Cheapest MIDI guitar

For quite a while, I’ve been interested in making a guitar or ukulele sound like other instruments. The way a guitar sounds when strummed appeals to me, since it blends so well with singing to make a song, but I get bored quickly with things always sounding the same. This is while I’ve built a number of ukuleles in the last few months and my collection now counts some 15 units. There is this device called “MIDI guitar controller” that you play like a guitar but can sound like anything else, since what it does is get real-time note information from your performance, which can then be fed to a hardware or software instrument. Most MIDI guitars, however, are either discontinued or very expensive. I was resigned to never using one until I ran into the “Rock Band 3 Fender Mustang guitar controller pro” (whew!), which is now selling (new) for a tad over $50. This article expounds how this relatively cheap device compares with much more expensive devices.

The “Rock Band 3 Fender Mustang pro guitar controller,” which from now on I’ll just call “Mustang pro” to differentiate it from a very similarly named device, without the “pro”, which is meant to be used with the same video game but only has five buttons, came out in 2010. It was a big step from the regular “Mustang” controller in that it had 102 buttons rather than only 5. The idea was to use the “pro” controller for the “pro” mode of the Rock Band 3 game, in which mode you are supposed to make chords correctly by fretting the right strings at the right time, rather than mashing a bunch of fat colored buttons. The draw was that, supposedly, you were going to learn guitar as you played the game. I don’t own a copy of the game and, frankly, was never tempted to play it, even though my video game collection surpasses 50,000 titles, because it’s all about twitch reflexes, which have little to do with music. Curiously, most reviewers that looked at the Mustang pro when it came out agreed with this scenario.

Here is a sample review from that time. Essentially, reviewers realized that the Mustang pro would function as a standard MIDI controller if you just plugged it into a computer using its 5-pin DIN connector. Even though the instrument itself makes no sound (other than some faint noise as you strum its plastic-covered metal “strings”), the MIDI messages sent through the wire can control any kind of software synthesizer, many of which have or can be added a fast decay like that of a guitar, and the output sounds like a guitar made by aliens. Same notes, same rhythm, similar feel, just different sound altogether.

Now, guitars featuring MIDI output have existed for a while, with mixed results. You can get a fairly comprehensive history, along with some benchmarks, in this other article. For instance, back in 1981 Casio released the DG-1 guitar synthesizer, which was soon followed by the DG-10 and the DG-20, pictured at right. You can still get them used for a decent price. They used plastic strings that you pressed against the fingerboard to register fretting (switches under the frets, I guess). Being early devices, they had a lot of latency. The built-in sounds were rather cheesy, too.

Yamaha had some early MIDI guitars too, but they abandoned the effort for a while until in 2004 they came up with the EZ-EG guitar (at left), featuring 20 instrument voices on a guitar-like body with buttons instead of strings for the left hand (12 frets), plus a set of dummy “string” switches for the right hand. The instrument got a revamp in 2008 with the EZ-AG model, which had a plastic body and more sounds, as you can see in this comparison. The neck buttons lit up when you pressed them, and also when certain demo songs were played, because the instrument was meant to teach guitar as well as for performance. Latency was a lot better than with their early attempts. You can still get both EZ models (used) for less than $300.

In 2010 Mad Catz released the “Rock Band 3 Fender Mustang pro guitar controller,” marketed as a video game add-on, but actually capable of full MIDI from a set of strings and neck buttons quite similar to those of the Yamaha guitars. This one had to be connected to another device since it had no speakers of its own, or any sound processing, for that matter. There is also a “Squier Strat” version of the device that uses direct contact between real metal strings and frets split into sections in order to register the notes, same electronics. This one can be played as a regular electric guitar since it has real guitar strings, but you have to mute the strings in order to use it as a MIDI device. Because it was released as a game controller, production numbers (at least for the Mustang pro) were a lot bigger than for other MIDI guitars and you can still find it “new” (after sitting in a warehouse for eight years) for less than $60. The Ion All-Star guitar of 2012 has similar internals (the neck is identical, except that the keys light up), with right-hand input being done with an iPad or iPhone (30-pin model, so it only works with old devices), which also does all the processing.

Then there is the “You Rock Guitar” from 2011 (at left, updated to gen2 in 2014), where the neck buttons gave way to a flexible area with raised rubber “strings” (20 frets) and the right-hand input was the same as for the Yamaha guitar. It seems it is no longer in production, but you can still find the 1st version, new, for about $200 shipped from China. It was critically acclaimed when it came out, so it’s somewhat puzzling that production was stopped. Then in 2013 came the Jamstik, featuring a whopping five frets total of “real” metal strings that you could press with your left hand, plus a strum input for the right hand quite similar to that of the Mustang pro and the Yamaha guitars. The $300 Jamstik+ followed, adding infrared sensors to detect the fingers and bluetooth connectivity. In 2017 we saw the release of the $400 Artiphon instrument 1, which has a membrane fretboard like the You Rock Guitar and raised buttons on the strum area. Both the Artiphon and the Jamstick are meant to be played with an iPad, since they have no sound-making ability of their own.

There are also some offerings for MIDI guitar add-ons, which extract MIDI information from sound, which I won’t comment much about. They translate sounds into notes, which always takes some time to “listen.” If you are playing single notes, there is a barely noticeable delay. If you are strumming, well, it could spell disaster.  In the best cases (Fishman TriplePlay) the process takes at least 10 milliseconds, but most audio-to-MIDI systems take as long as 30 milliseconds. To get you an idea of what this means, consider a typical 6-string tremolo strum involving 5 cycles, or 10 strokes, every second. A single strum will be faster than this, since the strumming hand does not need to stop and reverse direction for the next strum. This means that every note has 1/60 = 16.6 milliseconds to sound before the next note comes in. In other words, in most cases the notes will run into each other resulting in some dropped notes, and even spurious notes that were never actually played.

Here’s a little table that puts the evolution of these instruments, plus the lone MIDI ukulele in the market, in some sort of context. Among the many criteria to choose, I picked the type of strings and strum action of the instrument, and whether it has built-in sound generation or it needs to connect to another device that actually generates the sounds. All of these are true MIDI instruments in the sense that the MIDI signal is directly produced by the playing, rather than from analyzing the sound produced. The last three have special iOS apps to control them, though the last one can function without it, especially if you hack it.

model year strum “strings” access to sounds street price (USD)
DG-20 1987 plastic plastic internal + cable $360 (used)
EZ-EG 2004 metal buttons internal + cable $240 (used)
Mustang pro 2010 metal buttons MIDI cable $55
Squier 2011 steel steel MIDI cable $200 (used)
You Rock 2011 metal membrane internal + cable $200
Jamstik 2013 metal metal MIDI wireless $300
Artiphon 2017 membrane membrane MIDI cable $400
DU-one 2017 membrane membrane internal + wireless $170

I won’t bore you with recordings of mine, so let me just tell you the results of my testing. I wanted to compare the Mustang pro with the DU-one (reviewed in this article), which means that I wanted to get sound from the highest four strings only. The Mustang pro sends the note played on each string through a separate MIDI channel (1 to 6), so it was a matter of intercepting the MIDI signals and re-routing channels 2 to 4 to channel 1. The apps that actually played the instruments were told to listen in channel 1, so that the notes played on strings 5 and 6 did not get listened to, and therefore no sound was made for them. I used an iPad, so my MIDI control app was MIDIflow, and the playing apps a whole set including the samplers SampleTank, ThumbJam, BS16i, and a bunch of synths. In all cases, the Mustang pro performed like a champ, with no latency whatsoever and hardly any dropped notes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was some velocity information included in the MIDI stream, so that strumming light or hard made a difference to the sound. Ergonomically speaking, strumming the fake strings was hardly disconcerting since they are quite similar to real strings anyway, unlike the “strings” in the DU-one or Artiphon instruments, though I would have liked the strum area to reach closer to the neck. Fretting buttons wasn’t quite the same as fretting strings, but it was more a comfort issue than anything that interfered with playing. The DU-one’s membrane “strings” and “frets,” on the other hand, did take quite a bit of effort to get used to but at least had the standard uneven spacing between frets (unlike the Artiphon Instrument 1, where the membrane “frets” are placed at even intervals, thus negating much of the “learn guitar” appeal of the device).

On the other hand, the Mustang pro is not re-configurable at all, while the DU-one is. The Mustang pro has two buttons to go an octave up or down. This is a lot less useful than, going up or down a semitone, which would function as a capo. Unfortunately, the function is implemented within the device itself rather than as a MIDI control message, so there is no way to make those buttons do something else. You are also stuck with the manufacturer’s decision to implement pitch bend by raising and lowering the neck, which leads to notes wandering all over the place. Better not to activate that function. On the other hand, you can simply put a capo over the buttons just like you would on a regular guitar, and the result is the same. Neat!

The DU-one is also wireless, which the Mustang pro is not, or at least is not in an easily usable way. The device does send out information wirelessly so an accompanying dongle hooked up to a video game console via USB can send it to said console. Surely the console can understand what’s coming in via USB, but if you hook it up to a computer or mobile device, it is unlikely that the setup will be successful. Mine is a WII model, so it expects to be hooked up to a WII; connecting the dongle to a Mac or iPad results in an “unidentified device” or “insufficient power” error. I imagine it will be similar with a Windows or Android machine.

But if you are happy with a wired connection, then you’ve got yourself a functional MIDI guitar for a fraction of the closest competitor’s cost. Get it while you can!

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