If you are in a three-man band like me, you might know the problem. A few keyboard pads underneath every now and then couldn’t hurt. Somehow I always had the bad luck to play in bands without a keyboard player, except for a relatively short time. And so I’ve been after the topic of midi guitars for quite a long time. Whatever it was that made me learn trumpet instead of piano like all the others when I was a little kid.

To get to beautiful synthesizer and keyboard sounds as a guitarist you first have to clarify a few basic conditions. After that there are several possibilities. For this reason I will split the article into several parts. Otherwise it will be too long and who has the time nowadays to read more than two lines of text… ok, apparently you. Well then, let’s start with a little overview.

The guitar-like midi controller

Casio DG 20 Midi Controller
The Casio DG20 from the 80s. A Midi-Controller completely made of plastic.

We start with the midi guitar itself. There are two variations here. The first group are Midi controllers, which are more like a guitar. Here, often only button elements are used on the neck instead of strings. In the reach of the right hand there is a set of nylon strings, which take off the stop and combine it with the pressed buttons. The Casio DG-20 from the 80s is such a candidate here. The Jamstik Guitar Trainer would be a current variant of this class of instruments.

A disadvantage of the guitar-like midi controllers might be that they are not real guitars. On the one hand they play clearly different from normal guitars and on the other hand they do not replace a real guitar. And if you have ever tried to play a distorted guitar on a midi basis, you might have gotten over it quickly because of the earache that quickly sets in.
From my point of view these kind of midi controllers are more something for at home. Live they are difficult to use. So not for me.

Midi guitar with integrated midi pickup

Zeta Mirror 6
On the Zeta Mirror 6, all frets were wired to find out which note was played faster.

So if you don’t want to do without a real guitar (probably the overwhelming majority), you’ll soon catch a glimpse of real guitars that already have midi pickups built in. Also here, a lot of midi guitars have come onto the market since the 80s. After various pickup variants, such as the Zeta Mirror 6, where all frets were wired and the tone was defined by the string length determined by the pickup, the GK-System from Roland/Boss has developed over the years as a quasi-standard. While at first thick 24-pin plugs were used, like on the Roland G707 or the Ibanez IMG-2010, the GK2 and GK3 pickups have been slimmed down to the still current 13-pin design.

In the meantime there is competition from the wireless Fishman Triple Play in addition to the Roland system.

Ibanez IMG2010
Another classic of antique midi guitars: the Ibanez IMG2010

If you don’t want to buy an antique board at Reverb or Ebay, you will have to search a little longer to buy a guitar with integrated midi pickup. Unfortunately the choice is not that big. Godin would be a good starting point for the search here.

Maybe it should be pointed out that not all guitars that can simulate the sounds of other guitar types are also Midi guitars and therefore cannot control synthesizers and keyboard sound generation via Midi. The Line6 Variax guitars and the Boss V-BDN VG-Strandberg would be such representatives.

Retrofit Midi Pickup

Fishman Triple Play
A Fishman Triple Play on a Strandber Bode 8 string. Only without tremolo is there enough room on a Strandberg.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the integrated midi guitars or if you don’t want to do without your beloved guitar, you can retrofit a midi pickup. The top dogs here are the Roland GK-3 and the Fishman Triple Play. Apart from the look of the pickup screwed to it, retrofitting it is probably the most interesting option for most people. Especially because the costs are much more wallet-friendly compared to a completely new guitar.

Variants for self-installation are available, for example, with the NU Series Modular Pickups from cycfi research or the Ghost Pickup System from graphtech. We will go into more detail here in a later article.

What you should pay attention to with the pickups for retrofitting is whether they fit the guitar of your choice. With most of them this is no problem. But if you play a Strandberg with tremolo like me, you’re out of luck. Due to the sloping bridge and the small distance to the pickup neither Fishman nor GK-3 will fit here. It’s good if you have an 8-string without tremolo, even if the lower strings are not taken off.


Electro Harmonix Synth9 und Boss SY1
Electro Harmonix Synth9 and Boss SY1 as representatives of the floor pedals.

If you don’t need it quite so complex you might be well served with a pedal for the pedalboard. There is no midi signal generated here, but there are some pedals that build convincing sounds from the guitar signal. However, you will probably have to listen to several of them first to find the right candidate. From the Boss Sy1 to the Electro Harmonix Synth9 and the very complex Empress Effects Zoia, the range here is meanwhile quite large.

You should pay a little attention here whether monophonic or polyphonic (i.e. polyphonic) sounds are generated from the guitar signal. But like I said. The only thing that helps here is to try it out and watch the parts on youtube.

Here’s a little tip in advance. The hold key of the Boss Sy1 was a real reason to buy. Play a chord, press the hold button and hold the sound area created by the chord and then solo over it. Terrific.

… and all the rest

Natürlich gibt es noch diverse weitere Methoden, um als Gitarrist an Keyboardsounds zu kommen. So haben so einige Maultiefekte bereits Syth-Effekte an Bord. Wer mit seinen Füßen noch nicht so viel zu tun hat kann sich zum Beispiel mal eine Midi-Fuß-Klaviatur für Orgeln anschauen.

At the moment I find the Noise Machine most interesting, a really small wireless midi controller that you could easily attach to a guitar. But it is not for sale yet. The corresponding kickstarter campaign will start in the next weeks. But I find the device so exciting that I will dedicate a separate article to it soon.

If you just want to experiment a little bit you can also have a look at the Midi Guitar 2 App for IOS. This purely software-based guitar to Midi conversion runs amazingly precise, though not perfect. Although I always have stomach ache for live performances. to include smartphones or iPads in the setup. Taking a call from grandpa in the middle of a gig is probably not that elegant.

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