Around December 2004, I started playing every Thursday night at a Starbucks at the Long Beach Towne Center mall with my old friend Craig Saxon. He had been playing there for about five years. We played for tips, which ranged from nothing to about $50. (On the nights there was nothing, I suspect that someone cleaned out the tip bucket while we weren’t looking.) Craig is sort of a one-man band. He knows hundreds of songs, takes requests, and arranges them on the fly. He’s got a harmonica holder, a looper, and he switches from straight guitar to slide. I was playing leads and fills on a blue Wechter acoustic-electric, but I wanted to add even more to the mix, so I bought a Roland GR-20 guitar synth. The synth came packaged with a GK-3 pickup which I installed on a red Fernandes Strat copy that actually belonged to Craig. The GK-3 pickup unit looks like something the Borg might have designed, but it worked just fine.
I went through the hundreds of installed patches, which ranged from glorious, to usable, to “What were they thinking?” I copied the ones that I thought would work with Craig’s music into the user bank so I could get to them easily. I created a cheat sheet of patch numbers so I could find them. Now I could put a brass section on “Domino,” a Hammond B3 on “One Headlight,” cheesy Farfisa organ on “Personal Jesus,” spacey strings on “The Great Beyond,” cello on “Blackbird,” and even banjo on “American Pie.” This was all great fun. Some people thought we had pre-recorded backing tracks. Others came up and said, “your guitar sounds funny.”
This weekly gig ended in late 2007. Craig ended up moving to Camarillo, but we were just getting tired anyway.
I started using the guitar synth on home recordings. I have a little M-Audio midi keyboard, but I am a terrible keyboard player. With the GR-20, I could input parts with the guitar. You can record the onboard sounds, or connect up midi cables and trigger computer-based softsynths. However, I really wanted a guitar with the synth pickup built-in so I didn’t have the whole GK-3 unit hanging off the guitar. I had tried to order a Rogue Violin bass from Musician’s Friend when they were closing out the Korean-made ones for $149, but Musician’s Friend was moving their warehouse and got everything all screwed up. To make amends, they sent me a 20% off coupon. I used it to order a white Roland-Ready Stratocaster. Here it is, just out of the box:
Because the VG guitar is now the top of the line Fender synth guitar, the Roland Strats are now based on the Standard Stratocaster, which is made in Mexico. Fit and finish were quite good. It was very playable out of the box. I ended up making quite a few setup adjustments, but that was mostly because it came with .09’s on it and I like .10’s. I left the bridge floating because I had been listening to some of James Wilsey’s stuff. He’s the guy who played the lead on Chris Isaaks’ “Wicked Games.” Tuning stability is excellent. I don’t do dive bombs with the tremolo arm, just little wobbles, but it stays in tune.
The pickups were the ceramics that come with Standard Strats these days. They were nice for playing rhythm, but I wanted something brighter, sweeter and more vintage. I wanted something that sounded like my best friend’s candy apple red Strat in high school, back in 1968. After a lot of research, I put in a set of Tonerider Pure Vintage pickups. I cycle through the pickup positions from neck to bridge in this clip:
This set is bright, sweet, and complex. The in-between positions are nice and boinky. You can get tones like Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, and Richard Thompson.
The GK-2A pickup system does everything that the GK-3 did, but the whole package is tucked away inside the guitar. The audience will never know. They will probably still say your guitar sounds funny.
It’s a keeper.