I’ll admit it: I’m a guitarist with an envy problem for the gear of synth players. Why? As a pedal nut, all of those sliders, nobs, buttons, and patch cables make me want in. So, after binge watching all seasons of Stranger Things this year (again), I dove into the world of synths. I had no idea how they worked. But after watching Dan & Mick tackle some recent synth pedals, I thought it was time to take the plunge.
What I didn’t expect, however, was how this foray into synthesis would change the way I approach playing the guitar. I’m not talking about using guitar gear with synths—which is also super fun—but about how learning a bit about the function and formation of synthesizer sounds provided a fresh creative philosophy to guitar gear.
In my journey so far, I’ve found three key areas where my preliminary experiences with synths made me think differently about the guitars and pedals.
Rethinking Incoming Sounds in Light of a Synth Amplifier Interface
When I think of engineering guitar sounds, my mind automatically goes to manipulation using effect pedals after signal generation. For synthesis, however, core aspects of sound manipulation come at the very beginning of the chain with waveform structure. I started to appreciate this only after picking up a Roland Gaia SH-01 that put an amplifier section right in front of my face. This forced me decide the parameters of the attack, decay, sustain, and release of any note. But how does this translate to guitar and gear?
The first is pickup choice. Most of us think of pickups in terms of EQ or tonal character. Pile on the adjectives: some are “hotter,” “darker,” “quackier,” “juicier.” (Incidentally, these are all terms that you might also find on a takeout menu describing Peking Duck.) But what about pickups that target the life-span of a note to offer greater sustain? For example, look at the recently released Fender Ed O’Brien Stratocaster. The pickup choice is anything but traditional. In the neck position, you’ll find a Fernandes Sustainer Pickup and circuit, which effectively let’s you move from punchy picking into droning sound-scaping that is not all that different from an expertly crafted synth pad.
The second option is gear that gives greater control over the evolution of your notes. Gear such as the Ebow or TC Electronic Aeon offers analogous control over the onset, life-span, and fade of a note. The dimensions of the sound all depend on the distance and orientation of the Ebow or Aeon to the string. Essentially, you’re dealing with a handheld device that offers organic and real-time control over the same parameters that a synth amplifier uses to give voice to the wave form.
The third option is pedal-based. I might as well forego the Velcro on my Electro-Harmonix Super Ego for super glue. That thing is not rotating of my rig any time soon. Not only does it offer control over the rise, sustain, and release of a note, it has the added, synth-inspired feature of controlling the speed at which the pedal smoothly transitions between the sustained notes or chords. My Gaia taught me that, in synth-speak, this is often referred to as “portamento.”
A synth-savvy approach to guitar and effects, then, is not only about using your hands or handheld devices to determine the segue from one note to the next, it’s about collaborating with the gear underfoot in new ways to make the journey from one sound to the next in a way that sounds invitingly unlike a tradition guitar.
That’s Not a Looper, It’s a Sequencer
The realization that synth sequencing a sound is not all that different from guitar looping is one of the things that drew me to synthesizers. This lightbulb moment came after spending a few days with the Aturia Minibrute, and seeing how this highly accessible sequencer was all about engineering patterns. There is, however, typically a difference in where this pattern is recorded for synths and pedals. For a synth sequence, you’re setting a melodic pattern first and then endlessly altering its waveform contours, filters, and LFOs afterthe raw data is cycled through. Traditional wisdom for guitar pedals would say locate your looper last so it can work as a palette capturing and cycling through the fully developed sounds of your pedals.
Why not hack your guitar rig by treating your looper like a synth sequencer and putting it first? By putting your looper first, you’re treating it like a synth sequencer. This means it will record only the notes and chords played in their base form from your guitar. When this sound is run through the rest of your board you now have the option to experiment with it by adding in effects, altering parameters, and exploring how you can make that basic guitar signal sound like an entirely different instrument. Not only does this add a new creative approach to the gear you already have it also provides a real-time performance aspect to your playing.
Getting More Out Of Synth-Inspired Guitar Pedals
Synth-like features and parameters are showing up more and more on guitar pedals. Some of the more expressive and creative gear on my board are from forward-thinking builders that are harnessing approaches to curating and cultivating sounds via synthesis and redeploying it for the six-string.
We all know the Hologram Infinite Jets is an endless playground of inspiration and entertainment. Sure, part of it’s creative quality is in its unknowns, yet a core aspect of the pedals infrastructure is its manipulation of the shapes of envelopes and LFOs. The Infinite Jets interprets your incoming signal in some brilliant ways, resulting in everything from glitch pulses, to swelling drones, and blurred patches.
For less choppy and more classic synth tones, check out the Meris Enzo, which transitions your synth sound into a full-on polytonic synth beast for vintage sounds with onboard echo. Finally, for plug-and-play simplicity, you can’t beat the Boss SY-1, which takes the best of their decades of synth gear experience under the Roland brand and lays it out in eleven options of synth sounds.
My brief experience as an armchair synth enthusiast has given a greater ability to both experiment and anticipate how the wave-form options of some of my pedals relate to the sound coming out my amp. It’s helped me rethink guitar to write and create better, smarter, and more efficient sounds. While there’s a lot of uncharted territory ahead in my journey with synthesis, the biggest breakthrough I’ve had is simply this: sometimes the best sort of inspiration and strategy for getting out of a creative rut as guitarists comes from seeing your gear differently by exploring other instruments.
TPS Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster, Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster, Fender Player Precision Bass.
Pedals: Digitech Synth Wah, Analogman Envelope Filter, Greer Amps Lightspeed, Beetronics Swarm Fuzz Harmonizer, Meris Enzo, Boss SY-1, Hologram Electronics Infinte Jets.
Amps: Marshall 1987x with 1960AX cabinet / Celestion G12M Greenback speakers, Matchless HC-30 & HK 212 cab / Celestion G12M Greenback speakers.