Pat Blythe – Synth What? …and Music

Last week I entered a wormhole I haven’t quite surfaced from. It all started with a offhand remark and has now ended up to a be two-part essay on all things synthesizer(ish). You’ve all read the history of this beast (test on Friday) so I shall now segue into the “guitar synthesizer”, the “SynthAxe” and a new find…..the “Keytar”.

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A pictorial history of the synthesizer and electronic keyboards

A quick recap……the surprising beginnings go back to 1895, launched in 1905, fast forward to 1935, then 1955 with the Hammond B3 w/Leslie speaker, 1939’s Novachord, then a Canadian chimed in with the Sackbut (the name does not scream synth!), the RCA Mark II in 1957….but Moog hot on its heels three years later followed by the Mellotron in ’68. The 70s saw the Minimoog followed by the Prophet 5 and then voila……the MIDI brought everyone together to sit at the same table in the 80s.

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Just a few of the keyboard “wizards and warriors” (and thank you J.S. Bach)

The synthesizer and its evolution would be nothing without the creativity, chutzpah and foresight of the creators and artists who truly made the instrument it was and is today.

Thank you Thaddeus, Laurens, Hugh, Robert, Wendy (and Walter), Keith, Jan, Rick, Lyle and everyone else who has contributed to the beauty and insanity that is the synthesizer.

In the beginning…..

The Guitar Synthesizer…..the instrument that got me stuck in this wormhole in the first place. Never in a million years would I have put these two instruments together. Designed to allow the guitarist to access synthesizer capabilities, all it took was one comment on Pat Metheny’s unique “guitar sound” and I crossed the wormhole threshold.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is guitorgan.jpgWell, apparently it all started with the Guitorgan. Invented by Bob Murrell of Musiconics International (MCI) the Guitorgan was introduced in 1968. It was a polyphonic instrument, which meant you could play six chords on it. Simply speaking, the Guitorgan is a mashup of the electric guitar with electronic organ components added. The frets are separated into six segments with independent “switches” for each string. A pedal was used to fade the organ sound in and out while the guitarist could continue strumming at the same time. Murrell kept plugging away, constantly upgrading his device. Some of those upgrades included analog synthesizer interfaces and even the MIDI in the mid-1980s.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vox-ad.jpgThe guitar synths of today are direct descendants of the Guitorgan. VOX followed in hot pursuit introducing their version calling Guitar Organ (how original) while Godwin produced two versions of their Organ (Guitar) in the mid-70s. The Godwin Guitorgan is capable of functioning as an organ or traditional guitar, independent of one another. The This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is godwin-knobs.jpgorgan sound was based on the Hammond B3, and was apparently the closest you could get to the B3 sound without actually playing the B3. Designed by Sisme, the Italian owner of Godwin Organs, the Godwin Guitorgan incorporated both form and function which is typical of Italian artistry.

Today’s guitar synths are direct descendants of 1970s devices. In the beginning there were three primary types of guitar synthesizers: multi-effect using and effects pedal; using the guitar’s pickups; or the Guitorgan which used fretboard switches. These days we’re down to two main groups: using regular guitars with built-in electronic sensors that actuate a synthesizer; or a guitar synth using non-guitar controllers such as MIDI.

…..let the Players play…..

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is arp.jpgApparently Jimmy Page was the first to use the first commercial guitar synthesizer. Called the ARP Avatar, it was essentially a synthesizer in a box, controlled by the guitar. Page used it for the song Fool in the Rain on Led Zeppelin’s 1978 album, In Through the Out Door.

Another ARP owner was Pete Townsend. Apparently the ARP was monophonic (meaning the guitarist could only play one note at a time). Not only limiting, it was a very expensive piece of equipment and out of the reach of most musicians. It pretty much drove ARP into bankruptcy.

It appears the Roland’s (whichever model you choose) polyphonic synth guitar is the most popular. First released in 1977, the GR-500 was the first model. Apparenty the “ace” up the GR-500’s “sleeve” was the infinite sustain system which consisted of two powerful magnets of opposite polarity. This was “put through its paces” by Steve Hackett on two of his albums, Please Don’t Touch and Spectral Mornings. It was also used by Chuck Hammer on David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes in 1980. Andy Summers used a Roland guitar synth in the song Don’t Stand So Close to Me. Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew used the GR-303 extensively on every song on the King Crimson album Discipline.

Pat Metheny – Interview and new England Digital Synclavier Demonostration

Pat Metheny played the Roland GR-303, interfacing it with the New England Digital Synclavier worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in its day. His first use of the synth guitar was for his 1982 album Offramp. I love this Metheny quote, “Jazz is a process that allows people to find things about themselves through the spirit of the music.”

The SynthAxe

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Then there’s the SynthAxe…..looking like something out of a sci-fi movie. The SynthAxe is a fretted guitar-like MIDI controller which uses two independent sets of strings… on the fretboard and one set for picking, and requires an electronic synthesizer to produce sound. It has no internal sound source.

Funded by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, the synth axe was created and produced in England. Bill Aitken was the primary inventor. A BBC music producer, Aitken was also a guitarist who wanted to play synthesizer. Together with engineer Mike Dixon, and digital designer Tony Sedivy, the three began developing the SynthAxe as early as 1978. After further design help from Ian Dampney and Ken Steel in 1983, the SynthAxe was ready for its debut in 1985.

The most prominent, well-known user of the SynthAxe is Allan Holdsworth, using the instrument for both live performances as well as on two of his albums, Atavachron in 1986 and Sand in 1987. In a final interview with Guitar World in 2017, Holdsworth, who considered himself a musician rather than just a guitarist, “It’s an exquisitely unique instruments. The SynthAxe enables you to achieve a whole world of sonic textures that you cannot get with a guitar. There was nothing like it before and nothing like it since…..People used to write notes on my amp, asking me to stop playing the SynthAxe and play the guitar… people often ask me, ‘we love to hear you play the SynthAxe – did you bring it?’ I rarely play it onstage anymore…..too costly…..requires a lot of equipment.” Prior to his introduction to the SynthAxe, Holdsworth, frustrated with the inadequacies of the systems available, had been busy designing one himself.

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Allan Holdsworth with his SynthAxe

Christopher Currell performed with a SynthAxe, controlling a Synclavier, during Michael Jackson’s Bad tour. Composer and guitarist, Chuck Hammer (Davie Bowie, Lou Reed) used the SynthAxe on his album Earth Run. One man even turned his SynthAxe into a kind of drum machine called the Synth-Axe-Drummitar. A six-time Grammy award winner with jazz/bluegrass band Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Roy Alfred Wooten is a musician, inventor and composer. His primary instrument is the SynthAxeDrummitar, a guitar synthesizer he has customized to play drums and percussion sounds.

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Roy Alfred Wooten & his SynthAxeDrummitar

In a 1986 interview with Steve Rosen, Jimmy Page commented on the SynthAxe. “I went with Tim [Marten, guitar tech] to a demonstration of the SynthAxe and it was just absolutely terrifying. It was great, it was fantastic. I was so impressed with the demonstration of the SynthAxe that it’s difficult to even see what faults it might have. You need to have one to know.” 

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Chris Currell during MJ’s Bad tour

Unfortunately, at a very hefty cost of $13,000 it was unaffordable for all but an elite smattering of musicians. Fewer than 100 SynthAxes were built before production stopped in 1988. Considered a commercial failure, it is still loved, held in high regard and still considered a high-performance instrument by world-class musicians. There has never been anything like it since.

…..and then there’s the Keytar

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Edgar Winter and his makeshift”Keytar”

I wrote the history of guitar a few years back so I’m not going to repeat myself there. However, inventions, modifications, Frankenstein creations, “make do” setups and killer sounds have produced exceptional and varied instruments down through the ages. I’m sure if I spent long enough researching every musical instrument and its relationship(s) with other musical instruments…… I find the histories surrounding their stories fascinating, amusing and quite absorbing. It also helps my understanding of music, the relationships the various instruments have with each other, and the creative process(es) involved in making all those sounds and beats we can’t live without.

So we have another mashup…..the Keytar, portmanteau of the words “keyboard” and “guitar”. Although I’ve seen this instrument used by many keyboardists, I never really paid attention to it……until now. I thought it was just an electric “piano on a rope” (so to speak). Nope…..

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is orphica.jpgIt’s actually a lightweight synth, hanging around your neck and shoulders by a strap much like a guitar. The Keytar allows the keyboardist to move around on stage rather than being tied down to a piano or hemmed in behind sets of keyboards. Controls are typically placed on the “neck” (pitch blends, vibrato, sustain, etc.) and the main body is set up like a standard keyboard, albeit a very small one. The Keytar can either be a MIDI controller or contain its own synthesizer “engine”. 

The Orphica

The great-granddaddy of all keytars is the Orphica. Invented by Carl Leopold Röllig in the late 1700s, it was essentially a small, portable piano with a shoulder strap. It could also be played lying flat on the ground or across a couple of chairs (I wonder if Jeff Healy knew about the Orphica). Made in Vienna from 1795 to 1810, only 30 Orphicas are in existence today. Beethoven composed two pieces for his wife, specifically for the Orphica.

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Top l-r – Rick Wakeman, James Brown, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock; bottom Jan Hammer (l) with Jeff Beck (r)

….and then…..the piano accordion appeared in 1852, the Basset (a Keytar-shaped electric bass) was introduced in 1963, the Tubon, a tubular organ strapped around the neck appeared in 1966 (Paul McCartney used one), then Edgar Winter wore keyboards slung around his neck (no, it wasn’t a Keytar….he used an ARP keyboard and a lightweight Univox electric piano with added shoulder straps). Keytars were commercially released in the late 70s and 80s. Jan Hammer, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Rick Wakeman are well-known for using the Keytar. Even James Brown checked it out.

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Karli Forget of Toronto band Hot Lips with her keytar

Honourable mention…..

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is joni-vg-8.jpgAmong the list of over 100 guitar synth users, there is only one woman….Joni Mitchell. Why am I not surprised!? Joni had decided the 1995 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival would be her swan song. She had already decided to stop touring in 1993. Frustrated with the music business as a whole, she was equally frustrated with the challenges she had getting the sounds she wanted from her guitar. Her distinctive way of “alternate” tuning was becoming more demanding and difficult, often changing with each song with constant switching out guitars. However, during the festival, Mitchell was introduced the Roland VG-8 (Virtual Guitar) by her old friend Fred Walecki. With its very sophisticated processor, the VG-8 electronically creates Joni’s tunings.

According to Roland, “While the strings physically stay in standard tuning, the VG-8 tweaks the pickup signals so that they come out of the speakers in an altered tuning. This means that Mitchell can use one guitar on stage, with an offstage tech punching in the preprogrammed tuning for each song. As long as the strings are accurately in standard tuning, she can play all over the neck in the virtual alternate tunings and sound in tune.”

Since 1995, Joni has used the VG-8 in every live gig. For her next album, Taming the Tiger, Mitchell immersed herself in an exploration of the VG-8’s sampled sounds. A couple of the results are below.

…..and so it goes

This was waaaaay longer, again, that I had anticipated. I love to learn and I’m hoping a few of you do to. I try to remain non-technical…..I certainly don’t understand it all. However, I’m fascinated by how many of the musical instruments we use today have developed, changed and progressed. I have no idea what I’ll find for next week…..but I’m sure I’ll manage to dig up something. There’s a warren of rabbit holes, or a universe of wormholes to travel.

There’s a wide variety of tunes to follow. Do listen or sample them. There’s a unending world of music out there for your ears to enjoy.

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Fool in the Rain – Led Zeppelin

Synth Axe Demo with Allan Holdsworth, Lee Ritenour & Neville Martin

Stomping Grounds – Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

Taming the Tiger – Joni Mitchell

Ashes to Ashes – David Bowie

Are You Going With Me – Pat Metheny

Miles Out – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Eighteen – Pat Metheny

Don’t Stand So Close to Me – The Police

Harlem in Havana – Joni Mitchell


Non-Brewed Condiment – Allan Holdsworth

Future Man Solo – Chicago Bluegress and Blues Festival (SynthAxe meets Drums)


Chameleon – Herbie Hancock

Advantage – Jan Hammer & Al Di Meola

Jan Hammer/Tony Williams Group – Montreal Jazz Festival

Chick Corea Electric Band – North Sea Jazz 2004

This week’s podcast feature Steve Pelletier, bassist, drummer, engineer and producer of The Basement Sessions. Great music you should check out…..and the podcast too.

The Basement Sessions



Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

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“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 


2 Responses to “Pat Blythe – Synth What? …and Music”

  1. Holy Cats, Pat. Impressive would be an understatement. I actually had a Moog back in the early eighties. Likely one of the simpler models but it had hundreds of voices. I knew a bit about the piano and could improvise some, but exploring the myriad of sounds, I always felt like I was scratching the surface. I even bought a four-track recorder and a simple drum machine. Taught myself how to bounce tracks. The whole system left when my first long-term BF left. I’ve always regretted not doing a deeper dive into the machines. Thanks for this.

    • Lovely to hear you enjoyed this. My brain still hurts and there’s more I could add. Part 1 of this little two-part series (last week’s column) starts at the very beginning (if you missed It). I don’t profess to understand all of the technical stuff but I have enough of a background in IT and telephony to be dangerous! Plus I love the history and the learning!

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