Synth pedals for guitars are definitely a niche effect, altering your sound to the point that it doesn’t really even sound guitar-ish anymore. That said, as a lot of popular music gets less guitar-oriented, synth effects definitely have their place.
True guitar synthesizers that convert each individual string and note into digital format and then replace their signal with a synthesized effect are complex, and usually require specialized pickups, MIDI, and other digital manipulation. However, many newer boutique pedals use mixed digital samples and analog circuits to create some wild and spacy synth effects, all in compact pedals that will fit right on your board.
Today’s marketplace is excellent for players who wish to have a bit of on-demand “retro” synth sounds, so let’s check out some of the best right here.
BOSS SY-1 ($300)
BOSS (and its parent company Roland) are pioneers in both synthesizer and guitar synth technologies, and BOSS still manufactures a version of the legendary, programmable Roland SY-300 guitar synthesizer. But if you want something a bit smaller in BOSS’s iconic small-body chassis, check out the SY-1.
The SY-1 combines 11 dialable retro synth sounds with 11 variable modes to give you 121 different settings, ranging from cheesy analog bell and organ sounds to glorious sweeping layers of arpeggios. It also has a built-in effects loop so that you can layer other effects on top of the synth sounds, expression pedal input, and effect/direct (wet/dry) mixing.
Digitech Dirty Robot ($170)
Digitech created a straightforward, easy-to-use synth pedal in the Dirty Robot, which still manages to pull double-duty via a two-way switch that gives you a choice of synth voices. V1 mode is classic ‘70s-’80s analog synth warmness, while v2 is what Digitech calls “vocal formant synthesis”—basically a robotic talk-box style effect.
You can tweak either of these two voices with drift, stop/start controls, and even some modulation effects like chorus, vibrato, and octave drops. The Dirty Robot is discontinued, but used models are easy to find and inexpensive.
Electro-Harmonix Mono Synth ($164)
Electro-Harmonix (EHX) nailed retro analog synth sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s with the Mono Synth. There is very little digital interface on this pedal. Instead you’ll find easy-to-use dials, including an 11-way knob that selects different synth sounds like “wub,” “tinker,” and “blister,” that can take your guitar (or bass) in some crazy directions.
These sounds are not too sophisticated, but rather hark back to the “bleeps” and “boops” of 8-bit video games, and they can sound amazing in the right musical genre. Even though this synth can fundamentally alter your sound into anti-guitar territory, it has a wet-dry control for getting just the right mix. If you want more control over the sweeps of the sounds, it also works with an expression pedal.
Keeley Synth 1 ($179)
Despite its name, the Keeley Synth 1 is not technically a “synthesizer” like many of the other units here. Rather, Keeley calls it a “Reverse Attack Fuzz Wave Generator.” Name aside, this unit turns your signal into a series of wide open swells, scoops, and cascades reminiscent of 1970s Moog synthesizers.
Unlike most of the other units here, using the Synth 1 is not as simple as dialing in a preset synth sound. Instead, you control individual sounds by selecting wave types: saw, square, or triangle. From there, you can go instant synth, swell, or anything in between with the attack control, while also controlling with wet/dry blend. The filter control adjusts your tone, or you can add an expression pedal to do this in real-time. If that’s not enough, just hit the “chaos” switch for crushing fuzz mayhem. This is the synth pedal for players who think they don’t want a synth pedal.
Meris Enzo ($300)
The Meris Enzo takes old-school, analog synthesizer sounds and allows players to tweak them with different modulation effects (envelope filters, pitch shifts, and arpeggiators) for some truly stratospheric effects. It’s also more programmable than many of the other units listed here. You can store up to 16 different presets and access them via either an additional 4-button switch or MIDI control.
In this way, it is trending a bit more toward multi-effects pedals and synthesizers than the rest of the stompboxes here, but its interface and size keeps it user-friendly. Perhaps the most unique effect of the Enzo is its sustain, which you can extend almost infinitely for better or for worse. If you take the time to learn to use all the bells and whistles, this thing gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
All the above units ride a middle ground between true guitar synthesizer units that can convert your signal into anything, and traditional stompboxes that just distort or modulate your sound. That’s why any of these is a great place to start from if you want way-out-there effects to diversify your sound, but you aren’t quite sure about jumping into hexagonal pickups, programmable units, or MIDI.
- If you’re not looking for a full-on synthesizer but would love a sound like, say, a blown-out speaker cabinet shooting a laser, the EHX, Keeley, or Digitech are easy to work with and easy on the wallet.
- If you’re looking for something that is still easy to use, but with more presets and opportunities for more diverse sounds, the Meris or the BOSS can do way more than you would think for their size.
- If you want to use an expression pedal, you’re in luck. All the models here, apart from the Digitech, are compatible. They work well with bass, too.