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Faking Keyboard Parts On Guitar, Part 3

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In Part 2 of this series, I covered a range of different analogue and iOS options suitable for creating keyboard sounds on guitar.

There’s a third way, however, that introduces the convoluted, technical world of MIDI.

In The Beginning…

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Introduced to the public in 1983, its basic function is to pass information such as note pitch, velocity, duration and so on from the controller—guitar, in this case—to the sound module such as synthesisers, samplers, and so on). 

Unlike conventional audio, event messages produce no sound of themselves serving as a set of instructions to trigger the sound module.

So far, nothing here to interest guitarists.

However, MIDI goes beyond simply being just a trigger for notes; indeed, its ability to manipulate whole hosts of variables via anything MIDI-compatible means you aren’t just limited to keyboard sounds. 

For a band or artist needing a broad palette of tones, it’s worth investigating. Here's some examples of a typical set-up.

Getting Started

You’ll need a guitar. This means either buying a MIDI-enabled guitar or fitting an existing one with a MIDI pickup. You’ll also need an appropriate sound module otherwise you won’t hear anything.

Unsurprisingly, this is the most difficult and expensive route to take so be warned.

MIDI-Enabled Guitar

Buying new presents few choices, but the Godin xtSA (£900) is probably the most versatile. Equipped with standard magnetic (electric) and piezo (acoustic) pickups (meaning that it functions just like a regular guitar), it’s also compatible with any MIDI device that uses 13-pin connectors.

Going secondhand, look for the Fender GK Ready Stratocaster, which has Roland’s GK-3 pickup and controls built into what’s otherwise a regular Strat.

MIDI Pickup

If you don’t want, or can’t afford, a dedicated MIDI guitar then a regular guitar can be modified by adding a MIDI pickup.

Incidentally, this isn’t just electric guitars—I’ve had MIDI pickups on acoustics as well. 

MIDI pickups are usually hexaphonic—six individual pickups in one, that treats/processes each string separately. Not only affording better clarity, it allows you to assign different events to individual strings. For example, each string could trigger a part of a drum kit.

The most famous example is Roland’s GK-3 (£150). Mounted behind a bridge pickup, it’s connected to a controller attached behind the bridge, allowing you to swap between the MIDI pickup and your regular pickups (you can plug your guitar’s usual cable into it), or have both on simultaneously. 

You also have a MIDI volume control, as well as up/down buttons for remotely scrolling through your sound module’s patches.

It’s not permanent (unlike MIDI-enabled instruments), but’ll involve drilling a few holes. It’s also not the prettiest addition to your guitar, and needs careful setting-up—if the pickup’s installed incorrectly you’ll get poor results.

Get Connected

Whatever you choose, you’ll need to run a MIDI cable between the guitar and your sound module of choice. It’s thicker than an audio cable, so be careful, and make sure it’s long enough for your needs. It can also be more expensive than a regular guitar lead, so shop around. 

Check the relevant connectors at both ends—instrument and sound module—are correct. Like so many devices, more than one connection option has passed into usage so ensure you’ve got the right one.

Going Wireless 

If long, bulky cabling sounds off-putting, there’s a potential solution. A relatively newcomer, Fishman's Triple Play (£300+ - prices vary) features a pickup and controller similar to the GK-3 albeit smaller, but uses wireless connectivity, thus dispensing with bulky MIDI cables, and giving it greater range with claims of up to 100ft.

The smaller physical footprint of the better-looking controller, plus the wireless connectivity, make it an attractive alternative. There are, however, some issues to bear in mind.

It’s at least twice as expensive as the GK-3. Its wireless operation means no cabling to power it, unlike the GK-3, so it uses an onboard lithium ion battery with a claimed life of 20 hours. That's more than enough for a gig.

However, the biggest drawback for the gigging guitarist is it only works with DAWs and Virtual Instruments, meaning you can’t use a hardware sound module; you’d need a laptop or an iPad with a USB adaptor. These are, of course, achievable but it’s even more equipment and cabling to consider, buy and transport.

Sound Modules

An essential part as no sound module means no sound. 

For the gigging guitarist, foot-operated pedals are more practical, and their architecture’s akin to multi-fx units, which many guitarists are already familiar. They offer a range of output connections, so you can easily plug them into an amp or PA.

Just as Roland makes the GK-3, they make a whole host of compatible sound modules, so look for what best suits your needs. 

Their current flagship is the GR-55, that covers all manner of instruments real and imagined, plus regular electric and acoustic sounds—in fact, it could replace your usual pedalboard, and even amp. 

It’s not cheap at £460, but you could save £80 if you buy the GR55GK, which includes the required GK-3 pickup.

As a cheaper option, look on eBay for the GR-20; as an older model, you could pick it up for a lot less, and it’s still an excellent piece of kit.

Conclusion

MIDI is both complicated and expensive, but with a bit of work, can open up a world of sonic possibilities. Remember, you’ll need:

  • A MIDI-enabled guitar
  • Failing that, a MIDI pickup, such as the Roland GK-3
  • A sound module, such as the GR-55
  • Check for compatible cable and connectors
  • Wireless connectivity is now an option
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of money
  • The secondhand market’s a cheaper way to get started
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