The guitar synthesizer has been around for more than 30 years and made significant inroads to contemporary music, thanks to fusion heroes like Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Steve Morse, and Allan Holdsworth. The latest wrinkle is the Misa Kitara, which shifts the paradigm.
Instead of a synth pickup that mounts on a standard guitar and triggers sounds via a floor unit (like the Roland GR), the Kitara contains its own synth sounds onboard, plus has the ability to control external keyboards and modules via MIDI cables.
A significant feature of the Kitara is its button-laden fretboard. Instead of pressing a string down against the fingerboard – which is great for guitar, but not quite perfect for guitar synthesizer – Misa provides every note on the Kitara’s neck with its own on/off button. Why is this significant? Because the keys on a keyboard or piano are simply on/off switches, and the basis of all MIDI synthesis is track accurately, i.e., the ability to turn a note on or off. Thus, for guitar synthesists, the concept of a neck full of buttons is potentially more desirable than strings and frets, something that has been previously brought to fruition by the guitar-like instruments known as Synth-Axe and Ztars from Starr Labs.
The Kitara has 24 frets which, times six strings, which equals 144 notes and, therefore, 144 buttons. Sounds weird, but it’s actually quite logical. You may further look at the Kitara, scratch your head and ask, “Where are the strings, amigo?” Instead of a string-triggered setup, the Kitara has a big touch-pad screen built into the top of the body; it’s somewhat like having an iPad mounted on a guitar. Using the pad, the player can interface with the Kitara’s sounds in multiple ways, i.e. set it to a bank of virtual strings so you can “fingerpick” or “strum” with traditional guitar techniques. Owing to the synthesizer architecture, you can also trigger sounds by sliding your finger on one of these virtual strings, or even bend a note. There are other ways to “pick” sounds, as well. Bring up the glowing blue ball on the screen, put a finger on it, and drag it around the screen to create different sounds and effects, all while fretting notes and chords on the neck. You can also tap the screen to get various stuttering and staccato sounds – it’s hard to conceptualize without seeing. Fortunately, there are quite a few videos online that help understand what all this looks and sounds like.
So, how do you plug in the Kitara? You have a few choices. There’s a traditional 1/4″ cable output; use this to plug into an amp or PA and pull sounds from the guitar’s onboard synthesizer. Via the touch-screen is a menu of sounds that are easy to choose from – again, something like an iPad. Second is a MIDI output that can plug into a keyboard synth or a rack sound module. In this instance, the Kitara becomes a “controller” and drives the other synthesizer’s internal sounds (it may seem complicated, but is actually easy). In this part of our tests, we plugged the MIDI Out of the Kitara into the MIDI In of a Korg M50 keyboard synthesizer, and used the Misa axe to drive the Korg’s onboard sounds. This feature is useful when you want to get sounds other than those onboard the Kitara; in the world of MIDI synthesizers, the sky is the limit, sound-wise. There’s a headphone output for personal jamming, and a USB jack that plugs into an Internet-enabled computer to transfer files or get software updates.
So what’s the Misa Kitara like to actually play? In a word – cool! It’s both very similar to a guitar, and yet different. You hold and fret the Kitara like a guitar, but instead of pressing a string down to a fret, you push a button. It takes a second to get used to, but conceptually, is very similar. Picking and strumming is again similar, but, this being a synth, there’s no one way to do anything. You can set the Kitara to a traditional string configuration on the touch screen and play fairly old-school, or employ that onscreen blue ball and come up with some seriously whacky synth sounds.
For pros, the Kitara’s interface is simple and user-friendly. The touch-pad is easy to navigate and trigger. We really like the fact it’s plug-and-play, and you don’t have to spend much time tweaking MIDI settings to make the thing work. The built-in synth sounds are not all great, but there are presets that will help a new player get going without much fuss. Also cool is the instrument’s double-cutway/headless design – certainly an homage to the Steinberger M-Series guitar.
For debits, the buttons on the fretboard are almost too small. Unless you have petite fingers, it’s hard to press them with any mix of speed and accuracy. Also, the Kitara is an electronic instrument, so it requires a separate power cable in addition to audio and MIDI outputs. This isn’t a problem, but it’s another wire to think about.
Ultimately, who’s going to want a Kitara? It’s fair to assume it probably won’t appeal to the classic Fender, Gibson, or Martin player. Rather, it’s for guitarists who either dig guitar synthesizers and want to dig deeper, or one of the rising generation of electronic musicians who aren’t necessarily even guitarists, but want to make digital music using the latest tool. The instrument signals a new era for affordable digital guitars. The old-fashioned will never go away, but the rise of digital axes may be coming, fast and furious, and the Misa Kitara is an interesting tone-tool on the road to that reality. Deal with it.
This article originally appeared in VG January 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.