The GR-55: Beyond the Guitar
After experiencing the VG-88 and VG-99 and seeing the future of the guitar, in some respects Roland’s GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer is a step backward. Unlike the VG-units, which emphasize guitar-related instruments, which no doubt eases the ability of the units to track a player’s fingering, the focus of the GR-55 is a more traditional synthesizer. Flipping through its presets, you’ll find a few guitar and guitar synthesizer sounds, but for the most part, you’ll find digital recreations of strings, pianos (both acoustic and electric), and wind instruments such as flutes, oboes, horns, and saxophones.
Unfortunately, the tracking for many of these patches can be problematic, without careful preparation, which begins with carefully setting the string sensitivity in the GR-55’s control panel. (The GR-55 requires the same Roland-synth pickup guitar and 13-pin cable as the VG-99 to trigger its sounds.) Also, adjusting each patch’s parameter to your playing style can help as well, particularly the patch’s legato and portamento settings. And carefully “enunciated” picking helps as well. On most electric guitars, a sloppy guitarist (hey, I resemble that remark!) can get away with his iffy fingering when he’s wailing up and down the fretboard playing pentatonic distorted guitar solos. On the GR-55, sloppy fingering is quickly exposed.
For the gigging guitarist, a Roland-ready Fender Stratocaster or a similarly compatible guitar and a VG-99 unit makes much sense. Rather than have to switch guitars for open-tunings, or for that one cover song that originally featured a 12-string rhythm part or nylon string or electric sitar solo, the VG-99 can be very time and cost effective. (Not to mention saving the wear and tear on your back or your roadie’s.)
For the guitarist recording demos at home, who wants easy access to a variety of non-guitar instruments, and is prepared to do some occasional “comping” of multiple parts to cut out the occasional glitches, the GR-55 is a handy device also. Make sure you’ve tweaked the device and practice extensively with the GR-55 before considering gigging out with it, however.
Which points out of the reasons why guitar synthesizers have had difficulty catching on: there’s something about the mindset of keyboard players, which accepts tweaking various synthesizer parameters, and guitarists, whose mindset (and believe me, I’m sympathetic on this one) is “let’s plug in and rip!” But for those who are willing to put in the time to learn what makes the VG-99 and GR-55 tick, there are some excellent sonic opportunities to be had.