AS A PLAYER, TEACHER, EDITOR, AND someone who is concerned about the future of the guitar, I’ve been waiting for a long time for something to bridge the gap between gamers and guitarists. I always loved how kids who kill at music games like Rock Band know all about the Beatles, Ozzy, and Foghat (!), but no matter how good they get at clicking a plastic lever and pressing down colored buttons, none of that—outside of a certain righthand/ left-hand timing thing—can help them play a real guitar. The market was so freaking huge, though, that I always knew somebody would figure it out and get those kids picking and grinning.
Well, no big shock, but it’s Fender/ Squier who finally broke the code in the form of this Strat controller here. We paired it with Rock Band 3 to see if a guitarist could kick ass on a video game and if a gamer could play guitar. We put this hybrid through its paces as a guitar, as a controller, and as a learning tool thanks to RB3’s tutorials.
The guitar itself looks pretty much like a Strat at first glance, albeit with a series of buttons and a joypad on the top. Other non-Strat appointments include a white, EMG-ish humbucker in the bridge, a foam string-damper “pickup” in the neck position, and a MIDI jack. Gripping the neck is interesting, because there’s a thick polymer fretboard that sits on the maple neck, but I was able to get used to it pretty quickly. Tuning up and strumming chords is totally normal but bending notes takes some getting used to because the frets on this guitar are chopped into six segments— one per string—so they can act as sensors for the controller. That’s how the game knows you’re playing the 3rd fret of the G string, for instance. That’s going to be the single biggest obstacle for guitarists, because you can definitely feel the string catch on those segments when you bend. It would be cool, if possible, to put some sort of coating or sealant on the frets to smooth them out. The humbucker in the bridge is clear and punchy sounding. It’s got a cool, plunky sound when played through a clean amp but can rock with distortion with a Van Halen-approved zing in the top end.
As a game controller, the Squier is light years ahead of anything I’ve seen on the market. You connect the guitar to the game via the MIDI jack on the lower bout, which goes to the required Mad Catz MIDI Pro adaptor (not included, $39 retail). I’m painfully lame at playing Rock Band, but I do know a thing or two about playing a real 6-string, so I called up “Crazy Train,” set the level to Expert, and tried my best. I did okay— about 50%—a failing grade but I didn’t get booed off the stage. I worked with Keyboard art director Patrick Wong to set the calibration so that my downbeats agreed with the game’s, which definitely helped. Anyone who tries this should definitely take as much time as they need to calibrate the guitar. It makes playing the game a lot more fun. Also, the neckpickup string damper should be engaged for gaming—this makes the tracking a lot more reliable, although then you can’t play through an amp at the same time. I decided to try a slightly easier tune, the Ramone’s “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and nailed it, no matter what my heckling colleagues might tell you. An added bonus of the MIDI jack is that you can also use the Squier as a MIDI controller with digital recording or sequencing software.
Each fret is made up of six sensors to tell the game what note you're playing.
So I can play this thing, because I know how to play guitar. But what about someone with more game skills than guitar skills? That’s going to be trickier, because instead of having to navigate five colored buttons and one strum-bar, they now have to contend with six strings times 22 frets. If the song calls for a C note or an E power chord, the player needs to hit them, without hitting any stray strings—a whole different ball game. But that’s where the tutorials come in, and these are really cool. They start off basic, with single-note exercises, where you have to fret a note and pick it in time, just like a real beginner lesson. There are power chords, open chords, scale exercises, strumming patterns, arpeggios, and more. This is truly where you see the value of this Stratocontroller. For kids who grew up on games, these lessons will make perfect sense and should be an intuitive way of developing timing, accuracy, and muscle memory. You can learn songs this way too, slowing them down in Rock Band and digging in one phrase at a time. We watched as our managing editor, Kevin Owens—a budding guitarist with a few tunes under his belt—worked his way through some chord exercises. Although it was a little strange for him at first, he quickly was able to get them down, and the game provides real-time advice and feedback. Super cool.
The standard Rock Band game controls sit on the Strat's pickguard.
I’m a believer in the Squier by Fender Stratocaster Guitar and Controller. Sure, you can find better guitars and simpler controllers, but there is nothing I know of that puts all of that together in one package. FYI: This Strat only works with Rock Band 3. It’s not compatible with Beatles or Green Day versions of the game. It would be cool if subsequent revs would allow for this, as well as a free play mode—also currently unavailable—where you can just riff away on your own or over backing tracks. No game can take the place of studying with a real teacher or jamming with real musicians—nor should it—but this is a brilliant complement to those pursuits. Even without the subtle tweaks to the content, frets, and fretboard mentioned above, I see no problem with an entry-level guitarist working out on the tutorials and songs at home and then taking their Stratocontroller to a friend’s house to jam or to a teaching studio for lessons. For any of us who have wanted a way to marry Rock Band and rock bands, this is absolutely what we’ve been waiting for. Kudos to Fender for connecting these heretofore segregated worlds.
CONTACT Fender Guitars, fender.com/rockband3
STRATOCASTER GUITAR AND CONTROLLER
PRICE $279 retail
NUTWIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK 25 1/2" maple
FRETS 22 with position sensors
PICKUPS Custom humbucker
CONTROLS Master Volume; Green, Red, Yellow, Blue, Back, and Start buttons; 4-position Navigation Pad; MIDI jack
BRIDGE Adjustable Strat-style
TUNERS Chrome sealed
FACTORY STRINGS Fender, .009-.042
WEIGHT 6.6 lbs
KUDOS Missing link between gamers and guitarists. Great learning tool. A blast to play.
CONCERNS Fretboard and frets will feel strange to real guitarists.