Over the years, I've owned or played pretty much every piece of guitar synth gear Roland make, and then some. The following are my quick unsolicited reviews of various guitr synths, MIDI controlers and assorted guitar synth stuff.
This is not a technical comparison or a "buyers guide", but merely my own impression of each from a gigging player's perspective.
One thing about Roland gear in particular: While there are a few all around standout synths (GR300, GR1, GR20 IMO) It's much less about which synth is "best", and more about trading off features and sounds with price and performance. Hopefully my reviews reflect thsi philosophy.
Questions, comments and corrections are welcome with the exception of the following categories:
a) "Which one should I buy? My Buyer's Guide should tell you all you need to know
b) I see XYZ Synth on ebay for $xxx is it a good deal?"
c) can you open up XYZ synth and use your multitester to give me a Hertz value on the Katzenjammer circuit when it's under a 500 megaohm test load? (You know who you are...)
These questions will not be answered. Sorry.
Other guitar synths:
IVL Pitchrider Casio DG-20 360 Systems Slavedriver
Photon MIDI Converter
I own this behemoth (although not the guitar controller). Like the analog synths of it's day, it's divided into several sections - Bass, Lead, Chords, etc. Just as a modular synth would be. There are lots of knobs, sliders and switches to play with, and I can spend hours just tweaking new sounds - although this is very difficult to do live as you need both hands on the guitar!
Tracking is problematic, especially for chords., And the dream of simultaneous bass, chord and lead lines that the GR500's set up hints at appears to be just that. Individually though, they're great.
The bass sounds and pad sounds in particular are stellar, as long as you play very carefully and cleanly. You'd swear you were playing a MiniMoog at times.
It's also a lot of fun to "flip out' the GR-500 for some wild pitch effects - although often times you get nothing but a burp. Even though I don't have access to all the features of the guitar controller (in particular the touchpad), I can do most things with the GK-1 pickup.
As an added bonus, you can use the GR-500 as a CV controller to drive other analog synths. I have yet to try that, as it's too much fun on it's own (plus I'm also a bit skeptical of it's tracking abilities).
Overall, I have to say that although it's FAR from perfect, it's probably my favorite Roland synth, full of that fat 1970's analog goodness, and the closest Roland has come to a truly "tweakable" guitar synth.
I picked up a cherry GR-100 unit from a guy looking to sell his 1980's era solo guitar setup.
If you're into the 'hex fuzz" sound, you'll love this thing. Otherwise it's a bit of a "One Note Johnny". I found the fuzz a bit hard to control - great if you want to sound like Sonny Sharrock, but not so much it you want to sound like Fripp. There's a filter section that can both tame the fuzz a bit and give you a nice envelope filter/wah. I built a CV pedal out of an old De Armond volume pedal to control the wah manually. LOVE the heavy duty pedal hosing too.
It was a fun pedal and I used it on a bunch or recordings, but it really wasn't versatile enough to keep around, so I sold it.
I think this is the ONLY unit in this list that I haven't actually owned myself - mostly because it's so frikin' expensive. (Well... I DID have an opportunity to buy one for $125 in the 80's when all non- MIDI gear was worthless, but I turned it down. Idiot).
This is the Holy Grail of Roland gear - Summers, Fripp, Belew, Metheny etc. Tracks well (pre MIDI mind you), sounds great. What more can I say? If you're going to buy ONE piece of vintage guitar synth gear, it will probably be this one.
If this is your first guitar synth purchase. Just make sure you buy one that comes with a 24pin cable and/or a guitar controller. Otherwise, you will be in for an adventure...
Not to be confused with the later GR-33 MIDI controller, this is the Bass version of the GR-300. I think it has fewer tweaking options than the GR-300, but it still gives you lots to work with - everything from fat sub bass to wild distorted fuzz. I've used it on several recordings. Tracking is excellent for bass.
Again, try to find one with a bass guitar controller. AFAIK, Roland did not make a bass version of the GK-1 outboard pickup.
I remember when this and it's tripped out guitar/bass controllers came out. I never wanted any piece of gear more in my life, especially since I was working overtime to cop the bass synth parts off of1980's pop music records. Many years later, I picked up a GR 700 off ebay for a fraction of the new price.
Fat, sweepy, ambient sounds that make you think you're in the recording studio with The Police. You can't shred with it; rather it's for lush pads and backgrounds. Many people hated that it didn't track or sound like the GR 300, but I think it has its own quirky charm.
There are some limited MIDI capabilities here, but I never used them. I think this was Roland's first attempt at pitch-to-MIDI
The fatal design flaw of this machine though is that Roland made this great bulletproof rolled steel case for the synth, and then chintzed out on everything else. As a result, the styrene plastic side rails crack and bust through the screws; the plastic foot latches break; the 1980's future retro membrane buttons wear through. It's getting harder and harder to find these in good playable condition. I wound up replacing all of the plastic parts on my unit as it was.
I loved the GR 700, but I sold it because I could get a lot of the same sounds and more from my other synths without dragging this monster from gig to gig, so it went bye-bye.
Oh, one more thing: In order to take full advantage of the programing capabilities, you need a separate programmer called the PG 200. These are hard to find and expensive, and you really don't need it to use the synth. I'd pass unless it's part of a package deal.
I believe this was Roland's first real attempt at a MIDI controller - that is, a standalone device with NO sounds of its own that converted pitches into MIDI information, and used it to drive a MIDI capable synth, as opposed to having internal sounds that acted on the input.
This was the first guitar synth I ever bought, and I used it extensively for several years on gigs and in the studio.
On the minus side, the tracking is shaky and rather glitch prone - which again can be an asset if you're looking to make some crazy sounds. It also tends to lose fast passages rather quickly. For pads and slow things though, it's fine. "B+ tracking" is the most common description I hear on ebay, and that's about right.
On the plus side, this unit probably has the best MIDI implimentation Roland ever created for guitar synths. IIRC, You could not only change synth patches, but you could progrm patches consisting of up to 6 different synths per channel, each using 6 different MIDI channels (up to on per string), and store this patch with an alphanumeric description to be recalled at the touch of a button! Try doing that on a GI-20.
Hint: Try to buy one that includes the GK-1 24 pin MIDI pickup (it is NOT compatable with the newer 13 pin pickups).
If you have a lot of old school synth gear you want to play nice together, this might be the answer to your prayers.
The first generation of the 13 pin controllers. It actually tracks very well. 2 voice analog-style synth on board, which would become the standard setup for all future Roland synths. The stock sounds are nice and very functional. Alphanumeric display is a big plus.
Roland also did a bit of a "cheat" here that they would repeat with future synths. They actually installed the sounds right in the mainboard, thus making the pitch to MIDI conversion seem faster as it doesn't have to go to an output and through another set of processors. It works, but it also means you're limited by the sounds Roland provides. You CAN use the MIDI out to hook up outboard sound modules, but the results are a crapshoot from model to model.
There are also tweakable filter buttons on the top of the unit, but they are too small and fragile to really get down and dirty with. I'd love to build a breakout box and mount it on my bass for full access.
One great thing about the GR-1 is the addition of a built in sequencer, allowing you to record/layer parts right in the box. Very cool. It was the only time they would do this.
You can usually pick these up for a steal on ebay, and they work with the "new" model 13-pin pickups (GK2, GK3, etc.).
This is a bit of an oddball. It's a self contained, single space rack mount, 13 pin unit, that uses something called "LA Synthesis" to create sounds. Near as I can figure, it was Roland's attempt to imitate the Yamaha DX-7's, wispy bell like qualities.
Years ago, an R&B band I was in hired a second guitarist using this rig instead of a keyboard player. The result was not terribly successful. Horn hits in particular suffered serious lag issues. However, the bass sounds were nice. I remember being green with envy as he played a fretless bass synth solo on a tune instead of me...
Years later, I bought one off ebay for cheap, and I was less than impressed. The "LA synthesis" is rather limited, the tracking lag is really annoying (worsr than the GM-70), and instead of doing some cool "glitching", it makes a noise like a quarter being bounced on a table.
Definitely my LEAST favorite guitar synth. I'd steer clear.
I'm grouping these two together because they are pretty similar in terms of sounds, tracking, and function.
I've played several GR-09s, and I owned and gigged with a GR-30 quite extensively.
They both featured this "master dial" setup where you accessed menu parameters based on where the large dials are pointing. This eliminated a lot of menu scrolling, but it was a major pain in the ass to tweak onstage in the dark.
The GR30 tracks just slightly better, has more sounds, and more doodads like smart arrpeggiators and harmonizers which I never used. MIDI Out tracking is kind of sucky. Bank/patch display only.
Roland went back to the look and feel of the GR-1 with this one. GREAT sounds, excellent tracking, an built in expression pedal, alphanumeric display. A top notch synth all the way,except that it doesn't work well with bass. A guitar player friend of mine had one and used it for jazz gigs and recording, which of course meant that I was the one programming and troubleshooting it.
Roland's next-gen pitch to MIDI converetors, successors to the to the GM-70. These two units really have more tradeoffs than pluses and minuses.
By the early 2000's Roland finally figured out that guitarists are not keyboardists; they want something you can "plug and play". The GR 33 was a BIG step in that direction.
For a MIDI interface, Roland got about as stripped down as you can get without sacrificing MIDI editing. A single small dial selects parameters like MIDI channel, pitch bend, etc, and a couple of buttons determine submenus and values for 50 user programed patches. That's it. A 2 digit display is all you get as well.
However, the amount of choices and combinations you get for things like holds, pitch bends, etc exceeds most of the standalone synths.
There's also lot's of room to add your own outboard controllers like latched/unlatched pedals, expression pedals, breath controllers, continuous controllers, MIDI sound modules, MIDI pedalboards, etc.
The tradeoff to me is in ease of setup. Besides the fact that you have to haul around the GI, a sound module/computer, pedals, cables, road cases, etc, the 2 digit display is irritating if you want to change patches on the fly. And programming a "dummy patch" so you can use a new sound on the fly is next to impossible.
However the BIG problem I have is that unlike the GM-70, the GI series limit you to ONE system-wide MIDI channel, PERIOD. A real pain if you want to run more than one synth module, or run a dedicated "drum" channel for one patch.
Still, their decent to excellent tracking (since they don't use the GR 'cheat', they tend to lag a little) and flexibility make them great for either a flexible synth rig, or for MIDI computer recording or transcription.
Oh, and the GI-20 tracks FAR better than the GI-10. I'd spend the extra money on the GI-20.
However, t he GI 10 DOES feature a "direct to MIDI" option that the GI-20 does not. You can plug an instrument or mic into a 1/4" front panel jack and get a monophonic MIDI output. It's shaky at best, and really not worth sacrificing the tracking capabilities of the GI-20 to get.
HINT: If you have NO CLUE about MIDI or MIDI setups, stick to a GR series floorboard. Trust me.
The latest guitar synth from Roland has pretty much completed the transition from keyboard synth-like interface to stomp box.
I put off even playing this thing because I dismissed it as a toy for guitar synth virgins. Boy was I wrong.
When back problems forced me to sell off my GI-20 based mega guitar synth rack, I happened to find a used GR-20 on sale and checked it out, with some reservarions.
I bought it within 5 minutes.
Like the rest of the 13 pin GRs, it's got the internal voices for speedier tracking. And let me tell you, the tracking is both blazing fast and very accurate. I have to work very hard to make this thing glitch.
Almost all menu items are accessible via big buttons on the front panel, much like Roland's FX processors. Soundbanks (grouped by instrument) are accessed via a dial. Built in expression pedal.
I've been gigging with this unit for awhile now and I really love it. Just plop it on the floor, select sounds on the fly, and let 'er rip.
The minuses are that changing banks requires additional hardware and know-how, and the 2 digit display is a major PITA, particularly if you forget which Bank you're on.
But my only MAJOR beef is that they set the pitch bend at the factory to +/- 24, the max bend on most MIDI units - AND YOU CAN'T CHANGE IT! What this means is that every small inflection of your fingers on the strings (1/24th of a semitone) will be transmitted via MIDI. This is great if you're playing a violin lead; terrible if you're stretching to play piano chords and inadvertently bend a string sharp. And it just sounds plain stupid on intruments like piano and organ that don't bend pitches anyway.
Also, giving users the power to free up all that unneeded PB data would make the GR-20 even faster and MORE accurate. It astonishes me that they did this, and I'm hoping they come out with a patch to address this issue at some point.
Is this a deal breaker? not by a long shot. My favorite of the GR synths, and definitely my #1 workhorse gig synth right now.
My rig was already pushing maximum density when I bought this guy and a GKP-4 Parallel box to split the signal from my 13-pin cable and run 2 synths at once. The idea was to be able to run background pads, and switch into whatever lead sound I wanted on the fly.
This is a dead simple guitar "synth" - no MIDI,all preset sounds, and very few tweakable parameters. In short, it's a GR-300 with training wheels.
Unfortunately, the sounds don't make up for the lack of flexibility. The GR-300 emulator sound that made me buy it in the first place sounded rather wimpy live, and was totally crushed by the same patch in my GR-30. The acoustic sound was like a thin and brittle version of the BOSS Acoustic Simulator pedal. The main useable sound was the "Square Wave", but that wasn't worth the extra setup time, so I sold the WP-20G and the parallel box.
(If you have not yet noticed, I'm pretty brutal when it comes to gig gear. Either it works and finds a niche to justify the extra setup, or it's out.)
If you read reviews of this pedal online, they all gush about how great the "tracking" is. Since this is NOT a guitar synth but an FX processor, it's a bit like saying that your flanger tracks great.
IIRC, Roland made a couple other 13 pin pedals before abandoning the idea, then re-launching the design as the "Twin" series: A programmable EQ, and a delay, I think.
All in all, it's a decent pedal if you have a 13 pin output begging to be used, and are scared to death about the guitar synth thing, or if you're looking for a super easy "synth" to use like a distortion pedal on gigs. Get one cheap though, or you'll be disappointed at spending a lot of cash on so-so FX.
And now , I'll tell you a little story:
I've always had a weird obsession with guitar synths, but being a bass player, it was both difficult to find bass versions of the latest synth, or to justify my farting oscillators when I'm supposed to be pumping roots.
Eventually I put together my own band, and I quickly realized that a) I needed another member b) I could not afford to hire another member.
Then it hit me: Why not get a guitar synth? Then you can have all sorts of sounds at your fingertips to fend off the boredom of hearing nonstop bass solos all night long!
I scoured this newfangled thing called "ebay" looking for a deal, and I found IT - the Roland GM-70. Being a complete frikin newbie, I THOUGHT this was the GR-50 that my guitarist friend had used in my R&B band (see GR-50) because that's what it LOOKED like (DUH!). I instantly hit "Buy It Now". Excited,I bought a GK-2 and a 13 pin cable for super cheap in another auction. I figured I'd have this thing up and running by next Friday's gig...
What I got was not what I wanted. This thing had NO sounds, and some big honking printer cable thing for the hookup. I was not happy. With a bit of research I discovered a whole universe of guitar synth geekdom on the net. My synth was actually a MIDI converter and needed a 24 pin proprietary Roland cable OR a guitar controller and cable to make it work.
The sound part was easy. I scored a PHAT MKS-50 (Roland Juno) analog synth brain from a pawn shop for cheap.
The pickup part was more problematic. Unless I wanted to spend hundreds or thousands on a bass controller, I had to by a Roland GK-1 pickup that didn't seem to have a bass version.
Long story short: after a lot of headaches, research, phone calls, wasted money, and stress, I actually desoldered the divided pickups from the GK-1 and GK-2, and soldered the bass pickup to the GK-1. I plugged it up, flipped the switch, and...success.
Thus began my guitar synthesizer career.
If I haven't bored the crap out of you by now, here's the deal: The GK-1 is the only outboard 24 pin, Roland style guitar synth pickup that I know of - meaning you don't need to buy a whole Roland guitar to make their old style synths work.
Installing it is a bit weird: you first install this big "latch" which is hard wired to the pickup. Then you slide and lock the actual "brain" of the pickup in place. The 24pin cable is hardwired to this brain.
(One thing you need to for for ALL synth pickups is: follow the installation instructions VERY carefully. The difference of a fraction of an inch between string and polepiece can make a HUGE difference in tracking.)
The result is a bulky, somewhat heavy "divided" pickup. The weight of the cable itself sometimes concerns me, as I'm worried it will break at the slightest stress; but over hundreds of gigs, it hasn't shown any signs of failure.
The "brain" contains 4 pots, 2 of which effect different parameters depending on which synth is being used, and how you program it. The others are Master Volume and Balance.
The GK-1 will work with every GR/GM unit from the GR-500 up, with varying degrees of success. It's not that you won't be able to make noise with it - it plays/tracks just fine. It's that Roland guitar synth controllers typically have a wide array of buttons, knobs, touch plates, vibrato controllers, etc. that correspond to specific functions on the synths they were meant to control.
If you don't care about all that, you can often get similar functionality by manipulating the controls on the unit itself, for a lot less money than buying a dedicated controller.
I had the GK-1 installed on my main guitar, a Yamaha fretless piccolo bass, for many years, hundreds of gigs and one record. Eventually, concerns about the continued health of the cables and the desire to get a newer 13 pin synth won out. I've since moved the GK-1 to a MIDI only bass, and I have 2 "brains" for it. I used this setup with several synths on my new album, due out soon.
I have to say, I'm glad I made my mistakes when I did; especially when I see the astronomical sums ANY 24 pin cable goes for now.
If you REALLY have an obsession with analog guitar synths; and if you don't want to spend the money on guitar controllers - AND have a guitar you don't mind marring up- Then track down a GK-1 on ebay.
Just remember - AFAIK, they don't make a bass model. However, I CAN tell you that the GK-2 bass divided pickup itself works just fine if you want to try a little surgery...
NOTE: If you haven't guessed by now, it is VERY, VERY, VERY important that you DO NOT confuse the GK-1 with its successors, the GK-2(B) and 3(B). They are NOT compatible.
If you are thinking about buying ANY of the guitar synths on this list made BEFORE the GR-1, they will all conform to the Roland 24 pin standard. If anyone tells you that the newer Roland setup will work OK with the vintage gear, it is simply NOT TRUE. Not only are the connectors completely different, but the voltage that powers each pickup is radically different.
The ONLY outboard pickup that will work with these synths (besides the matching guitar controllers) is the GK-1. Trust me when I tell you, I am saving you A LOT of grief here.
Other Guitar Synths and Misc. Synth Stuff
I'd been jonesing for one of these ever since I saw it in an ad back in the 1980's, As luck would have it, one came up super cheap on ebay one day...
In a word, the DG-20 is...Interesting. Hollow, 1980's futuro-weird looking, and made of plastic, it looks and feels like a larger version of those toy guitars you see in Wal Mart - yet it is a fully functioning MIDI guitar that tracks extremely well.
Unlike most axes on this list, the DG-20 is a "touch" guitar, meaning that the pitch is determined by sensors in the neck, while the strings determine which note is triggered. The bridge of the guitar is rather complex, with nylon strings tied to these screw type things that seem to move in all directions.
While all this seems really cool, there are some serious drawbacks.
First, the strings are made of a black nylon material, and are EXTREMELY slack. Imagine playing a set of strings after you tightened them JUST enough to stay on the tuning peg of your regular guitar - that is how slack these strings are.
Any attempt to tighten them beyond a certain point will result in broken strings and/or neck damage (which, from what I see on eBay, seems to be pretty common). In fact, these strings don't even need to be tuned to ANY pitch at all, since their only purpose is to trigger the preset note under the fret/string intersection, as well as give your picking hand something to do.
Second, the fingerboard is made of dense RUBBER. Very weird. Combine that with the floppy stings, and it's a little like playing in quicksand. Suffice it to say, you need a VERY light touch when playing this thing. Obviously, techniques like string bending, slides, and harmonics are out, although you can sometimes manage a decent hammer-on.
Third, the onboard sound sources are comical. It's like they took the cheeziest Casio keyboard brain and stuffed it into this thing. You get the standard 5 dollar Casiotone banjo, distorted guitar, etc. As well as cheezerific drum beats like the Foxtrot and the Enka(?). Casio sounds were bad even by 1980's standards, so unless you're going for some ironic 80's retro vibe, I'd MIDI this thing up, pronto.
Like I said, for all it's faults, this thing tracks surprisingly well. I used to play mine through a Korg Electribe, and when the floppy strings weren't pissing me off, I could really fly on it. I should mention that this is one of the few synths that does not need a separate converter or special cable. To use any outboard sounds, just plug a MIDI cable into the MIDI Out, plug into the MIDI In of your target sound source, and you're good to go.
I wanted to make it work so I could gig with it, but I just couldn't get beyond the feel.
However, I know that the DG-20 has a bit of a cult following, including a local jazz guitar player in my town who uses one on his public access show. If you have a light touch, are looking to take babysteps into the guitar synth world, and/or just like the crazy retro look and sound of this thing, Don't let me stop you.
NOTE: There are a few other Casio guitar synths out there which might cause some confusion:
Also, be aware that even though the strings are low tension, the "frets" are rubber and can be worn away like other frets. Check to make sure that the DG-20 you're interested in has intact frets.