How meeting one of my guitar heroes changed my life.
This month’s Question & Obsession (“Have You Ever Met One of Your Guitar Heroes?”) gave me a Crank-like jolt of gratitude. Such encounters are one of the gifts of this music journalism gig, and it conjured a riptide of joyful memories. A few: traveling with Metallica in the Netherlands and Italy; gift shopping with Billy Gibbons; smoking weed with blues legend Robert Lockwood and counterculture legend John Sinclair along the banks of the Mississippi; interviewing Robert Fripp at his ancestral home in Cranborne, Dorset, and meeting his delightful mother, Edith; being introduced to Leo Fender by Les Paul; nearly getting tossed out of a hotel bar in Akron with Scorpions (we were hammered, disorderly, and on the first Monsters of Rock tour); many conversations with B.B. King; trading jokes with the wonderful Sonny Sharrock; instigating a jam with Danny Gatton and Billy Sheehan (after Billy and I were nearly ejected from Trader Vic’s in Chicago … alcohol again!); and trading bootleg tapes with Carlos Santana.
A few encounters with my heroes even changed my life, and none more profoundly than meeting R.L. Burnside at Junior Kimbrough’s rural juke joint in the hills outside of Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1993. I’d been immersed in blues for about a decade when I saw Robert Mugge’s amazing documentary Deep Blues, which introduced R.L., Junior, and a host of other obscure artists, from Memphis to the Delta, to the mainstream. I had no idea such unvarnished music still existed in America, and I had to meet them. Plus, R.L. was the most intense rhythm guitarist I’d ever heard. So, through luck and another meeting—with the great musicologist and journalist Robert Palmer, an idol who instantly became a friend—I found myself at Junior’s Place on a Sunday afternoon, with Junior and his band shaking the shack’s floorboards while R.L. nursed a can of Busch and watched from a lawn chair across the room.
I was dumbstruck. I was in an off-the-path juke joint with plywood-patched walls, a toilet cracked in half from seat to floor, bare lightbulbs for illumination, the grape-Nehi smell of kudzu in the air, a bare fan from a cotton gin offering cool breeze and potentially serious injury, and a smattering of patrons day-drunk on moonshine—one doing a cartwheel by the pool table, another grooving in his overalls and shit-caked shoes, straight off the farm. For the first half-hour, my jaw was on the floor. I’d found Never Never Land.
By the time my mandible was reattached, R.L. traded seats with Junior and took over. When he played “Poor Black Mattie,” I had a vision. I saw a silvery-gray web appear in the air and it connected all the music I love. In that instant, I came to understand that the sounds R.L. and Junior controlled were the nexus of jazz, blues, primal rock, heavy metal, folk, funk, soul, African music, Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart, improvised skronk, and all else that fed my soul. And at that moment, I resolved to do whatever I could to bring more attention to these keepers of the keys to the heart of music. I still keep that promise, decades past their deaths.
As luck had it, a few months after I returned to Boston, where I lived at the time, I paved the way for R.L. and Junior to make an extended stay at the original House of Blues in Cambridge. While they were there, I put myself at their service, and by the time they left we were fast friends. Especially R.L., who had a reservoir of joy and charisma that nourished everyone he met. It’s hard to convey how merely spending time with R.L.—hearing his stories and jokes, his insights and concerns, his tales of growing up in the Jim Crow South, learning his preferences—enriched my thinking about life and music. But they did, greatly.
And then there was the music—so ripe with everything. I have no idea why he decided I should try to play it—and I demurred, because I revered it and him. But the night he literally made me get my ass onstage alongside him for the first time, something happened. When we finished the concert, I stepped down and my knees buckled, almost dropping me to the floor. Instantly, I knew I had to absorb everything I could about North Mississippi hill country blues, so I delved into fingerpicking, open tunings, one-chord fantasias, and slide with total commitment.
That began yet another odyssey: 15 years touring the U.S. and Europe with my hill-country-inspired blues duo Scissormen. Which, of course, led to meeting more heroes, and many more stories.
We see how five Guitar Hero/Rock Band controllers stack up
At Premier Guitar, we’ve made it a point not to cover Guitar Hero and Rock Band—they aren’t real guitar, after all. But after talking to some friends, reading interviews with famous fans, and admitting to ourselves just how much we all actually enjoy playing the games, we decided it was time to look at the games through PG glasses. That’s right, focusing on the gear.
While the guitar decisions for rhythm games are generally made for you with a bundled controller, inevitably you’ll find yourself in the market for another axe. So whether you’re looking to upgrade from the original bundled controller, replace a broken one, or get into the games without buying a bundle, we have a guide to the most popular options out there. We spent time playing both Guitar Hero and Rock Band on Xbox 360 with all four of the major controllers from Guitar Hero II, III and World Tour, and from Rock Band. Then, we got our hands on one of Peavey’s full-scale models. Which one’s for you? Read on to find out…
Guitar Hero II Controller
Looks Like: Gibson Explorer
Bundled With: Guitar Hero II
New Price: $60
Additional Features: none
Though Guitar Hero II was the second in the franchise, it was really the game that catapulted the genre’s popularity. Therefore, the Guitar Hero II X-plorer controller is kind of a classic. Like many products that are early in development [think original POD], the X-plorer lacks any bells and whistles. However, its playability is up there with the best of them.
The strum bar and buttons all move with ease, and it’s small and very light, which make it ideal for children. The guitar’s size, however, is also one of its weaknesses for adults. Players with large hands might find the neck way too thin to be comfortable, and the small size certainly makes it feel like you’re playing with a cheap toy. Also, the “trem” bar is very loose, so you have to grab for it each time you want to use it. The biggest knock against the X-plorer is that it’s wired; while that wasn’t a big deal when the original game came out, with so many affordable wireless options, it seems more of a hindrance than it originally did.
More recent games have incorporated special buttons or pads that make solo passes easier. The X-plorer will be able to play these solos like normal, but some players might find the special features lacking.
The explosion in popularity that coincided with the release of this game, and the many controllers that have come out since, have produced a glut of used X-plorers on the market. Because of this, the X-plorer is a good, inexpensive option for people looking to get into the games for the first time.
You want to try Guitar Hero without committing a sizeable chunk of change
You’re looking for compatibility with special features in more recent games, or if wireless is a must
Guitar Hero III Controller
Looks Like: Gibson Les Paul
Bundled With: Guitar Hero III, Guitar Hero Aerosmith
New Price: $50
Additional Features: Wireless, interchangeable faceplates
Guitar Hero III bears the subtitle, “Legends of Rock,” and prominently features Slash, so it’s no surprise that the guitar that came bundled with the game is Les Paul-shaped. The Les Paul controller is licensed by Gibson and has Gibson’s headstock and logo--no bootlegs here.
The Les Paul was the first official wireless controller. The playability is very similar to the X-plorer, with smooth buttons and strum bar, but the “trem” bar is tighter, which is a nice update. This might be the best-playing of the group we tried out. However, it also doesn’t have the special pads or buttons that recent games employ.
The Les Paul is actually fairly bulky. The batteries and wireless hardware give the controller a bit more weight, which I found more comfortable. The body has no contours, however, which makes it a little harder to hold than the others. Surprisingly, the battery life is pretty good, so you don’t have to worry about spending a fortune to get the benefit of wireless.
One of the perks of the Les Paul controller is that it has interchangeable faceplates. It’s the only one of our controllers that can be visually changed this easily, which makes it a good choice for creative types. There are a number of pre-made faceplates from groups like Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Motley Crüe, along with designs like Union Jack and wood grain. These can be found relatively inexpensively, and are easily customized.
Now that the Les Paul controller is a few generations back, many stores are looking to liquidate stock, so there are definitely deals out there [at press time, Best Buy was offering the controller for $20].
You want a wireless controller that plays great and can be found on the cheap
You need the solo buttons or slide bar of recent games, or you prize comfort over all else
Guitar Hero World Tour Controller
Looks Like: N/A
Bundled With: Guitar Hero World Tour
New Price: $70
Additional Features: Wireless, Slide Pad
The guitar bundled with the most recent full Guitar Hero game is the only one of the guitars we looked at that doesn’t openly mimic an existing guitar shape. It also employs an additional slide section on the neck that is only found on this guitar.
The World Tour controller’s design tries to mimic a real guitar more than previous Guitar Hero models. The Xbox button is fashioned like a control knob, and the Start and Select buttons are at the “bridge.” The size is also a bit larger than the Les Paul and X-plorer models, with a longer neck. However, it is a bit more comfortable than the Les Paul due to a more contoured body. Like the Les Paul, the World Tour controller is wireless.
The slide area is an interesting, but not crucial, addition. The slide function in the songs is new to the game, and appears like notes strung together. You run your finger on the touch pad from note to note. It’s difficult to master, because the touch pad is very sensitive. The same notes can be played using the buttons without strumming, and it’s arguably more fun that way.
The buttons on the World Tour controller are stiffer than the Les Paul and X-plorer, making it a bit more difficult to play. This, combined with the size, makes this controller less than ideal for younger children.
You’re purchasing the game for the first time and want to buy a bundle, or if looks and comfort are a big deal.
You want something more kid-friendly or easier to play
Rock Band Controller
Looks Like: Fender Strat
Bundled With: Rock Band, Rock Band II
New Price: $60
Additional Features: Solo buttons, wireless (Rock Band II controller)
Rock Band was the first rhythm game to include singing and drums. While the game changed the entire genre, eventually leading to Guitar Hero adopting the same format, the first peripherals had a slew of durability and performance issues. The model we reviewed was from the first shipment, and the strum bar eventually broke (a common complaint with this guitar). Subsequent versions (like those that shipped with Rock Band 2) have this fixed.
The Rock Band Strat is different from the rest of the controllers reviewed in a lot of ways. The buttons are in-line with the fretboard instead of raised, and there’s an additional set of five buttons higher on the neck for soloing. The in-line design and a glossier plastic material make the Rock Band guitar a bit harder to play; when moving quickly between buttons, it’s harder to differentiate where one button ends and the next begins. The motion sensor seemed less sensitive than other guitars, as activating Star Power was more difficult, and the Strat’s strum bar is a little stiffer than the others as well.
The solo buttons are more useful than the slide pad on the World Tour guitar. During solos, the buttons can be used without strumming. However, the real draw of the buttons is that younger children can use them to play the whole time, which makes the guitar one of the more versatile controllers for the family.
The look of the Strat is probably the most “accurate,” with a pickguard, Start and Select buttons in the place of knobs, the wires styled to look plugged into a jack, a pickup selector switch that doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and a licensed headstock with Fender Stratocaster decal. The Rock Band II guitar goes even further with a rosewood-colored “fingerboard” and sunburst finish.
If you’re looking to get one of these, the Rock Band II version is more expensive, but is wireless and is more durable.
You want a guitar that kind of looks like a Strat from afar, and need something the whole family can play.
You’re used to playing other controllers and aren’t great at adapting.
Peavey Rockmaster Custom
Looks Like: Peavey HP
Bundled With: purchased separately
New Price: $199 ($399 with custom graphics)
Additional Features: Full-scale, wood guitar
Example of custom graphics pictured. Review model was white.
Peavey’s Rockmaster Custom is the only non-official controller that we tried. Unlike aftermarket products from third parties like Mad Catz, Peavey doesn’t make a cheap copy to make a quick buck—they have a completely different product you can’t get elsewhere.
Peavey’s controller is a full-scale, wood guitar with Guitar Hero electronics inside. The buttons start at the third fret. You can order custom graphics from the Peavey Custom Shop, otherwise the guitars come in white, red and black. The controller is wireless and syncs up like other controllers with a button on the back of the guitar.
The controller doesn’t have any of the extras that the more recent official controllers have, but once you strap it on, it doesn’t really matter. The real draw of the Rockmaster Custom is having the heft and size of a guitar. Instead of the thin, plastic necks, the Rockmaster Custom has a surprisingly wide U-shaped neck. Due to its size, everything is spread a bit further apart. The buttons are slightly further apart than on other models, and the “trem” bar is a bit of a reach. This is actually a plus for adults with large hands, but might be challenging for kids or people with small hands.
Because the buttons are slightly further apart, I had to retrain my muscles that were used to the standard width of the other buttons. This was challenging, but not frustrating, and people who have played the game extensively might like the added challenge.
People who don’t play guitar might find the size and weight exhausting, particularly when they’re used to controllers that are less than half the weight. However, if they can get used to it for Guitar Hero, it might make them more likely to want to pick up the real thing—certainly more so than a small, plastic one would.
The biggest issue I found with Peavey’s Rockmaster Custom was that the batteries were located in a cavity in the back that’s screwed on; as often as batteries run out in wireless controllers, I could see this becoming a bit of a hassle in the future.
Money is not an issue and you want the coolest-feeling experience available.
You’re buying for a child with small hands and a weak back.