Guitar synthesizers have been around since the mid-1970s but have never really captured the imaginations of the majority of guitar players. Is it because guitar players are not interested in making un-guitar-like sounds? Is it because of the hassle of fitting a hex pickup to the guitar? Or is it because they never really track what you’re playing in a natural way? Some would say that it’s all three, but I can’t agree that guitar players aren’t interested in new sounds — why else would the effects-pedal market be so healthy?
I’ve been using guitar synths on and off since 1976, and from my own experiences I’d have to say that the main frustration is that a typical pitch-tracking guitar synth is too easily fooled by playing pinched harmonics, fast strums or untidy fingering. My second frustration is that triggering sampled sounds, which is how most guitar synths work, doesn’t provide the same feeling you get when playing ‘normal’ guitar, where the way you attack a note changes its timbre in a very organic manner. Some players also cite tracking delay as a major issue, though I find that modern systems track adequately quickly.
In fact the guitar synth that was most fun to play was the Roland GR300, simply because, instead of generating new sounds using oscillators or samples, it actually used the waveforms coming off the guitar strings, albeit in some quite creative ways. It was limited to stringy and brassy sounds with varying degrees of filter sweep, but it played like a real instrument.
Early rumblings of a new direction for guitar synthesis came from Electro-Harmonix with their various ‘pitch-meets-filter-meets-envelope pedals’ and later their B-series organ emulators, all of which work polyphonically using a standard electric guitar pickup. Then, at Musikmesse 2015, Roland’s guitar arm, Boss, unveiled the SY300, a stomp-style processor finished in a very similar blue paint job to the old GR300. Sure enough it turned out to be a new guitar synth that applies polyphonic processing to the signal coming from a standard guitar pickup. In many ways it can be considered as the modern incarnation of the GR300, except that the GR300 needed a special guitar fitted with a hex pickup and the SY300 is capable of a much wider range of analogue synth-style sounds. I’d been expecting something along these lines for some time now as DSP technology has finally started to get to grips with unpicking the different notes from a polyphonic guitar signal. In fact, TC’s polyphonic guitar tuner was probably the first clue that something new was happening in that area.
It’s been a long time coming, but now that a standard guitar can be used, without having to change your playing technique, to deliver a wide range of new sounds that respond to the way the player picks the notes, I think the guitar synth might finally stand a chance of making it into the mainstream. Needless to say I’ll be reviewing the SY300 the moment I can get my hands on one.