Ditch the Pedalboard: Modern Guitars with Onboard Effects

Guitars with onboard effects have long been thought as curiosities at best, and gimmicky pawn shop garbage at worst by the mainstream guitar community. Despite this, there have been quite a few instruments sporting onboard effects built over the decades, and many of them are very respectable. The late ‘60s was something of a heyday for guitars with built-in noisemakers, indicating that more than a few people in the industry thought this method of tonal manipulation might be the way of the future. Vox was a notable manufacturer of these guitars, with quite a few models being produced, including the teardrop-shaped Starstream, the V267 Cheetah (the model that Pete Townshend famously destroyed on the Smothers Brothers TV show), and the V268 Ultrasonic. The Ultrasonic was really decked out with effects, and featured a tuner, distortion circuit, treble/bass boost, a repeater tremolo circuit, and even a hand-operated wah-wah!

Many of these guitars, from Vox and others, were well built, and the effects were often quite usable (some were even pretty great), but stompboxes would eventually win the day and guitars with onboard effects would largely be relegated to that great island of misfit instruments: the pawn shop. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that it's pretty damned difficult to manipulate a hand-operated wah-wah and play a wicked solo at the same time; in other words, many onboard effects are simply too difficult to operate with any measure of finesse while actually playing the instrument. The other downside of early built-ins included the inability to easily alter the effects order, and that in many of the guitars, the effects were not of a quality equal to the better stompboxes of the day. Some manufacturers valued quantity over quality, and as such, the sounds integrated into many of the lower quality guitars were mostly unusable. All those knobs and switches also made the guitars ugly, causing them to look complicated and ungainly compared to the sleek minimalism of a Strat, or the elegant curves of a Les Paul.

Despite all of this, the concept of a guitar with effects built in is one that will not die. Over the last few decades the concept has been further refined and redefined, and onboard effects are beginning to be taken seriously by both players and manufacturers. Designers are treating them as an integral part of the instrument, rather than an afterthought, and greater attention is being paid to ergonomics and real world usability. The result: some very intriguing guitars are being built that might just change the way you approach the instrument. Some are very straightforward and affordable, while others are rather futuristic and expensive, but there's something for everyone. Here are a few of our favorite modern guitars that incorporate onboard effects.

Fernandes Ravelle

Fernandes Ravelle Elite MIC

The Fernandes Sustainer system is one of the coolest and most useful onboard effects ever created. It allows the user to generate instant, endless, completely controllable feedback with either single notes or full chords. It even has a harmonic mode that raises the pitch of the sustained note up one fifth. It engages with the flick of a switch, and the electronics are unobtrusive, making it stealthy and easy to use in real-world rocking scenarios. In short, it is the perfect onboard guitar effector. A Fernandes Sustainer kit can be installed in just about any guitar, but Fernandes itself happens to make some excellent, unique instruments that are already outfitted with the Sustainer system. The company's Ravelle, with its Les Paul-like feel and superb build quality, is a venerable and well loved instrument in the product line, and it is extremely affordable as well.

BiLT Guitars Relevator

BilT Relevator LS

The Relevator, from Des Moines, Iowa's BiLT guitars takes inspiration from Leo Fender's early switch-laden, offset-body designs, as well as from lovable pawn shop freaks of nature designed by companies like Electra and Danelectro. It combines this aesthetic with sophisticated contours and custom shop level playability, for a totally unique instrument that flies its freak flag high and plays like a million bucks. It's outfitted with Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickups, a Mastery bridge, and built-in fuzz and delay circuits with a full spectrum of onboard controls. The fuzz is inspired by the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory, so it will get seriously wild and gnarly, and the delay circuit is basically an MXR Carbon Copy that has been fitted into the body of the instrument. The design is vey well implemented, and the effects are excellent, making the Relevator as elegant and easy to operate as it is freaky.

Ibanez RGKP6

Ibanez RGKP6

The Korg Kaoss Pad is a classic and groundbreaking effects processor, sampler, and MIDI control module operated by a touchscreen, originally intended for DJs and synth players. It was quickly adopted by adventurous guitarists, however, and players like Nels Cline and Matthew Bellamy have become well known for using the device. Various custom guitars have been designed with an integrated Kaoss Pad, but Ibanez seems to be the first to release an affordable, stock model designed around it, with the RGKP6. This deadly black, minimally-outfitted instrument has but a single bridge pickup and is designed completely around the Korg Mini Kaoss Pad's formidable sound mangling functions, which includes 100 different effects. The RGKP6 also has onboard distortion, which can take it from squeaky clean to completely molten with the flick a conveniently placed toggle switch. Best of all, street price is about 399, making it an affordable all-in-one solution for Kaoss-curious guitarists.

Gibson Firebird X

Gibson Firebird X

The past several years has seen Gibson release some uncharacteristically futuristic guitar designs, including the self-tuning Robot guitar and the Firebird X. These instruments have been met with considerably criticism from the more conservative realms of the guitar universe, but many forward-thinking players have been won over by their unique features. The Firebird X, in particular, really pushes the envelope with its swirly bowling ball finish, Robo-tuners, and a mind boggling array of onboard effects, which includes modulation, echo, reverb, compression, distortion, and equalization. There is also a ridiculous number of possible pickup combinations. All are accessible via what Gibson calls "tog-pots," which are combination toggle switch/potentiometers, and a selection of sliders on the top of the guitar. Its many features are impossible to fully explain here, but the Firebird X is a surprisingly well-thought out instrument that is relatively elegant and easy to use, despite its inherent complexity. Guitarists that can get over the initial learning curve will have a lot to be excited about.

Moog E1

Moog E-1 Paul Vo Collector's Edition

The legendary company founded by synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog has not often been associated with the world of electric guitar (though it did design the active electronics for the notoriously unsuccessful Gibson RD line), but Moog has made a big push to capture the minds and hearts of guitarists in recent years, and its E1 Moog Guitar is a big part of that effort. The E1 is a stunningly well-built instrument, and its electronics are genuinely amazing. One might expect a guitar from Moog to be loaded down with synthy bits and MIDI gadgets, but this is not the case. The E1 is organic and toneful as all get-out, and its electronics are designed around a system that controls the level of energy reaching the strings for effects that range from infinite, expressive sustain at any volume, to strange, muted staccato effects, to interesting blends of the two sounds. The guitar also has a Moog ladder filter built in, allowing the player to achieving delicious, futuristic wah-wah tones. Moog's E1 is a groundbreaking guitar that seamlessly blends useful, inspiring onboard effects with masterful luthiery.

Though the concept is an old one, guitars with onboard effects are just hitting their stride in terms of usability, ergonomics, and marketability. Guitarists can be a curiously conservative bunch, but modern instruments with built-in effects are nonetheless gaining loyal followings among our people, thanks to magnificent onboard sounds that are easy to use and pleasing to the fingers and ears. They probably won't make anyone ditch their pedalboard, but we should at least be able to clear a little more space around our feet, and maybe Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh can finally pull the duct-taped Frequency Analyzer off the top of his guitar.

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