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For a lot of musicians, the Roland brand evokes thoughts of game-changing drum machines, tight drum sequencing, and thick synth tones that reach into the stratosphere. Roland has made quite an impact on the guitar industry too—not least of which are the super-influential effects from its BOSS division. And players such as Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, and Alex Lifeson have coaxed some of the wildest guitar tones ever using the company's guitar synths and modelers like the GR-500, VG-99, and GR-55. In 2007, the company partnered with Fender to create the VG Stratocaster, which modeled various guitars and a multitude of pickup configurations, only to discontinue it only a couple years later. Now it’s back as the new G-5 VG Stratocaster, and it packs the much of the same versatility and tones as its predecessor.
Head of the Class
The new VG reissues are built in Fender's Mexican factory with all American Standard parts, aside from the bridge and pickups. As far as the guitar's basic specs go, things are pretty familiar—an alder body, three Fender standard single coils with ceramic magnets, five-way pickup switch, synchronized Fender tremolo, and a 22-fret, 25 1/2" scale maple neck with maple or rosewood fretboard. Our review model featured a hand-painted three-tone sunburst and rosewood fretboard.
At 8.4 lbs the VG is on the weightier side of things for a Stratocaster, and most of the difference is attributable to Roland's COSM-based G-5 circuitry, which was expertly packed inside the body via a large rout on the back. The signal is processed via a bridge-mounted GK divided pickup and shaped by one of three COSM electric guitar models—Stratocaster, Telecaster, dual-humbucking Stratocaster—or one of five acoustic instruments. The guitar's five-way switch works as a normal five-way, but also offers some new and useful options for guitars that typically have fewer pickup switching options, like traditional and wide-range modes for the neck and bridge of the Tele. It also cycles through five additional stringed instruments in the acoustic mode, allowing you to call up an electric sitar, nylon classical, a dreadnought acoustic, a single cone resonator, or an old-school jazz box for warmer, darker tones. An additional knob lets you flip through five different tunings: standard, dropped-D, DADGAD, open G, baritone, and 12-string standard. And if modeling isn't your thing all of the time, the entire COSM circuit can easily be switched off, kicking in the guitar's standard electronics.
A Strat By Any Other Name...
The G-5 does a lot. But one of the most outstanding qualities is how boneheaded-simple it is to use. Fender and Roland packed a lot of options into the guitar, but they didn't go overboard with tons and tons of models, effects, and computer interface options. Some might view that as a drawback, but I was pleased to find that the guitar sticks to trying to do a reasonable amount of things well, instead of trying to cover every tone under the sun.
Plugging into a Fender ’65 Twin Reverb reissue, I strummed some clean chords with the guitar’s standard magnetic pickup system switched on and got the spanky, piano-like set of tones that the Strat is known for. There were some pretty big differences compared to the guitar’s simulated Strat model, however—most notably the volume level and high-end attack. Even after adjusting the GK pickup to various heights, the output level of the model still wasn’t as loud and boisterous as the standard pickups were. The Strat model’s tone also had less midrange focus, especially with the bridge pickup flipped on. Despite those differences, I actually liked the fact that the modeled Strat had a distinctly different tonality than the standard mode. The brighter, more focused high-end attack served up an entirely new range of tones that were still very Strat-like, but with a more modern, smoother edge—a Mark Knopfler to the standard pickups’ Stevie Ray Vaughan, if you will. If the volume levels had been even between the two modes, it would’ve been really hard to tell that the modeled Strat wasn’t an entirely different Strat.
The other electric models were similarly excellent, and Roland did a very good job retaining each model’s inherent tone quirks—especially the Telecaster model, which had a really great upper-mid snarl and growl when I pushed the Twin’s input with a Fulltone OCD pedal. Roland also deserves props for making full use of the guitar’s five-way switch with the Tele model, which dishes a wonderful emulation of Fender’s fan-favorite Wide-Range pickups from the ’70s Telecaster Deluxe, Thinline and Custom, and Starcaster. Those pickups had a really cool mix of single-coil cut and thick humbucker thump, and Roland’s emulations are faithful to the originals—albeit with more clarity and front-and-center attack qualities. Using the guitar's multiple tuning modes opened up even more tonal avenues, but they were only in perfect tune when the actual guitar itself was—meaning if the guitar wasn't in perfect standard tuning, the modeled tunings would be noticeably off.
The humbucking emulations through a 50-watt Marshall JCM800 head were thick and full, and not surprisingly more closely aligned with that of a humbucker-loaded Strat than an SG or Les Paul. Roland's virtual humbuckers are designed to replace the frequencies lost by typical humbuckers, and are fairly bright, yielding full, clear tones that fit in perfectly for Iron Maiden-inspired galloping and open power chord work.
The guitar's acoustic models are less convincing, especially the two steel strings. Run through a PA, it was evident that I was playing a digital emulation of those guitars when I would strum chords, and even more obvious when I would play single notes. There just wasn't much warmth to the emulations, and they could definitely benefit from tweaks to make them a little thicker in the midrange. They’re certainly passable interpretations for quick acoustic interludes in songs but hardly rich enough to replace your prized D-18 or J-200. The tone control is assigned as an onboard reverb effect in this mode, but there wasn't a whole lot of range.
Fender's partnership with Roland has produced some really interesting and useful tools, and the G-5 VG Stratocaster is a worthy addition to the list. It’s not a jack-of-all-trades, which works in its favor. Most gigging guitarists really only need a handful of conventional choices for their music, and that’s who this guitar is ultimately tailored for. While a $1,299 price tag next to a headstock stamped "Made in Mexco" might give some pause, the guitar is essentially an American Strat that's been assembled south-of-the-border. And if the thought of a more tone options that can be called up at a moment's notice perks up your ears, it's worth investigation to see if your needs justify the relative expense.