A Guitar Teacher’s Review of the Fender by Squire Rock Band 3 Guitar
I will admit that when Guitar Hero came out, I cringed all the while calling it a fad that would go away. There have been many successful follow-ups to Guitar Hero and a second company entered the fray with Rock Band. Along the way of these two games, the cringing has been validated time and time again because while these games encourage children to want to play guitar, they think they already can when they come to take lessons from me. I have to have them play super easy songs at firstto fix major technique issues, teach them how to hold a pick as well as show them that there are 6 strings and 21 individual frets, not a paddle and 5 buttons to push. The success rate for Guitar Hero or Rock Band students actually transitioning to “real” guitar has been dismal for me and all of the other guitar teachers I know. The students would prefer to be really good at pretending to play guitar than be bad at real guitar and work to get better. There are exceptions and those successes I have had all end up putting down the Guitar Hero/Rock Band controller because they realize how dissimilar the two actually are.
With Rock Band introducing drums though, this began to change. From the day the Drum Set dropped, people realized that playing the drums on expert on Rock Bandwell could easily translate to some success on an actual drum kit. I suspect that this was the beginning of trying to figure out how to make the Rock Band guitar experience closer to the real thing and with Rock Band 3, Harmonixannounced two new controllers to take advantage of the Pro mode that was being created for many songs. The first controller had a million buttons on it, not literally, but 21x6 = a lot of individual buttons. The second was a real guitar that was modified to work with Rock Band 3’s pro mode. This is what I got my hands on and I tried it out both in the game as well as trying out the other advertised abilities it had.
I borrowed a Squire Rock Band 3 Guitar by Fender for this review from a friend who purchased it the day it came out. He has been virtually obsessed with learning guitar through Rock Band but was willing to part with the guitar, game and his PS3 for a few days to let me try it out. Shape wise, it is very familiar, seeing as Fender uses off the line Stratocaster bodies. The differences, however, were striking once I had it in my hands. For seasoned guitarists, the neck is going to be, well,odd. I liken it to the difference between Schecterbass necks and all other brands. It feels like a half of a baseball bat in terms of size. The neck itself is the standard maple but instead of a standard rosewood fingerboard, there is a thin, maybe sixteenth of an inch, layer of rosewood before the plastic fingerboard that has the frets and electronic wizardry is mounted. This in itself is thicker than a standard Stratfingerboard so it is easy to imagine how chunky this neck is. The frets are well done though and it actually did not take that long to get accustomed to the serious chunky neck. The entire system is actually reminiscent of the Peavey’s MIDI bass from the mid-90’s because there are plastic gaps between the fret pieces, effectively giving the guitar a small fret for each string, rather than one long one. The truss rod adjustment is an Allen wrench adjustment but is very different from most guitars, using some type of gearing system to do adjustments since the adjustment is on the side of the neck block. The neck was a little loose at first, but tightening down the screws into the neck block fixed it and there was no issue with them loosening during the days of playing it. The setup was decent with medium action and the intonation was spot on. However, later in testing, I discovered that the high E string wouldn’t register in the game on upstrokes with the pick. The suggested fix on forums was to raise the E string action, which would spoil the entire setup’s feel. I’ve returned the guitar and the owner has emailed Fender about this. I will update if they respond.
The Rock Band 3 Guitar by Fender comes equipped with a Tele sized front pickup with felt on the top that is spring loaded. I’m not sure if this is the MIDI pickup but it is designed to spring up by to mute the strings for the game. The rear pickup is a humbucker of some sortor combo pickup and MIDI pickup. Detailed specs are difficult to find from Fender to know exactly what is going on with the pickups. There is no pickup switch or tone knob, just a master volume. However, it sounds pretty good through an amp and is very quiet when run through a high gain distortion pedal. The sound is a little tinny, mostly only noticeable when played clean and I suspect this is due to the plastic fingerboard. Overall, for 200 dollars, if you can get over the neck chunkyness, it is actually a well put together guitar, better than many typical Squire Strats and off-brand Stratcopies I have seen.
One of the big selling points for this guitar for many is the fact that it can be used as a MIDI guitar. I tried the guitar out with a USB to MIDI converter into a couple different MIDI recording programs. In neither cheap notation software, Noteworthy, or in expensive multitrack recording software, AbletonLive, did the MIDI input really prove useful. The latency was horrible. My plan was to get a song idea onto paper to send to my band in notation and it simply would not track well enough or accurately enough to make it useful. Even trying to play ahead of the beat, the tracking was delayed enough to make my first strike on beat 1 show up well after that in the notation. Part of the problem was that it was not reliably latent a specific amount so no amount of compensating would make it work right. Very disappointing. My older USB to MIDI device unfortunately does not work with Windows Vista. I am planning to follow up with that box on a Mac in the future as well to verify.
In the Game
For the game itself, I decided to go through the songs my friend had (he leant me his PS3 because he had a ton of extra songs) to see if there were any I knew well and couldjust jump in cold. The best test would be to see if I could just play a song I know and whether it would let me just jam or if I had to adjust my playing to the game. The first song I found was “Caught in a Mosh” by Anthrax. I’ve played this song on bass for years so I jumped in and failed dismally. I first had to turn on the little pickup mute thing so the strings didn’t keep ringing and confuse the controller and software. I restart and it wasn’t any better. The feel of the strings with the mute on is just plain weird and trying to do a bass song on guitar wasn’t working.
Moving on to a guitar song I knew was easy since the standard Smoke on the Water was available. One problem was discovered immediately: you can’t fake the first chord with open strings as I teach my students and how most tabs show it; you have to play it on 5’s instead. I adjusted and did it again. It felt much more natural playing a guitar tune on guitar and the game tracked very well. Halfway through, I quickly got rid of the mute to play around with doing the same thing with proper guitar technique and found that palm muting worked just as well. The solo came and I bombed it. Why? I honestly don’t know the original. If I was to play this in a band situation, this would be improv-lead central and I’ve approached the song that way since I first learned it. Overall though, I still did not bomb the song and made it through without being “booed” off stage.
After this, I tried Radar Love on bass. Easier to play and palm mute is appropriate to the song. However, I’ve never actually played the song! I did manage to scrape through it pretty well based on hearing it a million times but never learning it. Well done both on my part and Rock Band’s. However, the level of prior knowledge of the instrument helped more than anything. I could see someone without the level of knowledge getting very frustrated.
Next up: Rammstein’s Du Hast on guitar. Easy rhythm guitar part, however it was not notated properly. Maybe I missed a setting, but the main riff should have a slide between the first and second chord and it’s not in Rock Band 3. I suspect there is no way for the software/hardware to truly pick up this.
Rock Band 3 Tutorials –Almost an Excellent Bonus Feature
After this, I went through the tutorials to see how Harmonix’sstaff developed the transition from controller to real guitar as well as other guitar fundamentals. The transitional stuff, from playing open strings to adding fingers on a single string to other things are well done. It was during this that I discovered the issue with the high E string. However, there is neither discussion of technique, holding the guitar properly, holding the pick properly or even what picks work best with the MIDI pickup setup nor any suggestions for picking techniquesanywhere in these tutorials. This makes it easy for me to sweep in now and take what I have learned to develop a Rock Band 3 curriculum for lessons but it is unfortunate.
What was most frustrating though was the portion of the tutorial devoted to playing chords. Strumming chords plus rhythm was fine but the tutorials method of teaching how to place fingers on the neck is contrary to how I was taught and how I teach. Building chords should be a process from the lowest pitch the highest pitch for most chords, yet the tutorial was not even consistent in how it approached chords. Some were built low to high, others contrary to that and others still from the middle note of the chord. No attempts were made to help make the transition from one chord to another easier either, including common finger and guide finger concepts. It is unfortunate because the platform is there to help ease learning and I could even see having Rock Band 3 tutorials being incorporated into my lesson plans for all students to help practice strumming chords in rhythm but as a standalone guitar instruction software package, it really fails to deliver completely, potentially leaving many would be guitarists frustrated and tempted to go back to playing fake guitar.
As a first attempt, the entire Rock Band 3 Pro guitar experience is a leap from all previous Guitar toy games. However, it is still lacking. If Harmonix is successful with this first release, I see many of the issues I have being addressed. For now though, guitar lessons are still vital to the process of learning guitar and Rock Band 3 could truly be called the ultimate practice tool for those lessons. If the guitar itself can be made a little more like a regular guitar, that would help as well as well. No other guitar on the market has a neck like the Fender Rock Band 3 Pro guitar, making the transition to a better guitar later a difficult one. I do hope that Rock Band 3 is successful enough to encourage further development but at the same time Guitar Hero has closed shop meaning the fad is dying out, leaving only the core serious players to support the Rock Band franchise. If it is enough, further development could eventually put me out of business teaching guitar. We can only wait and see if I will be out of a job.