Since the first Guitar Hero
game was released
on Playstation2 in 2005 and Rock Band
2007, the two have combined to sell more than
55 million game units (according to Activision
and Harmonix). In that same amount of time,
countless guitarists have dismissed the games
with varying degrees of spite. And though antiguitar-
game sentiment has quieted perceivably
in recent years, one lingering question remains:
will these plastic-button “guitarists” ever transform
into genuine wood-and-steel heroes of the
next generation—and what can the game do to
make that happen?
Enter the Squier Stratocaster Guitar and
Rock Band Controller—the first ever full-size,
fully functional guitar that doubles as a game
controller. Used with this year’s Rock Band 3
Pro Mode (see sidebar below), the first-ofits-
kind hybrid is the only real contender in the
battle to bridge the gap between game
and guitar. And it puts up a hell of
a fight to win the favor of players
from both camps.
Rock Band 3’s Pro Mode
A Guitar that’s a Controller? Or a
Controller that’s a Guitar?
This guitar exists because of a new game mode introduced in the latest Rock Band
game, and is
therefore not compatible with previous versions of the game. Pro Mode breaks out of the previous
five-button format to present the entire fretboard across six strings. Currently, Pro Mode is only
playable using this Squier or a 102-button plastic Mad Catz Fender Mustang replica controller.
Like the original game, the note “bubbles” come toward you conveyer belt-style, this time
with a number attached to indicate the fret. Open strings are noted with a “0” and muted strings
with a blue “X.” Chords follow a new convention: the low note shows a fret number, while a note
“bubble” stretches across the subsequent strings at different thicknesses on each string to indicate
how many frets away from the root that string should be fretted at.
Let’s get this out of the way—this is a budget
Squier Strat that makes certain concessions as a
guitar to live a double life as a video game controller.
If you’re looking for a superbly playable,
versatile, and toneful instrument, Fender makes
plenty of those at different price points. Aside
from the electronics, which we’ll get to in a
moment, it shares many of the same specs as a
Squier Standard Stratocaster: agathis body,
maple C-shaped neck, 25.5" scale, 9.5"
fretboard radius, 22 medium jumbo
frets, and 1.650" nut width.
Currently there’s just one finish option—black
polyester. There’s also a single-ply white pickguard,
and a six-saddle non-tremolo bridge. A
Fender strap is included, but I would’ve liked to
see a gig bag as well.
Because of the many special considerations
necessary for a guitar that is also a game controller,
this Strat has a number of proprietary
features. The unique truss rod is adjusted with a
mechanism located in the treble side of the neck
near the neck joint. In place of the neck pickup,
there’s a pop-up string mute that allows the
game to better track picking during gameplay (a
necessary addition given that the game rarely registered
the low strings correctly when unmuted)
but which can be popped back into the body for
playing sans-game. The guitar also features dual
outputs for a standard 5-pin MIDI jack and a
standard ¼" output jack. The two can be used
simultaneously, meaning you can play through
an amp while
you’re playing the game—which
is entirely unnecessary but completely fun. The
MIDI output also makes the guitar useable as a
MIDI controller using a standard MIDI cable
(included) and your preferred DAW.
The single hex pickup in the bridge is a
special design for this instrument, as is the
polymer fingerboard, which has embedded
position sensors that track extremely well and
numbered position markers on both sides of
the neck. Nestled in the array of knobs and
buttons used for gameplay is a volume control—
the only control for the guitar itself. The
game controls include a T-shaped directional
pad, Start (left arrow) and Select (right arrow)
buttons, and four tiny, color-coded buttons
that correspond to the four standard game
controller buttons. The guitar can be used
with Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii, as long as you
have the correct Mad Catz MIDI converter
(separately by Mad Catz for $39.99). The
gaming-related side of the guitar runs on three
AA batteries, but battery power is not required
for just plugging into an amp and playing.
What’s it All About?
If the point of the guitar is to bridge the gap
between gamers and guitarists—to guide a
generation of button mashers to the art of music
making—putting it to the test with the experienced,
gig-tested, guitar playing editors of this
magazine exclusively would not suffice. So, we
recruited a group of testers that represented just
about every category of player that might be
interested in a 6-string game controller: a serious
gearhead guitarist, a guitar teacher, a hobbyist
guitarist, a beginning guitarist and gamer, and
hardcore gamers with no guitar experience.