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Since the first Guitar Hero game was released on Playstation2 in 2005 and Rock Band in 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
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.
A Guitar that’s a Controller? Or a Controller that’s a Guitar?
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.