Teach a keytarist all about the guitar.
January 29, 2013 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I play piano. Recently I got a keytar (!) because I wanted to have something more portable to play, and to experiment with other sounds. The keytar has lots of cool "lead guitar" sounds, which are cool, but I have some questions that a guitarist could best answer. In the end, I want to be able to describe the kind of guitar sound I'm looking for in ways a guitarist would understand.

There are 32 "lead guitar" patches on the keytar, each with a slightly different sound. When a real-life guitarist plays different sounds, are they similarly just running them through equipment that creates "patches" from the raw guitar sound? Is there a good place to read about the basics about this kind of equipment, and/or a guide that describes the basic types of sounds for a guitar? (e.g. the kinds of distortion that are commonly used, distinctions between "chordy" patches vs lead patches, etc.)

Second, when a guitarist holds a note for a long time and it causes overtones, hanging in the air forever, is that all just generated through distortion/effects? Is there something that causes that to hold longer than a typical guitar strum?

And one long-shot: If I'm composing music (in Logic Pro), is there a way for me to mimic the sound of a "chordy" guitar using a keyboard? Mimicking a lead sound is easy, because the patch does the work for you, but I've found it harder to create a sound like a rock guitar strumming using a keyboard with guitar patches. (I've been messing with pedal, etc.)
posted by mcav to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This FAQ is pretty much all you would ever need (or want) to know about guitar effects, at a virtually subatomic level.

Sustain is a factor of the type of guitar and pickups (some just hold notes longer), but also a compressor effect/pedal. The "compression" in a comp pedal is compressing the loudness to a moderated level. So, loud noises get compressed to a middle value, but quiet noises get compressed to the middle too--i.e., the quiet sound is far away from the middle value, and the pedal compresses that distance, making it louder. So, when the sound is tapering off, the compressor will boost the signal to make it converge on the middle value--creating sustain. There's also doodads like ebows, which use magnets to create a stimulated state--sort of spontaneously vibrating. That, plus feedback, which can cause the strings to vibrate--i.e., hold the guitar up to the amp, and the sound of feedback will cause the strings to resonate with the feedback sound.

Think of Bowie's Heroes--the lead guitar sound was Robert Fripp using feedback to create sustain (though one could get to much the same place with an ebow, if you're not a guitar genius...)
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:01 AM on January 29, 2013

As a piano and guitar player, I would hazard a guess that it's nearly impossible to get a good "chordy" sound from a keyboard IMO. Strumming a guitar, the pick travels across each string in succession, which produces a distinct sound that we probably aren't conscious of most of the time, unless the chord is played on the slow side. Plus, chords on a guitar can be played by strumming low-to-high (pitchwise) and high-to-low. On a keyboard, all the notes on a chord are played simultaneously.
posted by puritycontrol at 10:19 AM on January 29, 2013

There are sample sets (Kontakt, MachFive, etc) of guitar chords and strumming simply because it is nearly impossible to do on a synth. They usually involve lots of keyswitching and have a learning curve to sound realistic and I’ve always thought it would be easier and more productive to just learn to play guitar than to get good with one of those.

There are lots of little, subtle things involving touch in playing guitar that change the sound, much more than a piano.
posted by bongo_x at 10:36 AM on January 29, 2013

This bit of vintage gear might help: Oberheim Strummer.
posted by kindall at 10:44 AM on January 29, 2013

I have never heard a synthesized effort to emulate a strummed guitar sound at all good. Maybe it can be done with sampling, though.
posted by thelonius at 11:32 AM on January 29, 2013

The only synthesized/sampled guitar sound I've heard/used that was any good was, shockingly, the guitar in Garage Band on iOS. It's not great, and sounds more like a Japanese koto or some other Asian zither, but it's better than anything else out therel
posted by MonsieurBon at 1:46 PM on January 29, 2013

Yeah, you'll probably be able to make better and more unique sounds if you focus on synth/electric piano sounds and then apply effects externally using e.g. distortion, chorus, and delay pedals. Anything that has the distortion "pre-cooked" into individually sampled notes is going to sound like a MIDI file.

Also, make sure your chords are spaced more openly if you're using distortion (e.g., don't add thirds between the first and fifth, put them above the fifth instead) - otherwise the harmonics pile on top of each other and you get a mess.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:38 PM on January 29, 2013

are they similarly just running them through equipment that creates "patches" from the raw guitar sound?

Pretty much, but your terminology's a bit off . . . .

Guitar 101 is you plug your guitar into 1 or more "effect" pedals (a.k.a "stompboxes"), each of which only does one type of effect (distortion, chorus, delay, etc) and then into an amplifier. PedalPlus Effects Warehouse link just to give you an idea of the enormous number of pedals currently out there.

Effects 101 from Boss (one of the big manufacturers of guitar pedals) is, well, a little cheesy, but I think has a good "explain it like I'm 5" series of videos demonstrating how different effects sound and what the controls do. Obviously, they're using Boss brand pedals, but the concepts carry over to pretty much any manufacturer's pedals.

Having each pedal do only one thing can be a problem if you want to turn multiple kinds of effects off and on simultaneously or switch from one combination of effects to a different one instantly. Then you can go with a multi-effect pedal (ex. Musician's Friend link to the Boss ME-70), or if you want to use your stand-alone effects pedals (lots of guitarists feel that various stompboxes have audio characteristics not well replicated by multi-effect units), you'll need some kind of switching system like the GigRig Pro 8. (These are the situations that guitar players would call "switching patches".)

The tone and response of the pickups and amplifier and speakers and how all the parts of your whole signal chain (guitar to pedals to amp to speaker) interact with each other are HUGELY important to guitar tone, and the subject of much debate, discussion, and tweaking. For an idea of "how guitar players think" try browsing around in the Telecaster Guitar Forum and the MyLesPaul Forum, both active communities discussing pretty much any and everything guitar related.

Second, when a guitarist holds a note for a long time and it causes overtones, hanging in the air forever, is that all just generated through distortion/effects?

Not exactly. That super-long sustain plus the overtones is essentially feedback, hopefully at least somewhat under the control of the guitar player, and to get feedback you pretty much need that loop of guitar pickup to amp & speaker back to guitar pickup. There is some distortion and compression involved, but exactly how and where it is in the signal chain can vary.

Various manufacturers have tried various ways to "fake" this over the years, but the results have been varied.

If you look at the site Admiral Haddock linked to, especially Distortion 101, you can see that "clipping" (or distorting) a signal & compression are very closely related - as in by driving some part of your signal chain beyond its' limits enough so that the wave begins to clip, you are also reducing the dynamic range, which is basically compression. So often the compression isn't a separate pedal or effect, but a side-effect of distorting the signal.

Vacuum tubes, for various reasons, distort and compress in ways that we generally find pleasant, so one way to get that kind of sound is to take a tube amp and crank it way the hell up. Of course, if you're using a high-powered tube amp like a Fender Twin, that's only gonna happen at ungodly volumes. One trick that guitarists have used (especially in the studio) is to use a low-power amp like a Fender Champ, which will get tube distortion and compression at more reasonable volumes.

More common these days is to distort the guitar sound in various ways with one or more pedals before it gets to the amplifier.

the kinds of distortion that are commonly used

Generally, Overdrive/Booster pedals have little or no clipping inside the pedal - the point is to boost the signal level enough so the amp begins to clip; Distortion pedals can do a lot more distortion in the pedal itself, and Fuzz pedals are very distorted, close to pure square waves (think the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" riff.)

is there a way for me to mimic the sound of a "chordy" guitar using a keyboard?

purity control's got a good explanation for why this is difficult-to-impossible, but just to expand a little, look at this image that maps notes on a guitar fretboard to a piano keyboard. When a guitarist plays an "open G" chord (a G major with simple fingering - a very common strummed chord), they're playing the G, B, D in the first octave, a fairly standard major triad, but then they're also playing G and B an octave higher and the G above that highest E.

IOW, the structure or voicing of chords on a guitar can be very different from those of a piano, and very non-intuitive for piano players. Plus, as puritycontrol says, you've got those six notes being played almost-but-not-quite simultaneously and in a low-to-high, high-to-low sequence. And strumming doesn't involve hitting every string at exactly the same velocity, so even sampling keyboards or DAW's can have a tough time mimicking strumming accurately - even with a "multi-sample" set-up where different samples come in depending on how hard the key is struck, getting the touch exactly right is so tough that (as bongo_x puts it) it's probably easier to learn to play guitar yourself, or call in a friend.

You might have some luck mimicking a simple, distorted, "root and fifth" chunka-chunka kind of punk-rock rhythm guitar sound.

Hey, you SAID "all about the guitar" . . . . . .
posted by soundguy99 at 1:57 PM on January 30, 2013

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