roland gk-kit gt3 pickup
Originally published in Tapeop Magazine, Issue #103
Somehow, a strap-on keyboard can pass as dorky/cool, especially with the rise of “nerdcore.” But IMHO, a synth guitar is just… well… dorky, and always will be. Just check YouTube for shredders playing drum kits through their axes, and wince at their geeky outboard retrofits. I can poke fun because I too am a geek and love products like the Roland GR55 guitar-synth floor-pedal. But I also love my guitars as iconic design objects and disdain the thought of attaching cumbersome outboard electronics. Here’s where the GKKIT comes in. The tiny magnetic pickup, a direct descendant of synth-guitar god Pat Metheny’s setup from his Roland G303 axe, and its associated electronics will likely fit snugly away within your existing control cavity.
Sure you might have to drill a couple holes for the volume knob and two up/down momentary buttons (included), but if you’re clever, you can sub out a pair of tone/volume controls and/or mask the switches within your pickguard. For the output, you’ll also have to install the 13pin jack; I had my luthier rout a slightly longer plate at the guitar heel to hold the multi-pin jack alongside a standard 1/4” instrument jack. Just to note, you can send both synth and regular signals through the multi-pin, so the instrument jack is just for when you’re feeling nostalgic for your old setup. And here’s a final little trick: If you order the Les Paul pickup mount separately (originally for the outboard GK3), you can mount the GK pickup on any Les Paul-style bridge without permanently screwing it into your guitar. The gist of the story? The entire setup blends seamlessly and discreetly within your guitar so that only your closest friends will know you’re a nerd.
I’ve only played Roland guitar synths, and through them this thing tracks impeccably. Your personal picking style, bends, and even that string you neglected to tune will accurately translate to any aspect of your synth patch. I have it coupled with the ex-NASA engineer-designed Stetsbar tremolo, which adds sublime pitch-bending, perfect for that wailing Metheny sound from his album Offramp. A key detail is that with guitar modeling (as opposed to synthesis), this thing acts like a magnetic pickup — because it is one. Which means your Hendrix patch will have epic feedback and sustain, something that’s missing from a piezoelectric setup.
Speaking of, to really understand tracking, it’s useful to compare the GKKIT with a piezo-based system. I used to own a Godin LGXT guitar with an RMC piezo bridge. Weeks of setup could not rid the faulty tracking, resulting in ghost notes and harsh, unnaturally un-guitar dynamics being fed into the GR55’s processor. The straw that broke the back, however, was the slight creaking from the Godin’s tremolo springs sending jolts of digital jitter into the GR55’s brain. And forget rocking out. You’ll have to stand on stage like a nerdy statue while your keyboardist ironically gets the glory. This is only natural because a piezo picks up many more vibrations from the guitar’s body, including things you might not expect, like the tinkling of your strap locks.
Meanwhile, the GKKIT acts, again, like a magnetic pickup — because it is one — reducing extraneous signals and eschewing the piezo “quack” from hard attacks. There are probably some guitarists with super-clean technique that might prefer the more “acoustic” quality of piezos, but for me, I prefer the feel of the electric guitar-to-synth translation. That’s not to say that the GKKIT doesn’t pick up the nuances of your instrument. I now have it installed in both an old Gibson Les Paul Studio and a Gibson SG. The pickup acts very differently in each, notably responding to the midrange bark of the SG, which affects many aspects of a synth patch, including sustain and attack. This is by no means negative — it’s all about preference and feel. For me, the stability of the Les Paul (it’s a brick of a guitar made before they started weight relieving) makes for overall better tracking but with less sensitivity to dynamics.
All in all, the GKKIT is a superior musician-friendly product. My only gripes are that it doesn’t come with the more forgiving pickup mounting options of the GK3, and its up/down controls are separate buttons rather than a single toggle switch that would require one less hole to drill. You can of course buy these items as separate parts. The GKKIT has opened up an inspiring new dimension of being able to hybridize existing guitar sounds with an infinite world of synth and modeling patches.
I still refuse to play drums through my guitar though, but to each his own.