Guitar is the greatest instrument in the world. I know it, you know it, the other dudes in the band know it. It looks cool, it’s sexy, and like you can’t stop at just one. But the sad, sad truth is that the guitar can’t do everything. It’s great at sounding like, well, a guitar, and in the right hands you can use it to make the sound of a rocket or a racecar or maybe a chicken, but when it comes to flexibility, you just can’t beat a synthesiser. A synth doesn’t just make a sound that’s ‘like’ a particular instrument: most synths actually trigger samples of the instrument you’ve dialled in. Call up a piano patch and you’re triggering actual samples of a real piano. And you can’t do that with a guitar. Wait, yes you can! Guitar synths have been around for decades now, and therefore the technology is pretty damn tight at this point. So there are now plenty of ways to integrate synthesis in your sound. Let’s have a look at a few of them.
A few companies offer proprietary guitar synth pickups, including GraphTech, whose Hexpander MIDI interface system adds MIDI capability to almost any guitar or bass, and Roland, whose GK series pickups for guitar and bass allow you to easily interface with products like their GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer or the VG-99 V-Guitar System. (Roland also offers the GC-1 Stratocaster, a collaboration with Fender which includes the necessary electronics to drive the GR-55 or VG-99). The GR-55 uses PCM synth tones. The way this method works, and I quote Mr. Wikipedia, is, “in a PCM stream, the amplitude of the analog signal is sampled regularly at uniform intervals, and each sample is quantized to the nearest value within a range of digital steps.” It’s the standard format for digital audio in CDs, for instance. And it gives you a nice range of expression, from soft and gentle to loud and blaring, depending on how you play. The GK-55 includes two separate PCM synth tones and COSM guitar modelling simultaneously, as well as allowing you to use the normal guitar input too.This means you can blend up to two synth sounds (including pianos, organs, strings, vintage synths, drums, percussion, special effects and much more) with a modelled guitar sound (including sitars, basses, acoustics, 12-strings, alternate tunings, different pickup types, through your choice of 42 amp models) as well as the actual sound coming out of the Strat.
It’s great for adding dimension to your music, whether it’s adding a Hammond Organ sound to your blues riffs, or playing a simulated sax solo over some jazz, or using orchestral sounds for a soundtrack. And of course if you want to go all-out technical with extreme processed synth tones and alternate-tuned guitars, you can do that too. Basically what the VG-55 does is allows you to step free of the sonic restraints of the guitar while remaining within the comfortable physical environment of using an actual, regular guitar as the source of your performance.
The GR-55 also offers pitch-to-MIDI output, which means you can plug it into your computer or a compatible sound source and use it to trigger external sounds, beyond those provided by the GR-55. There are other ways to achieve this too, such as the YouRock MIDI Guitar (reviewed here): it’s a plastic, guitar-like device which outputs MIDI data that can then be applied to whatever sound you like (or you can use it to write tablature in a program like GuitarPro). The benefit with this method is that you’re not restricted to one library of sounds (even if it does have 900 sounds, like the GR-55): you can use whatever is at your disposal inside your computer. Suck at programming drums? Use pitch-to-MIDI to physically play the drum part on your guitar and you’ll instantly have a performance that includes all the nuances of your personal sense of rhythm. And then, because you’re recording the MIDI data within your DAW, you can then manipulate it just as you would any other MIDI data: quantise it, change the pitch of a note here and there, copy and paste, change velocity, apply it to two dozen totally different virtual instruments… go nuts!
The McGuyver Method
If you don’t have access to a guitar synth or a You Rock MIDI Guitar but you’d still like to use your guitar to create synth parts, there’s a way to McGuyver it: most auto tune programs allow you to export a MIDI track based on an audio one – and auto tune software is pretty affordable, often coming bundled with recording software, so you might already have the necessary gear to do this. Simply export an Audio-To-MIDI file, drop it on a new Instrument track in your DAW and assign a sound to it. Boom. Instant guitar synth! Well, not instant, because you can’t do it in real-time, and this means you might need to do some editing once you’ve applied a tone to the track because sometimes what works on guitar might not necessarily translate into a realistic pan pipe performance, but if you only wish to dabble in the occasional monophonic synth pad, this method could work well. The only problem is that it soon starts to reveal its limitations and it’ll probably make you want to upgrade to a realtime pitch entry method instead.
Of course, the important thing with any sound source is not what it is or how it’s created, but what you do with it. Guitar synthesis needn’t be a way for you to create multiple layers of progressive rock overkill (although that’s pretty fun in its own right): it can be a way for you to unlock the sounds that you’re hearing in your head. A way to make your live performances more professional-sounding. A way to add those “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” Mellotron-derived flutes, or that “For The Love Of God” sitar, or that Stevie Wonder “Superstition” Clavinet sound to your music in a practical way that doesn’t involve rental slips or a moving van.