MIDI and guitars don’t exactly go together like, say, a Marshall stack and a Les Paul, but there are many reasons why guitarists may want to incorporate MIDI into their rigs.
MIDI allows for a wealth of control and performance options that aren’t available with most traditional guitar rigs, and the range of musical options that it opens up is virtually boundless.
MIDI pickups are the ticket to the sometimes-confusing but ultimately rewarding world of MIDI guitar. The best guitar MIDI pickups will enable you to tap into the near-endless possibilities of MIDI, and they could change the way you view your guitar forever.
Before we get into it, we would like to thank Sweetwater sales engineers Jesse Gutierrez and Trevor Parks for their invaluable assistance, without which this article wouldn’t have been possible. If you have any questions about how you can make MIDI a part of your guitar rig, do contact them and they will be happy to help.
Choosing a MIDI pickup
Choosing a MIDI pickup is different from choosing a standard guitar pickup in many ways.
It is important to keep in mind that the MIDI pickup has very little to do with the quality of the sound that you or the audience will be hearing. The quality and capabilities of the pickup will affect how efficiently played notes are tracked and how information such as bends and vibrato will translate. But the quality and range of the sounds you can produce depend mainly on the sound module that receives the MIDI data.
What does this mean for guitarists?
Traditionally, choosing a guitar pickup required careful consideration of tone, frequency response, and a host of other factors that affect the sound to varying degrees.
Guitar pickups are typically chosen for their warmth, brilliance, clarity, dynamics, and other characteristics that ultimately contribute to a guitarist’s trademark sound.
In contrast, MIDI pickups aren’t usually subject to such variances…
MIDI is essentially a technical protocol that is judged mainly by its ability to translate the guitar performance into MIDI information accurately.
Subjective factors such as tone and clarity do not factor into the equation at all–MIDI pickups either translate the guitarist’s performance poorly or adequately…
This means that the effectiveness and usefulness of MIDI pickups are often dependent on technical–rather than aesthetic–considerations.
So how do you choose a MIDI pickup?
Some of the most important factors to consider are:
A MIDI pickup should be able to pick up and transmit performance information accurately.
It should be able to follow along with your bends, slides, trills, and double-stops without dropping notes or jumbling up the information.
Granted, you will still have to play cleanly with reasonably precise articulation regardless of the MIDI pickup you install on your guitar. But you should be able to expect a MIDI pickup to keep up with most standard guitar-playing techniques.
There are MIDI pickups and guitar-oriented MIDI systems that track only monophonically, which means that chords and harmonies are out of the question.
The way we see it, if you are already taking the trouble to equip your guitar with MIDI capabilities, you should go all the way and choose a MIDI pickup that allows you to track polyphonically. This will give you a lot more musical options and opens up the range of sounds and performance methods available to you.
Many MIDI pickups are designed to be part of a comprehensive system that includes the pickup itself, the sound-generating module, and foot controllers. An integrated system is the simplest way to get started with MIDI guitar and will allow you to crank out a pretty impressive range of sounds right out of the box.
But you might also want to look into pickup and decoder combos that will work with any MIDI-equipped module. This will enable you to swap out the synthesizer component if you wish, so you have access to sounds that are more to your liking, instead of being restricted to the sounds that come onboard a particular module.
Finally, consider the form factor of the MIDI pickup you are thinking of purchasing. Remember that the pickup you choose will likely take up residence on your guitar permanently, so you will want one that doesn’t look too out of place or get in the way of your playing.
All the models listed here will fit neatly onto most guitars without being too obtrusive, but keep in mind that they will affect the look of your guitar to varying degrees.
When choosing a pickup to bolt or glue onto your guitar, think about how it will affect your playing and range of movements, as well as how it looks.
Your Line of Support
All this information may seem a bit daunting, particularly if you have never worked with MIDI before. But the beauty of MIDI is that it can be as simple–or as complicated–as you need it to be. Even if you have very little technical knowledge or experience, you can begin to incorporate many of the most important aspects of MIDI in your music if you have the basic equipment in place.
In any case, we strongly urge you to get in touch with your friendly Sweetwater representative for further guidance and assistance if necessary. Their help has been invaluable in putting together this review, and they will surely be able to provide you with plenty of valuable information.
Now on to the next bit… the best MIDI pickups for your guitar 🙂
Best MIDI pickups for Guitar
- Fishman TriplePlay Connect Guitar MIDI Controller
- Fishman TriplePlay Wireless MIDI Pickup
- Roland GK-3 Divided Pickup
- Roland GK-3B
- Roland GK-Kit for Guitar
- Graph Tech Ghost Hexpander MIDI Interface Kit (Basic)
- Graph Tech Ghost Hexpander MIDI Interface Kit (Advanced)
- Graph Tech Ghost Acousti-Phonic & Hexpander Kit (Complete)
The Fishman TriplePlay Connect Guitar MIDI Controller is billed as a “Guitar MIDI Pickup System for Your iPad”. It effectively connects your guitar to your iPad, allowing you to control a host of iOS virtual instruments from your favorite guitar. It’s one of the simplest and easiest MIDI systems to install, making it ideally suited for guitarists that are just beginning to explore the vast, wonderful world of MIDI, as well as those that are fully committed to becoming a MIDI guitarist.
The TriplePlay Connect installs non-invasively, so you don’t need to make extensive modifications to your cherished axe. After attaching the pickup to the face of your guitar, you simply connect the cable to your iPad, and you can begin playing and recording immediately.
The TriplePlay Connect also allows you to create loops from any sound and trigger loops and audio files from any fret. The TriplePlay Connect even cranks out chords and arpeggios from single notes and lets you play in different keys without having to shift positions on the fretboard. You can also share any songs you record with other TriplePlay Connect users via a downloadable iOS app.
Also from Fishman, the TriplePlay Wireless MIDI Pickup neatly addresses an issue that has tied down–quite literally–MIDI guitarists since the dawn of the technology. Marketed as the “Ultimate Wireless Guitar Controller”, the TriplePlay Wireless frees MIDI-savvy guitarists from having to be tethered to a MIDI module. It allows you to send MIDI data to your computer via a USB dongle, and compose and record into a DAW as you normally would with any MIDI instrument. Connect it to a laptop, and the TriplePlay Wireless could be an integral component of a flexible and versatile live performance system.
Like most MIDI guitar systems, the TriplePlay Wireless allows you to play software instruments from a standard electric guitar. You can also compose motifs and songs via standard notation or the more guitarist-friendly tab notation. The system also comes with dedicated software that lets you set up splits on your fretboard, so you could comp on a piano or organ patch on the lower strings, then jump to the higher strings to play a melody line on a guitar or violin patch.
The Roland GK-3 Divided Pickup is only one in a long line of MIDI solutions from a company that has been at the forefront of MIDI and MIDI guitar since the protocol was developed. This is the easiest to install Roland MIDI pickup yet, being 30% thinner than the previous model. It now features a standard ¼” input jack, which should be welcome news for guitarists that are just getting their feet wet with MIDI tech.
The GK-3 has been designed from the ground up for excellent tracking and playability. It has an adjustable curve so you can set it to get the optimum response for your playing style. Roland has reduced the GK-3’s output slightly as compared to the Roland GK-2, which reduces string bleed and false triggering. As with all MIDI pickups, you still have to play cleanly with the Roland GK-3. But the new design makes it a lot more forgiving than its predecessor, so you have a lot more leeway with regard to playing like a guitarist with this version.
Roland hasn’t forgotten about bassists. Even four-stringers can get on the MIDI bandwagon with the Roland GK-3B, a MIDI pickup designed specifically for bass players. The GK-3B shares many of the features of the GK-3, down to the slim profile and unobtrusive transmitter module. It also has a standard ¼” output and a generously-sized sooth-action volume knob.
Like the GK-3, the GK-3B can be switched to send out only the original sound of your instrument, only the sound of the synth module, or a blend of both. This gives you a wide range of sounds at your fingertips, from raw bass tones to lush synthesized voices and everything in between.
You can use the Roland GK-3B with pretty much any MIDI module, but connecting it to dedicated bass synth modules and processors will enable you to get the most out of its bass guitar-focused design. Roland recommends its own V-Bass and GR-20 units, both of which come with loads of cool patches plus the ability to craft your own. If you are a bassist who wants to expand your range of sounds for live performance and studio recording, the Roland GK-3B is worth a close look.
If you’re thoroughly committed to MIDI and really want to make it a part of your rig, the Roland GK-Kit for Guitar is the way to go. Unlike the other pickups we’ve mentioned thus far, this is a permanent MIDI kit that will require professional installation and fairly extensive modification of your guitar. This is probably not the way to go if you simply want to dip your toe into the MIDI waters to find out what the fuss is all about. The Roland GK-Kit is a serious MIDI system for serious MIDI musicians, and it will entail a bit of a paradigm shift.
In any case, your commitment will be rewarded by an elegant and very capable MIDI solution that will pretty much cover all your needs as a modern MIDI guitarist. The beauty of this system is that it works equally well with electric and steel-string acoustic guitars, so any musician can add MIDI capabilities to their rig regardless of their preferred style of music. The Roland GK-Kit is compatible with a wide variety of MIDI modules and processors, including the Roland V-Guitar System, the GR-20 Guitar Synthesizer, and the full range of BOSS GK Effect Pedals.
Graph Tech has a line of MIDI solutions designed specifically for guitarists. The company offers the Ghost Hexpander MIDI Interface Kit in Basic and Advanced flavors, each of which provides a versatile solution for guitarists looking to add synth sounds to their sonic palette. Graph Tech also has a Ghost Acousti-Phonic & Hexpander Kit, which is billed as a complete MIDI kit for guitar.
The Basic Ghost Hexpander MIDI Interface Kit consists of a Hexpander MIDI interface, a 13-pin output jack and mounting plate, and an interface wiring harness. The system features low-latency circuitry that allows for fast and accurate tracking with most any capable pitch-to-MIDI converter. The Hexpander works exceptionally well with Roland’s GR33, GI-20, VG99, and V-Bass units, as well as Axon’s AX-50 and AX-100 systems. It also connects to the Ghost Acousti-Phonic pre-amp and the full range of optional Graph Tech switches without any rewiring or soldering. You don’t even need to have a battery onboard, as the Hexpander draws power from the MIDI converter.
The Advanced Ghost Hexpander MIDI Interface Kit offers more of the same features and functionality as the Basic kit in a more comprehensive package. This is the ideal solution for guitarists that want to make MIDI a permanent part of their rig and need full compatibility with a host of MIDI processors and sound modules.
Like the Basic kit, the Advanced kit comes with a Hexpander MIDI interface, a 13-pin output jack and mounting plate, and an interface wiring harness. It also comes with a QuickSwitch that allows you to select between MIDI-only and guitar-only outputs, or both, giving you maximum versatility for live performances. There is also a program up/down switch that lets you change patches without having to use a footswitch, and a Hexpander MIDI Volume Pot.
Of course, the Advanced kit is also compatible with an equally diverse range of MIDI devices. And like the Basic kit, it allows for quick and accurate tracking, so you don’t have to worry about dropped notes and glitches ruining your performance.
The Big Daddy of the Graph Tech line is the Ghost Acousti-Phonic & Hexpander Kit, which the company proudly claims to be the “complete kit for guitar”. This system combines all the features and capabilities of the Advanced Hexpander kit with an Acousti-Phonic component that lets you get amazingly realistic acoustic guitar tones from your electric guitar. With this system, you can switch easily between standard electric guitar tones and convincing acoustic guitar timbres, and still get the range of synthesized and sampled tones available from your chosen MIDI module. This is one of the most versatile and comprehensive MIDI systems on the market, giving you a practically unlimited wealth of sonic material to play with.
You pretty much can’t go wrong with any of the MIDI systems detailed above, although some might be better suited for your purposes, depending on your preferences and playing style.
After the jump, some useful and “good-to-know” information about MIDI as it relates to guitars.
What is MIDI?
“MIDI” or “Musical Instrument Digital Interface” is a language that allows musical instruments, computer and hardware equipment, and software to communicate with each other. In a MIDI system, two or more pieces of hardware are connected together, usually by physical cables, and a MIDI interface. These connections allow the devices to pass MIDI information to and from each other.
MIDI was developed in the 1980s as a way to standardize communications between electronic musical equipment. The system was conceived by Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, who proposed the development of a standard instrument language to Sequential Instruments founder, Dave Smith. After Smith and Sequential’s Chet Wood developed the first interface, representatives from Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and Kawai worked on the further development and refinement of the protocol. In 1982, the first MIDI-equipped synthesizer–Sequential’s Prophet 600–was released on the market.
Nearly 40 years after the birth of MIDI, it is still the predominant means of communication between computers and digital musical instruments and equipment. Despite its age–and a few shortcomings–MIDI is still a useful system that just plain works, as any music producer. Even as most manufacturers have begun exploring other means of communication between musical instruments and equipment, many musicians and producers still utilize MIDI to some degree to this day.
MIDI serves many purposes in a typical studio or live performance environment, but the most basic function is to send MIDI note data from one piece of equipment to another.
For example, you may use a MIDI-equipped keyboard to play the sounds on another keyboard, synthesizer, sound module, or even your computer. Hardware or software sequencers can also send data to synthesizers and sound modules via MIDI.
MIDI can be used to send more than just note data. It can also send MIDI clock and time code to synchronize your equipment, as well as control change information that affects different parameters of the receiving equipment. From the same MIDI-equipped keyboard mentioned above, you can bend the pitch, speed up the modulation rate, or open up the filter of the receiving device. You can also hit ‘play’ on a software or hardware sequencer and have all the connected equipment start playing in sync.
As you could imagine, MIDI allows for a great deal of flexibility with regard to how you play and control various pieces of equipment. MIDI allows you to play an entire rack of MIDI sound modules and synthesizers from a single keyboard or sequencer. It greatly expands the capabilities of even the most basic electronic musical equipment setups and provides many opportunities to enhance your range of sounds.
You can also use MIDI to store parameter data and system settings of your instruments for later retrieval and to update system firmware. MIDI is also used to control lighting rigs, video systems, and more.
MIDI and guitars
Keyboardists and synthesizer players have traditionally made up the largest segment of the MIDI users’ market. But there are many good reasons for guitar players to incorporate MIDI into their workflows as well. You can use MIDI foot controllers to switch between amp channels, effects patches, and even different signal processing chains. You can also use MIDI to expand your sonic palette, producing sounds that would be the envy of any keyboard or synth player.
The range and quality of sounds you can produce with a MIDI-equipped guitar are nothing short of astounding. Practically all the sounds available in every digital synthesizer ever made can be played via a MIDI guitar, from strings and pads to organ and horn sounds, leads, synth basses, and more. Artists such as Pat Metheny, Allan Holdsworth, Jimmy Page, and Andy Summers are only a few of the many guitarists that have explored the myriad sonic possibilities available via MIDI guitar.
Keep in mind that triggering synthesizer sounds from a guitar requires a more precise and meticulous technique than playing a keyboard. Many of the techniques and articulations that make guitar playing so idiosyncratic–such as bends, scrapes, palm mutes, and slurred notes–don’t translate particularly well through MIDI, resulting in dropped notes, unwanted pitches, and unintended triggering. You should, therefore, be very precise with your note choices and picking, avoiding anything that could be ‘misread’ by the MIDI pickup. It does get easier with practice but bear in mind that playing MIDI guitar is a bit different than playing guitar through an amp and a couple of stompboxes.
Getting started with MIDI
Here’s some more information that should be useful for anyone looking to become a MIDI guitarist.
Get a MIDI Pickup
The simplest way to convert a standard guitar into a MIDI guitar is to attach a MIDI pickup to it. These are devices that convert a guitar’s audio signal into MIDI data. Playing your guitar then sends note and controller data through the MIDI path to a MIDI-equipped synth module or processor.
Some companies–most notably, Casio–have developed MIDI guitars that communicate with MIDI devices without the need for aftermarket add-ons such as MIDI pickups. These guitars are essentially MIDI instruments that control synth modules pretty much like standard MIDI keyboards, except that the strings trigger the sounds.
MIDI Pickup vs MIDI Guitar?
As cool as MIDI guitars are, many guitarists prefer attaching MIDI pickups to an actual guitar if they want to utilize MIDI. Dedicated MIDI guitars look a lot like standard guitars, but most are made of plastic and don’t play like ‘real’ guitars at all. You will have to adjust your technique significantly to trigger notes accurately, and the experience never entirely feels like you are playing a real guitar.
Opting for a MIDI pickup gives you all the benefits of MIDI guitar with the added advantage of being able to play an instrument you are already comfortable with. Experienced guitarists will have to modify their playing technique only slightly to trigger the sounds from a MIDI module convincingly. Even if you have little or no experience with MIDI guitar, the more familiar interface of a guitar with a MIDI pickup will make for a more enjoyable experience than playing a dedicated MIDI guitar.
MIDI pickups aren’t meant to take the place of your regular pickups. Many of them look like standard guitar pickups and are meant to be fitted between the pickups you already have on your guitar. The pickup component registers the pitch and vibration of the strings of the guitar as you play them, sending it to an attached ‘decoder’ or transmitter. This transmitter then converts the note data into MIDI data that is sent to a MIDI module.
Embrace the Benefits of using MIDI Pickup
The benefit of being able to play MIDI from an instrument you are already familiar with can’t be overstated. Remember: you can use your regular onboard pickups alongside your MIDI pickup, which gives you a much wider range of sounds to choose from. Imagine being able to play regular power chords and then switching to a nice, mellow pad or organ comping sound during the verses, and then switching back to bust out a screaming lead guitar line. That’s only one scenario that you can cover with a MIDI pickup, and there are many more musical applications besides.
Choose your MIDI Pickup Wisely
The technology that drives many modern MIDI pickups has come a long way since the earliest days of MIDI guitar. Most early MIDI guitars could only track monophonically, which meant that you were limited to single-note lines. If you wanted to play a chord on these early MIDI guitars, you would likely get a dissonant and unmusical jumble of notes as the converter struggled to make sense of your performance.
All the MIDI pickups featured in this review are capable of so much more. They all track reasonably well–provided you play cleanly with good articulation–and they have the further advantage of allowing you to play polyphonically. This means that they will translate played chords into polyphonic MIDI data, allowing you to play convincing chords and harmonies such as piano, organ, string, and choir parts.
Most of these MIDI pickups also fit neatly onto most electric and acoustic guitars, without adding too much bulk or weight that could throw you off. Early MIDI attachments tended to be huge and obtrusive and weren’t really comfortable to have onboard. In contrast, these modern pickups hardly take up much guitar real-estate and are almost unnoticeable if not for the cable connecting them to the transmitter unit.
Be Ready to Commit…
Like many other aspects of technology, there are some downsides to equipping your guitar with a MIDI pickup. These are pretty much permanent modifications, so you might want to consider whether or not it is worth drilling holes into your Number One to get MIDI capabilities. Some MIDI pickups can be attached to your guitar without drilling holes, but you will still probably have to glue them on, which will affect the visual aesthetic of your prized guitar.
One option is to leave your favorite guitar as is and attach a MIDI pickup to your backup guitar. This is a no-brainer if you regularly bring along a backup guitar to gigs anyway, and will allow you to cover much more sonic ground than you would be able to with two standard guitars.
MIDI-fying a guitar isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain level of commitment to attach a MIDI pickup to a standard guitar, and it will require a period of adjustment before you can switch seamlessly between ‘standard’ and MIDI modes. But if you want to expand your range of sounds far beyond what a Marshall stack and a Stratocaster or a Les Paul can offer, you might find a MIDI pickup to be a rewarding modification.