Guitar Synthesizer Applications
Last issue, we talked a bit about guitar synthesis in general and specifically discussed the Roland GR-300, one of the few remaining guitar synthesizers. The GR-300 is a fairly "generic" guitar synthesizer in that it has a hex fuzz, tunable oscillator which tracks your playing, filter, envelope follower, and other standard modules. So, should other polyphonic guitar synthesizers be introduced in the months ahead, the following information will probably apply to them as well. [Ed. Note: For more about guitar synthesis, see the May '76, Mar. '78. and Feb. 80 issues of Guitar Player; also see David Friend's "Guitar Synthesizer" columns, Apr. '78 through Feb. '81.]
Synth vs. standard guitars.
The first thing we need to consider about any guitar synth is the richness of sound brought about by using electronic waveforms. Whereas a standard guitar produces a relatively thin, percussive sound - which guitarists are constantly trying to "fatten up" and "sustain" - synthesizer waveforms are naturally rich and have a tendency to sustain longer. In a polyphonic synthesizer (one which produces a note for each string, thereby allowing chords), you have six extremely rich oscillators at your command. So in many instances, your task with a guitar synthesizer is not to make it fuller, but to trim out that part of the sound which is overly rich. Outboard effects can help you with this.
Another difference is in playing options. A standard guitar has tone, volume, maybe a few phase or coil-tap switches, and that's it. A synth guitar lets you mix in varying degrees of fuzz, oscillators, and normal guitar sound - and further lets you alter these sounds by filtering, compressing, selecting synthesized sound only on certain strings, and so on. As a result, you'll have to do a lot more planning of how you intend to use an electronic guitar, either on-stage or in the studio. It's not enough to just pick the thing up and play; you'll need to evolve a strategy for each part you play on a guitar synthesizer, and be familiar enough with the unit to implement the sound you want.
A third difference is the type of rhythm part you'll play with a guitar synthesizer. If you mostly have a straight-guitar sound selected with a little synthetic sound mixed in to give more fullness, you can pretty much play any rhythm part you would play on a normal guitar. However, if you have a rich wash of sound, then playing complex rhythm parts could very well lead to a cluttered, overly busy effect. The key here is to study the background keyboard works of artists such as Tony Banks (Genesis), Roger Powell (Utopia), and similar players in bands that use organs, string synthesizers, and other sustaining keyboards for lush background parts. Most of these background parts are relatively simple; with a guitar synth, you might find yourself playing one strum and letting the instrument sustain for a measure or two, rather than picking up and down in a continuous manner.
Using effects with polyphonic guitar synthesizers.
Many of the effects you traditionally add as outboard units to a traditional guitar are an inherent part of the synth. For example, the GR-300 has a chorus option which imparts a lush chorus effect to each string, as well as an envelope controlled filter for Mu-tron effects. The hex fuzz handily replaces outboard fuzz, and there's even a built-in compressor. So, you'll have to decide which outboard effects work best with the synth guitar.
As mentioned previously, many times you need effects to trim the sound down rather than to fatten it up. Since filters selectively remove various components of the sound, my first suggestion would be to add a good graphic or parametric equalizer. These allow you to add midrange peaks for punch, low-frequency boosts for a good bottomend, or pull back the highs if the synth is cutting too much.
Another useful effect with the guitar synthesizer is an echo unit. Since synthesizers tend to have a naturally flat sound which lacks ambiance, adding echoes creates the appearance of an acoustical space, which makes the synth sound more "natural."
Lead guitar parts.
Several players have told me that guitar synths are useless for lead parts. It ain’t so! The problem is that the synthesizer section of the guitar has a little bit of lag in responding to the notes you play (especially with lower notes), so there might be a tiny bit of delay (on the order of a couple dozen milliseconds) between the time you play the note and the time you hear it. The delay is short enough that you probably won’t be able to outplay it with respect to speed, but what you do lose is that sharp attack so characteristic of many rock lead guitar parts. As a result, the notes can lack definition. For lead work, I base my sound around the hex fuzz, which, since it doesn't drive an oscillator but rather derives its signal directly from the guitar's strings, preserves the guitar's attack characteristics. You may then add an oscillator sound on top of that for more fullness, and/or boost the response at around 3 to 4 KHz with some EQ to create a sound which cuts a little more.
Ensemble work with the guitar synth.
Because the sound is so rich, and covers much of the frequency spectrum, you might run into situations where the guitar synth interferes with vocals, keyboards, and other midrange instruments. You can always pull the synth volume level back to avoid this problem, but that gives a weaker sound. Again, EQ comes to the rescue; pulling back (cutting) in the midrange will make room for other instruments, while leaving a bright top end and solid bottom. This way, you can mix the synth up to a pretty decent level, but still not interfere with other instruments. I generally cut somewhere in the 500 Hz to 1 kHz range.
But is it for me?
The guitar synthesizer is not cheap, so the question of cost-effectiveness immediately comes to mind. With a unit like the GR-300, which includes its own guitar, you can of course play the guitar by itself-assuming that you have the right "chemistry" with the guitar. If you do, you can unload a guitar that you might not use as much and use those proceeds towards buying the synthesizer electronics. If you don’t like the synth’s guitar as much as you like an old favorite, then you have to consider the guitar/synthesizer electronics system as a separate investment.
Admittedly, something like a guitar synthesizer would be a luxury for most guitarists; but if you’re ever in situations where you need to get novel textures or a wide range of sounds (studio musician work, for example), it becomes a necessity. On my most recent album project, I played the GR-300 in quite a few places. The two biggest uses were for textural rhythm parts where keyboards were too static-sounding, and for extremely smooth, "Boston"-style leads. (When imitating other instruments, I used keyboard synthesizers due to their greater flexibility.) For "power trio" sounds, the GR-300 also proved very useful, since it could fill in a lot of sonic space with just one instrument.
I hope the above tips will put you in the right frame of mind for recognizing that the synthesizer guitar, despite its apparent similarity to the electric guitar, is its own instrument and must be approached in its own way. But once you have it mastered, you'll have a powerful new tool for your sonic arsenal.
Copyright © August, 1982 Guitar Player Magazine