The History of Guitar Synthesizers: Four Revolutions, No Clear Winner

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Old Article for newbies to ponder  - As David Byrne once sang "Same is it ever was"

The History of Guitar Synthesizers: Four Revolutions, No Clear Winner

By Tom Mulhern

Guitar synthesizers haven't enjoyed the warm embrace from players that has been received by such technologies as whammy bars, dual-preamp amps, or just about anything else. By comparison, Rodney Dangerfield has gotten heaps of respect. But it isn't for lack of trying to win acceptance that the guitar synth has fallen short of guitarists' expectations. Ever since the first keyboard-equipped synthesizers hit the mainstream market around 1970, a lot of guitarists (and a lot of manufacturers) have been lured into thinking, "If a keyboardist can have these sounds, why can't a guitar?" As a result, countless millions of dollars have been devoted to putting synth sounds under the control of a pick-wielder, fortunes have been won and lost (mostly lost), and the fight still isn't over.

To say that guitar synthesis is the revolution that failed is, in many ways, inaccurate. In point of fact, there have been four revolutions; we're currently in the fourth. And unlike series of political upheavals, where there may be small insurrections followed by increasingly bigger insurrections followed by full-scale revolt, the history of guitar synths has mostly gone the opposite way. From the 1970s through the 1980s, dozens of companies have come and gone, all trying their own approach to guitar synthesis.

Few companies last very long in this part of the music business, with Roland the most notable exception. But is anyone to blame? Is guitar synthesis something that just can't work? Is there too much prejudice built up in guitarists because so much of the early controllers just couldn't cut it? Or, was the concept simply oversold? Consider how few successful synth controllers for drummers, wind players, or violinists have come along–should guitarists be expected to have greater inclination toward using synths? A look at the history of effects and synth controllers provides an insight that would say, "Yes." However, history can be a tricky thing. . . .

Revolution Number One: 1972-1976

Fuzz, wah, phasing, and echo had arrived, and thanks to forward-looking companies such as Gibson's Maestro division, a great number of single and combination effects were beginning to flood the marketplace. Some were junk, but others were amazing: The Maestro Phaser took the world by storm, and so did Musitronics' Mu-Tron III auto-wah. Just about every type of fuzz was introduced, and as a crossover from the still-new synth technology came filters. Individually, these effects sounded pretty spicy for their time, but guitarists heard what could come out of keyboard synths and wanted that kind of complexity and newness.

Slowly but surely, early guitar "synths" appeared, mostly boxes that simply combined effects. The EMS Synthi Hi-Fli from England was one of the coolest. Developed in conjunction with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, it included a ring modulator (which gave notes a bell-like out-of-tuneness), distortion, various waveforms, and filtering. Maestro's USS-1 Universal Synthesizer delivered similar effects, as did the Syntar, the Condor, Ludwig's synthesizer, and Frogg's Spectra-Sound. Guitarists were mostly unimpressed, partly because they were so limited (compared to keyboard synths), and partly because they cost several hundred dollars and up. A major component in guitarists turning thumbing their noses at these boxes was their own unrealistic expectations. The guitar is a pretty complex instrument (in terms of the sound it produces), whereas the keyboard synth was, at that time, a series of on/off switches that activated oscillators, filters, and envelope generators to produce sounds. To shoehorn the dynamics, the bending, the almost endless number of nuances of guitar technique into a form that could be squeezed through a synth and sound good was almost an impossibility. In fact, to this day, the task is still somewhat daunting for engineers.

Revolution Number Two: 1977-1980

The next revolution came when the synth was put under actual control by the pitches played on the guitar, rather than simply processing the sound. A process known as PVC, or pitch-to-voltage conversion, turned an in-coming note into a square wave (using fuzz) and then analyzed how many square waves per second there were. From there the number of square waves was converted into a voltage that controlled oscillators. The in-coming attack of the guitar was used to trigger envelope generators that controlled the opening and closing of voltage-controlled filters (VCFs) and voltage-controlled amplifiers (VCAs). "This is it!" everyone seemed to say about the guitar synthesizers introduced in this era. And, why not? Heavyweights of keyboard synthdom–ARP and Roland–were leading the charge, with the formidable 360 Systems

and even Ampeg jumping in with both feet. In early 1978, ARP (the biggest name in synths, next to Moog) introduced its Avatar

in a biblical-epic-style ad that said: "Stolen from the gods of the keyboard. Bestowed on the disciples of the guitar." Hoo boy! You could use the Avatar with any guitar–its pickup mounted much like Roland's modern pickups–and get hexaphonic (six notes simultaneously) fuzz out of it, and play one synthesized note at a time. For $3,000, it was considered a very expensive fuzz box. In its two years of existence, less than 1,000 were sold. ARP put huge amounts of R&D into the Avatar and a never-produced polyphonic successor, the Centaur (which would have retailed between $15,000 and $20,000), and eventually went bankrupt.

Roland's GS-500 required Roland's guitar and also provided monophonic synthesis with hexaphonic fuzz. And like the Avatar, it was a few thousand bucks. While it didn't flop, it didn't catch the world on fire. But on the other hand, Roland wasn't goofy enough to put all of its R&D eggs in the guitar synth basket. The company was at the threshold of becoming a mega-force in effects pedals and keyboard synths. They also learned from the experience, a common Roland theme that reverberates throughout their 20-year quest for the ultimate guitar synthesizer. Unlike their competitors who either got out of guitar synthesizers or went belly-up, Roland kept plodding ahead.

Other major players of the period were 360 Systems, which had an expensive but functional polyphonic guitar synthesizer system, as well as a monophonic one. In a few years, 360 Systems was out of the guitar synth business, although other synth-related gear continued to be made. Another experiment that dead-ended was Walter Sear's massive guitar synth prototype that utilized Moog modular synthesizer gear. Its consultants included Steve Howe and John McLaughlin, but it never got out of the lab.

By the end of the decade, poor guitar synth sales put a bad taste in the mouths of most manufacturers, who mostly wanted to pursue other avenues (namely ones that would make money). Raging inflation and increasing interest rates forced more conservative R&D decisions, and the guitar synth's development slowed considerably.

A few synths cropped up between 1979 and 1980, including Musiconics' MCI B-35-S (sort of a Guitorgan with filters), HEAR's Zetaphon Mark II (from the company that eventually became known as Zeta Systems, with killer hexaphonic fuzz and filtering, costing $4,500 in 1980),
(EDIT:Keith Mcmillan and Richard McClish were both part of Zeta Systems )

Korg  X-911( $550 ) required no special pickup. Just plug in your guitar, do a good job of playing clean, and the sound will come out sounding like a fuzz box through a filter.

In fact, other companies also had equally unimpressive units that worked similarly: Electro-Harmonix, Resynator, and A&F Systems come to mind. Don't think these were cheesy and bad-sounding. On the contrary, they were great effects devices. For instance, the X-911 had portamento, which let you glide from note to note, as well as octave division and doubling. Not only that, but there were preset tones designed to emulate tuba, trumpet, violin, and flute. None of them sounded exactly like the instruments, but they did have their own charm.

Oncor Sound of Salt Lake City didn't try changing pitches to voltage. Instead, they opted to follow a more keyboard-like approach: 96 fret switches determined which note would play when you struck one of the six "strum bars" that were laid out like strings. The synthesizer circuitry was built into the instrument, which let you mute, bend, hammer on, and infinitely sustain notes. In theory, it was wonderful, but in practice it meant that you didn't get any real guitar sound since there were no strings or pickups. This was eventually one of the kisses of death for Oncor, and it was a problem that would eventually plague SynthAxe, Stepp, and Yamaha.

Revolution Number Three: 1984-1989

If you're too young to remember the deep (really, really deep) recession from 1980 through about 1983, here's all you need to know: The music industry was like Europe during the Black Death. If your company wasn't dead or dying, you were just waiting for its end to come. The general economy was in the toilet, but record companies and musical-equipment manufacturers dropped like flies. R&D money for guitar synthesis? There wasn't much. But by mid-decade there were dozens of guitar synth system, led, as usual by Roland, who had the trapezoidal G-707 guitar and matching G-77 bass as their central players. To expand Roland's user base, the company sold retrofit pickup/controller systems for other manufacturers to put into their guitars. Ibanez introduced its IMC1 controller, which converted pitch to MIDI for controlling MIDIable synths and samplers. You could use Ibanez' guitar–with its digital whammy bar–or any Roland guitar. Shadow, Kaman, and Charvel marketed the GTM-6, another rack MIDI controller that let you use your own guitar, and IVL, DigiTech, and Kramer marketed their rackable Pitchrider. Zeta's GC660 for guitar and GC440 for bass, K-Muse's Photon (eventually part of Gibson), (EDIT: The You Rock Guitar was developed by Cliff Elion who created the K-Muse Photon) and Passac systems Sentient Six joined the fray.

The high-priced spread came from Synclavier, who sold systems to the likes of John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Pat Metheney (prices ranged from $85,000 to $500,000, depending on options). Farther down the price ladder, but still costing a bundle (around $20,000) was the SynthAxe, which Allan Holdsworth and Lee Ritenour championed. It used separate sets of strings for the neck and picking areas, plus it had six piano-type keys for triggering notes, and a palm trigger. It sensed fretting position and didn't rely on sensing pitches. One of its coolest features was that you could save alternative tunings in memory, and set up a "virtual capo" location on each string.

By the end of the decade, these systems also started to thin out, even as Roland launched its first rack controller/synth box, the GM-70, and Korg rolled out its short-lived controller (virtually identical to Roland's).

Yamaha unveiled its G10, a plastic-bodied controller (and its rack module) that used sonar to sense where a string was fretted, in addition to wired frets and accelerometers in the strings. It didn't produce any sound–the strings were merely for control purposes and didn't even need accurate tuning. At about the same time, Beetle's Quantar utilized similar technology. A court battle ensued, the Beetle vanished, and within a little more than a year, Yamaha killed its controller. An English company introduced the rectangle-bodied Stepp DG-1, a SynthAxe-like controller that promised a less pricey way to do all that a SynthAxe could do. It quickly disappeared. Casio's MG-510, introduced in 1988 (the same year as the Yamaha G10) was a Strat-style guitar controller that had direct MIDI output–no rack box needed. It was an okay guitar, too, but few were snapped up. Casio also tried the DG-20, a $500 guitar-like object with built-in synth and drum machine, MIDI out, and loosely tensioned strings that were pressed against the frets to locate notes. Even Suzuki tried a couple of low-cost controllers. All are now gathering dust in pawnshops or basements, and on the junkyard of history.

Great strides in pitch-to-MIDI conversion and translating guitaristic nuances had been made, and players such as Andy Summers, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Steve Morse, and Carlos Alomar used their synths to record some tantalizing music. But as the decade closed, it seemed that the guitar synth controller was being permanently moved to a back burner.

Revolution Number Four: 1990 And Beyond

Was there a black hole waiting to gobble up every guitar synth controller that came along? Was it impossible to gain, and keep, a foothold in the marketplace? Why didn't guitar synthesis stick? Well, it actually has stuck. It's just not the big market that the manufacturers hoped for. It's more like a niche market. Educators have found the guitar synth controller a powerful teaching tool, and players have discovered its potential for laying down keyboard- and horn-style tracks. As a compositional tool, it's hard to beat, and since the problem of delay time in the tracking has been largely solved (except for the swiftest of speed demons), there's little to keep guitarists away from the technology. Except, perhaps, the guitar synth's history, and to a certain extent, its price. Considering how much a keyboardist will spend for the average MIDI keyboard, though, a guitar synth controller isn't terribly expensive.

Finally, two more important considerations that may propel this fourth guitar synth revolution: Acoustic guitars can utilize the technology, and you can now use any electric guitar (meaning your own guitar) with virtually all systems. Although it's unlikely that we'll see the hoopla or hype that accompanied guitar synths of yesteryear, it is likely that you'll see a sustained interest in guitar synthesis and an actual acceptance of the instrument.


Great article! I mostly used my Avatar for its hex fuzz, and later bought a GR100, to recreate the hex fuzz sound.


Having owned a music store in those years. I got to play all of the less expensive incarnations of guitar synth. But being left handed it was tough  untill Roland came out with the first GR install kits(LPK1 & STK1). I pretty much was able to introduce Detroit to guitar synth after that. In fact I still have 3-4 of the  new Roland Gr kits in my basement. And used a GR700 regularly. If any have seen the pictures of my hand made Guitar it still has remnants of that old system, the backplate and old 24 pin connector frame.

Kevin M

Wow!  For its time the Vox organ guitar must have been pretty impressive technology.


actually repaired one of these in the mid 1970's
1970 Hammond-Innovex Condor Guitar Synth with Divided hex PU

I love the transport case with integrated stand!


Quote from: admsustainiac on December 05, 2014, 09:47:12 AM
1970 Hammond Condor Guitar Synth

Thanks for sharing those pics!  I had a friend who owned one, years ago, and I never got to see it in person.  He described it in great detail but I struggled to visualize it.  (I couldn't even believe it existed in 1970!)  And there it is, pretty much exactly as he explained it.


I know this is a fairly old thread, but I was wondering if anyone out here knows of any Passac Sentient Six Guitars available for purchase? It seems the controllers are much easier to find.

As an alternative, does anyone know if a schematic of the piezo bridge and multiplexer is available anywhere.
Godin Session & Montreal FTP, LGXT, LGX SA, Redline, ACS, A12, A11, A10, A4
Danoblaster Baritone w/GK-3
Gretsch Nashville, Viking
Fender Strats
Fret King Supermatic
Larrivee DV03RE
Parker Midi Fly
Seagull, S&P 12
VOX Phantom XII
GR-55, 33, 30, 20, GI-20, RC-50, US-20, VG-99, VP-7
Sentient 6
Cyr 7


SynthAxe Demo with Allan Holdsworth, Lee Ritenour and Neville Martin


What an interesting thread, thanks for digging it up. Here is an ad quote from the Al DiMeola cover  of Guitar Player magizine. '' mci, inc. BLOCKBUSTESR for '78. The mci guitorgan/synthesizer combination promises to be the blockbuster for 1978! The world of of sounds once only available to the keyboard player are now at the guitarist's fingertips... To achieve your potential you owe it to yourself to play the mci GuitOrgan/Synthersizer!!!''     The ad has a picture of a female model holding a B-35-S guitorgan s-78 equiped interface guitar.


I found some of my old documentation from my old GR-100/G-202 system, another multipage Roland document advertising the system, I need to find a way to scan it and get it up here as well as an old Rolling Stone article on guitar synthesizers circa the time of the GR-300.
My music projects online at

GK Devices:  Roland VG-99, Boss GP-10, Boss SY-1000.


And then there was the korg x911, a 1/4 inch guitar input mono 2 osc analog synth and then korg z3, a 24 pin pitch to midi hex system with 6 voice fm synth.

I was reading about the z3 on dr. Jones site and the z3 reportedly  tracked better than the roland gr-700. 
That Site states 20 ms lantency vs 40 ms lantency with less glitching. 

So why did the gr-700 win out over the z3 and end the korg foray into guitar synth? Was it because the korg z3 was a fm synth (yamaha dx series)?


None of those systems "won"

I only saw Adrian Belew and Steve Stevens (Billie Idol) use a GR-700 live

But neither flew off the shelfs or back ordered and dealers with a waiting list ( that would be reserved. For the Yamaha DX-7 keyboard)   , most guitar synths  collected dust on the dealer shelves in the mid 1980s due to bad economy back then

I doubt they made more than 500 Roland GR-700's

Quoteand then there was the korg x911
See 1st post


Roland won, korg lost. Roland still makes guitar synths, korg does not.


I used a Gr700 live for a few years.  Kind of tricky, but that's what made me build the lefty synth guitar I still use today, only now it's13 pin instead of 24 pin


When Roland presented their newest guitar synthesizer GR-500 synthesizer guitar with GS-500 analog synthesizer module for Ryo Kawasaki to experiment with them in 1979, Ryo immediately started to modify both guitar and module for his needs based on his imagination how they should function by obtaining entire schematics from Roland.
As some of you may already know that Kawasaki was some kind of electronic wizard since his childhood, modifications and implementations of new parts and wiring was his second nature, however he has struggled how to put all the parts together which becomes mobile in his live performances and ready to go by just plugging in/out and power without any extra patching of wires at the arena? Unfortunately none of parts he used was meant to be rack mountable configuration that sizes and shapes of them are completely different from one to another.

After more than half a year of dedication in this development, he finally made his mobile guitar synthesizer system by using iron frames which hold all the parts being screwed to these frames and shelves tightly as to become a single piece of equipment, and he had to saw each iron frame to meet necessary measurements according to his blue print. Also, addition of more than twenty individual parts, it was important that how they should be connected together and how to control them through either switches, knobs on guitar or foot pedals and foot switches while performing on guitar, and most of time, his both hands are occupied playing guitar, and he only had flick of second to make any changes during the performance by his hands. To enable this, he has added several additional toggle switches on guitar as well as foot pedal board, he was also not happy with the guitar sound of original GR-500, so he took off sustain magnetic board at the bottom of the neck and added standard double coiled humbucking pickup.

Further more, his vision for this development was not only limited to improve the sound and performance of guitar synthesizer alone, but he also wanted to have programmable rhythm track and sequencer which enables him to perform in solo concerts by himself and since it was still pre-MIDI era, he has accomplished these tasks using analog sequencers and drum/percussion machines synced together with pulse signal and any of them could be fired at his will by flipping one of switches mounted on this guitar worked as start/stop/pause buttons of those sequencers. For this reason, he added Korg MS-50 module mainly to produce Bass sounds or arpegiating effects fired by Roland CSQ-100 & CSQ-600 sequencers synced with TR-808 and DR-55 drum machines, he also had to employ multiple sequencers at his solo concerts so that there are enough memories to store pre-programmed variety of sequences last long enough for each show to serve as sound backdrop for his improvisations through his guitar synthesizer sounds combined with standard guitar sounds. He has done numerous solo performances at planetariums and museums during early 80's using this system alone.

At the same time Korg also introduced their X-911 monophonic guitar synthesizer and presented it to Kawasaki as well, which he integrated into his system to perform single line solos with it's better tracking along with quite expressive LFO(vibrato and pitch bend) pedal with it, while using polyphonic part of GS-500 to drive additional Oberheim and Emu modules to create rich strings, woodwinds and brass sounding sections being processed through flanger, delay and reverb to orchestrate his performance. The basic signal flow chart of his system is shown above and core parts used in this system is shown in photo album below.

Once the system was made and sturdy enough for traveling and stands for anticipated abuse or accidents in such transport, the next question was how to make the case (container) for this system? Luckily, one of his Japanese friends in NY was a carpenter, and he proposed that he can make sturdy wooden case (about an inch thick woods with metal colligates with screws to bind them together at each coner) with two parts, one part is the bottom tray/base to hold entire system on four wheels while this base is tightly pre-mounted to the bottom of the system, and another part is to cover the system from the top and using ten metal locks to latch the top with the bottom part (three each on longer sides and two each on shorter sides) with two big handles using metal pipe mounted on narrower sides so that up to three person can grab the handle on each side with both hands on it. This covering part also had two holes enough to insert two hands on two narrow sides so that two person can lift this cover up above 5 feet in the air in order to place this covering part from the top, because this top cover part weighed about 30 Kg by itself alone. As a result, the system with its case weighed exactly 500 Lbs (230 Kg); it was liftable with two regular persons about to knee height in order to load and unload to/from the Volkswagen van they were using at that time for their local traveling. Although, for carrying up stairs, it required at least four, or six persons to be easy and safe, probably only the closest contender for this kind of weight in music instruments are original Hammond B3 or Grand Piano!




I accept PAYPAL:IF ANY QUESTIONS DON`T HASITATE TO ASKTHANK YOU FOR BIDDING!For sale is extremely rare soviet vintage analog guitar synthesizer "LIDER-1". It is a original guitar effects processor produced in 1980`s by Katchkanar radio equipment factory "Formanta", famous for its well-known synthesizers Polivoks, Manual, Maestro etc. Was designed to be applied by musicians who use external effects in the live performance or studio work. Can be easely used not only with guitars but with synths, organs, bass e.t.c. It is a floor-mounted unit with four rubber footswitches; it also has sliders and knobs for changing the parameters of effects. LIDER-1 has 4 main serial sections: mixer, phaser, Polivoks-type resonance filter, modulator (VCA with ADR) - each with its own parameters and indicators. Commutation are standard 1\4TRS "Jacks" (installed): line input, output (line, phone, amplifier). On the outer surface of the bottom panel, an input sensitivity regulator is situated.
The unit is very original & beyond competition not only during 1980s but even now by its idea, quality and of course SOUND which is amazing! A very deep, warm analog set of effects which can be combined in any way producing a diverse palette of "out-of-this-planet" sounds! (check the Demo section below photoes)
No matter you are doing indie or core, no matter you are playing guitar or synthesizer... This "monster" will turn you mind upside down. Even more, if you are a Polivoks fan - its Analog resonance filter with auto controlled ADR and modulation is definitely your choise!

The mains power of the unit is 220 volts. For 110/127v countries I`ll include voltage converter.

The unit is EXTREMELY RARE & is hard to find by all means even in former USSR countries. It is fully tested, serviced & is in ideal 100% working condition.

GENERAL: Amplifier\Phones output, Effect [Fx amount], Level [main volume]), Rocktone 1\2 (drive-distortion) switch. 
MIXER: Clean guitar ammount, octaver fx, suboctaver fx, rocktone drive-distortion fx.
PHASER: Depth, Frequency.
FILTER: Start freq., Stop freq., Speed, Level, Resonance.
MODULATOR (VCA with ADR): Attack, Sustain, Release.

Indicators: Power, Overload, Phaser speed, Effects on\off

Rubber pedal controls: mixer, phaser, envelope filter, modulator.

Outputs - (1/4 TRS "Jacks") Amplifier, Phones, Line out
Inputs - Audio input

Mains voltage - 220V
(For use with 110/127V, I`ll include a voltage converter)

-  43 x 36 x 12 cm (61.9x14.2x4.7 in)

- Approx. - 7 kg (15.4 lbs)


Moog Launches The Moog Guitar - Model E1

August 19, 2009

"This give and take of energy creates the Model E1's unique playing modes. FULL SUSTAIN clearly and powerfully sustains all six strings anywhere on the neck. In MUTE MODE the pickups remove energy from the strings, resulting in short, staccato timbres. The guitar actually feels different in this mode. In CONTROLLED SUSTAIN MODE the Model E1 sustains the strings being played, while removing energy from the strings that aren't, resulting in fluid sustained lead lines.

Since the Model E1 has the ability to add and remove energy simultaneously, it has unprecedented control over the harmonics on the vibrating string. With HARMONIC BLENDS, one pick-up sustains the strings while the other attempts to mute them. Using the supplied Control Pedal, guitarists can move the energy back and forth between the pickups resulting in natural, shifting harmonics, directly from the strings.

Combine all this with the on-board Moog Filter, additional piezo pickups and Control Voltage input and you've got an instrument to fuel a lifetime of sonic exploration."

2009 Moog Model E1 Guitar Candy Apple Red - NOS



Quote from: admsustainiac on February 17, 2018, 09:39:43 AM
A few of us have purchased ( and sold) our Moog guitars
in relation to the theme of this thread,  so not a clear winner.

What was the problem with it? I'll have to check out some YouTube vids for the sound.


The current revolution is being created piecemeal by EHX, beginning with the Mel9's Tron choir from a 1/4" input.

Whether they keep pushing the envelope remains to be seen. 


Quote from: Rhcole on February 17, 2018, 10:20:34 AM
The current revolution is being created piecemeal by EHX, beginning with the Mel9's Tron choir from a 1/4" input.

Whether they keep pushing the envelope remains to be seen.
yes and the boss sy-300 of course in the digital format.

In the analog format, pitch to voltage converters coupled with modular synth gear seems to be making some Headway.

And then there's this YouTube video where the guitar player is not using pitch to CV  converter module for his guitar. He is instead using an audio input module and then sending that signal to other modules.


Quote from: chrish on February 17, 2018, 09:49:30 AM
in relation to the theme of this thread,  so not a clear winner.

What was the problem with it? I'll have to check out some YouTube vids for the sound.

Moog E1M: Polysustainer plus 13 pin GK- Advise needed