitar and bass players go this route However, there are some disadvantages. The most obvious is that for the most part, these guitar synths do not transmit or receive MIDI messages. This is a big problem if you want to access sounds from keyboards or drum machines, trigger samples, transcribe what you play, or record MIDI data of your performance, for example. (As of this writing, I know the VG99EX has guitar pretty decent MIDI capabilities added in, but I have not explored how well it responds to the guitar or tracks external devices to comment.) Also - and this is my personal opinion – many of the non-MIDI units sound like really big FX processors. Their parches cater to this idea as well: they typically have tons of distortion, wah and reverb, or they have sparkly acoustic guitar models with

string swells behind them, or they make some wacky noise, like a helicopter. You’re probably not going to get say, a realistic violin sound from them not only because they don’t process your guitar sound that way, but because they don’t have the inherent capability to craft that sound. On the other hand, a MIDI capable synth can trigger the exact pitch of a sampled violin on a keyboard as easily as any other instrument sound. Again, it’s all about what you want. One more thing – virtually every Roland MIDI synth or sound module contains sound patches which imitate the classic analog synths, ranging in accuracy from OK to almost indistinguishable. Something to think about before you plunk down a small fortune on vintage analog gear. 2. Pitch to MIDI converters – The second type of guitar synth is known as a “Pitch To MIDI Converter”, which started to appear in the early to mid 1980’s.. As the name implies, it calculates the pitch of your guitar (usually by filtering the signal, looking at the average distance between “peak” waveforms, or averaging the speed of your string vibrations, but you really don’t need to know that). Then it assigns the pitch a MIDI number (0-127 or 1-128), as well as assigning numbers to things like how much you bend the pitch (Pitch Bend or PB), how loud you hit the note, what string the note is on (hence the divided pickup), and so forth. It then sends these numbers either to an internal or external sound generator, which in turn triggers the note. That’s a lot of work. Because of all this number crunching, there tends to be a “lag” between the time you play a note and the time it comes out of the speaker. Even though it’s only a few milliseconds, it can really start to add up if you’re playing fast or sending a lot of data quickly to the guitar synth (pitch bends are notorious synth crashers). This is the basis for the “tracking” hysteria that has gripped many would-be guitar synthesists and killed off all but a few brands. Fortunately, synth technology and processing has improved both the speed and accuracy of guitar synths in the 15 years. And there is a lot you can do to improve tracking on your own, which I’ll discuss in a later article. The important thing to remember from all this is that unlike the first category of guitar synths, the sound you hear at the output is NOT the sound of your guitar. That sound has been converted into 1’s and 0’s and used to trigger a sound wave that ALREADY EXISTS in the synthesizer. This is a bit tough for FX based guitarists to wrap their heads around, but it makes sense if you think about it. MIDI is just numbers, NOT sound. In other words, if I play a flute patch on a keyboard, then you plug your guitar synth into the same keyboard with a MIDI cable and play, you will hear the

EXACT SAME flute patch. HOW you approach playing the patch is what makes it different, but you are not “creating” that patch with the guitar. Yes, there is a “Guitar Out’ jack on most synths. But that sound is really a signal that is split off and run PARALLEL to all the number crunching. It has nothing to do with MIDI. I’ll get into more detail about hat to do with this signal another time. 3. MIDI vs. Non MIDI So MIDI vs. non-MIDI - what’s the big deal? A lot. A real world example: Suppose you want to compose and record a string section for a song on your band’s new record, using your new guitar synth. You could record the parts using either type of your guitar synth onto your PC in real time, or book studio time and use whatever software and gear they have. You’ll have to find and/or program a sound you like, play each “string” part live in real time, and either redo or overdub mistakes. Then you have to hope that the sound you use meshes with the final product, depending on how realistic you want the strings to soundand the frequency range of the patch you decided on. If you’re on the studio clock, this will cost you some hours. OR, using a MIDI guitar synth, could make a MIDI recording that records just the MIDI data and use your computer’s internal sounds sounds on playback for “scratch tracks”. Any mistakes can be edited with a mouse click. You could then take this recording to a pro studio, book a few hours of time, and use the MIDI data to trigger their expensive samples, pick and choose your sounds (usually through a mouse point and click or patch selection), and run the whole thing through audiophile preamps at a really high sampling rate. You’ll get an audio quality far higher than you could achieve at home for a tiny fraction of the cost of recording it live. I do this all the time for my own clients, and once you get the hang of it, it’s as easy as any other recording you do. Another option is that you could record the string quartet in MIDI, send each MIDI track to a transcription program where the MIDI data will be converted to notes, and hire musicians to play the piece live. More expensive, but the result will be very high quality and very “human”. It’s also very doable with a MIDI guitar synth – and much easier than copying parts from a master score by hand.

From changing sounds to recording, flexibility is what MIDI is all about. We’ll talk much more about this later, but if you’re looking to connect your guitar to the world of music technology, a MIDI capable guitar synth is what you want. I’m not trying to say that MIDI synths are “better”; Not at all. They’re simply more flexible. Pat Metheny has used his Roland GR-300 analog synth for solos on virtually every album and tour from the early 1980’s to today. It’s an instantly recognizable, super cool sound. But overall, he uses it like an effect pedal. Another real world example in the opposite direction: A friend of mine called me up one day. He’s an older jazz guitarist, and not up on technology at all. He tells me he’s looking for a pedal that can make his guitar sound “fuller” and do all sorts of other things. From what he described, I knew he wanted a guitar synth. Since his guitar already had synth access pre-installed with his piezo pickup, I take him down to the local music chain and he auditions a Roland GR33; buys it on the spot. For several gigs, he’s happy as a clam, playing synth piano on one song, strings on another, scat vocals on another. Calls me to tell me how much he loves it. Then I start getting more calls: Why does it make all these weird notes when I pop the strings or play harmonics? When I “feather” chords with string swells, nothing comes out; what do I do? I play one sound and it’s quiet and another sound is really loud, how do I fix that? What the hell is a “menu”? Eventually, he gave up on it, and then sold it. This was a real shame as the guitar synth was PERFECT for his style, and would have been something that set him apart from all the other guitar players in town. In retrospect, I should have turned him on to the Roland VG series. He would not have used 99% of the presets, but the “plug and play” nature of the unit itself would have been far easier for him to deal with. Just be honest with yourself and understand what you want and what you’re getting when you buy it. 4. As If There Weren’t Enough Choices… As of this writing, there are a couple more Guitar synth choices that I need to mention: The first is what I call Standalone Pitch to MIDI converters (SP2M)- Simply, these are guitar synths without any internal sounds. Their job is to convert your analog guitar sound into MIDI data, and interface with other MIDI equipment. That’s it.

Why bother? The biggest reason is that SP2M converters offer MUCH more flexibility and control over parameters than you’ll ever get from most all-in-one synths. You can program things like note holds, controller assignments, FX, pitch bends, MIDI channel, etc for EACH sound AND each string, and save the patch for instant recall. You could for example, use your E and A string to trigger a drum machine with no pitch bend, while the D string triggers a bass patch an octave lower with full PB, and the rest trigger an electric piano patch an octave higher. And if you use a multitimbral synthesizer module, you can do this all on one patch. That’s a lot more than the 2 voice synth you get on the average Roland GR unit. You can even go farther than that: AXON for example offers the ability to split your fret board into discrete “zones” each with their own MIDI parameters. This is a very high degree of flexibility, and as such carries with is both more set up time (as each patch must be programmed individually and each pedal hooked up individually) and more cost (as you must buy outboard patch changers, expression pedals, hold pedals, cables, cases, etc – in addition to your sound module(s)). It is VERY possible and very common to have conflicting parameters which can cause everything from glitches to freezups– I once spent MONTHS tracking down a “no sound” problem, and found that ONE patch on the SP2M had 2 buttons inadvertently set to a “volume” control. Since one was an on/off switch, it turned off the volume for the whole unit when I touched it. Bottom line, you should have at least a basic knowledge of MIDI before you purchase one of these units. Where they really seem to have found a home is in the area of music transcription. It’s possible to plunk one of these on your desk, hook up a USB or MIDI cable, make a few adjustments to your music notation program, and generate complete sheet music or tab as fast as you can play it. One last word about Standalone MIDI converters: Roland uses a bit of a “cheat” in it’s GR pedal boards, in that the sounds are a) already preloaded into the chip b) only 2 voices. That means that once the conversion algorithm finishes processing the note you played, it’s already at the sound, ready to be triggered; and the sound only has 2 voices, limiting the amount of choices it has to make. By contrast, a standalone pitch to MIDI converter has to process the guitar note and send it to the MIDI out, through another sound generator, and trigger that patch – which can use 10 or more separate voices at once.

In an A/B comparison, ALL SP2M converters (except possibly the top of the line AXON units) will have a bit more lag, compared to the GR boxes. Hook up an external sound source to the GR boxes though, and it’s no contest, the SP2M converters win hands down. If you have MIDI experience and are looking for a LOT of flexibility (movie scoring or studio work, for example), a Standalone Pitch to MIDI converter may be what you’re looking for. Touch Too Much There’s actually another sub-category of guitar synths out there: “touch” guitar controllers, for lack of a better term. These are not very common, and are usually the domain of hardcore guitar synthesists, but they do present another option. This group has actually been around since the beginning of guitar synthesis. The idea is that instead of trying to process the complex interactions of pitch, attack, bend, etc of a given string all at once, you break up the task into two or more discrete parts. This usually involves having some sort of pitch detection built into the guitar neck itself, while tracking velocity and the string(s)/channel(s) are activated with the right hand. Implementing this idea takes many forms: Early synths like Ampeg/Hagstom and actually charged the frets or strings and used voltage changes to determine pitch. Later synths like the Casio DG-20 and the Yamaha GI-10 use sensors in the frets, bridge and/or the neck to determine pitch. More complex synths like the Synth Axe , Peavey Cyberbass and the Photon use a combination of these elements. In other words, the LH determines the pitch and the RH determines the volume and string activation. In the case of the Synth Axe, two separate sets of strings are used for the left and right hands. And then there are the guitar synths that eliminate strings entirely, such as Starr Labs ZTAR some Oncor synths, and the Yamaha EZ-AG/EZ-EG (otherwise known as “the poor man’s ZTAR”). These instruments eliminate strings almost entirely and rely on touch sensors, push buttons and “strum sensors” to act as strings. If you’re wondering how they “sound”…well, they don’t. Since no signal is passed from the instrument itself, the sound of the instrument and even the tuning of the strings is irrelevant (The G10 and the Photon for example, use 6 guitar B strings, all tuned to unison) The other big difference with these instruments, particularly the later ones, is that they are often self-contained. Without tonewoods or magnetic pickups to worry

about, builders can pack them full of electronics, including onboard sounds; they can slim down the design as much as possible; make them out of lightweight nonwood materials – even make them hollow. The fingerboards can be any scale, the strings can be any gauge or pitch, and the frets any size – even uniform. The makers and users of these synths will tout their superiority over the pitch to MIDI concept, and in theory they are correct. Fretting the location where the 3rd fret A string should be for example, will ALWAYS produce a “C” (unless you specify some other tuning); eliminating the need to calculate the pitch makes these approaches inherently faster and more accurate than even the latest Roland converter. Yamaha even markets the EZ-AG as a viable alternative to learning traditional guitar without “sore fingers”… However, I believe it’s their basic deviance from standard guitar playing that has always prevented this class of guitar synth from really taking off. While the tracking on these guitars is often superior to their cousins, they often do not FEEL like guitars. The feel is more like something between a guitar and a piano. (In the case of the Casio DG-20, the plastic strings are so floppy that it feels like you’re playing a guitar with 6 broken strings…) Starr Labs, for example makes an awesome controller, programs their own MIDI specs, and are technically superior in every way to the best Roland units - but they are still a specialty shop. You don’t see their designs hanging on the walls of Guitar Center, simply because 99% of guitarists don’t want to push buttons and bend notes with continuous controllers. They don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a guitar they can’t take to a gig, plug into an amp, and wail on without MIDI gear for 3 hours. My point is, if you decide to go this route, be prepared to “unlearn” many of your “guitarisms”. Treat it as a new instrument. This group also group falls into the same MIDI vs. non-MIDI categories I mentioned previously. Think about what you want to DO with the synth before you BUY it.

Conclusion/Buyer’s Guide Finally - The section you’ve been waiting for. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and it may seem a little overwhelming, so I’ll end with a quick and dirty checklist to help you out. This is not an all-inclusive list, nor do you need to fit all the characteristics to qualify for that group of gear. It’s meant as a rough guide to get you thinking.

As for the gear recommendations, I mostly include the brands I previously discussed. There are many others out there that would qualify. Again, this guide is my own personal opinion and is not meant to endorse or discourage any company or product. IF YOU: • • • • • • • •

Are looking for cool effects to use for solos and chords Have no clue what MIDI is and don’t want to Can’t set the clock on your computer Like to plug your guitar in and wail - and that’s it Have bought a multi FX pedal in the past because you hate patch cords and batteries Are not good at diagnosing problems with your setup on your own Are not at all interested in changing your technique for any reason Want to get rid of your pedalboard

YOU SHOULD GET: Roland V Guitar, EH Micro Synth, Roland SYB-5 pedal IF YOU: • • • • • • •

Know the difference between a VCO and a VCF Know what “control voltage” means Love vintage gear in general Know the difference between the “old” and “new” Roland guitar synth connectors Know the following guitarists and can name at least one album from each: Pat Metheny, Robert Fripp, Andy Summers, Steve Hackett Have NO interest in MIDI Can work a can of contact cleaner

YOU SHOULD GET: Roland GR-300, Gr-100, GR-500, Ampeg Patch 2000 IF YOU: • • •

Like to experiment with sounds View “glitches” as opportunities for random sound exploration Don’t mind taking your gear apart to look for problems

• • • •

Can handle a soldering iron Know what DIN connectors are Know what a “pinout” is, and have created or diagrammed at least one “pinout adaptor” Don’t mind altering your technique to adapt to a new piece of gear

YOU SHOULD GET: Virtually any 1970’s guitar synth, 360 Systems Slavedriver, Roland GM-70, Roland GR50, EH Microsynth, ARP Avatar,

IF YOU: • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Spend a lot of time in front of the computer Do most of your playing at home Teach guitar Play a lot of solo gigs Know what “MIDI” stands for Know which MIDI number controls “volume” Know the difference between “LSB” and “MSB” Don’t mind doing a lot of programming Know how to use the editing software for your synth’s sound module View your guitar as a tool for YOUR expression, rather than an instrument that controls you; Want to get studio work by sequencing MIDI parts at home, Want to transcribe guitar parts for yourself, clients, or students, in tab or standard notation Want to play your really expensive MIDI Baby Grand or synth with your guitar

YOU SHOULD GET: Roland GI-20, Roland GR-33, Roland GR-20, AXON, IVL Pitchrider

IF YOU: • • • • • • • • •

Want to learn about “the MIDI’s”, but your eyes glaze over when you look in the back of any synthesizer owner’s manual Want to “add value” to your skills as a guitarist or bassist Want some hot new sounds for solos or basslines Want to add more textures to your group without adding another player Want to take the place of a keyboard player in a group Want to make crazy sounds Want to create textures behind your solo playing that will get you noticed Want to get studio work as “the guitar synth guy” Like to tweak sounds, but don’t have the time, experience or patience to program them yourself

YOU SHOULD GET: Roland GR-1 – 20

IF YOU: • • • • • • • • •

Like to experiment with new instruments Are not attached to a particular way of playing Have a serious understanding of MIDI and/or analog modular synth programming The pitch accuracy, lag time, and “glitching” of traditional guitar synths drives you crazy Have strong, clean left hand technique Don’t mind hearing a discontinuity between the sound you PLAY and the sound that is produced Are willing to adapt to the specifics of a new controller Are not looking for an “all in one” instrument Have money to spend on rare/custom instruments

YOU SHOULD GET: ZTAR, Yamaha G10, Photon, Yamaha EZ-AG, Casio DG-20 etc.

Next, we’ll talk about various ways to set up and use your new guitar synth gear. Until then…