Synth City: 10 Classic Guitar Synth Songs
Here's an ode to a piece of gadgetry rarely heralded on GuitarWorld.com, something that has brought a whole new world of sounds to guitarists' fingertips: the guitar synthesizer, aka the guitar synth.
A guitar synth is a synth module whose input device is a guitar instead of a keyboard. To quote Norm Leet from Roland's UK website, "The most important part of a guitar synth system is the divided—or hexaphonic—pickup, which allows each string to be treated individually and for the attached synth to be able to detect finger vibrato and string bending."
At first these systems were farily sizable, taking up so much space that they had to be housed in specially designed guitars that were part of the entire synth system. Today's synth systems, however, are tiny things that can fit into pretty much any guitar.
Modern systems send the pitch information as MIDI to allow you to control external modules or keyboards. This also means that pitch information can be recorded by a MIDI sequencer.
Countless artists have dipped their toes into the world of guitar synths—everyone from Eric Clapton to Steve Hackett to Eric Johnson and Jeff Loomis—and some players made it a massive part of their sound, including Pat Metheny, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Carlos Alomar even recorded an entire album for synth guitar—1990's Dream Generator.
Here are 10 classic songs that feature guitar synths. They demonstrate at least some of the many dreamy, bizarre sounds (or "soundscapes," as some people like to say in this context), these devices can create.
10. "Stranger In a Strange Land," Iron Maiden, Somewhere in Time, 1986
After completing a masterful trilogy of albums with 1984's Powerslave, Iron Maiden took a turn for the progressive, unleashing a barrage of synth guitars on their listeners with their sixth studio album, Somewhere in Time.
Easing their fans into the idea, the album's first single, "Wasted Years," was the only track on the album to feature no synthesizers at all. Its follow-up, "Stranger in a Strange Land"—the tale of an Arctic explorer frozen and lost in time—featured Adrian Smith and Dave Murray's guitars processed through synth effects, giving their dual guitar attack a distinctive larger-than-life chorus sound.
09. "Never Make You Cry," Eric Clapton, Behind the Sun, 1985
By the mid-'80s, the guitar synth was officially a bandwagon, and even ol' Slowhand himself, Eric Clapton, hopped on—if only briefly.
Clapton used a Roland guitar synth to record "Never Make You Cry" from his successful 1985 album, Behind the Sun, which was co-produced by Phil Collins of Genesis (a major guitar synth band, especially during the Duke tour).
It's only fitting that Clapton experimented with cutting-edge technology on Behind the Sun, the album that kicked off a period of slick commercial releases by the venerable guitarist, including 1986's August and 1989's Journeyman.
Before its release, he had been coasting along on a series of rootsy, laidback, Band- and J.J. Cale-inspired albums, from 1974's 461 Ocean Boulevard to 1983's Money and Cigarettes.
08. "Are You Going With Me?," Pat Metheny, Offramp, 1982
Over the decades, guitarist Pat Matheny has become closely associated with Roland guitar synths—especially the GR-300. But it all started with his 1982 album, Offramp, which featured his first documented use of the Roland GR-300.
The album features the samba-based "Are You Going With Me?," which has since become a trademark Metheny song. Its lengthy, trancelike guitar solo is played on the Roland. Check it out below.
Metheny still uses his GR-300, which has since been discontinued by the company.
07. "Who's to Blame," Jimmy Page, Death Wish II, 1982
In 1981, former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was asked to compose and record the Death Wish II soundtrack by his neighbor, director Michael Winner.
It was just what Page needed—an opportunity to start creating music again, now that John Bonham (and with him, Led Zeppelin) was gone.
Page mirrored the film's moodiness and edginess with a slew of new devices, including the Roland GR-505 guitar synth and TR-808 Rhythm Composer. The guitar synth can be heard on the entire soundtrack album, which was recently re-released on JimmyPage.com in a "heavyweight vinyl package." Only 1,000 copies were made.
Page continued experimenting with guitar synths and even appeared in several Roland print advertisements in the early to mid-'80s.
06. "Venus Isle," Eric Johnson, Venus Isle, 1996
Texas guitar great Eric Johnson started dabbling with guitar synths in the late '80s, but he didn't seriously record with them until his 1996 album, Venus Isle, an album full of what he calls "extra textures."
Johnson uses a Roland guitar synth to create those textures on several tracks, including "Mountain," "Battle We Have Won," "When the Sun Meets the Sky" and the title track, which you can check out below.
05. "Discipline," King Crimson, Discipline, 1981
If you were putting together a dream team of guitar synthists, you'd probably want King Crimson's Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew batting third and fourth in your lineup.
The guitarists were among the most proficient guitar synth users of their generation, and Fripp continues to push the boundaries of synthetic sound with his mesmerizing Soundscapes shows.
On King Crimson's Discipline album, Fripp and Belew made great and bountiful use of the Roland GR-300. On later albums, they moved into GR-700 territory.
04. "Racing in A," Steve Hackett, Please Don't Touch, 1978
The upbeat and catchy "Racing in A" is from Steve Hackett's Please Don't Touch album from 1978.
It was the first solo album he recorded after leaving Genesis and his first album to feature his pioneering work with the Roland GR-500 guitar synth.
"Racing in A" is a five-minute-long progressive-rock masterpiece that glides along for more than a minute with its almost-Yes-like rhythm before the vocals kick in (But Hackett keeps the spotlight squarely on the GR-500).
As is the case with several other selections on this list, be sure to check out the entire Please Don't Touch album for more examples of Hackett's guitar synth work.
By the way, that's Hackett's photo at the top of this page (and all the pages in this story).
NOTE: We've included a cool live performance of "Racing in A," plus (for the purists), the studio version.
03. "Turbo Lover," Judas Priest, Turbo, 1986
"Turbos were all the rage, the in-thing," said Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill of the mid-1980s. "I'd even bought a vacuum cleaner because it had the word 'turbo' on it!"
Perhaps this obsession with the super-charged is what lead the boys in Priest to experiment with guitar synthesizers on their 1986 classic "Turbo Lover."
Taken from the album Turbo—easily among the most divisive albums for diehard fans—the song featured a whole new sonic palette for the band, with guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton employing guitar synths and anything else they could get their hands on to give the song its distinctive futuristic, sci-fi feel.
02. "Don't Stand So Close to Me," The Police, Zenyattà Mondatta, 1980
"Don't Stand So Close to Me," which appeared on The Police's 1980 Zenyattà Mondatta album, features Andy Summers jamming away on an early Roland synth (He had a few models during the band's heyday, including a GR-707).
"After Sting had put the vocals on 'Don't Stand So Close To Me,' we looked for something to lift the middle of the song," Summers said in 1981. "I came up with a guitar synthesizer. It was the first time we'd used it. I felt it worked really well."
"I was sort of known for [guitar synth] then, and I was in a pretty high-profile band," Summer said in a more recent interview for Roland. "I was trying to fill out two hours with a trio, trying to keep it interesting all the way. The Roland synths blended in quite well."
01. "Ashes to Ashes," David Bowie, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980
It's Hammer time. Guitarist Chuck Hammer is an accomplished player and Emmy-nominated digital film composer who has recorded with Lou Reed, David Bowie and Guitarchitecture, to name just a few.
But Hammer might be best known for his textural guitar synth work on "Ashes to Ashes" from Bowie's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album. Hammer used a Roland GR-500 with an Eventide Harmonizer to get the synthetic string sound that can be heard in the video below. He actually used four multi-tracked guitar synths, each one playing opposing chord inversions. Be sure to check out the rest of album, which features a healthy dose of Hammer.
Rolling Stone put Hammer in the category of "musical pioneers" along with guys like Robert Fripp and Allan Holdsworth.