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Hands On With The Moog Guitar

We take a closer look at the company that won best in show at Nashville during this year''s summer NAMM show.

Hands On With The Moog Guitar
In the minds of many, the name Moog has long been synonymous with synthesizers. Since 1964 when Robert Moog switched from building theremins (that spooky sci-fi instrument people play by waving their hands) to producing the first popular version of the keyboard- controlled synthesizer, the Moog sound has become familiar to lovers of funk, ELP and Switched-On Bach. From ABBA to Zero 7, Moog textures have been part of the musical fabric for five decades.

Guitarists have become more familiar with the Moog name since Moog left his eponymous company and started manufacturing Moogerfooger pedals in 1999 under the name Big Briar. Pictures of Chili Pepper John Frusciante’s pedalboard festooned with Moogerfoogers have become commonplace in guitar mags of late, but Moog’s guitar connection goes back further. In the seventies Moog was purchased by Norlin, a company that also owned Gibson. At that time Bob Moog worked with the engineers at Gibson to create the RD Artist series of guitars, with active electronics that featured expansion and compression circuitry.

Hands On With The Moog Guitar Cut to Summer NAMM 2008...
When acquaintances meet up on the floor of a NAMM show, the common question is, “What have you seen that is cool?” It usually evokes as many different answers as there are attendees, but this year in Nashville the answer was often identical: “The new Moog guitar.”

What made this revolutionary axe a no-brainer for best in show? The debut model – the Paul Vo Collector Edition [named after the guitar’s inventor; see sidebar page 120] – is built for Moog by Zion guitars. It features a double-cutaway body of premium swamp ash or mahogany, with an AAAAA flame or quilted maple top, available in a variety of eye-catching finishes. The maple set-neck sports an ebony fingerboard, 22 frets, 12” radius and 25 1/2” scale. The headstock is angled at 7 degrees, alleviating any need for string trees, and is finished to match the body. The Wilkinson tremolo is kept in tune with Sperzel locking tuners. Of course if that were the end of it you could be forgiven for thinking, “So what – we’ve seen beautiful custom guitars before.”

But that is only the beginning; it is in its pickups and electronics that the Moog reveals its innovative glory. A set of piezo saddles offers acoustic sound either through the main five-pin XLR-type output or a separate 1/4” out. Though a piezo option is far from groundbreaking, wait – what is this about a five-pin output? This output functions as an input as well, supplying power to the Moog’s special pickups and controlling its onboard filters.

Now this is where it gets good: what makes the pickups so special is their ability to either excite the strings into unlimited sustain or dampen them into almost none. The appeal of the former is obvious. Ever since the invention of the electric guitar, players have been thrilled by the musical possibilities of enhanced sustain. Compression, distortion, EBows and sustainer pickups have been employed to offer guitarists the kind of long notes enjoyed by organists and synth-wielders.

The Moog’s unique, parallelogram-shaped pickups offer two types of sustain. Full Sustain mode provides infinite sustain on every string, while Controlled Sustain mode allows you to play sustained single or polyphonic lines without hand damping the other strings by holding the notes you play while actively muting the other strings. Flicking the gold-tipped, Strat-style 3-way switch into the third position engages Mute Mode. In this mode the pickups remove energy from the strings; the resulting staccato articulations sound redolent of sitars and banjos.

The multitude of controls placed on a blackpainted recess carved into the body recalls the dashboard of a fancy sports car. A black knurled knob handles the master volume, while the adjacent gold knob adjusts the amount of “Vo Power.” Vo Power is the name given to the effect that the pickups have on the strings, whether they are adding or subtracting sustain.

A gold 3-way mini-toggle selects among standard guitar tone, Articulated Moog Filter and Normal Moog Filter. In Normal Filter mode a supplied footpedal controls the cutoff frequency of the onboard filter, much like a wah wah pedal. The Articulated Filter mode acts more like a hex envelope follower; the pedal now sets the start frequency of the articulation. In these modes, the gold Tone/Filter knob controls the filter resonance. With the switch set to standard mode this same knob acts as a typical passive tone control.

Hands On With The Moog Guitar When the footpedal is being used to control the onboard filters, the next gold knob adjusts “Harmonic Balance.” When the filters are not in use, the footpedal controls this balance. This effect is called Harmonic Balance because it shifts positive and negative Vo Power from pickup to pickup, accenting different harmonic overtones to create an organ drawbar effect. Moving the knob or the footpedal in one direction causes the neck pickup to add more sustain and the bridge pickup to suck out the string energy; in the other direction the process is reversed. This has nothing to do with the pickup selection; it just means that the energy at that point of the string is being enhanced or reduced, affecting the resulting harmonics sent by the current pickup combo to the amp. The pickup selector allows you to choose just the piezo, the bridge pickup, both pickups in phase, both pickups out of phase, or the neck pickup. Another black knob blends in the piezo.

The Moog pedal is the hub of the guitar’s electronics. In addition to controlling the aforementioned filters and harmonic balance, it is here that the power cable is attached, as well as the other end of the five-pin XLR. A standard 1/4” guitar cable runs from the pedal to your amp. The pedal also accepts external control voltage (0-5V). This signal can come from optional Moog devices like the programmable Multi Pedal and CP-251 Control Voltage Processor, or any other equipment capable of generating suitable control voltages, like a laptop DAW or drum machine. This permits you to modify the Moog’s filters with external LFOs synched to a tune’s tempo.

Moog Comes Home
After seeing a few demonstrations of the guitar at NAMM, I realized that I had to get my hands on one. When it arrived, I cracked open the shipping box and found the Moog housed in a tweed, Fender-style case with special compartments for the footpedal, power cables and dedicated XLR cable. The guitar’s body evidenced a bookmatched flame maple top, with the standard maple grain running perpendicularly across for a stunning effect. The overall finish work is excellent. The neck leans towards chunky but is manageable for the smallerhanded. The strings are specially made for the instrument and feel like stainless steel. As of this writing, the guitar is still in beta testing, with more work being done on the electronics. At this point, whether it is the strings themselves or the magnetic field of the pickups exerting a pull on them, in standard mode the guitar didn’t exhibit much ring – there is plenty of sustain, even without using the sustain effect, but the sound decays very quickly after the initial attack. Also, the dark voicing of the pickups precludes sparkle, though adding some piezo to the sound helps. Still, the bridge pickup offers a satisfying honk when run through a distortion and the neck pickup’s darkness is on the warm rather than muddy side. When both pickups were engaged, the high E string seemed to sound out of phase while the others were not. The Moog offers an actual out of phase position – a sound that proved quite useful. I am sure many of these issues will be addressed before the full production run, but the bottom line is that if vintage guitar tone is your thing, this is not your axe. Where this instrument shines is in the land of atypical playing, especially when you kick in its exceptional electronic features.

Hands On With The Moog Guitar Having used an EBow for years, I became a fan of its unlimited string sustain – and aware of its limitations. In its sustain modes the Moog is like having an individual EBow for each string. Not having to hold the sustain device in my right hand opened a whole new world of sonic madness; it left the picking hand free to manipulate the whammy bar, or control keyboards, whether belonging to synthesizers or laptops. I could suddenly wring more effects out of devices like the Source Audio Hot Hand series – the notes continuing indefinitely while I waved around the remote ring. I could easily control either Source Audio’s dedicated effects or (through their control voltage output) the Moog’s filters. Eliminating the need to retrigger notes or chords by strumming or picking the Moog freed me to make use of a Korg Kaoss effect’s X/Y pad, without having to use its looping function.

This is an instrument that cries out for processing. The standard pickup sound responds well to everything from chorus to compression. In the sustain modes just a bit of delay may be all you need, but it is hard to resist plugging into a DAW and slathering the Moog’s lingering chords with plug-ins providing everything from moving filters to spectral and granular mangling.

My favorite effect, however, proved to be right in the instrument itself. When using an EBow I always found the harmonic octave jumps hard to predict; with the Moog those jumps are completely under pedal or knob control. I found that changing the harmonic balance of either sustaining chords or single notes injected an incredible level of emotional expression into my playing.

What I was completely unprepared for was the joy of the muting effect. Employing this effect with the pickups set out of phase, I achieved a terrific electric sitar sound. Setting the pickups in phase created a banjo sound in open position and mandolin-type tones when playing further up the neck.

Looking Ahead
With its mid-four-figures price point, the Moog will be out of reach of many (an offshore version is already being discussed). But if you are serious about guitar experimentation you may need to find the financing. The Moog Guitar is one of those technological advances that will require new leaps of imagination from its adopters. Sure, it can do some things you have heard before, from EBows and modeling guitars (albeit better and more easily), but its true importance will be revealed in the years to come when groundbreaking guitarists discover applications for it that help create music that sounds like nothing we have ever heard.

Hands On With The Moog Guitar
An Interview With Paul Vo: The Man Behind the Moog

How did you come to Moog?
The people at Moog had mused for some time about a Moog guitar and I happened to walk in the door with a substantial enabling technology. Here was an opportunity to work with people known for fundamental innovation, and a way to enter the market in just the off-the-wall way that excited my imagination.

What inspired the idea for the Moog Guitar?
It’s been a series of inspirations over several years. As a guitarist I was greatly impressed by what Hendrix was doing with amplifier feedback. I’ve loved all the different sounds of the guitar – steel guitar, Clapton’s blues tones, all of it. But from a physics point of view I knew there was more to the guitar string; I knew that I wanted get at all that great stuff in there. Most electronic innovation for the guitar has gone towards processing the guitar signal after it leaves the string, but Moog was very receptive to my idea of going in the other direction, right back to the string itself.

How did you arrive at the physical design?
We felt that, with the electronics being so different and resulting in a guitar with such unusual behavior, it would be too much to push the envelope further by experimenting with unconventional instrument designs. The basic shape of the instrument has great, field-proven ergonomics – a very accessible and comfy neck, good balance, contours that help make it easy to play, etc. We added a unique headstock design and a control “shelf” that echoes the headstock. These elements make it recognizably a Moog Guitar. We wanted an instrument that could conceivably be a main axe for a guitarist, and that meant dialing back the risk on the physical instrument.

How do the pickups work?
Each pickup is a patented bi-directional transducer that can be locked into a coherent twoway exchange of energy with the vibrating strings. The interaction is electromagnetic, but also different than the interaction of pickups or sustainers. When Vo Power is applied positively, the string sustain is very powerful and very responsive. When the Vo Power is reversed, power to the string stops very quickly giving a staccato effect to our guitar (similar to a banjo or koto).

Why does it need special strings?
The Moog Guitar strings have a different metallic content than most strings, more responsive to the way our pickups use electromagnetism. In an emergency situation, most metallic guitar strings will still work but they will not be as responsive and you may need to dial back Vo Power a bit for them to work correctly. Bottom line: an ordinary string will get you through the night in an emergency, but you’ll want to use our Moog Strings.

Is the dark voicing of the standard guitar mode a choice or a function of making the pickups work as sustainers?
It’s more a matter of choice. Initially some people thought the pickups were too brash so we dialed them back somewhat. Having said that, just as single-coil pickups have a certain sound and humbuckers a different sound, these pickups have their own characteristic Moog tone. And this is a guitar that we’d expect to be used with various floor effects; the darker tuning is better for driving those effects.

Could the pickups work with a battery? And could a version like that without the pedal and filters be made for those who just want the sustaining capabilities and don’t want to be tied to a special cable?
Batteries are a possibility, however there are trade-offs. If we use batteries, they would have to be high energy – the type typically found in laptops – so that would add weight. Given my dislike of wires I am motivated, so the possibility is something I will be considering as battery technology continues to improve.