Though it might seem like a lifetime ago, it was only late last year that one of the most imfamous guitars with built-in effects, Gibson’s Firebird X, blazed into the news when 100s of them were filmed being mercilessly culled beneath the crushing weight of a bulldozer.
It’s hard to watch, right? I mean, I know that guitars with built-in effects aren’t the most popular choice, but are they really that bad, Gibson?
The Firebird X, received with as mixed reviews as any other guitar, was only one of the latest attempts at stuffing a smorgasbord of tonal modulations into the compact chassis of a solid-body guitar, and it won’t be the last.
Depending on who you ask, these “futuristic” instruments packed with the latest tech are either a step in the right direction or an absolute abomination. And, this has been the case since… oh, 1938, when Rickenbacker released their self-vibrato-ing electric guitar, the Vibrola.
Ever after, ambitious luthiers and guitar companies have pursued “the Guitar of Tomorrow”, developing many strange iterations of stringed monstrosities sporting space-age effects built right into their bodies.
If these following models, both vintage and modern in manufacture, are as alien to you as they are to me, it only stands as a testament that the great breakthrough has yet to be made in the field of onboard guitar effects—that is, there is still a marvel of modern musical engineering lying in wait for one daring technician to stumble upon and unleash its wonders upon the world at large.
Perhaps it is you, as you read of these past attempts at crafting the next era of stringed instruments, who will have this ultimate Aha! moment and create the finest guitars with built-in effects the world has ever known.
The Many Guitars of Tomorrow
Rickenbacker Gets the Ball Rolling
Rickenbacker Vibrola Electric Spanish (1938)
Propelled by the inventive mind of George Beauchamp, Rickenbacker produced not only the first commercial electric guitars ever made, but also the first electric guitar with onboard effects.
In the case of this model, the Vibrola Electric Spanish Guitar, the built-in modulation was mechanically generated by motor-operated pulleys that vibrated the bridge. In addition to turning it on and off, you could also control the speed of the effect, all with one knob.
One small catch: you have to plug this guitar directly into an outlet in order to power the Vibrola motor.
Less than 100 of these were ever manufactured, but you can still find them in working order today.
The Electrics Have Landed
After Rickenbacker’s first foray into electrified guitars with their early frying pan models, it would still be more than a decade before solid body electrics would really catch on.
First, there came the Fender Broadcaster, turned Telecaster shortly after its release. Within no time, Gibson followed with the Les Paul, and for the bulk of the 1950s, it was these two iconic companies competing for the lead. Rickenbacker and Gretsch were putting up their own fair fights, but Gibson and Fender dominated the scene with little other competition for the better part of the 50s.
I think it was the dawn of the space race that really set things in motion for the oddballs we’re about to see. All of a sudden, Sputnik’s flying through orbit, the CIA’s testing the mind-control capabilities of acid, and everyone’s looking toward the day when we all wear silver suits and live on Mars. It seems no coincidence that 1958 would then bring the introduction of the alienesque Rickenbacker 330, the spaceship-shaped Flying V, and the psychedelically-offset Jazzmaster.
Before too long, the British had invaded America, monkeys were flying on rockets, and one Jennings Organ Company had decided it was time to switch from crafting keyboards to developing the latest in electric axes, effects, and amplifiers under the brand name Vox.
OGs of the 60s: Vox Starts it Off
Entering the electric guitar game in 1960, Vox quickly became a competitive rival for the original big dogs.
Though their starting line-up was altogether run-of-the-mill for the time, by the mid-60s Vox—creator of the wah-wah pedal—began blending their specialty in guitar effects with their unique solid body designs to breed a novel type of self-modulating guitar that would spark a new wave of tech-laden luthiery.
In what I consider a real stroke of genius, the folks of the Thomas Organ + Vox partnership took their starcraft-like Phantom guitar and stuffed it full of organ electronics to create the first-ever guitar with onboard effects.
Making its first appearance on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1965, the Vox Guitar Organ was the first of its kind—a guitar with variable controls that affected not just its pickup configuration, but the type of electronic signal ultimately sent through the rest of the chain.
It’s really a brilliant instrument, with an electric contact under each string at each fret controlling the resistance that ultimately determines the pitch produced by the organ circuits. In addition to its basic guitar+organ functionality, it also featured an octave control, a built-in percussion system, and a whopping 13 different instrument voices including bagpipe, banjo, chimes, and zither.
However out-of-the-box the Guitar Organ was, it was, in essence, a heavy, high-maintenance instrument without much practical application. Despite its lack of success, Vox was not deterred in its quest for innovation…
In 1967, Vox began offering a range of guitars and basses—the Phantoms IV, VI, and VII, the Marks IV, VI, and VII, and the Escort model—with the option of built-in effects.
Activated by individual push-buttons set neatly in a row, the control panel of these new models was at least more approachable than Vox’s earlier attempt in the V251.
Ambitious as ever, this unconventional lineup gave the player 6 on-board effects, some variable, each of which could be used in any combination with its 3 single-coil pickups:
- Treble- cuts the lower end for a trebly bite
- Bass- cuts the highs for a bassy boom
- Top Boost- also cuts the lows, but in a different way for a slightly different trebly bite…
- Mid Boost- actually the same circuit used in Vox’s first wah pedal; makes mids quack
- Fuzz- could be dialed from light grit to heavy fuzz with the Fuzz Sustain control
- Repeat- a variable-rate effect resulting in a deep sawtooth wave tremolo
Though the effects-free Phantoms saw widespread use among British rockers, the costlier Special models never caught on among the stars of the time. Even with its ability to produce an E-pitch for tuning, the “electronic special effects implant” of the late-60s Vox guitars was unable to outcompete the newly emerging industry of stompboxes.
This, of course, didn’t stop Vox from cramming their effects units into every new model they released through the remainder of their guitar production days—which, perhaps not only by coincidence, largely ended before the start of the 70s.
At the peak of production, Vox offered 17 models of “electronic” electric guitars and basses. The sci-fi Starstream, the classic Viper, the blocky Delta… Through its myriad of experimental guitars, Vox opened the floodgates on what has since been a steady trickle of guitars with built-in effects.
Aftershock in Oregon: the Musicraft Messenger
Vox’s electronic guitars were just as bold as their guitorgan forebear and bolder still than anything that would hit the market for most of the next decade. They were, as far as I can tell, the only competitive line of guitars with built-in effects made during the whole of the 60s.
The only other model I can find from this time is the Musicraft Messenger, a hollow-body electric guitar with built-in distortion. This “Tone Messer”, as it was called, did just that—with the flick of a switch, this otherwise bright acoustic could be thrown into ungodly wails of banshee-like feedback. In the Messenger’s less than 2 years of production, its only notable user was Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, who found a workable tone could be had once soundholes were sealed and the body stuffed full of foam.
The 70’s Synthetic Experiments
Compared to the efficiency and tonal superiority of the newly arising stompbox units of this era, the hand-operated onboard effects lacked both function and utility.
But in this age of funk and disco, new discoveries seemed just over every horizon, and further attempts to craft the best guitars with built-in effects continued to make little splashes here and there.
Perhaps seeing a Japanese release as early as 1969, Guyatone was one of the early frontrunners in adding unconventional circuitry to their guitars.
This came in the form of the short-lived LG-23R, a sleek, Strat-like solid body with a built-in drum machine. On offer were 5 rhythm patterns—Rock’n Roll, Bossa Nova, Twist, Fox Trot, and Slow Rock—which could each be altered in both tempo and volume.
Gibson Les Paul Recording
The Les Paul Recording model was released in 1971. Amid its many different knobs and switches was one onboard effect known as “Decade”. Said to change the highs from silky to biting, this was but one of many different ways the Recording’s tone could be shaped. Armed with low- and high-impedance circuits, tone and phase switches, plus all the usual pickup power controls, the Les Paul Recording model looks just like something Les would have thrown together in his garage.
It was, in fact, designed by Les Paul to allow him to record tracks with a low-impedance input. The result was a very clean sounding Gibson that—even with the Decade control (which actually did go up to 11)—did not catch on with the emerging rockers of the time.
Despite no one seeming to have their finger on the exact year these were released, most agree that the Kay Effector hit the scene in the earlier half of the 1970s.
The parallels between the Les Paul Recording and Kay Effector are hard to overlook—the latter is basically the Gibson with extra knobs and switches.
So what did these extra switches do? Controlled a bunch of onboard effects, of course!
The Effector came equipped with Echo, Tremolo, Wah, Whirlwind, and Fuzz, all variable. Activated by simple on-off switches and controlled by a master Speed knob, these 6 effects promised psychedelic potential. The addition of a headphone jack enabled players to jam out using the active electronics with no amp.
Unfortunately, these hastily-produced circuits were often in need of repair, and the difference between some effects was all but imperceptible. Plenty Effectors were ordered through the Sears catalogs that offered them, but they too failed to revolutionize the world of built-in effects.
Electra MPC Series
My personal favorite concept from this gang of strange guitars is featured here in the Electra MPCs from the later 1970s.
Rather than being built into the guitar, these Electras came with a set of 12 “modular powered circuits” that you could plug, 2 at a time, into the back of your axe.
Much like loading an old ROM video game (which debuted the same year as this Electra line), you simply plugged one or two of these MPC units into a compartment on the back of the guitar. Then, from an onboard control panel, you could turn one or both effects on or off, as well as independently control their volume and intensity.
By the end of their run—which, at 7 years, lasted longer than most guitars packing effects—18 different models of bass and guitar available in the MPC series.
Gretsch Super Axe
One of the many Gretsch models molded after the preferences of Chet Atkins, the made-for-sustain 7680 Super Axe hit the shelves in 1977.
With only two effects—Phaser and Compressor—this is actually one of the more functional models of on-board effects guitars I’ve come across.
Both effects had separate on-off switches and could be used simultaneously. The compression circuit was under the control of the Sustain knob, while the phaser circuit had both Rate and Blend controls.
A name that keeps coming up in this category is FujiGen, a Japanese company that produced many of the more experimental guitars sold under other brand names.
Such is the case with the Roland GS-500, introduced in 1977.
Though it doesn’t quite meet the qualifications as a guitar with built-in effects, I can’t not tell you about this super-70s synth controller.
So, you’d plug this guitar into the GR-500 analog synthesizer unit and then have (almost) full control of the module’s 5 synth sections. Simple as that.
Of particularly interesting note was the construction of the GS-500’s infinite sustain system. Connecting the frets to the electrical ground of the guitar caused the strings to carry current when played. This current interacted with the super large magnets set in the usual neck-pickup position of the body to create a feedback loop of truly infinite sustain.
Guitar Research and Design
Built by graduates of North America’s first-ever School of the Guitar Research and Design Center from 1978 until 1982, these are one of the rarer lines we’ll look at today.
Being handmade by a custom shop, these were really beautiful guitars of higher-than-average quality. The optional onboard effects were limited to compression and distortion, but players could also request a graphic EQ, a synth-enabled hexaphonic pickup, and even a wireless broadcasting system.
I can’t find many real-world examples of these guitars, but here’s a really nice model from 1980 with built-in overdrive.
Fresher Straighter guitars only ever saw limited releases, primarily in Japan but also in the UK.
These were among the last of the multi-effects guitars made in the 70s, making their appearance in Fresher’s “Built-In 5 Effects” line.
Included in these 5 effects were auto-wah, phase shifter, sustainer, power booster, and distortion, with up to 3 usable at a time.
First released in 1977, even the Fresher company had the foresight to know that guitars with onboard effects were not the wave of the future, for their own 1981 model—billed as a guitar for 2001—lacked built-in effects entirely.
The 80s, 90s, and Today
“Whoa whoa whoa!” you’re probably thinking. “How are you just gonna wrap up the last 40 years of guitar innovation in one final section?”
Well, my friends, the truth is that the idea of giving guitarists effects at their fingertips is not a very good one.
1977 saw the Boss premiere of the compact stompboxes we know and love today, and a mere 5 years later the market was flooded with nearly every type of effect a guitarist could ask for.
Sure, there were still guitars built with onboard effects in every decade up to now, but they never eclipsed their 70s primetime. Most have been unpopular one-offs from the many manufacturers in Japan and Korea, though we’ll see that more recent attempts have yielded what might be a promising new wave of digitized guitars…
The second Effector to be sold through the Sears catalog, the Cort lineup featured the sleekest control panels seen on an effect-laden electric up till that time.
Offered from 1982 in a range of body shapes—mostly copies of the leading models—Cort’s Effectors gave players 5 button-activated effects.
Though they were arguably more reliable than earlier onboard effects, the delay, distortion, chorus, wah, and vibrato would still prove to be no match for pedal units.
Formanta Solo Series
Made in Soviet-era Belarus between ‘85 and ‘92, the Formanta Solo models I and II featured, respectively, Phaser and Fuzz effects.
With a Firebird-esque body, a whopping Bigsby-like tremolo, and a neck profile that widens from a C at the top frets to a clunky U at the headstock, the Formanta stands out as truly unique during a time when most guitars were illicit copies of Fenders and Gibsons.
The Many Matsumoku Models
Matsumoku was one of the most prolific guitar manufacturers from the 60s through the mid-80s, producing models under a vast range of brand names—Washburn, Ibanez, Vox, Epiphone… the list goes on.
Matsumoku models branded under lesser-known names are what make compiling a comprehensive list of all onboard effects axes a near-impossible task.
For example, take the Skylark 2588, with a 3-setting Boost effect for built-in overdrive. Compare this to the separately-branded Aria Pro II TS-600, which featured a nearly identical circuit for its signature “Thor Sound”. Both guitars were produced by Matsumoku in the early 80s and share many of the same characteristics: the 3-piece maple neck, dual uncovered humbuckers, string-thru bridges. Save for some differences in body and headstock shape, they’re just about the same guitar.
This is the case for many of the guitars made by Matsumoku through the 80s. There are really too many to count. But, if you want to see more of these obscure models, check out the Matsumoku forums—it’s full of all iterations of these 1980s guitars with onboard effects.
Fender Heartfield RR9
As far as I can tell, everyone pretty much abandoned built-in guitar effects in the 90s. Maybe it was the advent of digital multi-effects pedals, or maybe there was a budding underground market that I just can’t get a lead on.
Whatever the case, it seems as if the Heartfield-Fender collaboration guitar, the RR9, was one of the only axes with effects made during the final years of the 20th century.
And it was a simple one too, with only an on-board distortion circuit for hassle-free fuzz.
Modeling Guitars and Modern Tech
I guess after Y2K, people thought it was safe enough to start putting computers inside guitars, so we started to see a lot of new moves in the built-in effects realm.
Line 6 Variax
One of the first, and maybe one of the most successful of these guitars, was the 2002 Line6 Variax.
The Variax line utilizes a separate piezo pickup element under each string to allow for ultra-specific digital processing. Even individual unfretted notes can be shifted to automatically access open tunings.
Fernandes Vertigo FX
Released in 2003, the Fernandes Vertigo FX came loaded with an entire Zoom multi-effects processor.
Up to 9 of its 24 effects could be used and saved in patches, while its pedal-controlled capabilities allowed for hands-free modulation.
The signature guitar of Muse’s Matt Bellamy was first designed in the early 2000s in a collaboration with Manson Guitar Works.
One of my favorite models on this list, Bellamy’s signature guitar is made with a built-in XY MIDI touchpad.
In combination with an effects processor like its commonly-paired Korg Kaoss Pad, this is one of the more intuitive, player-friendly mods I’ve seen in the pursuit of giving guitars their own effects.
The Fusion Guitar
To wrap things up, we’ve got the Fusion Guitar—iPhone compatible with a built-in 20-watt amp and as many effects as your phone can handle.
A modern take on the classic dilemma, the Fusion Guitar actually syncs with apps on your phone, like GarageBand or any number of amp emulators, and then sends that processed signal out the onboard amplifier.
When I first saw the Fusion, I have to admit I thought it was pretty gimmicky (I mean, no Android compatibility?). But, after taking a closer look and listen, I’m actually pretty sold on the concept and looking forward to future moves in this musical direction.
The Final Word
Love em or hate em, we’ll probably never see the end of adventurous innovations in the way of guitars with built-in effects. They’ve been a constant since the dawn of electric guitars, and with exciting new tech emerging every day, I imagine it won’t be long before we’re shredding our axes by thought alone.