Roland's 707 System Guitar Synthesizer, Part 1
by Steve Hunter
I've wanted a guitar synthesizer ever since I first saw the Roland GR-707 system at the 1984 Anaheim NAMM show. When I heard a Hammond B-3 but saw a weird- shaped guitar, I was pretty much convinced that I needed one badly.
It was definitely a thrill when I finally got my hands on one. After playing the GR-707 at Roland's L.A. headquarters, I decided that I'd like to do an in-depth article in three parts. There are so many conflicting opinions about guitar synthesizers, that it's worth going into in detail. And because this instrument is so unique and such a breakthrough for guitars and guitar playing, I think it merits the extra time and discussion. The GR-707 retails for $1 , 1 50 (with case), the GR-700 for $1 ,995.
In this month's column, we'll take a look at the guitar itself, followed next month by a test of the GR-700 unit, and finally, how they work together. It's important to understand that the GR-700 synthesizer unit is not an elaborate effects pedal, it's an extremely complex guitar/synthesizer instrument. In fact, it's actually two separate instruments working together.
To give you an idea of the complexity of what we're talking about, let's just take a look at the triggering mechanism, in theory.
The immediate difficulty to overcome is developing something that will read the fundamental pitch of a string on any fret accurately enough so as to obtain a digital code to trigger a synthesizer.
For the GR-707 system, a pickup had to be developed that would be able to accurately distinguish the fundamental pitch of each string. The final design became a pickup that looks like and fits into the same space as a standard double-coil pickup, but is actually six separate pickups in a row, one for each string. This was found to be the optimum configuration to maximize string separation and minimize extraneous overtones. As it is called, the hexaphonic pickup is placed as close to the bridge as possible (where the fundamental pitch is most predominant) and as close to each string as possible. Through some very complex circuitry, the pitch that is received by the pickup is converted to digital information which can then be read and understood by the synthesizer section of the GR-707 system.
The problems inherent in this system are staggering. First off, guitar players love guitar strings with lots of beautiful harmonics and overtones. All those extra tones, though, cloud the fundamental pitch and make it hard to hear, especially every time and on every fret.
But the guitar synthesizer is an extremely expressive, dynamic instrument, as far as variety of technique goes. Think about all the ways you know how to make a string vibrate and then change its pitch. With just those examples, can you imagine trying to develop a device that can give you accuracy in spite of all those very ambiguous parameters and still come off sounding like an organic musical instrument? Incredible!
CONSTRUCTION AND FEATURES
As you can see by the photo, the GR-707 is a striking instrument. The first thing to catch your eye is the stabilizer bar screwed into both the headstock and the upper bout of the body. Roland claims it aids in stability, which in turn aids in tracking performance. True, but I just can't see how a bolt-on neck could be more stable with a stabilizer bar than, say, a through-the-body neck. The logic behind a bolt-on neck is dubious.
The neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard, slightly chunky feeling, but otherwise very smooth. It has medium-size frets on it, comfortable and nicely dressed, though larger frets might help the playability.
The pickups are Roland humbucking style and sound very full and rich with an amp, and very clean and clear when used direct. There is a pickup selector switch, a tone pot and a master volume (which is master to the synth as well). The other controls will be covered when we discuss the whole unit.
The body design is really quite unique. When worn with a strap, the guitar is very well balanced, not too heavy and quite comfortable to play. One drawback, though: It's a little uncomfortable to play sitting down. There is a rubber pad along the edge of the lower bout where the guitar rests on your leg, but I don't think it helps that much.
The guitar features a very smooth-feeling vibrato, but a locking-type vibrato tailpiece and nut would have been preferable, since tuning and intonation are so very important in this application. When I used the vibrato, the tuning did slip.
The finish and overall workmanship are superb, and the wiring inside qualifies as a work of art.
Next month I'll give you a rundown on the GR-700 module and its functions and performance. until then, remember: Keep makin' music.
Steve Hunter has recorded and toured with many of contemporary music's biggest names, including Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed and Mitch Ryder's Detroit. He is presently involved in several film scoring and studio projects.
IM&RW February 1985