A Guitarist's Guide to Buying a Synth

If you're a guitar player interested in entering the world of synthesis, it can be a strange and intimidating journey to start. But we at Reverb have put together some options that may make sense as a first purchase for any synth-aspiring guitarist.

We've broken our picks down into the monophonic and polyphonic categories—two of the main branches of synthesizers—and we explain how each synth may fit into your setup, what sounds you can expect from it, and how different or similar it may be to, say, an EarthQuaker Devices stompbox.

Below, you'll find plenty of good entry points into the giant synthesis ocean. If you want (or need) to learn more about the specifics of how synthesizers work, check out our Intro To Synthesis video series.

And while the following list keeps to modern synthesizers (which are more readily available and often more affordable than vintage synths), you can also check out our picks for affordable vintage Japanese monosynths and underrated '80s polysynths, if you're so inspired.


Analogue Monophonic Synths

Maybe more than any other class of synthesizer, analogue monophonic synthesizer offerings are many and varied. Almost every company, whether big (Moog) or small (Dreadbox), has an analogue monophonic synthesizer.

As "mono" implies, these synths play just one note at a time. So they're ideal for funky basslines, pulsating low-end rhythms, or searing leads. Use them to help craft the bed of music your guitar will rest on, fatten your chords, or double your solos.

Monosynths like the Moog Sub Phatty, Korg Monologue, and Arturia MiniBrute (or MicroBrute, for that matter) give you plenty of sonic options for whatever genre you may be working in. And they're also portable, easily coming in tow to your jam sessions.

Moog Sub Phatty

With the Sub Phatty, you're going to get that iconic "Moog sound." That is, fat, gnarly basslines courtesy of Moog's oscillators, filters, and overall synth architecture. If you want Parliament-style funk bass or the grime of Nine Inch Nails, Moog is the way to go. While the Sub Phatty is deep, the good thing is that the circuitry and panel layout is simplified, which means you can muck about on the synth without getting lost in extreme complexity (see: the Moog Voyager). And once you master the visible controls, there are 51 hidden parameters that will keep you tweaking for a very long time indeed. However, the big drawback with the Sub Phatty is a lack of arpeggiator or sequencer.

Moog Sub Phatty Analog Synthesizer | Reverb Demo Video

Korg Monologue

If you need to be able to program sequences (and are content to play arpeggios by hand), then the Korg Monologue is really the way to go. While its filter isn't as fat as the Sub Phatty, it's no slouch. And it's nearly as deep as its big brother, the four-voice Minilogue (more on this one below). The Monologue boasts a 16-step sequencer, which may not be great for complex sequences, but is definitely good for minimalist compositions or just getting a song idea down quickly.

An added bonus is that Aphex Twin helped Korg implement its micro-tuning function. This feature allows players to tune individual steps in the step-sequencer, which will help you to do things like the weird, chaotic tunings typically heard on Aphex tracks.

Korg Monologue | Reverb Demo Video

Dreadbox Hades

If neither Korg nor Moog products inspire a guitar player, consider a Dreadbox Hades. The upstart synth maker's analogue monosynth is marketed as a "bass synthesizer," but this doesn't mean you have to use it exclusively as such. While it's great to think of it as your bass accompaniment, you could also create interesting textures and leads by running it through effects like delay, distortion, and phasers.

Compared to both the Monologue and Sub Phatty, the Hades' circuitry and layout is more minimalistic, which could be just the ticket for a guitarist looking to dabble in analogue synthesis. It's also patchable via control voltage with Eurorack modules, which means you can add complexity to its sound, which isn't possible with the Monologue, though the Sub Phatty has CV inputs. The downside is that the Hades is a tabletop unit, so you will have to control it with a keyboard or step-sequencer (like the Korg SQ-1 or Arturia BeatStep Pro). And it's recently discontinued. Add it to your Reverb Feed to be notified when another becomes available.

Waldorf Rocket

A similar minimalist option is Waldorf's Rocket. Waldorf is known for its digital wavetable synths, but in recent years they've begun offering analogue synthesizers, including Eurorack modules. Highly affordable, the Rocket is a monophonic analogue synth that may be one of the best points of entry for guitarists looking to get into analogue synthesis.

The Rocket, with its small and square form factor, looks like a large boutique effects pedal. With resonant filter and LFO sections, think of the Rocket as something like Earthquaker Devices' Interstellar Orbiter that also comes with an oscillator, enveloper filter, and arpeggiator for shaping your sound's tonalities and rhythm. Overall, a great synth to learn on.

Roland SE-02

Slightly more complex is the Roland SE-02. A collaboration with boutique synth-maker Studio Electronics, the SE-02 comes with three oscillators, a 24dB ladder filter, delay effect, sequencer, and USB audio. Studio Electronics' Scott Tibb says that the SE-02 was inspired by Moog's classic Model D synth, as well as analogue hardware by ARP and Oberheim. Think of it then as several boutique multi-effects pedals from multiple manufacturers all in one package. In other words, the design lineage means that a wealth of sounds are available to you.

The first analogue synth in Roland's Boutique line, the SE-02's oscillators and filter are rich and bold. As with the Rocket and Hades, you will need a keyboard controller or sequencer to control the SE-02, and its form factor is firmly in line with Roland Boutique's miniature form factor. On the upside, the SE-02 is deeper than both the Rocket and Hades.


Polyphonic Synths (Analogue and Digital)

Typically, many polyphonic synthesizers are quite a bit more expensive than monophonic synthesizers. Notable exceptions would be the monophonic Moog Sub 37 and Arturia MatrixBrute synthesizers. Polysynths are capable of playing complex, multi-voiced chords, making them ideal for a harmonic counterparts and soundscapes. Below are some options for polysynths that are on the more affordable side of the equation, but which offer plenty of depth with ease of use.

Korg Minilogue

Of all the polyphonic synths on the market, Korg's Minilogue, a four-voice analogue synthesizer, might be the biggest bang for your buck. At under $500 USD new, it's affordable and loaded with sonic complexity. Its filter isn't as rich as a Moog filter, but it makes up for it in other ways. The Minilogue has a great oscillator section, LFO syncing possibilities (for ambient music), great detuning possibilities (great for those Boards Of Canada fans), and a delay module.

The synth also features a 16-step sequencer, which can be used with any of the Minilogue's eight voice modes (Poly, Duo, Unison, Mono, Chord, Delay, Arp, and Sidechain)—which means that there is plenty of experimentation available to the player.

Another upside is that the Minilogue is light and portable, and can tempo-sync to other Korg instruments like the Volca line of instruments and the Monologue. A big step up from the Minilogue is its new big brother, the Prologue, a 61-key 16-voice synthesizer—an awesome synth, but one that will set you back a pretty penny. So, consider the Minilogue first if you are just dipping your toes into the vast world of synthesizers.

4 Fun Things You Can Do With Your Minilogue

Waldorf Blofeld

Unlike the Minilogue, the Waldorf Blofeld (available in black and white) is an unabashedly digital machine. Think of it as something akin to a massively powerful multi-effects pedal, but one that had hundreds of options for sound generation in addition to modulation.

A small, extremely portable desktop synthesizer, it packs Waldorf's years of research and development into wavetable synthesis, which allows a note that is triggered to then initiate a sweep of a number of single cycle waveforms (samples used as oscillators). What this means is that the Blofeld (and other wavetable synths) can be incredibly complex and dynamic. They can imitate additive analogue synthesizers, like Moog synths or the Minilogue, or go into far trippier territory.

It will take some time to learn how to menu dive and control the Blofeld, but once acclimated to its workflow, you'll be astonished at the Blofeld's power and variety of sounds. It can do hard industrial, noise, IDM, and even shoegaze sounds. The only thing you will need is a MIDI controller to start exploiting its 25 voices. Or, it's also available with a built-in keyboard (also in black or white).

Novation Peak

On the higher end of the entry-level polysynth category is the Novation Peak. Think of it as the Fender Jazzmaster of your rig: a luxury guitar with a range of tonalities at an affordable price. This is not to say that it is better than the Minilogue or the Blofeld, only different in its power.

First of all, somewhat like the Dave Smith Instruments Evolver series of synths, the Peak is an analogue-digital hybrid. While the Evolver had two analogue and two digital oscillators, the Peak has three digital oscillators that run through an analogue filter. It also has two LFOs (for filter sweeps or even things like tremolo and vibrator), a noise generator, a ring modulator, and a lot of other nice spec. While the Peak's oscillators are digital, it can sound very analogue if that it's the intention, or a nice combination.

A big bonus is that the Peak, somewhat like the Blofeld, also has 17 wavetables—in addition to Sine, tri, sawtooth, square/pulse waveforms—for modulating sounds to add strange harmonics and tonalities. Imagine it then as something like a combination of the Minilogue and the Blofeld. With digital oscillators, an analogue filter, wavetables, and a deep modulation matrix, there is no reason that a player can't come up with a variety of inspiring sounds. The only thing you will need for it is a keyboard or sequencer.

Elektron Analogue Four mkII

If you absolutely must have an onboard sequencer (and no one would blame for insisting on it), check out the Elektron Analogue Four mkII. The price point is roughly the same as the Peak, and it's a great analogue/digital synthesizer in its own right. Combine the Analogue Four with the sampling, sound design, and beat-making possibilities of Elektron's Digitakt and you'd have one heck of a sound and rhythm-crafting rig.

Unlike the Peak, the Analogue Four features two analogue oscillators, with its overdrive and filter sections also being analogue. The Analogue Four's digital components are its LFO section, as well as its noise and envelope functions. Like the Peak, as well as Elektron's other products (Octatrack and Digitakt), there are plenty of modulation options (a modulation matrix for the two envelopes and two filters, as well as other modulations to create pulse-width modulation and vibrato effects), as well as onboard effects (chorus, delay, and reverb).

Where the Analogue Four mkII really sets itself apart from the Peak is its 64-step sequencer. It can sequence four synth tracks, one FX track, and one external track via CV, which allows it to control external hardware, including modular gear. However, MIDI cannot be used to sequence external gear. The Analogue Four also comes with Elektron's iconic parameter locks, which allows players to tweak and record different variations of sounds as the sequencer moves from step to step.


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