Last week I found myself happily in possession of a Rock Band 3 pro-guitar-mode-compatible Fender Squire Stratocaster electric guitar / controller. Those of you well versed in the art of shredding and/or melting faces might perchance be inclined to scoff at this particular make and model, and I am no better positioned to dispute your thinking on the matter than I am prepared to have a slap fight with a roomful of angry badgers. However, for my pedestrian and uninformed tastes, I might as well have been gifted Orpheus’s lute.
I have some experience with playing guitar, though that experience extends only to the point of strumming some basic Indigo Girls songs that my wife can sing along with in the privacy of our own home, where we can do no actual harm. Open chords and basic progressions are my longtime friends, and should there ever be need for someone to kinda muddle through Tequila Sunrise, then I may be your man. That said, I haven’t played for about a half decade with anything like consistency, so when I talk about my early experiences with Rock Band 3’s pro guitar mode, understand that I do so as someone relatively inexperienced—though not entirely ignorant—in a lot of guitar-playing concepts.
And, from that perspective, let me summarize briefly: Playing a real guitar with what is already basically one of my favorite game series of all time is the most fun I’ve had with my Xbox. Period. Full stop.
If there is a casualty or sad story to be told in this whole ordeal, it is the tale of the nerve endings that once dozed quietly and unmolested in the largely safe neighborhood of my fingertips. Now, these neurons and dendrites are in open revolt, firing an endless barrage of dull pain signals to my besieged brain. This is pain most glorious and well earned, however, and there is something intensely satisfying—if slightly twisted—about the ache of fingers that have earned their pain through the art of rocking the house.
Going to bed last night, The Hardest Button to Button freshly 4-starred on Expert, I could not resist the wave of self-satisfaction that came from a deeply aching hand. I guess this is probably what people feel who do insane things like P90X, marathons, or walk up the stairs when there is a perfectly good elevator right there. Even as I type, each button stroke from the A-S-D-F home keys reminds me that I Love Rock and Roll’s relatively basic solo has been satisfyingly cracked and overcome.
In direct contrast to my experience with the Ion Drum Kit, which has been problematic from the start, the Fender guitar took only a few quick tweaks to the height of the pickup and the action on the strings to really dial in to a satisfying experience. I don’t imagine that I would ever want to make this my primary instrument, and the necessary modifications made to the guitar’s neck leave it plagued with tuning problems and an unshakable sense of fragility. It is probably passable enough, but the core way I look at it is that this is a training mechanism, not a performance instrument.
In much the same way as I’ve looked at the Pro Keys, where 3 days have recently been lost in an ongoing effort to try and master the complicated progression of Total Eclipse of the Heart, the pleasure here is not found in the same familiar places as in previous music games. One does not simply pick up the Pro Guitar or Pro Keys at a party and sight-read one's way through a song. Success simply requires dedicated practice, and often playing one small section over and over again until the chord changes are remembered within the muscles themselves.
That said, few things in any of my experiences with gaming have been quite as satisfying as translating from playing a song on Rock Band 3 to immediately picking up my acoustic guitar and actually making something sorta like music. It is the next evolution of the kind of experience I was already having with the keyboard, only recently having translated most of Imagine from the television to my piano.
Yes, there are subtleties of playing guitar, such as bends and some strumming techniques, that do not necessarily make a good transition to the model built by Harmonix, but there is simply no denying the reality of the situation, which is that I am developing basic musical skills that can be used immediately. Most importantly, I’m having a fantastic time doing it. The actual equipment works cleanly, and I have been pleasantly surprised and vaguely amazed how well the fretboard responds to my finger placement.
Know going in, however, that pro mode is not about playing a casual game. You will not simply rock into Mordor through an on-the-fly sight-reading. Also the barrier of entry, $279 plus another $40 or so for the midi adapter, is admittedly steep. But if you have a long-term interest in leveraging Rock Band 3 as a lesson tool, then it becomes a lot easier to justify the cost. Simply put, you get what you put into it. But if you’re willing to invest yourself into the experience, then you can expect something genuinely special.