Debuting in the mid-1970s, largely thanks to Japan’s Roland Corporation, guitar synthesizers have long had their share of headaches, until Roland launched their VG-system in the mid-1990s. Instead of concentrating on synthesizing strings and trumpets, suddenly here was a unit armed with loads of great guitar-oriented sounds and effects, which tracked flawlessly. The original VG-8 debuted in 1995. Roland’s VG-88 lasted from 2000 until 2007, and used versions of the VG-88 can be found on eBay these days for $150 to $500. Its successor, still in production, was released in 2007, and dubbed the VG-99. It replaced the black stealth bomber doorstop floor box shape of the VG-88 and original VG-8 with a sleek silver table-top unit, which could also be rack mounted, or placed on an optional music stand, for manipulation during performance.
Roland’s VG-99 (which streets for about $1600 with the required pickup for your electric guitar, $100 less without the additional pickup) builds on their long-running line of VG-8 and VG-88 guitar modeling systems, but now in the form of a tabletop, not floor design and inside, three internal processors for some high-powered computing technology.
I wrote up one of the earliest reviews of the VG-99 for Blogcritics in 2007. I’m cribbing from that text, though with revisions to bring that material up to date.
The VG-99 requires a guitar equipped with an aftermarket Roland hexaphonic pickup (pictured at left mounted on a Gibson Les Paul) and 13-pin cable to connect the pickup to the VG-99, or a guitar equipped with a compatible factory-installed hexaphonic pickup, such as those made by Godin, or Fender’s Roland-Ready Stratocaster, which I used to test the unit. Some sources claim that Roland’s hexaphonic pickup sounds better on many of these patches than the piezo pickups used on the Godin units; check out the archives at the VGuitar Forum to see the pros and cons of this argument.
Like the predecessor VG-88, it’s also possible to plug an electric guitar with a conventional quarter-inch jack into the VG-99. Most of the more extreme modeling elements won’t trigger, but it’s a great way to make use of a trusty old Les Paul, Tele or any other non-hex-equipped instrument and drive basic amp sounds.
Speaking of amps, expect to find all sorts of simulated Marshalls, Fenders, Voxes, Mesas, Hi-Gains and Roland’s own JC-120. There are also a variety of modeled guitars, including Les Pauls, ES-335s, Fender Strats and Teles, steel and nylon-strung guitars, 12-strings, Jazz and P-Basses, and more exotic instruments such as Dobros, mandolins, and even violins. The two control buttons on my Roland-Ready Strat correspond with the treble/center/lead pickup switch on the Les Paul and the five-way switch on a (traditional) Fender Stratocaster; a nice touch.
It’s also possible to model a guitar completely from scratch, even with physical parameters impossible on a real instrument. While the parameters on the screen of the VG-99 are reasonably easy to tweak, A much more intuitive computer GUI allows tweaking the parameters via a PC and USB connection.
And there are all sorts of effects as well, plus the ability to manipulate wah-wah, volume and pitch (from dive bombs to B-Bender-style licks) via either Roland’s long-running EV-5 foot pedal, or more complex (and more expensive) FC-300 pedal board, and the controllers on the top of the VG-99 itself.
Taken from Roland’s keyboard synthesizers, these include a finger-sliding “ribbon” controller, which can be switched to control the pitch and filter settings of most patches. Perhaps more intriguingly, there’s also Roland’s “D-Beam”, which can also control many patches by waving a hand over the VG-99, or even a guitar neck. The D-Beam could provide the opportunity for some flashy stage gestures, vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Page and his Theremin.
Also, it’s possible to manipulate many of the effects in the patches via the knobs on the unit, and in many of the preset patches, go from open to standard tuning and back again at the press of a button. For those who like to play rhythm guitar in Open-G tuning ala Keith Richards, but drop back to standard tuning for the solo, that’s easily accomplished with the VG-99.
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.