Sunday, 20 February 2011

The SynthAxe

Following on from my last post about Gary Moore, I was watching the video for 'Out In The Fields' again when I noticed a brief shot of him holding what looked like a vacuum cleaner with strings on; this was in fact an early synthesizer controller (played similarly to a guitar) produced in Britain and known, cunningly enough, as the SynthAxe. As is so often the case with something new, it is always the bigger companies that take the idea, run with it and end up getting their products into the stores. The SynthAxe was prohibitively priced at around £10000, which is steep now let alone for 1985! Consequently only established musicians got the chance to try it out; Moore was one of them but although he was renowned for his willingness to try new things, when he played live that year it was with conventional guitars. It was Allan Holdsworth who became better known for playing the instrument; praising its innovation and declaring that he'd been waiting all his life for a device like that. It certainly opened up a lot of possibilities to guitar players, but rock fans are very conservative creatures and to bring one of those out on stage at a hard rock gig would have invited ridicule - no matter how much it could do!

Guitar synthesizers did get more sophisticated as time went on of course, and Judas Priest introduced them on their 'Turbo' album in 1986. They did, however use them wisely and never let the synths dominate; the guitar synths complemented the music rather than dominate their trademark heavy sound. Iron Maiden soon followed suit with 'Somewhere in Time'; again bringing in the synth sounds carefully.  It was however Yes who brought the guitar synth to popular view in 1983, with Trevor Rabin's solo in 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart' attracting acclaim and attention. Indeed, Ritchie Blackmore admitted (in an interview with Kerrang!) that he went out and bought one of his own purely on the strength of hearing that solo.

Back to the SynthAxe: because of the high price few were sold and they are now rare. For the time it looked very futuristic; now it appears somewhat dated and the shape of it doesn't really seduce the eye. It isn't what you'd call 'rock and roll'!  Maybe it was that as much as the high price which ensured it didn't catch on; it would have taken someone very high-profile like Prince to adopt it for the instrument to have become widely accepted. Perhaps with the 'rock' image in mind, today's guitar synths tend to be in the form of electronic sensors attached to a conventional guitar but which do the same job - control an external synthesizer. There is a company around today however that has taken on the SynthAxe idea and updated it for the 21st century: Starr Labs who produce the ZTar range of guitar/synth controllers. Interestingly, their devices can also be used to control games such as Rock Band!

So, while I remain one of those conservative creatures who firmly believes in the power of nothing more than strings, magnets, wood and electricity, here nonetheless are some video clips of the SynthAxe in action, along with its modern-day equivalent.

Here's Gary Moore/Phil Lynott with 'Out In The Fields' (SynthAxe visible at 2:00)

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