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Synthesizer Series: How to Make Your Guitar Sound Like A Synth

This is the third part of a three part series exploring the use in synthesizers in music.

January 16, 2019
Written by
Erin Ramona Martinez
Illustrations by
Ashley Ronning

Just because you don’t own a synthesizer doesn’t mean you can’t get that sort of flavor on your own songs without one. Chances are, you might even already have some gear that is capable of emulating those sounds sitting within your own pedal board and amp collection. Recently there has also been a large number of pedals introduced to the market with the intention of making your guitar sound like a synth with greater realism then one would get by using some of the methods I am going to write about here.

A couple of examples would be the Electro Harmonix Synth 9, which is quite impressive in its ability to completely transform your guitars dry signal into 9 different accurate recreations of some of the more famous synthesizers throughout music history. And the charming Earthquaker Device’s Bit Commander which has a more lo-fi chiptune character to it that can also drop your signal an octave below for an extra thick sound.

Although you can’t really make your guitar sound exactly like a synth without using a pedal designed to do just that, you can use some fairly common stomp boxes to capture the vibe if you get creative with them. Useful pedals would include any type of fuzz, distortion, phaser, chorus, pitch shifter, wah, and talk box. Guitarists might be surprised to learn that using a synth with a little bit of chorus or a phaser is common enough for some synths to even have those effects built-in. The Roland Juno 60 is among the most famous out there primarily because of its simple lush chorus effect that has become legendary enough for clones to emerge on the market.

Talk boxes and Wah-Wahs are literal filters and these two devices are sometimes used to give synths a little more depth and movement. Fuzz and distortion alter your guitars original waveform by adding in more harmonics and when pushed to their extremes can transform a guitars waveform into something very similar to a square wave via clipping. All of these tools can help but arranging guitar parts so they sound more similar to the kinds of lines a keyboardist would play can really seal the deal. Some techniques that standout would be the use of two handed tapping which is often played with a smooth legato and sweep picking which usually involves heavy use of arpeggios. Single note leads can be surprisingly effective as well.

One of my favorite sounds is a square-wave playing a simple melody. I was a kid who grew up during the 8-bit and 16 bit era and I have no shame in saying that a lot of the music in video games during that time influenced me. I was obsessed with chiptunes and when I got a guitar those were some of the first sounds I wanted to recreate. There are 3 basic waveforms that make up the sounds of Nintendo’s NES, and Gameboy. Triangle, Squarewave, and Pulsewave.

Curiously enough, the sound of the SEGA Genesis is literally an FM synthesizer curtesy of Yamaha. Getting that kind of lo-fi sound is possible with most simple rigs consisting of an amp with a lot of gain, or with most fuzz and distortion pedals. A gate is also helpful because of the amount of noise that comes with amount of gain needed to do this. Select the neck pickup on your guitar and roll your tone knob as low as possible. The result will be quite muffled but this is key. Because most Fuzz pedals clip your original signal to the point of the peaks themselves being cut off thus resulting in square like wave, fuzz will get you closest to the sound. Though any strong distortion can also do the trick, overdrive itself is simply too mild to achieve the effect. You’ll want to make sure that your amp is at a safe volume because you will be rolling the gain up to 100% which will have quite impact on your rigs volume. Once you have that dialed in you’ll find that single notes seem to sustain forever. You can take this to up to another level by making use of any pedal that will allow you to either drop or raise the pitch of the notes. Playing with this much gain can make any chords or unintentional ringing notes build up very quickly resulting in a wash of noise so you will want to try your best to mute any strings that you’re not using. A noise gate can also be quite useful but is not required to pull this off cleanly.

I would finally like to add that adding a nice reverb or delay can really and some dimension to this kind of sound. Though this might not be the kind of sound you would want to use all the time, I find that learning other instruments and then mimicking the sounds on the one you are more comfortable with can be quite refreshing and really lends itself to helping think outside the box.

Sometimes changing gears like that can all that is needed to inspire the next song.

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