34. Casio DG 20 synth guitar
THERE’S only one person to blame for the appearance of this, the oddest of all guitar-shaped things in this blog. I name Dr Ika – Georgian neuro-surgeon-cum-guitar player, technical genius and all-round good bloke! Ika’s been a regular at the Hot Hob Jam in Brentwood where we have gone to jam for almost as long as I can remember. However, for me, his most memorable appearance was the evening he showed up at Pam’s Bar (as the jam venue was then known) with this odd-looking plastic thing, and proceeded to play some fair-to-passing Hammond organ parts on it.
Actually, this was hardly my first encounter with the wonderful world of Casio synthesisers, though. I had one of those dinky little VL Tone mini-keyboards when they came out (and drove all within earshot nuts with the preset “German Folk Tune” it played when in demo mode. I can still hum that bloody tune now!) I remember pecking out a few Depeche Mode tunes and the lick from “Enola Gay” on it before getting bored and consigning it to a drawer somewhere and returning to things with strings!
Back in the days when I worked in Chelmsford town centre in the late 80s, I remember strolling into Dixons and being intrigued to see a DG20 for sale – alongside something that looked like a kid’s plastic saxophone, but made similar noises when you blew into it.
Back to Ika and his remarkable organ (!!!). By the time I saw him playing his DG20, in the very late 90s or early 2000s, even, they’d been long discontinued in favour of a more traditional Strat-shaped guitar with some kind of MIDI pickup plus conventional pickups (JJ Cale played one of those as his main electric for years) I’d just about forgotten the DG20 had ever existed, but it doesn’t take much to get me going and Ika’s performance got me jonesing for one.
Casio must have been churned out these guitars by the thousand, so they could hardly be described as “rare” in the way some optimistic eBay sellers crack on, presumably to justify ridiculous price tags. (If you should fancy one, there’s a guy here selling one for £425 FFS! I think I paid £60 for mine.)
What was it like? Well, not much like a guitar, to be honest. INCREDIBLY hard to play. The strings were make of black nylon and were all the same thickness and kind of slack. The “fingerboard” – such as it was – was made out of rubber (yes, seriously) with vertical, moulded ribs where you’d expect frets. You strummed the strings and pressed down on the rubber, beneath which switches told the DG20 which notes you wanted to hear. Yes, it did play guitar chords, but it was a horrendous thing to make sense of, requiring flawlessly consistent fingering of the kind I was never going to manage. And of course, you couldn’t bend strings. Well you could, but nothing happened!
It had a built-in speaker (you could also plug into an amp) and a built-in drum box that was every bit as bad as the rhythm units found in the very cheapest and nastiest home organs. As for the sounds, they ranged from the cheesy (organ, plinky guitar, plonky piano) to, well, the even more bizarre and even more cheesy! It ran on six big, fat torch batteries. Oh and it had MIDI. Rumour had it, you could hook it up to some pretty serious synth and rock out…if only you could get the hang of that horrible fingerboard and strings!
Unsurprisingly, I never attempted to play it in public and I ended up selling it a couple of years later – for a profit, I hasten to add. Before that, Owen did, however, get a better handle on it and wrestled manfully with the false-triggering to record some pretty convincing organ parts though a stereo Leslie pedal for at least one track on “Roadtrip”, the Legendary Great Lost Armadillos Album that we spent four years recording, but never finished. Those tracks might yet see the commercial light of day one day – a case of tracking down the relevant hard drive and transferring the stems on to Rooks Yard’s Pro Tools system to mix. In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview of one of the tracks featuring Owen on Casio DG20 organ…
PS: As a bonus, here’s an amusing YouTube clip I found illustrating the wonder that was the DG20… enjoy! https://youtu.be/HLPu871kMVY