Synth Guitar:
Did They Finally Get It Right?

Anyone here ever owned a synth guitar? Not a Keytar, but a guitar fitted with a hexaphonic pickup that transmits MIDI data to external devices? And if so, do you readily admit it?

The synth guitar has had one of the most checkered histories outside of, well, checkers. Since the ’70s, many brilliant minds have tried to bridge the gap between the plucked string and the external tone generator. But despite a few notable exceptions (mostly in the prog/fusion realm), guitarists have been reluctant to embrace the technology.

I’ve had a Yahama synth system (basically a clone of the Roland GK-2) for many years, though I rarely use it. Like a lot of players, I balk at the installation hassle and the ugly, cumbersome hardware. (Plus, I’ve played keys longer than I’ve played guitar, so I don’t really need a guitar to conjure synth sounds.) Also, those systems are expensive! Many players have been disappointed. Many businesses too — the Avatar guitar synth probably killed off the ARP company.

But I’ve been thinking about guitar synth again since last January’s NAMM show, where Fishman previewed their Triple Play system, a new take on MIDI guitar which I mentioned at the time here. (Here’s much more info from the company’s Summer NAMM press release.)

I finally got to play a late-stage prototype this weekend. But before I discuss the experience, I need to confide that a) Larry Fishman is a pal of mine, and b) I may be working with his company on the product’s documentation and marketing. (My words of praise are 100% sincere — but as always, consider the source.)

The Fishman Triple Play

Anyway, the Triple Play marks several big improvements over previous hex-pickup systems. It tracks great. The hardware is smaller and less intrusive, with comfy, low-profile ergonomics. It doesn’t require proprietary cables or an external “brain,” but communicates with your computer via a thumb-drive-sized wireless USB receiver. And it’s going to be way cheaper than any previous system (probably around $350 for a package that includes the hardware, a powerful software interface, and a buttload of bundled third-party software).

But the other reason I’m getting excited has less to do with the Triple Play’s innovations than with the ways other music technology has evolved since my last stab at synth guitar. Unlike some past systems, which were welded to proprietary tone generators (and their often uninspiring sounds), most Triple Play users will be piloting software DAWs, sequencers, synths, samplers, virtual turntables, lighting rigs, notation software, and such. Given how great-sounding, open-ended, reasonably priced, and just generally bitchin’ today’s software is, guitar synthesis promises to be more cool, fun, and creative than ever before.

I’ll write more about the Triple Play once I receive my own unit. But I’m already stoked about the prospect of integrating it into my MainStage-based laptop/looping rig. (More disclosure: Apple pays me to develop for Logic/MainStage/GarageBand.) In an environment like MainStage, it’s going to be easy to create elaborate setups that blend guitar audio with synthesized and sampled sound, with a near-limitless customization and the ability to control both sources on the fly. Yummy.

I’ve been a mere guitar-synth dabbler till now, so I’m eager to hear about your synth-guitar experiences, good and bad. Also, what are some ways you might deploy this technology in today’s head-spinning software world?

34 comments to Synth Guitar:
Did They Finally Get It Right?

  • Oinkus

    Synth Guitar has been prohibitively expensive for us normal poor starving musician types.Think I could probably lay my hands on a Roland rig and pickup but would have to jury rig it to guitar to try it out.Will check back later. Good luck with the new adventure!

  • Jaka Jarc

    I have transformed my jackson dinkey into a synth guitar (using graphtech ghost saddles) and use axon ax50 – tracks beautifully, the system is wonderful and allows for various sounds at various picking positions(I love that – move sul tasto – flute, go to normal picking position, flute an octave lower – and metallic by the bridge – I put rhodes mkII) :D LOVE IT! – well – anyway:
    I have no problem with the additional cable

    I have no problem with tracking – axon keeps up with me.

    I have a problem with lugging a computer with me to gigs – this is why I have had my eye on a roland unit – using the same midi input – however IMO mainstage just kicks all those sounds out of the park.

    I guess I will designate my (only) macbook for gigs… (at least a new mainstage is affordable now – last time Logic almost bankrupt me – though I am happy to work with it now).

    I will be curious about these fishmans – but I don’t think any of the stores around here (Slovenia) will demo one.

    Looking forward to your video :)

    Best,

    Jaka

  • Digital Larry

    I had a Casio MIDI guitar PG-510 or something, I think, about 20 years ago. Had a MIDI out but not the built-in synth. It was actually a halfway decent H-S-S guitar with a whammy bar. And when I played the MIDI side of it, my inevitable response was – ‘Hmmm, sounds just like my crappy guitar playing, except as realized on a glitchy piano, trumpet or organ patch’.

    Of course, everyone says (and they are right) – “in order to play something idiomatically convincing of some other instrument, you’ll need to understand phrasing, and voicings (if it has chordal possibilities) of that instrument”. So, not only do you have to adjust your playing A LOT to avoid the glitches and whatnot, you have to actually UNDERSTAND how a B-3 player does his or her thing? Here I go running back to my ukulele again!

    A lot of what I find cool about the guitar is funky strumming/percussive stuff which does NOT translate well. I’d actually love a well tracking MIDI bass thing, since I can express myself pretty well on the bass, but I know that pitch detection at lower frequencies is more of a challenge, so…

    I probably should have kept the Casio just for the guitar part, but I’m over it. To the extent that I have used MIDI in my recordings (which is pretty significant), I have just stuck with entering things with the mouse or a keyboard (and then cleaning it up).

    • There’s a fella’ in Chicago who does a lot of gigs (with Carlos Johnson among others) who plays keyboards with an ancient Casio midi guitar. The sounds aren’t any better than any other midi piano or Hammond, but his voicings and attack make it utterly convincing; the first time I saw him, it took me ten minutes to figure out where the keys were coming from! If I got his name at all, it is lost to the mists of time, but when you can impress me that much with six strings in your hand whilst on the same stage as the monstrous Carlos Johnson, then brother, you’re doing something right!

  • thomas4th

    Dumb question: Why are most hex pickups (I’m thinking specifically of the Roland GK, though this Fishman unit appears similar) mounted right by (or in) the bridge? I would think that tracking would be better by the neck pickup – isn’t the fundamental stronger there with less harmonic content to clutter the signal? Is it a function of string spacing, maybe? I am probably showing off my ignorance here.

    • joe

      It surely has something to do with the fact that the physical vibration of the string is much greater and more chaotic near its midpoint. Which is why, for example, you often position the pole pieces of the neck pickups farther from the strings relative to the neck pickup.

    • mwseniff

      The closer they pickup is mounted the less crosstalk between strings. It also supposedly supresses harmonics which would cause false triggering.

    • Jaka Jarc

      This is why I think my graphtech’d jackson tracks as well – it uses 6 piezos in the actual saddles – for maximum division of string signal and least chaos in vibration.

      I would make a youtube demo, but for the five family members and friends who really click it to be nice it seems very time consuming :)

  • Digital Larry

    I don’t really know the answer – I’ll start with that before I begin pontificating and other pedantic puffery!

    Thomas4th’s question is a good one – assuming that the detection was based on pulling out the signal’s fundamental frequency. But maybe it isn’t.

    I looked up some articles on pitch detection and found one from someone at Stanford’s Computer Music center (CCRMA):

    https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~pdelac/154/m154paper.htm

    Let’s presume that the method being used nowadays is the “cepstrum” method.

    In this case, having a signal rich in harmonics is actually beneficial.

    First step is to calculate the spectrum of the incoming signal. You get a lot of harmonics by taking that sample right near the bridge. Then, you calculate the spectrum of the spectrum – and if that has a regularly repeating pattern (as it would for a bunch of evenly spaced harmonics – whether they are “even” or “odd” doesn’t matter) then you can say “ah-ha!” the first peak I found must be the fundamental!

    The description of the behavior of the Axon leads me to believe that it does this, because since it is able to determine your picking position, it has to be able to make some determination about the relative balance of the fundamental and upper harmonics.

    • Jaka Jarc

      You are probably right about defining the primary spike – but axon also examines each string individually ( you can basically divide your guitar into three picking positions, then by string, and divide the neck into two halves) – so there is quite alot inplay. I was really sad to see the axon go out of production – fearing that midi guitar scepticism would kill off further progress – but Roland are going strong – and so are (apparently) fishman – it is actually nuts what we put up with for sheer desire for invention and pioneerism. :)

  • mwseniff

    I have been using a synth guitar since 1999 when I bought my Roland GR30. I use the magnetic hex pickups on my guitars. I had a Brian Moore synth ready guitar but I found when I played with loud guitarists and drummers that I had a lot of false triggers of notes. I eventually figured out that piezo elements were picking up noise from the other band members causing false triggers. I had no trouble selling the Brian Moore for what I paid for it luckily. Since then I have found that mounting the GR hex pickup solidly as close to the bridge as possible gives the best triggering. I have also found you need to develop an extremely clean picking style and damping of strings and ending notes accurately is a must. These days I prefer the GK-3 pickup with the adapter to mount it to a tune-o-matic bridge, this gives a very solid mount and puts the pickup as close to the bridge as is possible. Using sticky tape can cause severe tracking issues.

    These days I use a Roland GR-55 synth module which also gives you the VG functions as well ( processing the actual sounds from the pickup rather than midi coversion this has negligible latency). The Roland GR-55 has a new generation of midi coversion that is extremely fast, in fact it is so fast that I cannot detect any latency at all even on the low E string (which is amazing given that you need a full cycle of the waveform to determine pitch tho’ there are some tricks that can be used). The GR-55 is a vast improvement over earlier models as it adds a setting for distance from pickup to bridge saddle distance as well as the gain setting for each string.

    I fingerpick which I think makes for a cleaner note for the midi processor. I have found in my experience that shorter scales work better, that not having a trem makes it trigger better and beyond that it is about developing a touch for midi guitar. I have a GK-2 on my Supro lapsteel and my fretless Danelectro Guitarlin. I have GK-3s on 2 Switch Oscars (Les Paul analogue made of polyurethane foam these are great midi guitars) and 2 Fender Modern Player Jaguars. I also have a 90′s Fender GK ready Am Std Strat which I put a Hipshot Trilogy on (taking out the trem, blocking up the trem area made it trigger much better).

    I feel that one of the biggest things to help synth guitarist is practice and learning the various tones available and rearranging patches in order that you use them so you can step thru them easily. I also think you need to turn off the chromatic mode so it follows bends and slides rather than just jumping notes (tho’ I use chromatic for harmonica while playing slide sometimes for a stunt). I also do not try to mimic other instruments but either use them incorrectly intentionally or I use the synth tones to fatten up my guitar tone. I particularly like playing slide with guitar and synth together because it gives a great tension when you bend notes since the synth does it in steps versus the continuous analog guitar. But then I am sort of a contrary person.

    While I very much dig my new Roland GR-55 I still use my GR-30 and 2 of the GK Effect pedals (WP-20G Wave Processor and OC-20G Poly Octave w/hexaphonic distortion both are all analog hex effects now sadly out of production). I use a Roland GKP-4 which takes the GK pickup and multiplies it to 4 outputs. I mix all those together for a very fat sound that is a real trip to play, I mainly use it when I play with The Dits a european style free improvisation trio. We usually sound like many more musicians because Scott and I usually are doing 2-3 things at a time. It’s always a gas watching the audience trying to figure out who is making which sound (sometimes it is even difficult for me to tell who is playing what when I am listening to mixes when I am engineering the recordings).

    So my take on synth guitar is that is very viable for guitarists and has been for a many years. Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew use them very effectively and they use the old Roland GR-1s which have a lot of latency issues (they seem to be updating to GR-55s slowly these days). I also have a buddy that can make a GR-1 really work great. They all learned to play ahead of the note to make the midi play on time. That just requires practice just like playing guitar but it can be frustrating for those that think it should be a turnkey operation. There are no short cuts. It’s another tool in the tool box for us to use.

  • Mat

    I read an article (years ago) where the guys from the Chemical Brothers said they wrote a lot of their bass lines on a midi guitar (as it produced a vastly different style than using a keyboard). Another example of gear affecting composition!

  • jeremy

    I guess before you can answer “did they finally get it right”, you have to define what “it” is – ie. what do you want to do with a guitar synth?

    I remember hearing a Lou Reed concert on the radio, and he actually interrupted one of the songs to point out that the piano everyone could hear was actually coming from his rhythm guitarist (then again Lou does seem to get overawed by guitar technology – I think he was one of the first to own a GR500). So there’s that aspect – being able to mimic instruments you may not otherwise play – and I can see a value in that; but when you think of keyboard synthesizer players, the ones that are doing something really interesting are the ones that long abandoned any idea of sounding like anything else – using the synth as a synth and making sounds you couldn’t otherwise realise in any other way.

    Fripp & Belew are good examples; the technology of the GR300 (which I believe is what they were using around the Discipline era) was far from perfect, but they got great sounds from them, so in that sense guitar synths were already “right”.

    • mwseniff

      I think they adopted guitar synths live a bit later than Discipline, when I saw them twice on that tour they only used regular guitars. They did make some outrageous sounds but nothing that couldn’t be duplicated with guitar and FX. Adrian Belew in particular was quite good at making his odd guitar sounds by physically abusing his guitar and use of FX. The Elephant Talk elephant call is flanger, distortion and touch no synths (pretty much the same for Lone Rhinocerous mainly flanger and hands). Any synth that was used was the keys next to Fripp. Fripp was still using his venerable Les Paul Black Beauty, Belew used a strat. I never saw Fripp use guitar synth live until later tours tho’ in the studio he may have used them especially for the hexaphonic fuzz ( IMHO the best thing that the GR300 did). They did however tend to stay with older technology in fact they only recently moved on from Roland GR-1s so in reality they are much slower at adopting new tech than one would guess. It has always been amazing to me the range of sounds that can be made with a guitar and a few FX when in the hands of a creative master.

      • jeremy

        I bow to your greater knowledge on King Crimson; I just always thought that the vaguely horn-like sound in The Sheltering Sky was the GR-300, though as you rightly point out, Belew was getting all kinds of noises without the aid of a synth on his solo albums.

        As a Belew fan myself, I always wanted to see the tutorial video he made about getting the sounds from his early solo albums, so I was really thrilled when it turned up on youtube…

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8NpBWPL93s

        An aside on the subject of Fripp, I still have the pull-out guitar series that the New Musical Express music paper ran in the early 70s, and one featured an interview with Fripp – who at the time said he was happy to give guitar lessons, for “about the same you’d pay for German lessons… £8/hour”. I’m sure he charged more than that when he did the Crafty Guitarist stuff some years later. :) The other thing I recall from the NME thing was that he explained his playing by saying he used “banjo techniques”.

    • joe

      Jeremy, you are absolutely asking the right question. But you know me: I’ll take a fast, flippant headline over a careful, accurate one ten times out of ten!

      :satansmoking:

      I suppose what I really mean is a) this new design seems to to have improved MIDI guitar implementation on many fronts, and b) the timing is excellent due to other advances in music technology.

      My biggest beef about the Roland systems was being locked into their sound design. Yeah, you could deploy the controllers with other sound generators, but the process was SUCH a pain in the ass. Being able to “inject” MIDI guitar messages wirelessly into the liquid environment of music software just sounds so much more promising!

      • mwseniff

        I agree on Roland’s sound design issue the older modules had really terrible patches, but it was pretty trivial to modify or create your own especially with the free editors available. However the newest model GR-55 makes a big departure from the old lousy patches. They must have hired real musicians to design the sounds rather than having electronic engineers do it like in the past. I have modified a few patches on my GR-55 but mostly just put them in a more useful order. I have also been using it with my Moog Slim Phatty, my iPad soft synths and my windows laptop soft synths. I dig the Moog because it adds the idea of working with a monophonic synth, I find sometimes that limits stretch my creativity in new directions. I don’t mind the cabling since I’ve never been a big wireless guy. Live tho’ I am much more comfortable with the GR-55′s sound engine since I am leery of computer crashes or networking problems etc. If I were contemplating using a Mac Mini I would definitely have a ups to avoid wonky stage power and have some sort of backup system if everything went south. But then again technology is always improving. However as a long time tech and maintainer of a lot of computer based chemistry instrumentation I know what can go wrong when things get wonky so I am a bit overly paranoid about such things.

      • jeremy

        and not just one flippant headline; the heading on the page asks “Did They Finally Get It Right?” and the link of the page is “Will They Finally Get It Right?” – I guess they must have perfected it in the time between creating the page and entering the text. :smirk:

  • Frank Lawrence

    Joe, I’m really looking forward to your thoughts on the new Fishman system. Obviously the NAMM demos make it look incredible. I had a Yamaha G10 midi guitar controller in the late 80s, but always struggled to make it work. Every time I’ve tried a Roland unit, the tracking has been lacking. I have the Sonus G2m, but its strictly one note at a time.

    Jeremy, thanks for the Adrian Belew link! I saw him with King Crimson at the Greek at Cal in the mid-80s doing this stuff. Wonderful!

    As for Mainstage, Joe (or anyone else?) can you point me to any good tutorials online? I have come up surprising empty when I’ve looked.

  • jeremy

    If anyone here happens to be near Reading, UK, this might be of interest…

    http://www.dawsons.co.uk/blog/paul-white-guitar-synthesis-workshop-at-dawsons-reading

  • bee bee bling

    I doubt the Fishman device will be a success if it involves a laptop and (heaven forbid) intercourse with software, drivers and VSTI instruments. In that case they sell very few devices and to cover the cost price should be huge. All these bright demos of laser sensors / fret sensors / ultrasound sensors for MIDI never materialized in 30 years – too small customer base.
    Now the catch is more powerful CPU.

  • A M Littley

    I’ve had a gr33 for 10 years, and it tracks well with my Godin freeway SA, and recently bought a GR55, some great sounds available, but the factory preset patches are awful and the tracking is nowhere near as good as the GR33 with my Godin. There were a number of very useful and accurate tips sent in by certain contributors. Especially with regard to playing styles. In my opinion, the sounds of the old GR33 were better than the GR55, somehow grittier, with marvellous keyboard sounds and pads. I recently took the GR33 to a gig with a local ban that I guest with, and though they loved the sound it made, they all complained that they were unnerved by the appearance of keyboard and sax sounds from the PA without the presence of said instruments.. So, even where there is a guitarist with interest in exploring the possibilities of guitar synths, they will find themselves at odds with the flat earth society.,
    Really looking forward to trying a triple play but it need the stand alone floor unit that is only scheduled to appear later in the year..

    • joe

      Hi — thanks for sharing you synth experiences. And before I talk about the Fishman system, I should mention for the sake of disclosure that I’ve been paid to contribute to the TriplePlay project, so I’m not a 100% disinterested party here.

      Having said that, I’m really excited about using TriplePlay. Partly it’s because TriplePlay is a smart update on the old Roland idea, and partly because software synthesis has gotten astonishingly good. But as TriplePay currently stands, it is definitely a computer-based system. As far as a standalone floor-unit goes, well, I haven’t been part of any of those conversations and don’t know what’s planned in that regard.

      Regarding the flat-earth stuff: Very true. But one thing that may change that is the fact that TriplePlay is so very inexpensive compared to any previous synth guitar system. I don’t know if Fishman has nailed down the final price, but it’s definitely going to be cheaper than any number of boutique stompboxes. So I predict that many more guitarists will be willing to experiment with the system, and that it will gradually become more accepted.

  • Dags

    Well reading through this lot I notice that no one has mentioned JamOrigin and their Midi Guitar software

    First let me tell you I am not a professional musician, nor even a particularly skilled one, guitar is my thing and I am mediocre at best, but this is not the point.

    For a while now I have been messing about with Midi guitar, I have tried Roland units, a GR20, a GR33 and a GI20 all with a GK3 attached to my Ibanez AS83. I have also had an Axon AX50 with the PU and they all worked well enough. My favorite was the Axon but it fell foul of the Lion upgrade so had to go.

    Fishman are about to launch a thing called Triple Play, which does look great, but they have been saying this for about a year now and it would seem it is finally going to appear. Enter Jam Origin who launched an IOS app some time ago that seems to have been consigned to the novelty class, with latency being an issue; as they will be the first to acknowledge.

    They have now released an OSX/Windows version that is stand-alone, VST/AU and the difference between this and the IOS app is ‘night and day’. It does have one or to limitations when compared to the hardware units such as velocity, volume tends to be a bit static, very little variance, but the developers assure me that this is in hand for an update. Individual string recognition is not likely; remember this is software only, so all the info it gets is coming through a normal guitar lead, but a fret board split on a pitch basis is in the works.

    It tracks as well as anything I have tried, but remember I am just an amateur, so its way fast enough for me, latency has not proven to be an issue provided I keep the buffer size down.

    Here is a link to a review that shows some flying fingers trying to trip it up http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0MsBhC9TZs.

    And another great demonstration here, of piano here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0MsBhC9TZs

    On the plus side any guitar works (at this time standard tuning only is reccomended, but that is in the works too) I tried it with an acoustic with an LRbaggs Ibeam; worked a treat. They are going to add a bass setting, so any bass guitar..yess. There is a voice setting ! not tried that yet.

    It worked instantly with Logic and triggers any software instrument I load. Most of the leading DAW’s are covered as well. (you do get very level velocities though, but as mentioned this is in hand) As you may have guessed this is still in beta and is priced at $99 about £65 with a free evaluation version available. You can get this software here.
    http://jamorigin.com/midi-guitar/vst.html

    I really would give this a look before spending loads on hardware, for many this will be all they need, spend what you save on a valentines day gift …… in the long run a much better investment

    • Robyn

      Thanks for the heads up on that JamOrigin MIDI Guitar plugin, Dags.

      Downloaded it 3 hours ago and haven’t been able to stop playing since!

      It produce tighter MIDI than any hex pickup or yourock guitar I’ve tried. Just simply amazing with Omnisphere or Alchemy.

    • joe

      Hey Dags — thanks for the info. That was completely off my radar, and I’m definitely going to check it out! :)

    • Peter

      Well that’s pretty cool. At first I was kind of disappointed when using their “Test Piano”, failure to recognize low notes (and my own tendency to go all Nancarrow when playing piano sounds from guitar). But found JamOrigin seems to work much better when just sending midi to softsynths.

  • Dags

    Welcome all, it really is quite impressive. I will report back on the new update V0.6 which will be out soon
    The things in development are a Bass setting, and a greater variety of open tunings.

    Personally I have always found Piano the hardest to get right, always seems the most prone to false triggers, but this software has given the best results so far.

    It is worth remembering the 0 setting on velocity = dynamic, 3 on prediction will improve latency but require ‘cleaner’ technique and bright on the default guitar seems the best to me, oh and the gain on the input can be critical.

    Best Dags

    • joe

      Hi from NAMM, Tracy. I got to hang out with the Fishman guys today, and I can officially report: TriplePlay isn’t QUITE ready to ship, though they’re still promising it for the first quarter of this year.

      I’ve had a prototype to play with for a few weeks, and it’s really cool. Definitely worth the wait!

  • Digital Larry

    Looks pretty cool!

    Piano of course has a sharp attack and will show false triggers way more than a pad. So bring on the glitches, let’s hear them for what they are.

    I got a Sonuus G2M a year or two ago and used it approximately twice. REALLY glitchy.

    How does it do if you play Wes Montgomery octaves? Does it catch both strings or just think it’s one?

    Does it do polyphonic pitch bend?

  • Dags

    Pitch bend is being put into the next JamO update that will be out any day now. So far this software has proven to be fully polyphonic, why not test out the Wes Montgomery octaves thing with the demo version.

  • Phil

    I tried a roland gk ready strat on a roland GR20 and tracking was absurd. I tried a godin freeway SA with the same synth and all problems disappeared.

  • Will add a Triple Play unit to one of my guitars this week. I will be using as midi controller through PC to Midi Interface to Synth. I have been in touch with Fishman, and they agree this will work. Can't wait to receive the unit.

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