Over the last couple of years, one of the biggest trends in the pedal industry has been synth pedals. These devices are far from a new thing though, as Roland started experimenting with the genre all the way back in 1977 when they released their GR500. However, modern technology has seen synth pedals become super compact and easier to use, while sporting impeccable note tracking and sound quality.
I love this phase we’re in! Things can’t get synthy enough for me. If you’re like me, and you want your guitar to coax actual synth sounds from a single pedal, then definitely dive into boxes like the Meris Enzo, Boss SY-1, Keeley Synth-1 or EarthQuaker Devices Data Corrupter.
But if you just want to add a touch of synthetic flair once in a while during a set, then you can actually create really great sounding results with fairly common effect types once you understand how a synthesizer works, and that’s what I’m going to teach you today.
At its most basic, a synthesizer is made up of an oscillator that produces the sound and a filter that shapes the sound. In our case, our guitar is the oscillator, while the tone knob on the guitar as well as the EQ section on our amp act as very basic filters.
But synthesizers typically have the ability to stack several oscillators at once for really rich sounds and can pitch them up and down far beyond the normal scope of a guitar. Pitch-Shifters and Octavers will give you the ability to simulate that.
Analog octavers like the KMA Moai Maea is perfect for big warm mono synth tones, whereas digital pitch-shifters like the Meris Hedra, Red Panda Tensor or EHX PitchFork will let you create more complex harmonic structures.
If using a digital pitch-shifter, try adding in a 5th above. It’s great for dreamy mysterious melodies as well as big pads.
Synthesizers typically also allow you to slightly detune its different oscillators, in order to create an even wider sound. You can perfectly emulate this with chorus pedals.
You don’t need a chorus pedal that can do all kinds of crazy things. A nice warm and lush analog chorus, like the Maxon PAC-9 is perfect for the job.
The filter is a pivotal part of a synth, as it helps you shape and control the raw sound from the oscillators. Analog synths (and many digital emulations) are best known for their fat and resonant low-pass filters, but you can also often encounter band-pass and high-pass filters in synths as well.
Envelope Filters are great for emulating synthy low-pass filter sweeps, whereas phasers are great for emulating band-pass sweeps. You can also use a Wah pedal for manually controlled sweeps. If the pedal gives you control over resonance, then that’ll get you even more into the synthy ballpark.
The Envelope Generator
Another big part of a synthesizer’s sound is its Envelope Generator, also known as an ADSR (acronym for Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release). This lets you manipulate how long it takes for the sound to reach its volume peak, how long it sustains and when it decays. You don’t even need a pedal to emulate iconic synth pad swells. You can just use the volume knob on your guitar.
But if you prefer to use your hands for playing, then a volume pedal or an auto-swell pedal will get those blooming pads going, while a compressor pedal will help you increase the sustain and extend the decay of your notes.
If you want a really quick synthetic sustain while doing volume swells, I recommend placing the compressor before your volume pedal.
Oscillator Wave Shapes
Synthesizers also have the ability to change the wave-shape of their oscillators, in order to create really complex sounds. That task is more complicated when it comes to the world of guitar.
But a simple way to change the waveform of your entire instrument is with a fuzz pedal, as it evens out the peaks and turns your instrument into an aggressive and compressed square-wave.
Octa-Fuzz’ like the SolidGoldFX 76 are great for sharp robotic synth tones with a quick decay, whereas Big Muff-inspired fuzz’ like the EQD Hoof are sweet for bold synth textures with a long sustain.
You often don’t know how good a synth sound is before you throw some delay or reverb at it. A big ambient reverb with a long decay can really help make your synthetic swells sound larger than life, and extend the decay of your sound even further, while a pristine delay can add rhythmic complexity to arpeggio patterns.
The order of these effects is not carved in stone, but I would personally do something like Compressor -> Volume Pedal -> Pitch-Shifter -> Fuzz -> Filter -> Chorus -> Delay -> Reverb.
I like a really aggressive and pronounced filter sweep, hence I’ve placed the filter after the fuzz, but if you want a more mellow and organic filter effect, then place it before the fuzz.
If you want to hear how all of this actually sounds, then I recommend you check out my video “Make Your Guitar Sound Like A Synthesizer – The Effects and Techniques Need” Over on my YouTube channel The Pedal Zone.