Synth City: Five Classic Guitar Synth Songs

October 26th, 2012

By Damian Fanelli and Josh Hart

Here’s an ode to a rarely heralded piece of gadgetry, something that has brought a whole new world of sounds to guitarists’ fingertips: the guitar synthesizer, aka the guitar synth.

A guitar synth is a synth module whose input device is a guitar instead of a keyboard. To quote Norm Leet from Roland’s UK website, “The most important part of a guitar synth system is the divided — or hexaphonic — pickup, which allows each string to be treated individually and for the attached synth to be able to detect finger vibrato and string bending.”

At first these systems were farily sizable, taking up so much space that they had to be housed in specially designed guitars that were part of the entire synth system. Today’s synth systems, however, are tiny things that can fit into pretty much any guitar.

Modern systems send the pitch information as MIDI to allow you to control external modules or keyboards. This also means that pitch information can be recorded by a MIDI sequencer.

Countless artists have dipped their toes into the world of guitar synths — everyone from Eric Clapton to Steve Hackett to Eric Johnson and Jeff Loomis — and some players made it a massive part of their sound, including Pat Metheny, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Carlos Alomar even recorded an entire album for synth guitar — 1990’s Dream Generator.

Here are Five classic songs that feature guitar synths. They demonstrate at least some of the many dreamy, bizarre sounds (or “soundscapes,” as some people like to say in this context), these devices can create. For another five songs, check out GuitarWorld.com.

05. “Who’s to Blame,” Jimmy Page, Death Wish II, 1982

In 1981, former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was asked to compose and record the Death Wish II soundtrack by his neighbor, director Michael Winner.

It was just what Page needed — an opportunity to start creating music again, now that John Bonham (and with him, Led Zeppelin) was gone.

Page mirrored the film’s moodiness and edginess with a slew of new devices, including the Roland GR-505 guitar synth and TR-808 Rhythm Composer. The guitar synth can be heard on the entire soundtrack album, which was re-released on JimmyPage.com late last year in a “heavyweight vinyl package.” Only 1,000 copies were made.

Page continued experimenting with guitar synths and even appeared in several Roland print advertisements in the early to mid-’80s.


04. “Discipline,” King Crimson, Discipline, 1981

If you were putting together a dream team of guitar synthists, you’d probably want King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew batting third and fourth in your lineup.

The guitarists were among the most proficient guitar synth users of their generation, and Fripp continues to push the boundaries of synthetic sound with his mesmerizing Soundscapes shows.

On King Crimson’s Discipline album, Fripp and Belew made great and bountiful use of the Roland GR-300. On later albums, they moved into GR-700 territory.


03. “Racing in A,” Steve Hackett, Please Don’t Touch, 1978

The upbeat and catchy “Racing in A” is from Steve Hackett’s Please Don’t Touch album from 1978.

It was the first solo album he recorded after leaving Genesis and his first album to feature his pioneering work with the Roland GR-500 guitar synth.

“Racing in A” is a five-minute-long progressive-rock masterpiece that glides along for more than a minute with its almost-Yes-like rhythm before the vocals kick in (But Hackett keeps the spotlight squarely on the GR-500).

As is the case with several other selections on this list, be sure to check out the entire Please Don’t Touch album for more examples of Hackett’s guitar synth work.


02. “Turbo Lover,” Judas Priest, Turbo, 1986

“Turbos were all the rage, the in-thing,” said Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill of the mid-1980s, “I’d even bought a vacuum cleaner because it had the word ‘turbo’ on it!”

Perhaps this obsession with the super-charged is what lead the boys in Priest to experiment with guitar synthesizers on their 1986 classic “Turbo Lover.”

Taken from the album Turbo — easily among the most divisive albums for diehard fans — the song featured a whole new sonic palette for the band, with guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton employing guitar synths and anything else they could get their hands on to give the song its distinctive futuristic, sci-fi feel.


01. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” The Police, Zenyattà Mondatta, 1980

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which appeared on The Police’s 1980 Zenyattà Mondatta album, features Andy Summers jamming away on an early Roland synth (He had a few models during the band’s heyday, including a GR-707).

“After Sting had put the vocals on ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me,’ we looked for something to lift the middle of the song,” Summers said in 1981. “I came up with a guitar synthesizer. It was the first time we’d used it. I felt it worked really well.”

“I was sort of known for [guitar synth] then, and I was in a pretty high-profile band,” Summer said in a more recent interview for Roland. “I was trying to fill out two hours with a trio, trying to keep it interesting all the way. The Roland synths blended in quite well.”

For five more guitar synth songs, check out GuitarWorld.com.

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