Switched-Out Guitars: The Story Behind all those Knobs and Toggles

There are a lot of switched-out guitars out there, but few are as adorned as the Les Paul Recording, Guitorgan, Gretsch Super Axe, Roland GS-500, and Epiphone Professional Outfit. And the designers of each of these four guitars would tell you, they needed every switch. Here’s a little background on five of the most knob and switch-filled guitars we see come up for sale on Reverb.

Les Paul Recording

Even though the Les Paul Recording could get you just about anything from a Rickenbacker jangle to a Gibson jazzbox thwomp, it was too complicated to find much of a market when it was first released. Paul, the innovator of multi-track recording, designed this switched-out gem with a flat frequency response and low impedance pickups so that he could plug straight into a recording desk. He wanted a clean sound that didn’t have to be colored by an amp. The latter is another reason it didn’t catch on: tube amps sound great to a lot of people, but Les Paul could take them or leave them when it came to recording.

He wanted the ability to vary his tone from a natural sounding guitar with shapeable highs and lows, to a less natural and more synthetic sound, and he wanted maximum sustain and clarity. He never stopped tweaking it, but the Recording model is the Les Paul that Les Paul liked best. The newer reissue versions offer a simultaneous high impedance output capability that allows for easier use if you want to plug into an amp and a recording desk at the same time. Even though the reissue uses some different methods and has some updates, Gibson seems to have held to the same standard as the original. As Les put it: with no gimmickry.

Gretsch 7680 Super Axe

Along with Duke Kramer, Chet Atkins designed this simple-but-sophisticated guitar at a time when he was filling a shelf with Grammy Awards in the seventies. Atkins was always looking for sustain and subtle tonal variation to deliver his elegant playing style, and the versatile Super Axe, with its onboard phaser and compressor (the sustain knob alters the amount of compression) is part of this search. One look at the control panel on the Super Axe will tell you it’s a player’s guitar, which was important considering the amount of time Atkins practiced over the course of his life.

The controls and onboard effects are laid out in a way that makes their function easy and quick to recognize. Like the finger style playing of its designer, it feels at once both complex and simple. The big solid body of the guitar is solid for sustain, but big because Chet came up on acoustic guitar, and always preferred the feel of something with a bit more heft than the smaller solid bodies made by most companies.

Roland GS-500

Roland GS-500

Ikutaro Kakehashi, founder of Roland, might be called the Japanese Bob Moog. The first synth he made was a keyboard-based instrument, built using parts from bits of telephones, a reed organ, and some transistor oscillators. It didn’t sound that great, but his interest in electronic musical instruments, and in pushing the boundaries of what they can do, never seemed to wane afterward. After years of supplying Hammond Organs with drum machines, he opened a new company, made the still-popular Space Echo tape-based delay, and started building synths.

After a groundbreaking and uniquely voiced synth capable of producing subtle timbres, the RS202, he would make a bold move and hire a Head of Research and Development for the company, and make waves with the release the GS-500 in 1977. The modified Les Paul design is a synth controller for a separate unit rather than a standalone guitar, though the humbucker allows you to voice it as a guitar. It also has a pickup capable of isolating each string in order to interface with the synth. The switches control the sound of the guitar itself, the synth, and the EQ. There are also magnets that feed the audio output back to the strings to create infinite sustain if you want it. And all this was before MIDI.


Inventor Bob Murrell wanted to combine a guitar with something that could also generate Hammond organ sounds, so he started a company in the mid sixties and did it. Musiconics International (MCI) out of Waco, Texas, and Vox shortly after, began to manufacture this unique instrument just as the organ-and-guitar rock sound was at the height of its popularity in the U.S. and Western Europe.

It sold just well enough for Murrell to continue making them until 1984, and even after that he would fulfill special orders. Like the others on this list, he made the guitar that could execute the sounds he liked to hear. There are different versions of the Guitorgan out there, but the early ones all work on the same principle. Each fret is separated into six segments, creating independent contact switches for each note on the guitar neck. The polyphonic organ circuit generates notes when a string makes contact with a unique fret segment, making a ground connection in order for the organ circuit to operate. The polyphonic organ section does genuinely sound a lot like a Hammond. Both the guitar and the organ sections can stand alone, or be mixed to taste with the use of a big, sixties-size expression pedal. One wonders how many times The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” has been played on each one of these rarities.

Epiphone Professional Outfit

Introduced in 1962, this unique amp and guitar combo was put out shortly after the entire country, save those who had banned it because they thought it would inspire juvenile street violence, was listening to Link Wray twist his amp tremolo knob on his 11.5 bar blues instrumental, entitled “Rumble.” The Professional Outfit was a 335 or a Sheraton type guitar with a single mini PAF humbucker, and a dedicated five-pin cable that allowed the player to control the included amp’s reverb and tremolo with the knobs on the guitar.

The guitar can be plugged into any amp, but without the Outfit’s amp, you’ll only be able to use the five “tonexpressor” switches. These do get a surprising amount of tonal mileage out of the neck position pickup, for those who like a bridge position sound. Gibson (having recently acquired Epiphone from the Stathopoulo family) was looking to revive a brand that had let its reputation for craftsmanship and innovation sag by the time this now rare Professional Outfit was released. This model didn’t catch on, however, likely for a couple of reasons. Not the least of which being that it didn’t conjure up the British invasion sound that most people started looking for after 1964.

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