Hands-on review: Vibesware GR-1 Guitar Resonator
(Brian Johnston | Posted 2010-08-23)
In the 1960s Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix set a new standard for guitar playing, demonstrating what can be done beyond the usual riffs and lead licks. With enough amplification and overdrive, the tones they produced were revolutionary to say the least. And it wasn’t just the distortion or fuzz, since other bands and guitarists were using pedals of the day to generate something beyond the usual clean twanging that was common with earlier classic rock n’ roll. Rather, it was the feedback and unusual sustain that perked our ears and aroused curiosity.
Feedback was used in the 1950s with the likes of Albert Collins and Johnny Watson, and likely was used first in rock music with the Beatles’ 1964 hit "I Feel Fine." But it was Townsend and Hendrix that set the wailing standard for modern rock guitarists to emulate (taken to extremes, in 1975 Lou Reed created his album "Metal Machine Music" entirely on feedback loops played at various speeds).
Feedback has become such an enigma and standard in modern guitar playing that devices have been developed specifically to produce the effect, including pickups that increase a guitar’s sonic sustain and sonic transducers that you mount on a guitar head. A more common device is the Ebow, which focuses on a sympathetic oscillating magnetic field on a single string that causes it to vibrate, thus producing various tones and textures, including feedback sustain. One problem with the Ebow as an effective soloing tool is that it concentrates on only one string at a time and it needs to be held in the hand, which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to alternate with regular picking, when using a guitar’s vibrato arm, etc. In other words, when you use the Ebow, that is all you use for a particular segment of music; you do not work it back and forth with standard picking/fingering technique unless there is a long enough lull in a composition so that you can set it down and resume picking.
As well, though the Ebow works from nut to bridge, the signal strength is best and clearest only when it is held in the ‘sweet spot’ near the neck pickup; otherwise the effect is far less audible or not as desired. And as you glide, bounce and wiggle the device around to achieve different effects, the Ebow’s emitter may move off the string and silence ensues. Finally, because it is battery operated, the Ebow’s magnetic field is only so strong and will weaken as the battery weakens. My intention is not to slam the Ebow, as it truly is a unique and nifty little gadget, but for the serious musician wanting (natural sounding) feedback and sustain integrated with regular playing it has obvious shortcomings.
Stepping up to the challenge to produce sustain and reproducible feedback is the Vibesware Guitar Resonator, developed and created by Markus Pahl, an accomplished guitarist who was interested in electronics from an early age and who tried to achieve unique and different sounds from the norm. Markus started designing guitars, tube amps, speaker simulators and effects devices when he joined a band that had to practice in an apartment – where it was necessary to jam with everyone plugged into a mixer and while using headphones. He wanted that authentic guitar sound with feedback, but achieving as much was difficult since at the time there were no amp simulators or anything else available to fulfill his demands. He continued his electronics experiments with homemade speaker simulators to get that driving guitar sound at lower volumes, which he did achieve with some success. But what still was missing was a typical passing into feedback of a cranked tube amp and that distinctive liveliness and fullness when turning a Marshall on "11."
Thus, with a bit more engineering experimentation, the Guitar Resonator (GR-1) was born and eventually patented. This device not only is a new effect, if you want to call it that, but it has created a new way of playing – in other words, the sounds we hear from guitarists not only is the result of the gear being used, but the technique and styling of the guitarist – the Guitar Resonator’s characteristics become as unique as the guitarist using it. For the less talented and newer guitar player, that is a negative, but for the experienced guitarist, it takes little time to create a new fingerprint.
This harmonic feedback generator can be used concurrently with regular playing, unlike other string drivers like the Ebow. Whether at home, on stage or in the recording studio, this alien-like flexible goose-neck device attaches to a standard mic stand and looks like something that emerged from War of the Worlds (The GR-1 standard package includes a stand for direct use, but you can attach it to a regular mic stand if you want to use it and a microphone at the same time). The adjustable gooseneck flexes to any position to accommodate any height guitar player and for specific placement; and best of all, the dynamics work at your command without having to hold anything.
What I think most guitarists will appreciate is that although this is a high end product, it still is very affordable and can be used by hobbyists quite effectively. Perhaps a bit more expensive than most pedals, this is not a pedal, but a device that enhances one’s playing on an intricate scale.
The GR-1 can be used with headphones and when using PC-based recording and sound simulators, like Guitar Rig, Amplitube plug-ins, etc., to create more realistic and dynamic tones and playing. And for working musicians, it can be used with amplifiers, or direct into a PA system for bands wanting to tame overall sound volume and mix. Imagine recording music at low volumes and getting some incredible feedback at any time!
A must-have for guitarists
It took about a half-hour to become comfortable with the GR-1, and I soon discovered that it is an absolute necessity for any rock guitarist and a high-quality piece of professional gear (used by top musicians include Ian Crichton from Saga) – not only in durability and construction, but also during its assembly after manufacturing. As Markus explains, “the Resonator gets its high resonance power with a broad frequency spectrum from the low to the high e-string. By fine-tuning each Resonator it produces rich harmonics and has a fast response time.
With a little practice the transition from the normal string vibration to the feedback come very fast and always reproducible sounds.” And “reproducible’ is a key when it comes to wanting feedback or certain harmonics when you want it and how you want it – no more hit and miss while standing next to your amp and turning your back to the audience as you aim your guitar toward the speaker. In little time I was able to play my notes and achieve feedback at just the right moment and to whatever intensity I desired. There was no wait time, as is common with amp feedback and I could toss in a little spark into my playing even when there was only a second or two before the song’s next measure.
The nuances of the GR-1 can be fine-tuned as well. In effect, how quickly the harmonics begin and fade and how intense the harmonics become varies by two factors: 1) how much you turn up the volume of the GR-1 and; 2) how close or far you get from the Resonator. Thus, to achieve very subtle feedback, you adjust the ‘power’ or volume of the device to a lower level, whereas full tilt produces a far more obvious and powerful result. The more juice you give it, the more intense the effect; and for those subtle tonal harmonics, all you have to do is keep the power of the unit on low. Laid-back Blues can take on a whole new atmosphere and direction!
Markus recommends starting at about 50% power to become used to the drive, and from there you can adjust if necessary. And as you become skilled with the Resonator, and you get closer to the device without hesitation, you should be able to reduce the power, which means sweeter tones and sounds and less of a booming feedback (unless that’s what you’re aiming for). In conjunction with the unit’s volume level, as you move the fretboard into or away from the GR-1 you can get sustain and feedback swelling and very natural fades (as opposed to a lot of amp feedback that tends to build progressively louder and to an eventual screeching shrill that is hard to eliminate without a sudden ‘oomph’).
How you integrate the Guitar Resonator makes it a very dynamic and personal effect device as well. It’s no different than how various players will attack the strings with picks and fingers to achieve different characteristics and playing effects, and the same holds true with how the Resonator is applied. But the GR-1 is more than a feedback device. It produces a new dimension in sound with incredible harmonics and even symphonic tones that still sound very natural and not like a synth pedal. What is apparent is that there is a very smooth transition from normal tones to sustain and/or feedback that takes very little practice to achieve.
The other aspect I like is that the GR-1 includes two sustain options controlled by a foot switch, indicated by different colored light beams that shine on the fretboard. One is a basic sustainer (blue light) that produces rich overtones with very little of the higher-pitched feedback, whereas the other option (red light) sustains and also gives that biting feedback we have come to expect in rock music.
Even with clean amps, you get nice harmonic feedback, and it obviously works well with crunch/lead channels, the latter of which exploits what this device has to offer. However, an interesting point for gigging musicians is that with the GR-1 you don’t need as much distortion or overdrive to achieve good harmonics and feedback. This may not be a concern for metal players, but those who play more subdued rock and who desire sustain and feedback sometimes are forced to increase gain or distortion on their amps to get the overtones they desire. With this device your amp can be completely clean or a bit dirty and the GR-1 still rings true.
A few other things I noticed is that no matter what gear you use, it does not affect the original color or tone as the GR-1 contains a true bypass and only produces sustain and harmonic feedback characteristics relative to your guitar and other gear. You see, the GR-1 is placed first in the chain, and so there is no change and no loss of signal quality or manipulation from input to output as the signal passes through the Resonator and to your effects and amp. It simply adds that extra dimension when you need it.
I also noticed some beautiful harmonics with character differences while bending strings, applying finger vibrato or with my whammy bar, and it works very well (in an eerie way) with a Whammy pedal. Also, there are some obvious changes in harmonic transitions depending on where you aim the GR-1, which can be quite different and significant when comparing what is produced with it high or low on the neck. Tones are deeper and more resonant up on the neck, and more piercing lower on the neck; up on the neck gives a more mellow feedback (is there such a thing?... apparently there is), whereas higher on the neck produces a more traditional feedback effect.
However, the ability to achieve different harmonics, from one moment to the next, needs to be considered and explored with the GR-1. There is a distinction between getting varying harmonics at different points on the neck, as explained above. But with the GR-1 you are able to produce changes in harmonics as you shift the unit’s head along the strings, viz., the altering of flageolet tones. This is something that cannot be achieved with guitar sustainers wherein harmonics can only be changed by a harmonic switch and certainly not by the playing technique itself. As subtle as this may seem, during more soulful and melodic music, the effect can produce some beautiful accents in your playing.
Use of a slide has its own unique features, as it turns a Johnny Winter or a David Gilmour into a metal giant. Both play dissimilar styles of slide, but when you combine harmonic feedback, it takes on a completely different life. Similarly, the feedback you experience with a Wah pedal varies, from the usual harmonics with toe forward to a more throaty feedback with heel back.
I tried this device with several guitars, including a Les Paul Custom, a Schecter-type Tele, an Ibanez JS2400, an Eastwood Airline ’59, a Reverend Unknown Hinson Signature, and a Greg Bennett Royale Limited Edition – all produce unique differences in effect, which should be obvious since the GR-1 only enhances what already exists. What I didn’t expect is that single coil pickup guitars have a different responsiveness than humbuckers. Single-coil pickups are not quite as sensitive, and feedback not as quick to initiate, but the harmonic tones were more colorful and produced a higher mid-range frequency. The feedback seemed to ‘sing’ better.
As well, the effect and responsiveness from the bridge pickup is different than when using the middle or neck pickup, or combinations thereof. There is a smaller available fret area with the neck pickup when compared to the bridge pickup (there is a shorter string vibration distance from pickup to nut), although the extent to which this occurs depends both on volume setting and pickup sensitivity. Nonetheless, this is a moot point since nearly all the fretboard is fair game no matter what pickup you use.
I did like the feedback best with my Ibanez JS2400 and Reverend Hinson Signature guitars, as they seem to be a touch more sensitive than a few of my other guitars, and in that regard a good rule of thumb is: if the guitar has powerful or sensitive pickups, the GR-1 will shine even brighter. Newer strings also produce nicer harmonics than older strings, but using a product like Chrome-Frets to clean the frets and strings does make a difference.
The other aspect I like about this unit is how you can alter the effect by subtle movement of the fretboard toward or away from the GR-1, changing from delicate harmonics to a rollicking vibrato wave of sound, both of which alters feedback and harmonic output quality. You literally can hear a phase shifting occur as you play, as if expertly using a bow across strings with a volume pedal. And when it comes to playing 2-3 note power chords, the GR-1 still holds its own – it is not limited to one note harmonics and stimulation. Although, like when using speaker feedback one string will dominate, you can determine which string and harmonics dominate depending on where you place the GR-1’s magnetic field.
In sum, we have new technology that covers the following points:
• There is nothing to hold, you don’t have to buy special guitars, and you don’t have to modify any guitar;
• It allows infinite sustain with or without feedback (an addictive element for rock guitarists);
• The effect is reproducible, quick (faster than what can be produced with a cranked amp) and responsive to the player;
• Different harmonics are possible depending on where the unit is aimed at the neck and whether you chose to shift the GR-1’s head along the neck;
• Any pickup selection works and each produces slightly different harmonic capabilities (as does humbucker vs. single coil);
• Feedback is achieved even at the lowest amp levels, through headphones, through a PA system, etc.;
• Up to three strings can be stimulated to produce sustain/feedback and the player can determine which string dominates the harmonic spectrum;
• You can alter the intensity of the effect through body position and/or volume output of the unit;
• The nuances of the sustain and feedback takes on the characteristics of the guitar player’s personality;
• It works with clean or dirty amps and does not alter the original tone(s) of your gear;
• The nuances vary relative to the gear, e.g., use of a Whammy pedal, Wah pedal, etc.; and
• It is very natural sounding, like an actual amp giving feedback, as compared to other sonic string stimulators.
Are there any shortfalls to this device? Pricewise, I have heard some hesitation in purchasing the GR-1, but Roel developed a ‘Junior’ model at half the price. It still connects onto a basic mic stand and gives all the options and sound features. However, the Jr. Resonator does not have a foot switch to allow altering between sustain and sustain/feedback – that is controlled by a hand switch on the unit, which is about waist level and within easy reach of the guitarist... a little less convenience for half the investment.
Also, there is a requirement to instil a somewhat new (although minor) playing technique. Since the device remains stationary, it is the player who needs to move into or away from the Resonator to achieve varying degrees of effect – I’m talking about centimetres or inches away and not feet or meters. This is achieved by movements of the body, by direct guitar neck movements with an arm and leg/hip that adjusts guitar positioning relative to the Resonator. And so, it takes a bit of practice to coordinate this while playing. But this isn’t all bad; it is no different than integrating a Wah pedal or a Whammy pedal with the foot; or to play guitar and sing concurrently; or to shift a pick between the fingers while going into finger tapping mode. There may be a new element involved, but a short amount of practice and it comes quite naturally as your tone and musical composition takes on a new life!
The Vibesware GR-1 Guitar Resonator sells for $399 USD And includes the resonator, interface box and power supply. See it in action and order it at the Vibesware website.