My MIDI Guitar (And Bass) Systems

The first time I heard MIDI guitar must have been Alex Lifeson playing his Roland GR500 (above) on Book II of Hemispheres or possibly Pat Metheny playing his on one of his tunes such as The Way Up. When I saw Adrian Belew live, he had an internal Roland MIDI setup on his Strat and Mustang and now he uses a built-in Roland pickup in his signature Parker Fly. John Pondell from Uncle Festive was playing a MIDI guitar and I never realized it until I saw them live. The parts that were keyboard sounding were actually John playing them on guitar! I just assumed they were Ron the keyboard player. These guys opened up a whole world of possibilities in my mind, which was blown.

Roland GR-09 guitar synth

About 20 years ago, I found a Craigslist ad for a Roland GR-09 for trade, so I traded a Peavey Renown 212 amp for it. It came with a Roland GK-2A pickup which needed a bit of work–the guy who did the trade did not mention this. Once I got everything working and the MIDI pickup placed correctly on my guitar after a lot of trial and error, the onboard sounds were very familiar and I was able to find a few of the patches that Pat Metheny used. I think it’s a solid unit but I never used it much. Tracking is an issue for MIDI pickups.

When I say trial and error I mean that in a big, big way. I had no instructions to go off of, so I of course dove right in and attached the pickup to my guitar using poster puddy, which the seller gave me. He may have given me directions on how to use it, I don’t remember, but I do remember taking all day to get it to work. After a few hours of getting nowhere with the placement of the pickup and having to reconnect some of the wires in the pickup, I was able to find the manual for the GK-2A online and get it working. The next thing was mounting this big box on the outside of my guitar somehow because it didn’t come with any mounting brackets. Poster puddy to the rescue.

The next hurdle is changing your existing playing style to suit the tracking of the notes. If you play too hard or too soft or palm mute or any other thing other than straight playing, the pickup may or may not decide it likes those notes and either skip them completely or play a mashup of every note known to man and send that MIDI data to your synth. It sounds like digital mashed potatoes being flung at a wall during a cafeteria food fight. The most horrible digital noise you can imagine. This will be a reoccurring theme for the next couple entries.

Using this setup was okay, there’s a 13-pin cable that you have to connect to the Roland pickup and the guitar out jack also plugs into the Roland pickup, so you’re dragging around a cable much like most guitarists are anyway. It’s polyphonic, so if I play a G chord on the guitar, I can make it sound like a church pipe organ or a bunch of sappy synthy saxophones from the 80s or plug it into an external synth using MIDI. All of the MIDI and regular, unaffected audio straight from your guitar’s magnetic pickups go through the 13-pin cable into the guitar synth box, then that has outputs that would go to a PA or amp(s). You can split your signal into regular guitar tone and MIDI-ized sound, so that’s nice. It’s a neat enough system, having all of that audio and data going through that cable, but these cables aren’t off the shelf parts, usually special order.

The next contestant is the sonuus i2M musicport Audio to MIDI Converter. Yes, they use lowercase letters for their branding. This is a nifty gadget because of the size. It will take just about any audio signal and turn it into MIDI. It’s small and your computer or tablet will have to do the synth processing. The downside for me is it’s monophonic, meaning no chords. I guess that’d be okay if you’re using it with a bass, which I have.

Speaking of bass, I finally bit the bullet and bought a Roland GK-3B bass pickup. I was so excited and got it setup and plugged into my GR-09 and….nothing. The bass pickups won’t talk to the GR-09, it’s too old. Boo. So off to Reverb I went and bought a Roland G-20 interface. This is just an interface that accepts the 13-pin cable and provides some ports for a swell pedal as well as for audio out (unaffected guitar signal) and MIDI in and out. You can specify if you’re using a bass or guitar synth pickup with a switch on the back and dial in the kind of playing style and action with it too using the onscreen display, knobs and buttons on the front, then simply go MIDI to your favorite synth or into your computer like I do. Apple Mainstage is my go to synth powerhouse. Here, the possibilities are really endless. Layer instruments, mix it with your guitar or bass rig, awesomeness. The downside is the 13-pin cable. Of all the gigs I could have used it, I never did because I didn’t want to deal with all that mucky muck.

Fishman TriplePlay Connect

Up next is the Fishman TriplePlay Connect which I got cheap because it was a demo unit and was missing some mounting hardware. I reached out to Fishman (they’re a New England company, so that was nice) and was able to buy replacement mounting brackets! The TriplePlay Connect was originally made for iOS devices, so you could use your iPad as a synth and either record into something like GarageBand or have it go through your PA, etc. using the headphone jack. I was able to find the drivers on their website and actually use it with Mainstage on my MacBook, using my bass VI/baritone guitar. Works great, using a USB cable–one end into the pickup and the other into your tablet or computer. There’s a program that you can run on iOS or your computer and change the settings for your playing style, etc, much like the Roland GI-20’s tweakability. The TriplePlay Connect has built in synths which sound great, but honestly, I was never able to get that program working well enough to be usable. Just as I was about to give up on it, I figured out that I could use it as a controller for MainStage! Well, of course I can. Tracking is great, the only downside is it’s wired. They do sell a wireless version, with a USB dongle that plugs into your tablet or computer. Hmmmm…Wonka….