By Jas Obrecht
Guitar Player Magazine
The leader of the band that bears his name, Steve Morse is one of the world’s preeminent electric guitarists. In years past, he was guitarist for the Dregs, and he’s placed first in the last four Guitar Player Readers Polls for Best Overall Guitarist. Steve was introduced to guitar synthesis 10 years ago, when he obtained one of the first 360 Systems monophonic setups.
What can a guitar synthesizer do that a guitar cannot? For one thing, some of them can send MIDI signals. They can play different notes than the ones you’re fingering. Say you’re just bending a note: As it falls between different decision points, the synth can assign it different voltages to do whatever you want. You could have part of the neck or part of one string assigned to change the sound of your delay, for instance, to where the higher up in pitch you go, the longer the delay is on your effects. Within certain limitations, it can program sequencers, too. By sending MIDI to a sequencer, you can arrange songs and print out music digitally. That’s a big use for sequencers that a lot of people miss when they think, “Well, I don’t need one of those.” You don’t need a computer on stage either, but you can sure do a lot at home with it.
Right now, you can program a sequencer with information so that it plays back synthesizers on command at various tempos.This enables you to edit and arrange by keyboard, so you can stand back and be objective. Writing - wise, having a synthesizer is a real help. I’ve actually used that capability recently in some experimental writing where I’ve played the parts that I’ve discovered on guitar into the sequencer, and then manipulated the tempos and other parts around. And with the small addition of a printer, I can theoretically have a printout of what I play, although in my case, it isn’t totally glitch - free all the time. But if I play slowly and deliberately, it can be.
There’s absolutely no need to be intimidated by guitar synthesis. You can learn it by instinct. If a guy picks up the Roland system in a store, he can find out very quickly if he can change his playing style enough to use it. It has presets that are easier than anything to use, and that can be the basis for the decision right there. And playing the SynthAxe or something like that will certainly tell a person very quickly whether he can use one of those for a whole song. At the moment, though, there are things that a stock guitar can do that a guitar synthesizer can’t: It can have infinite dynamics and instantaneous response, and always work [laughs]. But to have a guitar with a MIDI output is worth something.
When I got the Roland 700 system, it didn’t seem feasible to me until I had a controller that was either my own guitar or a custom-made guitar, because the location of switches and the type of pickup selection is really important to me. In other words, I would hate to play a completely, totally weird guitar just to have the synthesizer pop in and out at a few spots. To save me from carving a big, big piece of wood away from my sentimental favorite guitar, Ernie Ball was kind enough to custom - make one for me that’s good enough to play as a straight guitar without synthesizer. I don’t have to make compromises with my strings or the way it’s set up. It has the same four - pickup sequence and switches as my regular guitar, as well as a similar neck shape. Plus, it has the electronics of a Roland G-707.
The Roland system either sends an exact contour of what I play - including bends - or it has a chromatic mode where if I bend, it just goes from one half - step to the next. On our recent tour with Rush, I used the Roland for the improvisation in the middle of "Cruise Control," where I didn’t have to keep an exact tempo. I played it as a guitar until I came to this one section where I faded in the synth with a volume pedal and switched sounds.
I link my synthesizer to a little Yamaha TX7 module, which is essentially the sound -producing device from a DX7. I have a stereo Ernie Ball volume pedal with two volume controls, two ins, and two outs. From the volume pedal’s output, it’s sent to direct inputs on the board. That way, I’m controlling the dynamics and can make sure that the synthesizer has enough reverb and slap. I have to use external effects, too, because most of the time a straight synthesizer needs some extra treatment.
If the sound has a long decay, it may need nothing but reverb. A lot of times, it can be enhanced with slapback echo. In my case, I use the Lexicon Prime Time double delay - I have two delay lines. Sometimes I like a very short, modulated delay for a chorusing effect, but that’s only if the sound needs it. Some of the synthesizer’s sounds have it built in. Also, it’s better if you can send the synth signal direct though the P.A. or have a different amp for it. If you’re playing guitar with a real nice distorting rock tone and you ask that amp to do anything more, such as process a synthesizer, you’re going to end up with garbage. It’s got to be separate.
I’ve found that any guitar synthesizer that uses pitch-to-voltage - that is, its strings can be played as a guitar with its own sound and produce synthesized sounds, as well - is prone to glitch. It takes a little while for it to analyze the pitch. We’re talking about milliseconds [thousandths of a second], but it does take some time. That glitching is a lot more obvious with sounds that have a strong attack, so you have to be sure to select your performance sounds according to the characteristics of the guitar synthesizer.
The SynthAxe type of guitar - shaped devices for producing voltages have much better response. They’ve overcome the limitations of time delay by having wired frets, so that as soon as you touch down with your left hand to make electrical contact with the fret and activate an envelope generator with your right hand on another string, you can get a near - instantaneous response, much like a keyboard. On something like that, you can use a DX7’s Rhodes sound and get away with it. But with the Roland, you can’t get that famous sound without having a lot of glitches being brought very clearly to your attention. You need to play so that the attack comes on a little slower.
Allan Holdsworth uses a SynthAxe, and as a result he can play faster things with a synthesizer sound than anyone else. Of course, the down side is that he can’t play guitar sounds simultaneously, unless he samples a real guitar and MIDIs it, and that sounds pretty bad. The controllers that don’t produce their own sounds would be best used for programming sequencers and computers through MIDI.
I’m going to be doing some solo gigs soon. A lot of it will be on classical guitar, but some of it will include the electric guitar with the synthesizer. I don’t want to do too much of it, though, because the absolute best a guitar synthesizer can do is to be as good as a keyboard synthesizer, in terms of execution and speed of notes. And when you think about it, you don’t really want to just end up sounding like a synthesizer only. I believe that the concept of an actual guitar that plays a guitar sound mixed with a synthesizer controller is the best answer. If they could further develop the tracking through frequency counting, light - sensing fiber optics, or whatever, it could produce instantaneous results.
I’m sure there’s a lot more around the corner. Maybe a lot of that will fall into the category of assignable voltage - controlled functions controlled by a digital computer. If you had access to what a pitch - sensing, computer-controlled device sends by MIDI, you could open up a lot of possibilities. None of them do that at the moment. It would be neat to have something that, as it sends different voltages or notes, could activate different programmed functions. You would never even have to hear the sound of a synthesizer. You could just use some of the synthesizer technology while you heard only the guitar pickups. But the voltage - sensing devices -either wired frets or pitch - to - voltage converters like on the Roland - would interpret what you’re playing for the computer in the same way that they now make it go to a synthesizer. You could have the computer do anything. It could play only certain notes in a scale, for instance. Or, by going higher up on the neck, maybe by MIDI you could have it increase the level of the bass control on a digitally-controlled equalizer. Little things like that would be very helpful.
Copyright 1986 Guitar Player Magazine