I picked up my first guitar when I was in elementary school, and I asked my father -- an amateur guitarist who strummed along along to David Bowie vinyl records for fun -- to teach me a basic chord. It wasn’t 15 minutes before my whining began: my fingers were too small, the strings were too tough... the human hand doesn’t stretch like that, I complained.
Long story short: I decided I was fine listening to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” while playing Metroid; I didn’t need to be playing Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” while listening to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.”
A few years later, I picked up the six-string again on my own. What followed was years of me finding my own way, listening to music carefully and figuring out what I was doing on my own. With an experienced teacher at your side, learning an instrument can be a frustrating, even dull process. You can imagine what it's like going in blind, learning the language of the instrument on your own.
Last year, Harmonix launched Rock Band 3 with its revolutionary new Pro Guitar modes. Marrying the reward-based gameplay of the Rock Band franchise with play that mirrored playing a real six-string guitar, the developer managed to create a teaching tool that also happened to be a fun videogame. This year, Fender released a six-string Squier designed specifically for use with for Rock Band 3 -- an amalgamation of a real guitar and a videogame controller.
A few weeks back, Harmonix sent me the guitar to try out. While it’s not the only way to learn to play and maybe not even the best, it’s certainly the most fun, and the most authentic guitar experience on any console to date.
The first thing you notice about the Fender Squier Guitar and Controller out of the box is that, yes, it’s both a guitar and a controller. The thing is bigger and has more weight than any guitar peripheral that has come before it. Detractors of the peripheral-based music games have always called the plastic instruments “toys,” and in comparison to a real guitar, that’s not entirely unfair. While the standard guitar controller did a great job of getting folks accustomed to how to hold a guitar and the association between pressing a fret and strumming, there’s really nothing like the real thing. That’s exactly what the Squier is: the real thing.
This is a full-size guitar with six real guitar strings, based off of Fender’s Squier series of guitars. It can be played as a real guitar through a standard guitar amplifier, used to play Rock Band 3 Pro Modes using the MIDI adapter (sold separately), and even used as a MIDI instrument if you have the appropriate equipment.
As an all-in-one package, it’s an absolutely spectacular piece of hardware, and how it interfaces with the Rock Band game is just as impressive. As a standalone guitar, you should know what you’re getting, and that’s an introductory-level guitar. It’s based off of Fender’s Squier Stratocaster series, one of the cheapest available in the company’s broad line of six-string instruments. What that means is that this is not the guitar you’re going to want to take on the road with you when you land that first big (or small, more likely) gig.
Even with that in mind, as a beginner’s instrument -- and that’s what you’re paying for, to be clear -- it’s perfect. The guitar itself only features one pickup and no real way to alter its tone, so your sound options are limited. I also found that keeping the instrument in tune was a bit of a struggle; I seemingly had to readjust the tuning every time I picked it up. As an inexpensive starter instrument, the Squier guitar controller is ideal; for the price, you'd likely be dealing with similar issues on a standard guitar anyhow.
Where the instrument really shines is as a learning tool when matched with the Rock Band software. Alone, the Squier has no way to talk to your game console, so you’re going to need the Mad Catz MIDI Pro Adapter, sold separately. It’s a bit disappointing that after spending nearly $300 on the Squier, you’ll have to shell out another $40 just to use it with the Rock Band game, but what are you going to do?
The setup is fairly straightforward, but certainly more complicated than pressing a single button and linking it to your console. The Squier gets connected to the MIDI adapter, and then the MIDI adapter gets connected to your console of choice (in my case, the Xbox 360). It’s not a huge hassle, but the extra cords lying around your living room aren’t the prettiest sight, and your cat might get tangled up in it and choke or something.
The controller also features a full set of buttons, along with a D-pad for menu navigation. However, when using the instrument with an Xbox 360, those buttons are just for show -- you’ll need to use the MIDI adapter to navigate all menus. (This has something to with Microsoft’s wild and crazy Xbox 360 controller standards; Harmonix’s and Fender’s hands were tied on this one, I’d imagine.) While it’s possible to use your toes if you have foot dexterity and want to play standing up, I found it more comfortable to the MIDI controller on my lap within arm's reach. This is particularly helpful when you’re using the guitar to play through the extensive tutorials, as that requires frequent navigation.
Those gripes aside, the Squier guitar controller is absolutely the best way to play along with Rock Band 3’s Pro Modes. While the Fender Mustang PRO controller does a reasonably good job of mimicking a real instrument, with its 102 buttons and “real strings” for strumming, there’s nothing quite like the real thing. The feeling of actual strings beneath your fingers as you form chords and hit notes is absolutely essential, as are the resulting calluses that a beginner (or someone who isn’t in playing shape, like myself) is sure to get.
I found that in both strumming and fretting, the guitar and game were able to communicate quickly enough with one another that I never felt as if I were being “cheated” out of notes. On the contrary, playing along with the game’s songs made me realize how sloppy of a player I actually am. Rock Band 3 and the Squier demand perfection; the instrument should come with a ruler so you can whack yourself on the knuckles when you miss notes.
The game simply is not kidding around -- it requires perfect fret placement on every note and exact strumming for every rhythm. Learning on your own or even with an instructor at your side, you’d find that you’d be able to hit “imperfectly placed” notes that would still ring and sound just fine. Rock Band 3 and the Squier don’t want to hear any of that noise; they want to make you a perfect guitar-playing machine.
The guitar has two “modes” -- one for when you’re playing through an amp, and one for playing with the game. It’s as simple as pushing in or raising the small pop-up string mute that dampens the the strings when playing the game. This allows for the game to more accurately detect notes that are being strummed; without it, the sounds ring out and the game tends to get confused, causing you to “miss” notes.
With the mute on, strumming along lets out a pretty loud and somewhat unpleasant chugging noise. I personally found it distracting, and would recommend playing along with a pair of headphones. It is possible to play along with the game with the mute off; I found this easier to do, as I generally play along by ear, and was able to correct wrong fingering more quickly. However, don’t expect to get in-game high scores -- without the mute on, you’re destined to have the game dock you for missing notes, even if you’re Joe Satriani or that one guy who plays nine guitars at once.
Musicians know that playing an instrument can be a rush like no other, but it’s all of that learning between them and the live performance that gets in the way. The general rule, whether it applies to everyone and everything or not, is that learning isn’t very much fun. It’s about tedium, rules, patience, and hours of practice. What’s absolutely most impressive about the Rock Band 3/Squier combination is that it turns this idea on its head. Harmonix has done an absolutely brilliant job of bridging the gap between gameplay and learning with its Pro Modes.
I had the opportunity to see the potential of the guitar in action when I gently nudged my wife -- someone who had never played a guitar in her life -- to give it a shot. I watched as she bit her lip in frustration trying to form chords and nail scales for a few hours. But when it clicked, it really clicked -- she was playing basic chords within a few days of playing. It really dawned on me how powerful of a tool it could be when I walked into our bedroom to find her playing a Bruce Springsteen song (which she managed to learn on her own, unprompted) on our acoustic guitar. This was only one week after I had first put a Pro guitar in her hand, mind you.
The software and hardware have their limits; the game doesn’t account for many intricacies of playing you’ll have to pick up on your own. It’s not a substitute for professional lessons by any stretch. But if they made tricycles with 20-inch rims that looked like they were straight out of a Lil’ Wayne video, the Squier/Rock Band 3 combo would be their musical equivalent.
If you’re at all interested in learning guitar but haven’t known where to start, I can’t recommend Rock Band 3’s Pro Mode enough. It’s the perfect jumping off point for beginners, using a basic gaming language you likely already understand. Of course, the big consideration is price -- the 102-button Fender Mustang controller is going to run you a little over $100; the Squier plus the required MIDI adapter means over $300 out of pocket.
If you’re serious about embracing what the Pro Mode has to offer, despite its cost, the Squier is your better bet of the two options. The Mustang is a good approximation, but it’s still a controller at the end of the day. Getting your fingers on authentic strings is essential to the playing experience, calluses and all. There’s also something to be said about being able to immediately start strumming out a song “for real” by simply un-muting the strings as you sit in front of the game. That almost immediate sense of accomplishment, and seeing true progress, will definitely go a long way in pushing beginner musicians through early frustrations.
Taking that first leap into learning an instrument can be expensive, scary, and sometimes discouraging. Admittedly, that also describes the price tag of the Squier, plus all of the additional equipment (a console, MIDI adapters, the game) you’ll need to get started. But when you compare it to the price of professional lessons and the purchase of a standalone instrument, the value becomes that much clearer.
There are a lot of avenues for learning to play guitar, but there are few that are as enjoyable as this.
Rock Band 2 reviewed by Nick Chester