Mick Rogers' 1983 Roland G-303/GR-300 Guitar Synthesizer
Owned by Manfred Mann's Earth Band's longest-serving guitarist, Mick Rogers, the ground-breaking Roland G-303 & GR-300 Guitar Synth. A beautiful guitar to play in its own right - and a gateway to a world of sonic possibilities. Mind-blowing!
Unless you know your prog rock, Mick Rogers may not be that familiar a name to you - and even if it is, you're more likely to see Mick with a Strat in his hands than a G-303. It's progressive jazz virtuoso Pat Methany that really put the G-303 and GR-300 on the map. Peter Frampton played one (when he wasn't using that Talk Box), Robert Fripp brought all kinds of experimental genius to it. You might think that the G-303 came with a label saying "Only To Be Used By Super-Talented Prog Musicians".
But the story's bigger than that. For two reasons. It's a fabulous guitar in its own right - beautifully crafted and designed to be played like any normal electric guitar. And, as a guitar controller, it opens up a huge palette of sounds that fit perfectly with any guitarist that's seeking to push the edges of their sound. Andy Summers from The Police played one (most famously on "Don't Stand So Close To Me"). It's one of David Byrne's go-to electrics throughout Stop Making Sense - check out the intro to "Crosseyed And Painless" for the subtle blend of guitar and synth. And John Frusciante has put the G-303 into the mix across his solo career - the perfect compadre for his more out-there moments.
All but one of them play the more common natural maple on mahogany model. John Frusciante went for white, like this one. I've got to say, both Mick Rogers and he chose wisely ;-). This is a stunning guitar. Beautifully carved and contoured, white ageing to ivory, perfectly balanced, and a breeze to play. You don't need to play it with the GR-300 engaged. But then again, why wouldn't you want to give the two a go together once you get your hands on them? Designed with the guitarist in mind, after an initial exploration of settings, the majority of the sounds are controlled from the guitar, with only five stomp buttons on the box to change what you're bringing to the mix. No fiddling around with the box on the floor. Just play and adjust from the guitar. No wonder this is the one that caught the imagination and love. You'll be amazed!
See & Hear It In Action
Andy Summers Demo With Jools Holland (1981): I remember watching this when it first came out! Filmed in Monserrat as The Police were putting together their fourth album, Ghost In The Machine. Andy Summers takes a skinnier but unmistakeably chippy Jools Holland through the GR-300 and G-303. I'm pretty sure it's a G-303 rather than the G-808 in the video title (no gold hardware, no through-neck). But it wouldn't be any surprise for Andy Summers to have had both at the same time!
Crosseyed And Painless, Talking Heads (1984): Stop Making Sense, a ground-breaking concert film needs a ground-breaking guitar. David Byrne showing how to use enough, but not too much of the synth blend with the guitar in the final song from the show.
Wayne Scott Joness - Roland Guitar Synth God: The demo perfectly captures the major features of the G-303 and GR-300 in combination. More importantly, I would be nowhere without the insight, research and links that Wayne Scott Joness has put into his Vintage Roland Guitar Synthesizer site. A huge debt of gratitude, and the go-to resource for anyone that wants to find out more about these or the wider family of Roland guitar synths. Phenomenal!
Hands up, I never got prog rock. I'd happily pass on the big names: Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Marillion and all their friends and relations. Uber-talented musicians all, but just that one tempo change, explorative Moog passage, or classical/jazz fusion too far for me. I shall be crucified for this by the diehards - or at least submitted to an enforced sitting of a triple disc concept album. To be fair, when there was an ounce of crossover into the mainstream, I'd be hooked. Anything by Pink Floyd from Dark Side Of The Moon to The Wall, Genesis in their later years, Supertramp, even in their early years. Whenever it was tunes plus talent, not just talent, I got prog rock. Strapping myself to that chair now . . .
Manfred Mann's Earth Band were (and still are) a prog rock band. So, I'd probably have given them a miss were it not for the 1978 single Davy's On The Road Again. It's got time changes, it's got a Moog, and, live, an inevitably lengthy keyboard break. But it's a tune and an anthem, from the purple patch days of the band. Ironically, also, from the mere 8 years that Mick Rogers wasn't in the band. There from the start in 1971, left in 1975, rejoined in 1983, and still in the band today. 1983, the same year he bought this guitar synthesizer. Spooky.
Originally I thought this wasn't a guitar that Mick ever played live, but definitely in the studio with Manfred Mann's Earth Band. It's there in the mix of all studio albums, from 1986's "Criminal Tango" to 2004's "2006" (sic). But huge thanks to Philip Reader who saw this page and filled in the story of seeing Mick playing this live - without the synth box - in the mid to late-80s. It really is a great guitar to play in its own right, even without that GR-300 synth. In 2008, he gave the guitar and synth to close family friend Julius Thurgood, as a thank you for a custom-built guitar that Julius had commissioned for him from Chandler Guitars, now Charlie Chandler's Guitar Experience. Julius also had Chandler Guitars maintain and service both guitar and synthesiser - and the wonderful condition and playability are a testament to that and the care Mick and Julius took of them both. Acquired from Julius by James at James Collins Guitars, himself a maker of some beautiful hand-built guitars, James saw it as the perfect addition to our Artist Owned collection - and he was right!
Not so much about the guitar, but as an honourable footnote. It's not all about guitars. At least not for Julius. Not only a player and collector, he's also the Founder and Race Director of the Historic Racing Drivers Club. Kudos for living life to the full, Julius - with so little time on this planet, you're an example to all of us making the most of what you love doing :-).
G-303 Guitar Synthesizer;
GR-300 Polyphonic Synthesizer
Number of Frets
Carved Maple on Mahogany
Roland PU-114H Neck Humbucker; Seymour Duncan 59 Neck Humbucker; Roland #6 Hexaphonic Divided Pick-up
6 Voice Polyphony
VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter)
LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator)
ENV MOD (Envelope Modulation)
ENV INV (Envelope Invert)
Roland weren't the inventors of the guitar synthesiser, but they can definitely claim the crown for setting the gold standard with the launch of the G-303 in 1980. Every gold standard needs early pioneers. And Roland have to thank Dick Denney at Vox for coming up with the first properly workable synth-guitar in the 1960s. Check out our 1966 Vox Guitar Organ if you want to see how it all started.
But you've got to hand it to Roland. Founded only in 1972, their brand and appeal came from electronic musical instruments: synthesisers, sequencers, drum machines and effects. Not a single guitar. And yet, by the late-70s, they were already producing their first guitar synthesisers. A leap enabled by partnering with well-established Japanese guitar-maker Greco. Which must explain quite how they managed to come up with such a beautiful guitar - as well as such a highly-functional, easy-to-use guitar controller. The G-303 is an absolute peach to look at. The symmetrically crowned headstock, the deep rosewood fretboard, that slightly asymmetric body shape, and the contouring to the body front and back. Take away the electrics, and this is still one gorgeous guitar.
Talking of taking away the electrics, when I took this one apart, it looks like Mick had decided to add a bit more vintage to this guitar early on. The original Roland Bridge Humbucker has been replaced by a hand-wound 1983 - 1988 Seymour Duncan 59 Humbucker - the tone of a vintage PAF, with an Alnico 5 magnet for the modern player. I suppose there was a clue in that uncovered zebra humbucker. But it's a classy mod, and hard to confirm until you get to see the underside of the pick-up.
In terms of the sound, because it's a guitar controller, the sonic possibilities are almost infinite. Everything you could expect from Chorus to Pitch Shift, the "Wow" to the "Ow" of Envelope Modulation and Envelope Inversion, from Orchestral Voicing to String Select through the Hexaphonic Pick-up, for bass-lines to underpin your upper-range playing. There's even a vibrato function, cleverly activated by two touchpads either side of the bridge pick-up. All controlled from the guitar once you've decided on your initial settings for the GR-300. I'm sure there's more, but isn't that enough to be getting started with?
Yes, definitely enough - with the promise of more to come. Be prepared for an hour lost, and loved, exploring the settings, and then just let it take over. For me, it was chords strummed to shimmering shoe-gaze effect that got me hooked. Dangerously so, given my earlier comments . . . It's no leap of imagination to trace a hereditary line from prog rock to shoe-gaze. I take it all back. Does that mean I don't have to sit through the triple-disc Yes album (please)?
Sources & Links
Everything You Need To Know About The G-303, Wayne Scott Joness: The go-to site for anything to do with Roland Guitar Synthesisers. Exhaustively researched, extensively documented, really everything you need. Thank you, Wayne Scott Jones!
And Everything You Need To Know About the GR-300: Again, with huge thanks to Wayne Scott Joness. I'm not sure the GR-300 has quite the "limited sound palette" it's credited with here. There's plenty of scope for most of us, though I guess more modern technologies can outdo what was once the pioneer. But without the analogue pioneers, we wouldn't be where we are today!
Manfred Mann's Earth Band: Still going strong - the current line-up, discography, and stories from the band over five decades of recording and live performance. Check out any of the studio albums from 1986 to 2004 and Mick Rogers' G-303 is in the mix!