In the early 1980s Roland Corporation made some of the most innovative and interesting developments in guitar synth history. A few instruments were produced that actually combined guitar playing and synthesis in a fluid and organic manner. Of course this technology was then "improved" and subsequent interfaces failed to track satisfactorally. It took almost fifteen years before a truly playable instrument was again produced.
This web page is dedicated to the happy accident of the first and only fully polyphonic analog guitar synthesizer that actually worked like a guitar. Other similar products and monophonic guitar synthesizers and processors may be added as time goes by.
NEW! - Here is a track done entirely live with a GR300 and a little help from the Line 6 DL4 delay pedal set to loop mode.
The Beginning of it all:
The first Roland guitar synth was the GR500 a Les Paul styled guitar that hooked up to a traditional type synthesizer complete with sliders, etc. This unit was monophonic and the 24 pin cable was wired differently than the next generation of guitar synths.
The Mighty Roland Analog Floor units:
The Roland GR300 Guitar Synth Floor unit and the Roland GR100 Guitar
Processing Floor Unit:
The Roland GR33b Bass Guitar Synth Floor unit:
What makes these instruments so special?
There have been dozens of guitar synths and midi interface systems since the introduction of the early analog synth units. Everything from the Arp Avatar to the Korg X911 and even to Roland's rack mounted SPV355 pitch to Voltage unit have sought to bring the world of synthesis to the practicing guitar player. However most of these early units (and many of the later ones) all forgot one key element: Guitarists play like guitarists.
Be it due to a result of the available technology or a flat out design limitation, most guitar synths track poorly at best. Some do not allow string bending and others mistrigger if you hold a note too long or in some cases if you don't hold it long enough. This forces the guitarist to play very slowly and deliberately. Picking must be precise. Strings must be muted and in the case of held notes if you move your hand while the note is held even a bit the note will either cut off abruptly or mutate into a totally wrong note before you can correct the problem. Forget slides, harmonics, and even sloppy but spirited playing entirely. If you couldn't play every note clearly and directly you might as well turn the unit off.
Enter the Roland GR300 and GR33b floor units and the GK1 and BK1 pickups. This unit was the only guitar synth of it's time to track a guitar accurately and fast enough to let a guitar player concentrate on playing and phrasing rather than cleanly triggering the module. It also mixed various signals; clean guitar, processed guitar via the hexfuzz distortion and filter, and the actaul intenal VCO in the floor unit which could also be set to play root and harmonic duets.
In effect, the GR300 allowed guitarists to sound like themselves and also use a guitar synth rather than forcing them to conform to a playing style the synthesizer wanted to hear. This makes all the difference in the world to a musician and it is why the GR300 and GR33b are still considered one of the greatest guitar synths ever manufactured and explains why they were lauded as the only true guitar synths for guitar players. While the synthesizer engine is limited due to it's minimal filter and envelope settings, its clean and fast tracking allowed guitarists of all types to enjoy what it offered without the headaches other products forced musicians to accept and deal with.
Where it all begins, the Gk1 Pickup:
Various Pickup configurations in the Roland Guitar Controllers:
Electronics and realtime control:
The Knobs and switches of the Roland System:
Inside the back:
The rare US2 switching box. This allowed you to run two different floor
units from one guitar:
Guitar and Bass Controllers:
One of the things that made the GR300 and GR33b guitar and bass units so playable and attractive to guitarists was the series of controllers Roland offered. This was the only time a company sold a variety of guitars with the electronics inside them so users could pick their favorite instrument and still have access to any of Roland's floor units.
Controllers include a number of models that were fashioned after popular guitars by major companies. All actual guitars were manufactured by Hoshino Inc otherwise known as Ibanez. In fact, the Roland G303 guitar is identical to a model from the the Ibanez 1981 Artsist series. Both Andy Summers and Robert Fripp have praised the G303 guitar as a perfect marriage of the guitar as an instrument mixed with a new world of synthesis
The G202 was a unique blend of a Fender type body with pickguard and
dual humbucking pickups. This was a favorite of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter.
The G303 was a double cutaway glue on neck that was remarkably similar to playing a Gibson Les Paul.
The G505 was a copy of a Fender telecaster with three single coil pickups.
The G808 was this same basic design as the G303 with a neck through body.
The G707 was noticibly different from the others as it added a stabilzer bar running from the top of the neck to the bottom. This was created supposedly to defeat "dead spots" on the guitar where a neck might not send full tracking info to the floor unit. Love it or hate it the G707 was a great guitar in it's own right as well as something that looked like it walked off a sceince fiction show. Perhaps this is why it was nicknamed the "Dalek's Handbag".
The G33 and G88 bass contorllers were thick almost Fender P-bass type
necks with an exaggerated double cutaway body. An actual Fender Pbass type
body was also available at one time as well (possibly the B33??)
The G77 was the bass equivilent of the G707 guitar and also had a stabilier bar. For whatever reason the G707 came in three colors (Silver, Red, and Black) and the G77 came in Silver, Black, or Cream.
The G707 "Dalek's Handbag" Guitar:
A G88 neck through bass guitar:
The G77 bass controller:
After the perfect tracking of the GR300/GR33b series Roland went on to create new floor units that were a huge leap forward in their synthesis technology. Unfortunately they also abandoned the tracking system that made the 300/33b such a useful and playable instrument. These silver monsters are great synths but the tracking systems inside them is mediocre compared to the previous generation.
The GR700 Guitar Floor unit (front and Side view):
This was idenitcal to the synth engine in the JX3p keyboard.
The GR77b Bass Guitar Floor unit. This was identical to the JX8p Keyboard.
A few famous users of the GR300/GR700 guitar synthesizers include: Andy Summers, Jeff Baxter, Pat Methany, John Scofield, Robert Fripp, and Adrian Belew. All of these players lament the fact that later versions of Roland guitar synths lost the guitar friendly interface and tracking that existed with the GR300. Pat Methany still uses his GR300 to this day.
Examples of the GR300 and series in action:
"Don't Stand So Close to Me" - The Police. The break in the song where the thick arpeggio mutates into a sweeping wash of sound is Andy Summers switching from processed guitar to the GR300. This is achieved by setting the VCF attack and decay settings to sweep up and then simply turning on the unit via the mode switch.
Anything from King Crimson's Discipline album. Both Fripp and Belew used the Gr300 extensively on these recordings. Robert Fripp used a G303 controller in concert while Adiran Belew had the electronics from the G series guitars installed in a custom Fender Jaguar body. Later Crimson albums such as Three of a Perfect Pair used the GR700 quite a bit as well.
Modifications to Roland Guitar Synths - Mark Smart's site deidicated to the GR300 and modifications to it. Also contains some MP3 files with classic GR300 solos from Jazz musicians.
Roland Leftlets - An Europeon Site with full size scans of early Roland Guitar Synth literature.
John Pollack's page on midi guitars includes this section on early Roland Guitars, the latest VG systems, and as some information on the Ibanez midi guitar system which also used the 24 Pin cable.
Synthony has links to the GR33b, GR300, and GR100 floor units.