“HOW CAN I GET A GREAT LEAD GUITAR SOUND FROM MY SYNTH?”
It’s a good question, and one that I get asked frequently. And one of the answers I commonly offer is, “Play through a great guitar amp.” That answer may seem a little flippant, but a great guitar sound doesn’t simply come from the guitar – the sound has a lot to do with the effects and the guitar amp itself. Overdrive, compression, and EQ are not always things that are available in a keyboard, yet they can be integral elements in a guitar’s sound. A more realistic answer is to add a guitar-type stomp-box effect to your keyboard rig.
In my experience, guitar players tend to look on the effects they use as part of their sound. In contrast, I think often keyboard players view effects as something that is added to their sound. And I think this is only natural. For the guitarist, the guitar, strings, pick-ups, amp, tubes, speakers, etc. can all be contributing factors to their final, overall signature sound. With a synthesizer, the keyboard player can – in theory – create nearly any sound by setting various parameters a certain way. Effects are just icing on the cake.
Where am I going with this?
All of this is an introduction to answering that same question: “How can I get a great lead guitar sound out of my synthesizer?” Well, one of the first steps is to think more like a guitarist. Think a little more about what you want your signature soloing sound to be like, and think less about what effects you want to hear.
Let’s take a look at a common stomp-box: a compressor. Now with the exception of the guitar players who use an E-Bow, the sound produced by the guitar starts to die away right after it is picked. A compressor keeps raising the volume so that the level stays constant. However, as it does this, the harmonic content continues to change as the string loses energy (and thus loses harmonic content).
Obviously on a keyboard, I can produce a constant volume as the tone changes. True enough. But in a guitar rig, the compressor is often the component that feeds the distortion or overdrive part of the signal chain. In this case, the compressor plays an important part in setting up the overall sound. A compressor can still offer unique dynamic control to your synthesizer sounds.
Another popular type of stomp-box is a distortion or overdrive unit. By design, a distortion or overdrive unit produces non-harmonic overtones that are mixed into the original sound. This provides the sound with a rich harmonic content, and allows the sound to really stand out. This is great for soloing where you play only single notes, but can be less predictable when playing chords or more than one note at a time. Usually, you can achieve a wide range of tonal color – from warm to snarling – by trying different gain and output settings.
Effects in motion
Okay, so how does this all come together and benefit a keyboard player? Let’s take a look at a keyboard. Many synthesizers allow individual sounds to be stacked up and/or zoned across the keyboard. For example, in some cases, we have individual “Programs” which can be combined into “Combinations”. This way, I can have both hands playing a pad sound, while the highest note I play in my right hand plays a separate sound – a solo/lead synth type of sound. On most keyboards I can also assign this lead sound to a different output jack on the back of my keyboard. This opens up great opportunities for using effects creatively with your keyboard.
So let’s review – I have a keyboard set up to play two sounds. The main sound is polyphonic, played by both hands, and is routed to the main Left and Right outputs. The second sound is a monophonic lead sound, played legato-style from the highest note played on the keyboard. This second sound is routed to the Individual # 1 Output.
From here I can take this lead sound and run it through some guitar-oriented stomp-box effect pedals. If you are truly ambitious, you can run it through a guitar multi-effect pedal board, and/or even into a separate guitar amplifier.
Now there are a few things to consider. The output of a guitar may be at a different level than the output of a keyboard, so always start off with the input gain of your effects unit down all the way and bring it up. If you get too much distortion right away, try lowering the output level of your keyboard a bit. If you are truly aiming for a guitar-oriented sound from your keyboard, try choosing a sound that has the same audio envelope of a guitar; that is a sound that has a very strong initial attack (as the string is picked), a quick initial decay, and then levels off for a bit (not unlike a piano).
Investigate guitar effects
If you are new to this, I would first try and borrow a couple of overdrive pedals from your guitar-playing buddies. See what you like about each one. Some offer EQ or tone controls. That can make a big difference if you are going back into a keyboard mixer at this point, and not into a guitar amp that offers its own tone controls. Some units have a tube in them for that authentic tube tone. You might find that a unit like this can also allow you to get great vintage electric piano sounds when set for a milder setting. Some of the floor unit multi-effect pedals will add flanging, delays and reverb to the basic compression and overdrive features.
Take a look when you are out listening to music and see what pedals other players might be using. And of course, visit your local music store and try a few pedals.
Personally I use a small distortion pedal. It offers just the right amount of “edge” to my lead sound. I will often make two versions of the combinations I use for soloing – one that has the lead sound routed to the Individual #1 Ouput and use it as described above. I will then make a second version that uses the same lead sound twice. The first lead sound stays mixed in with pad sound and is routed to the main Left and Right outputs. An identical lead sound will be routed to the Individual # 1 Output, and out to my guitar distortion pedal. This way, I can actually double a part with myself – so the second lead sound will be similar to that of a guitarist doubling the part with me.
In addition to thinking like a guitarist as you solo, consider the physical design of a guitar. Don’t play notes higher or lower than a guitarist can play. When a guitarist bends a string with his fingers, he is pulling the string tighter – so only bend up in pitch – unless you are trying to imitate the playing of a guitarist using a whammy bar, which generally bends down in pitch.
Using a good overdrive pedal and learning to route parts to separate outputs will give you a creative edge and help you find your own “signature sound.”