Review: Moog Music Moog Guitar Paul Vo Collector Edition

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Considering the company's pedigree, you shouldn't be surprised to learn that the Moog Guitar expands the expressive palette of the electric guitar into new territory. What's most impressive about this instrument is that it engenders creativity. You sit down to play it, and you find yourself playing things and getting sounds in totally new ways.

The instrument, designed by Paul Vo, is imbued with many unique features, and its processing is all analog. Its user-adjustable infinite sustain is one of the highlights. Yes, infinite sustain is not new (the Fernandes Sustainer, for one, has offered it for years), but the Moog Guitar implements it with a great degree of user control over both the nature of the sustain and its harmonic content. The guitar also features a mute mode that reduces sustain to create a staccato attack. To enhance the tonal palette, you get a built-in 4-pole Moog lowpass ladder filter, which can be triggered by right-hand attack or with the included Control Pedal. Also onboard are Graph Tech piezo bridge saddles for acoustic-guitar-like tones. The piezo output can be blended with or taken separate from the magnetic pickups' signal. The Moog Guitar is not a synth guitar, but rather a guitar with extended sonic and expressive capabilities.

According to Moog, in the short time since the guitar's release in September, it has already been purchased by a number of high-profile musicians, including Trent Reznor, Joe Walsh, Lionel Loueke of Herbie Hancock's band, James Valentine of Maroon 5, Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts, and Lou Reed. So what makes the Moog Guitar so special? I'll start with a closer look at its features.

Maple Candy

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FIG. 1: The Moog Guitar is a boutique electric guitar with built-in sustain, mute, and filter features.

The construction is first-class all the way (see Fig. 1). It's a solidbody instrument made of either mahogany or swamp ash (depending on availability). It has a gorgeous top, either flame or quilted maple, which is available in a range of colors. The guitar I reviewed had a golden yellow quilted-maple top (Moog calls that finish Honey). The 22-fret set neck features an ebony fingerboard.

In conjunction with locking Sperzel tuners, the Wilkinson bridge/tremolo system stays in tune remarkably well. A pair of proprietary, single-coil Moog pickups provide the electric guitar sound. Moog is very hush-hush about the pickup design, saying on its Web site that “we cannot divulge too much detail” about them.

The Moog Guitar comes set up with heavier-than-normal strings (.011, .018, .024, .030, .044, .052). I normally play 10s, and the guitar felt a bit stiff at first. However, bending was comfortable enough, and I soon adjusted to the guitar's feel. According to Moog's Jason Daniello, the heavy strings produce a stronger electromagnetic field, which makes the guitar's sustain and mute features (which Moog terms Vo Power in honor of the guitar's designer) function better. Daniello says that the guitar will work with a .010 or even a .009 on top (the recommended lower-string gauges are heavier than in conventional sets), but that the 11s are optimal. Moog is selling its own strings for the guitar, which contain a metallic composition designed to optimize electromagnetic response. The company recommends using conventional strings only in a pinch; the response, it says, will be “weaker and less stable.”

The guitar electronics require power, which comes through the 5-pin XLR cable that also carries the audio from the guitar and connects to the Control Pedal, which has a metal bottom and a plastic body and treadle. The pedal then plugs into the wall with a line-lump transformer and has a high-impedance output to go to an amp or DI. The pedal is also a key part of the extensive user control of the guitar's sustain and filter features. A 9V battery, which powers the piezo pickups, is located in a compartment in the back of the guitar's body. The guitar comes in a snazzy-looking tweed hard-shell case, which has a substantial handle, gold hardware, and a pocket for the Control Pedal.

Of Knobs and Switches

It took me several playing sessions until I felt like I had a good grasp on the Moog Guitar's controls. I found the 6-page printed User's Guide to be well written and thorough. It was invaluable to have at hand when I was learning how to “work” the guitar.

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FIG. 2: The guitar''s knobs and switches allow most functions to be controlled from onboard.

The leftmost (from the player's perspective) of the control hardware is a Master Volume knob. Next to that is the Vo Power knob (see Fig. 2), which governs the strength of the sustain and mute features. The Harmonic Balance knob adjusts how much Vo Power goes to each pickup, making it kind of like a tone knob for the sustain and mute features. Turning this knob changes the harmonic content of the signal, resulting in higher or lower overtones being produced. You can turn it while the note sustains, changing its character as it goes along. You can also control this same parameter with the Control Pedal when the 3-way Filter Toggle switch is set to Tone.

The Filter Toggle is one of the key controls on the guitar. When it's set to Tone (position 1), the guitar responds to its own tone control knob (called the Tone/Filter knob), like a conventional instrument. Position 2 turns on the Articulated Filter, which gives you a more intense filter effect the harder you hit the note. When it's used with the Mute mode, you can get some really cool, sitarlike tones (see Web Clip 1). When the guitar is in either of the two filter modes, the Tone/Filter knob controls the filter's resonance.

Position 3 of the Filter Toggle is called the Moog Filter. When it's on, the filter responds to the pedal, creating wahlike effects when the pedal is moved around (see Web Clip 2), or exaggerated tonal effects when it's held stationary near one of its extremes.

The Mode Selector is a 3-way switch that toggles between the Mute mode and the two sustain modes: Controlled Sustain and Full Sustain. In Controlled Sustain, only one or two notes can sustain at a time; the sustain gets muted for the rest. As its name implies, this gives you more control, making it easier to play single lines more cleanly, without too many notes ringing over. Full Sustain, on the other hand, could be described as more of a “pedal-to-the-metal” effect. Every note sustains, which makes for a more intense result. Together with some distortion from your amp or modeler, the sustain modes make it easy to get cool feedback effects, too (see Web Clip 3).

The Mute mode is engaged by putting the Mode Selector into position 1. It essentially chokes the string output, giving you a staccato sound. As with the sustain, the degree of this effect is controlled by the Vo Power knob.

The other switch on the guitar is a 5-way pickup selector. You can set it to piezo only, bridge pickup, bridge and neck out of phase, bridge and neck in phase, and neck. With the pickup selector in any of the electric guitar positions, the Piezo Blend knob lets you dial in as much or as little of the piezo signal as you'd like. With the pickup in the piezo position, the Piezo Blend knob is inactive because the guitar is outputting only piezo signal.

The guitar also has a ¼-inch auxiliary output that carries only the piezo signal. It can be used either to feed a tuner or to send the piezo signal to a separate amp (like an acoustic guitar amp) or to a separate DAW track or P.A. input. The piezo signal is fully affected by the sustain and mute effects, but not the filter effects.

Getting Mooged

The variety of tones you can get from the Moog Guitar is impressive. Even more so is the range of playing techniques you can apply that would be impossible on a conventional guitar. For instance, when you're in one of the sustain modes, you can easily play melodies with your left hand only, by sliding your fingers around on the fretboard. Meanwhile, you can use your right hand to tap countermelodies, or, you can hit a chord and, as it sustains, play melodies with your right hand on top of it (see Web Clip 4). I was also able to get some really unusual, singsongy sounds using a slide and dialing in some distortion on my amp modeler. Once you start bringing the filter into it, the sonic variety is pretty extensive. (The filter can also be controlled by external CV control, by plugging a Moogerfooger or other CV-equipped device into the CV input on the Moog Guitar's Control Pedal.)

The only aspect of the Moog Guitar's sonic palette that I didn't find to be exceptional was how it sounded as a conventional guitar, with the effects bypassed. Both through an amp and direct into an amp modeler in my DAW, I found the pickup sound to be kind of midrangy. In addition, the notes tended to sound and feel a little plunky, without the normal sustain I would expect. (According to Daniello, the plunkiness was likely due to incorrect setup, not the nature of the guitar.) My issues with the conventional guitar tone are why I gave the instrument a 4 instead of a 5 for Audio Quality in the EM ratings. In defense of the guitar's tone, I recently heard Jake Cinninger of the band Umphrey's McGee playing the Moog Guitar at Moogfest 2008, and it sounded awesome through his rig, both as a conventional guitar and with the effects turned on.

On several occasions, I picked up RF interference when using the Moog Guitar. When I mentioned this to Daniello, he told me that Moog was aware of the issue and had solved it with an updated version of the Control Pedal that included a grounding switch. The company subsequently sent me the new pedal, which remedied the problem.

Six-String Mooger

Overall, I found the Moog Guitar to be an inspirational instrument. It opened up exciting new worlds of playing technique for me like no guitar I've ever played. Especially when I used external effects, like distortion, delay, and modulation, I found myself getting lost in the guitar and playing and improvising for long stretches without even realizing that time had passed. It was kind of like discovering a whole new side to my guitar skills.

That said, the Moog Guitar is quite expensive and at this point in its development is a luxury item that will be affordable only to some. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, Moog will release a lower-priced line, bringing the Moog Guitar's exciting combination of sustain, mute, and filter effects to a wider range of potential buyers. I can already tell that I'm going to miss having this guitar around when I have to return it after this review is over. There's simply nothing else out there like it.

Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He's been playing guitar since age ten.

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