This week I thumbed through the TPS catalogue and watched Dan & Mick’s first-ever episode (https://youtu.be/xcYrGPN9iIQ). It was old school, eclectic, and pointed the way forward for the next two years of covering nearly every type of effect imaginable. Scrolling through the TPS playlist of episodes build atop this pilot, I noted one topic that had yet to benefit from a full hour with Dan & Mick: guitar synths. That all changed this week.
As Dan summarized, the world of guitar synths typically encompasses three realms of pedals and effects units: (1) pedals that sample and hold aspects or all of the guitar’s signal, (2) effects that digitally process the signal to sound like a synth, and (3) true synth effects featuring low-frequency oscillation and modulations. As both our TPS anchormen underscored, perhaps more than any other type of effect, covering the history, uses, and options for guitar synths in any degree of depth would take days. To that end, the episode tip-toes through a few items in the above three categories and along the way directs players to some key access points into the brave new world of guitar synths.
Starting the Journey: Gateway Synth Pedals from DigiTech and Electro Harmonix
As Dan reflected near the outset of the episode, dabbling in synth sounds can be creatively inspiring. “Why I really like this is because it leads you down paths that you wouldn’t otherwise be exploring.” Yet, as we all know, getting into any new type of effect can be a tricky business. You’ve got to identify where to start and how to best invest your hard-earned cash without getting in too deep. Thankfully, Digitech and Electro Harmonix provide some (inter)stellar vehicles for venturing into the world of guitar synths
The first stop on the TPS pedalboard this week was the bright green DigiTech Synth Wah. As Dan summed up, “All this is, is an envelope filter that processes the sound.” The pedal includes six different types of synth options and two envelope filters, which are all accessible with minimal engineering required on the front end. If the sounds, accessibility, and price point of the Synth Wah piqued your curiosity, I’d recommend looking into DigiTech’s most recent foray into synth stompboxes: the Dirty Robot Stereo Mini Synth Pedal. This new box retains many of the sounds of Dan’s green machine with updated and extended features.
Electro Harmonix also provides several entry-level avenues for synth sounds. While they’re easy to operate and just as easy on the budget, pedals like the Super Ego Synth Machine and Synth9 are hardly short on creative tones. Not unlike the concept of the B9, C9, Key9, and Mel9, the Synth9 transforms your guitar signal into textured synth sounds of yesteryear. However, as Dan observed the Synth9 is also a timely type of effect as many once vintage synth sounds are reemerging in contemporary pop.
The Super Ego pushes further toward the realm of a true synth sound. In short, it does a smash and grab on your signal with options for holding and freezing part of the tone. The pedal comes with the added feature of an effects loop so the sampled component of the signal can be layered with a second favorite effect, say, delay, reverb, or modulation. The verdict from TPS on the Super Ego? Mick: “That’s really great.” Dan: “That’s really cool.” Enough said.
The Hog2 and Infinite Jets: Soundtracks for a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Moving further into the unknown of the synth pedal universe are effects like the Hologram Infinite Jets and Electro Harmonix Hog2. Be warned: these are the type of pedals that will leave you happily lost for days.
The innovation of the Infinite Jets is that it grabs two separate parts of a note and recombines them using a randomized synthesis and algorithms. Its unbridled imaginative potential makes it ideal for creating scores, soundtracks, and ambient backing tracks. As Mick also recalled, TPS recently had an episode on practice gear to reinvigorate your playing (https://www.riffcityguitaroutlet.com/blogs/that-pedal-show-blog/practice-gear-to-help-you-improve-as-a-guitarist), “but this is at the opposite end of that…this is about straight experimentation.” “You can lose yourself in this thing, it's really great,” concluded Dan.
If you’re looking to lose yourself but in the company of a familiar guide, the Electro Harmonix Hog2 is equally inspiring yet takes a different synth approach. Unlike their lineup of poly octave generators (the POG pedals, see https://youtu.be/SZ8hnHFu0hI), the Hog2 is a harmonic octave generator. In short, the pedal builds on your sound by adding tonal intervals (e.g., fifths and thirds) and envelopes and filters for frequency sweeping. All of these parameters are controlled by individual sliders on the pedal. As is evident even from the Hog2’s edifice, the degree of experimentation possible with this elevated type of synth is extensive.
But if these synth options still aren’t venturing far enough for you, press on into the final leg of the journey with the Roland GR-55.
Going All-In with Roland
If gateway pedals are a distant memory, you’ve traversed beyond the outer galactic limits of more advanced pedals, and now never want to look back on your pre-synth, standard six string life, the Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer with GK-3 Pickup is the final step in full synth conversion. As Dan noted, “This is the latest in the [Roland] breed of guitar synths.”
Perhaps more than any other item of gear, Roland’s synth systems demand commitment as they require a fundamental hardware mod on the front face of the guitar. Nestled in close to the bridge, the GK-3 midi pickup is comprised of six independent pickups that translate the frequencies and data of individual strings into the sonic materials that drives the synth engine on the floor.
The GR-55 has the look and feel of a multi-effects unit but with loads more in store. Dan commented that, “This is where guitar synthesis [means] you’re no longer playing guitar, you’re playing a different sort of thing. The GR-55 houses a library of 900 midi based synth sounds that are impossible to capture in a single descriptor. The range includes sitar, violin, piano, vocalized “wows,” rainstorm effects, tuning alterations, etc., and that’s just a random sampling of its sounds . On its own, the GR-55 is a powerhouse full of potential. Yet it can also serve a collaborative purpose for the more standard type of guitar playing. As Dan suggested, “Imagine the sounds of that blended in on top of an octave fuzz!”
That’s my take on the TPS episode of the week. On the one hand, synths are at times like the misunderstood cousin of the guitar effects family. On the other, they can be incredibly inspiring, diverse, versatile, addictive, and surprisingly applicable in countless musical genres and playing situations. Do yourself a favor, take some time to get to know a synth pedal.
TPS Episode Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Dan: 1963 Closet Classic Fender Telecaster (ca. 2000); Gray Guitars Custom T-Style, with Roland GK-3 Synth Guitar pickup. Mick: Collings 360 LT.
Amps: Wampler Bravado 40 watt head; 2x12 cabinet with Warehouse Guitar Speakers; Vox AC 30.