I picked up the original Guitar Hero guitar and game bundle as a Christmas gift the year it came out. It looked like a good combination of a fun party game that also featured covers of some of my favorite songs. I started by playing through on Easy, and quickly graduated to Medium after tackling a good chunk of the setlist. As I progressed swiftly through Medium, frustration set in as I attempted to make the jump from Medium to Hard, as I found moving my hand to tap another button a completely odd and uncomfortable experience. I kept at it, as is in my competitive nature, and while the eventual jump from Hard to Expert was a smooth transition from the most difficult songs on Hard to the easiest songs on Expert, I still frequently point to the transition from Medium to Hard gameplay as the “point of no return” separating the casual party players from real plastic guitar players. And now that I have (and continue to) progress through Pro Guitar, I can say that tackling Pro Guitar/Bass on Rock Band 3 is like a long trek through that “Medium/Hard transition,” despite the return of much greater rewards once completed.
Let me first state that while there are still several songs I have never been able to complete without No Fail mode on, I still consider myself an Expert standard Rock Band guitar/bass player, and have no problem 5 starring most songs on sight reads. Pro Guitar/Bass was something I was looking forward to as a way to give myself a new challenge within Rock Band. The Mustang was the best first attempt at introducing those looking to transition from Rock Band guitars to real guitars. But the Squier took what the Mustang introduced and perfectly bridges the gap between playing “just a game,” and playing real, actual, honest-to-goodness guitar.
Like myself, many of the die-hard guitar playing Rock Band fans eagerly snapped up the Mustang Pro-Guitar when it was initially released (or… ahem… shortly thereafter once stock was replenished). The Mustang was the true hybrid between Rock Band guitar and real guitar. It was larger than Rock Band guitars, but not quite as big as real guitars. The plastic guitar’s strum bar was replaced with identical-width nylon strings, rather than nickel-plated steel strings of different widths on the real thing. Gone were the five standard color coded frets, and replaced with buttons for each fret/string combination on the neck. And while priced higher than a normal Rock Band guitar, the Mustang was an excellent compromise for those looking to test the waters of Pro Guitar/Bass in Rock Band 3.
Today, the real thing is finally available. While I enjoyed my experience with the Mustang, I was definitely looking forward to trying out the Squier. Steph from Harmonix sent me one for review purposes in early February, and like a pusher giving out a first fix for free, I was immediately hooked, and it’s going to be difficult for me now to go back to the Mustang. Before I extol the virtues of procuring a Squier, let me admit that there are still some advantages of the Mustang. You can disassemble it for easy transporting. You can still learn guitar without stumbling on some of the real-life issues such as building calluses and replacing strings. You can even play standard Rock Band guitar/bass charts with the Mustang. For many, the Mustang will provide a very comprehensive and more cost-effective Pro Guitar/Bass experience with Rock Band 3. But with all that said, the Squier is that ultimate peripheral that we have all been waiting for since first mastering plastic guitar so many years ago.
There are two Pro Guitar/Bass achievements I thought would be relatively easy to get with the Mustang, however I never dedicated the time to unlocking “Guitar Apprentice” and “Bass Apprentice.” Both achievements require you to get 5 stars on Easy (or 3 stars on Medium or higher) on 25 Pro Guitar and 25 Pro Bass songs. I was struggling getting 5 stars on the Easy songs, because breaking a streak once or twice is enough to prevent you from getting 5 stars, so I knew it would be an easier time on Medium, but after attempting a few songs on Medium, I started to see some easy chords and decided instead on focusing on some of the other achievements first. When I got my hands on the Squier, the first thing I did was knock out those two achievements in no time. I can’t explain why I found it much easier with the Squier, because I don’t think there are any features that actually make it easier to play than the Mustang, but I think it has more to do with a sense of empowerment that I earned, knowing that progression with this guitar meant I was playing REAL guitar; something I have never done before.
One of the first things you have to be careful about with the Squier is the process it takes to actually use it in Rock Band 3. On the Xbox 360, it’s a much more involved setup than simply pressing the Xbox button on a standard Rock Band controller to get going. For the Squier, you have to connect your MIDI Pro-Adapter (sold separately) to your Xbox 360 via USB, ensure G (for Guitar) is selected (a step that stumped me when first trying it out) on the MIDI Pro Adapter, connect your MIDI Pro Adapter to your Squier via the (included) MIDI cable, and turn on your Squier on the back (another step I still frequently forget). I typically play with the MIDI Pro Adapter lying on the ground in front of me, activating overdrive with my toe rather than tilting the guitar (and risk breaking a streak), but I also forget that you need the MIDI Pro Adapter to surf through the menu screens of the game. In strict terms of playing a video game, this definitely is one of the more cumbersome things I have ever done just to “play.”
This guitar reminds me more of the MadCatz Fender replica than the Mustang Pro Guitar. It is a magnificently manufactured guitar, and as you can see in the picture above, there is quite a bit of resemblance between the two. I have had my Fender replica for a few years now, and there are no signs of it wearing out in the least. It was made at Fender, just like the Squier, and if this is any indication of the quality of the Squier, than I should also be getting lots of mileage out of this peripheral, as well.
Due to time constraints nowadays, I only get chunks of about an hour at a time to play, however I can definitely see how the more die-hard fans will need to develop calluses on their fretting hand. I played for several hours the first night, and my index finger on my left hand had some tenderness while typing the following day at work. (Don’t worry, this goes away pretty quickly.) If you have put in some serious time with the Mustang and upgrade to the Squier, pace yourself on your transition over, or your hand will be raw!
One of the interesting things new to a peripheral such as this is the foam string dampener located just below the fretboard. It should be enabled when playing the game, and disabled when playing the real thing. You can choose to disable it when playing the game, but because of string vibration when strummed, the game will register each single strum as multiple strums, essentially eliminating your ability to successfully accumulate streak bonuses.
The Squier comes with everything you see above: the guitar itself, batteries, Allen wrench to adjust the truss rod (if necessary), instruction manual, MIDI cable, and guitar strap. What I found odd was the exclusion of any picks. I used one of the two I received with my Mustang, but this is an odd oversight nonetheless. Exclusion of picks aside, once you have your MIDI Pro Adapter, you have everything you need to start playing in Rock Band 3.
My understanding is that the exclusivity terms with Best Buy last for only one month, so you should be able to contact your local instrument retailer starting in April if you do not or cannot purchase from Best Buy. Also, not every Best Buy store has the Squier available for sale. Your safest bet to try to procure one without a pre-order is to find your closest Best Buy Musician Store and contact them directly to see if they still have some in stock before running out the door.
Lastly, I unfortunately did not get a chance to try out one of the most crucial aspects of the guitar: it’s ability to be played as a REAL guitar. I would have been a poor reviewer for this anyway, as I am still learning guitar through Rock Band 3. Fortunately, some of the good and much more guitar focused folks from Premier Guitar and Guitar Player have given their input on the Squier’s real guitar playability.
Like I said above, the Mustang Pro Guitar offers a number of advantages over the Squier. While many of these can be remediated through the use of existing peripherals, I believe the biggest barrier to entry for the average person is the cost. The retail price of the guitar and the MIDI Pro Adapter is $320, versus the $150 retail price tag for the Mustang. And while cost is a major concern for many, the other biggest criticism among the community is the versatility of use for this peripheral. While there are those that argue the Mustang can play all standard and Pro Guitar songs in Rock Band 3, I counter that the Squier can play all Pro Guitar songs in Rock Band 3, but also any other song ever written for guitar!
With that said, it is clear that this guitar is truly meant for those Rock Band 3 players who want to break free of playing guitar solely in a video game. And admittedly, this is not for everyone. Many are content just with playing Rock Band 3 as the video game it has historically been, and there is nothing wrong with that. But kudos to Harmonix and Fender for creating this guitar to finally bridge the gap between fake and real guitar players. Picking up this guitar is the ultimate sign of wanting to translate your gaming efforts into a hobby outside of gaming, despite a cost that may be prohibitive to some. But to put it best, as a young man from Chicago once said, “If you have the means, I highly recommend it.”
[Huge thanks to @thebeststeph and Fender for letting me try one of these early!]