April 11, 2011

Rock Band Pro Mustang Review

Green, Red, Yellow, Blue, Orange … sound familiar?

Remember the feeling of playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band for the first time? Remember how you didn’t care if you recognized the song you were playing? You just wanted to play and have fun. Move your skill level up on the ol’ 5-button axe and feel like a rock star for a while.

After a few years with Rock Band’s ever-expanding library of DLC and import options, some of us have fallen into the comfort zone of only playing the songs we like and know. Rather than learning and mastering new songs we may have just gotten a little lazy. A bit complacent.

Enter Pro Mode

Pro Mode is a whole new challenge on a completely different scale. It brings the excitement back. It makes you want to play the same song you’ve never heard before over and over again until you can ace it. No more worrying whether you actually know the next track in the setlist, but the attitude of “I don’t care what song I play, I just want to play and have fun doing it!” Funny thing is, you usually end up liking the songs and expanding your personal taste in music! Remember that feeling?

Do you play:

  • Rock Band Drums?
  • Rock Band Lead Guitar?
  • Rock Band Bass Guitar?
  • Rock Band Keyboard?

If you answered yes to any of those choices then Rock Band Pro Mode is for you!

It’s a Gateway Drug

Rock Band Pro Mode bridges the gap between plastic instruments and real instruments. Rock Band Pro note charts are nearly 100% comparable to the actual notes played by musicians. Harmonix claims that if you can conquer the Expert Pro tracks on your plastic instrument of choice, then you are prepared enough to play the song on a musical instrument. Rockstars, I couldn’t agree with them more!

If you can shred Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” on Pro Expert guitar or bass then you can recreate the guitar parts on a real electric. If you can master the Pro Drum charts on expert on Rush’s “Working Man” then you can beat the skins on a real drum kit. The Pro Keyboard Expert Pro charts are the notes that just your right hand plays, so that will only get you halfway to becoming a Piano Man (or woman)…but still, all of this is enough to impress your friends, and even learn some music theory along the way! Rock Band can now teach you how to play real instruments.

Rock Band’s pro mode is very thorough and will pay back what you put into it. It features the four standard difficulty levels: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert. The higher the difficulty level, the more notes you will have coming at you. There is an excellent tutorial mode built into the game, and every song in your library that is Pro instrument capable — and remember every song on the Rock Band 3 disc is Pro guitar and bass capable — features a training mode that breaks down main riffs or passages of the song for your learning pleasure. There is also the standard practice mode for practicing the whole song at once. One minor gripe here is that when learning sections of a song the game will only let you slow the passage down to about 60%. This makes it difficult when there are a ton of notes coming out you.

One possible alternative is to obtain song tablature for the song that you are learning. Guitar tablature is a numbering system that tells you what notes to depress on the fret board and what string to strike with your picking hand. This is essentially the musical notation that Pro mode utilizes, but with a few tweaks. Kids, don’t expect to pass these songs on the higher difficulties by sight reading. Just as when you are learning new music — memorization and practice, practice, practice develops that all important muscle memory! No joke about it, the learning curve for Rock Band Pro mode is steep.

Did I mention that real electric guitars have 6 strings and 21 frets? This gives us a possible 126 “buttons” that our left hand is responsible for and 6 strings that our right hand is accountable for.

From 5 Buttons to 12 Notes

There are 12 notes on a guitar, which is quite a jump from our old 5 button guitars.The majority of songs that Rock Band covers use guitars with “standard tuning”, which means the open strings are tuned to certain typical notes, and that’s the context of this lesson.

The guitar is a great instrument because it takes the same 12 notes and lets you play them on different frets on different strings. So, I can play a low sounding E note or a high sounding E note. They are the same note, but the octave has changed. Technically, I can play the same E note at different physical areas of the fretboard, but they will sound slightly different.

When holding the guitar in your lap you could play an E note by depressing the A string on the seventh fret, then strumming the A string. There you go, an E note. Or, you could depress the B string on the fifth fret and then pick the B string. Technically — an E note, audibly — a higher pitch E note than we first played with our fretting hand in a different position than the first note.

The guitar, in essence, repeats 12 notes over and over again … it’s just up to you where to play the notes. This is why there are so many “buttons” on a real guitar. Of course, when you’re playing Pro mode, you will need to hit the notes on the fretboard that Rock Band tells you to because they are the boss; I’m just trying to explain why we’re going from 5 to 126 buttons! But you will develop some musical knowledge and technique if you decide to take on the challenge that is Rock Band’s Pro mode.

The payoff can be extremely satisfying, but don’t expect to master an instrument that’s been around for centuries in a week.  Half of the fun is learning, and the other half is being able to play guitar to impress that hot chick at the party. But enough music theory, let’s play some video games!

Mustang vs Squier

There are two Pro guitar controllers available for Rock Band at this time: The Fender Mustang and the Fender Squier. There is a review on the horizon for the Fender Squier, but we’re going to focus on the Mustang for now.

Now, the Squier is a real guitar in every sense of the word. That is, the Squier is fully functioning electric guitar with Rock Band guts. You can plug it into your favorite guitar amplifier, turn the volume up, and keep your neighbors up all night, or fire up your video game console and take your video game band on tour to Europe. Sweet! The Squier controller is for you rockstars that will spare no expense in creating the most realistic Rock Band experience! The flagship guitar of Pro mode!

The Mustang, on the other hand, is a plastic replica guitar with faux strings and an all-button fretboard. It’s close to being a full size electric and much lighter. After hearing about the Squier you may be wondering what this plastic axe has to offer, but if you don’t want to spend the money, or prefer more of a “Lite” Pro mode experience, this guitar satisfies. It’s less than 1/3 the price of the Squier, and it’s a good barometer of how much you will enjoy Pro mode. If you enjoy playing on the Mustang, then chances are you will eventually move up to the Squier controller. And if you hate it, or find it too challenging to realistically make any progress … well, you just saved 250 bucks compared to starting with the Squier.

Playing The Mustang

The Mustang features all of your regular face buttons for navigating menus depending on what console your guitar is for, and also features a midi port — which I have never used, but can function as a midi guitar controller with the proper equipment. The Mustang is wireless and runs on 3 AA batteries, comes with a guitar strap and two guitar picks.

Remember when we said that guitars generally have 126 “buttons”? Well, the Mustang has 102. The Mustang has 17 frets and 6 strings. This isn’t as many frets as the Squier, but provides every bit as much of the Pro experience as the Squier does.

The “touch-sensitive” fretboard provides visual cues in relation to what buttons you press in real time. This helps in not having to take your eyes off the screen to look down at your finger placement too often. When you press down on any of the buttons on the fretboard the corresponding fret number will show up at the bottom of the note highway. It’s the same as pressing down the green or red button on the standard controllers before it’s actually time to play the note- you can see where fretting hand is by noodling around on the buttons in between charted notes. You won’t be penalized for this unless you strike one of the strings.

The 6 strings on the guitar run only the length of the strumming area which is around five inches. The strings themselves have a good responsive feel to them, but don’t feel strung as tightly as a real guitar does. For some they may have too much of a “rubber band” feel to them, though I think they are more than satisfactory in providing physical feedback as well as a sizeable area to strum.

Sliding up and down the fretboard isn’t as smooth as sliding around on real strings on an electric guitar, but the buttons do not require a lot of pressure to depress and I found I could still get around rather quickly.

So long 5 button Plastic Rock

The Fender Mustang body style isn’t very appealing to me, and overall the entire guitar isn’t visually impressive, but the real bread and butter is pairing this guitar with Rock Band Pro mode. It may not be the prettiest, but the Mustang just works. The buttons respond fantastically, and the only times I missed incredible amounts of notes and failed songs was due to my own silly mistakes, not the hardware.

The Mustang delivers in every single way as a gateway controller into the Pro world of Rock Band. The only fault I can find with it is the fact it has only 17 frets. For songs that have guitar notes that would go higher than the 17th fret on a real world guitar, the Rock Band engine detects the Mustang controller and modifies note placement to account for the lack of frets 18 through 22. This won’t affect the majority of players and if you happen to conquer the solos in Crazy Train or The Beast and the Harlot on the Mustang, when you transition to the Squier controller or other full size electric guitar, some of the notes you’ve memorized may not be technically correct. Again, this isn’t even close to being a dealbreaker.

If you haven’t tried Rock Band Pro mode then now is the time! Rediscover the feeling of mastering a new controller and interface by advancing from 5 button rock to the 107+ buttons and real guitar hand positions of Rock Band Pro. The transportation is here for your journey: The Fender Mustang!

Excellent review and one that led to me buying one earlier today. I look forward to many late nights, much swearing at my left hand and those moments of pure perfection!

June 6, 2011 at 4:01 am

14th June update – The pro guitar lessons are great. Could do with some general advice regarding hand (and thumb) position, but there’s plenty of that available online. The one downside so far with the mustang package is the guitar strap. I’m 6′ 2″ – not an uncommon height – and at full extension, the Guitar is just too damn high!

Interestingly enough, the cheaper strap on the old Guitar is longer. One for Mad Catz to fix, perhaps.

June 14, 2011 at 3:52 am

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