Since its inception in the early eighties, MIDI has cemented its presence as the standard communication method between electronic instruments. It’s well known for its studio applications for electronically composed and sequenced music, but what has MIDI ever done for the guitar?
Can something as established and natural as a guitar ever work in harmony with the robotic data transmissions of a thirty-year-old data protocol?
Imagine propelling laser-guided orchestral sections through the pluck of a string, or firing chunky FM bass tones through the swing of a plectrum. Keyboards have been the flagship control method for electronic music, becoming an essential part of studios the world over – but what about the guitar?
Let’s look at some of the archaic inventions through to more modern alternatives and even how you can use your guitar as a MIDI controller in your DAW with no additional hardware.
Early Guitar Synths
Early guitar synths were revolutionary yet rudimentary creations. Most had either internal sounds or were connected to a dedicated unit and some came fitted with an external MIDI port for connecting to rack-mounted modules or synths.
Andy Summers of The Police, King Crimson and Pat Metheny are famed for prolific use of the G-303 and, even now, some players swear by the acoustic qualities of it as an electric guitar alone!
By 1984 Roland had released the GR-700 stompbox to accompany the GR-707 (left, via synth-perverts The Penelopes), boasting six-voice polyphony with two DCOs (digitally controlled oscillators) per voice and all the expected mod-cons of a typical subtractive synthesiser.
The consumer level Casio DG-20 appeared around 1987 and, despite it toy-like appearance, still packed a punch (Casio’s synthesis efforts around this period are vastly underrated).
Around this time the advent of frequency modulation synthesis allowed a higher degree of control than its subtractive synthesis siblings and MIDI guitars paired nicely with these and other idiosyncratic synths of the era. Here’s jazz’s own beef merchant Pat Metheny using the G-303 with the awesome Synclavier.
The discontinued Roland VG-99 is said to “very closely” reproduce the GR-300 experience, using digital signal processing, at a much lower price. Personally I am skeptical of a lot of Roland/Boss COSM technology but this doesn’t sound half bad.
Funded by Richard Bransons Virgin Group, the Synthaxe offered a mind boggling array of play modes using a combination of plucked strings, built-in keys and foot pedals that made the DG-20 look like a feeble child’s toy.
While the above mentioned devices brought the guitar interface to MIDI, it was devices that did the reverse which made the experience truly authentic. MIDI pickups began to bridge the gap between guitars and technology, allowing any fitted guitar to transmit the sounds being played and convert them into MIDI notes.
Many such devices are available: the Sonuus G2M is a monophonic device which transmits one note at a time (suitable for solos and simple bass parts); while the Roland GK-3 pickup and the super-low latency Fishman Tripleplay wirelessly transmit polyphonic chords across six strings as seamlessly as they can be heard on the guitar. For DIY enthusiasts the Ghost Hexpander from Graphtech enables you to add MIDI control to any electric or bass guitar!
This allows for multiple dynamic changes and modulations, giving the player the instant ability to change from soundscape to distorted lead riffs in milliseconds.
Recent developments in technology have allowed for guitars with more experimental, innovative and futuristic designs.
The Starrlabs Ztar MIDI Controllers are a range of sleekly designed instruments which feature buttons laid out like those on a fret board, that can be plucked conventionally or by pressing the desired notes on the fretboard. Aussie DnB outfit Pendulum have utilised the Starrlabs controllers on tracks such as Granite and Propane Nightmares.
The Misa Kitara takes the idea to a new, space-age level, utilising a touch screen as opposed to strings: throwing in a host of configuration and performance possibilities, it is essentially a brand new instrument in its own right.
All of these advances and developments give artists the ability to make music in new and alternative ways by not being tied down to one input method. For most people, the classic guitar sound and feel need not be changed…but with MIDI guitars, musicians have an added dimension to create sounds and melodies free from control of the familiar keyboard. These developments in control and musicality will aid the creation and inspiration of the musical instruments of the future.