The Story of the SynthAxe, the Astonishing 1980s Guitar Synthesizer: Only 100 Were Ever Made


What is the musical device maximum completely of the 1980s? Many would say the “keytar,” a category of synthesizer keyboards formed and worn like a guitar. Their slightly gentle weights and inexpensive costs, even if first dropped at marketplace, put keytars inside the succeed in of musicians who sought after to own each the vast sonic palette of virtual synthesis and the inherent cool of the guitarist. This association wasn’t with out its compromises: few keytar gamers loved the complete vary of that sonic palette, to mention not anything of that cool. But in 1985, a brand new hope seemed for the synthesizer-envying guitarist and guitar-envying synthesist alike: the SynthAxe.

Created by means of English inventors Bill Aitken, Mike Dixon, and Tony Sedivy (and funded partly by means of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group), the SynthAxe made a quantum soar in the building of synthesizer-guitars, or guitar-synthesizers. Unlike a keytar, it used exact strings — no longer only one however two impartial units of them — that after performed may regulate any synthesizer suitable with the not too long ago presented Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) usual.

As Guitarist mag editor Neville Marten demonstrates in the contemporary promotional video at the best of the submit, this granted any individual who may play the guitar command of all the sounds state of the art synthesizers may make.

Not that mastery of the guitar translated instantly into mastery of the SynthAxe: even the maximum gifted guitarist needed to get used to the strangely sharp perspective of its neck, its flippantly spaced frets, and the set of keys embedded in its frame. (“That is the level, it’s no longer a guitar,” as Aitken took pains to provide an explanation for.) You can see Lee Ritenour make use of each the SynthAxe’s strings and keys in the 1985 concert clip above. Nicknamed “Captain Fingers” because of his sheer dexterity, Ritenour were in seek of techniques to extend his sound, experimenting with guitar-synthesizer hybrid techniques even in the 70s. When the SynthAxe got here alongside, no longer best did he report a complete album with it, that album’s quilt is a painting of him with the striking new instrument in hand.

So is the cover of Atavachron, the first album Allan Holdsworth recorded after assembly the SynthAxe’s creators at a industry display. No guitarist would soak up the SynthAxe with the identical fervor: Holdsworth, observed taking part in it with a breath controller (!) in the clip above, would proceed to apply it to his recordings up till his dying in 2017. “People used to put in writing notes on my amp, asking me to forestall taking part in the SynthAxe and play the guitar as a substitute,” he advised Guitar World in his final interview that year. “But now folks ceaselessly question me, ‘We’d love to listen to you play the SynthAxe — did you convey it?’ I hardly ever play it onstage anymore as a result of it is too pricey to tackle the street and it calls for so much of apparatus.”

The quantity of related equipment without a doubt put many an aspiring synthesizer-guitarist off the SynthAxe. (“It’s about as moveable as a drum package is not,” writes early adopter John Hollis.) So will have to the price ticket, a groovy £10,000 again in 1985. This did not get rid of guitarist Alec Stansfield, whose enthusiasm for the SynthAxe as was once such that he joined the corporate, having “knocked hard and long on their door till they gave me a task as a manufacturing engineer.” Alas, he writes, “the device was once by no means a industrial luck and sooner or later the corporate ceased buying and selling. Fewer than 100 tools were produced in general. In the ultimate months I used to be paid with a SynthAxe device since money was once tight” — a device he displays off in the video above

Stansfield offered off his SynthAxe in 2013, however what has grow to be of the others? One of Ritenour’s SynthAxes sooner or later discovered its manner into the ownership of Roy Wilfred Wooten, higher referred to as Future Man of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. “Over a duration of time, he started enhancing it into a virtually totally new device: the SynthAxe Drumitar,” writes Computer History Museum curator Chris Garcia. “This device, which changed the strings as the number one triggering mechanism, allowed Wooten to play the ‘drums’ the use of the guitar-like tool.” In the concert clip just above, you’ll behold Future Man taking part in and explaining this “SynthAxeDrumitar,” feels like a drum package however looks as if a guitar — despite the fact that relatively vaguely, at this level. Call it SynthAxe-meets-Mad Max.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and pronounces on towns, language, and tradition. His tasks come with the Substack e-newsletter Books on Cities, the e-book The Stateless City: a Walk via 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video sequence The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.


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