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21st-century Keytars 

Make] Projects 

hhiiilH ho/ 1 !/ tuMaal/ chare r\icf*f\\tat* 

build, hack, tweak, share, discover,- 

21st-century Keytars 

Written By: Owen Grace 


Computer running Windows XP. Vista, or Mac OS X (1) 
Internal or external sound card (1) 
Guitar Hero controllers (1-2) 
Fretbuzz software (1) 


It's all fun and games until someone turns those plastic Guitar Hero axes into real 
instruments. What musical possibilities lie hidden beneath those 5 rainbow-colored buttons? 

Within a few years of the video game's launch in 2005, millions of its guitar-shaped 
controllers were manufactured. Sadly, many are collecting dust in closets across the globe. 
In my closet was one such controller, leaning awkwardly between some dirty hiking boots 
and a deflated soccer ball. In 2007, I pondered the depressing fate of this plastic bundle of 
star power. I sensed untapped potential, and I noticed how my acoustic guitar got plenty of 
my attention, unlike my sad old controller. What if the Guitar Hero controller could make 

I knew it was possible and I saw a means to make it happen. After months of programming, I 
successfully re-purposed the controller as a musical instrument. No hardware modifications 
were made — it all happens with software running on my laptop. I formed a band with 

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21st-century Keytars 

friends, called the Guitar Zeros. We've got a singer and a drummer, and the other two of us 
use Guitar Hero controllers — one for guitar sounds and one for bass. 

Here's how to make music with your own Guitar Hero controller using the software I 

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21st-century Keytars 

Step 1 — Connect your controller. 

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21st-century Keytars 

Xbox 360™ V 
Wireless Gaming 


to USB 


• A Windows PC or Mac will work, 
but these first few steps outline the 
process using a PC laptop running 
Windows XP. 

• Connect the Guitar Hero controller 
to your computer. A controller with 
a USB connector is easiest — no 
adapter necessary. Otherwise, see 
our website for a list of adapters 
available for $10 to $20. 

• Your computer may automatically 
detect the new USB device and 
download the necessary driver 
from the internet. Alternatively, 
your adapter may have come with 
its own driver. To be sure the 
controller is properly connected to 
your computer, go to Settings => 
Control Panel =^ Game 
Controllers. You should see your 
game controller devices listed. 

• Double-click the appropriate entry 
in the list, and you'll probably see a 
joystick calibration menu. You 
might not need to calibrate your 
Guitar Hero controller here, but 
you'll want to test all the inputs and 
watch the indicators light up as you 
press the buttons and flip the strum 
bar. If you're using a PlayStation 2 
controller, the whammy bar may or 
may not be detected by your 
computer, depending on your 
adapter. Don't be discouraged — 
whammy bars are just for show- 

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21st-century Keytars 

offs anyway, right? 

Step 2 — Download Fretbuzz software. 

These settings help you configure the game controllers installed on 
your computer. 

Installed game controllers 

Controller Status 

iCSuial USB Force Feedback Joyjpad (MP-8666) OK 

Dual USE Force Feedback Jo>pad (MP-S866) OK 

I Add... 

Remove Properties 


Advanced... Troubleshoot 

Press the button that you want to test. If the button lights up in 
the picture below, it is working correctly. Press the Controller 
AnaloH Button to chanze the mode. 

r-Hat Switch - 

4 ► 





O O 

• Download the software that makes your controller and computer sing. All the components 
you need, and installation instructions, are free at our site. After downloading and installing 
Fretbuzz, you're ready to make some noise. Turn the audio on and rock out! 

• There are a bunch of different sounds: some modeled after real guitars, some more bass- 
like, and some more synthesizery. There's even a mode that sounds like the Star Wars 
lightsaber. Look out, Darth Vader. 

• Read the instructions within the software to change sound modes and learn how to use 

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Step 3 — Explore the musical possibilities. 

chord G R BO 


mr mr r 

m m 
Bdim mm^ mr 

Em r r r r r 

f mr r r r 



lc r r r mr 

g r mr r r 


m i 

Dm mr r mr 

Am ■ ■ r r r 


mr r ar 

Em r ■ r ■ r 

Bdim r n ■ r' r 


r ■ r m r 

f Bar i r 

• The Guitar Hero controller has 5 fret buttons, a strum bar that can be pressed up or down, 
start/ select buttons, and the Star Power tilt sensor inside the controller. I wanted to push 
the musical possibilities to the max. After months of trial and error, I developed and refined 
Fretbuzz. Here's a brief explanation of how it works. 

• Do 5 buttons mean you can only make 5 notes? Hardly. There are 32 different 
combinations of those 5 buttons, which could theoretically be assigned to 32 different 

• However, holding down all 5 at once is almost impossible to do with 4 fingers, and some 
combinations would require you to stretch your hand to press both the first and last 
buttons. Tricky. 

• Thus, I chose to use only the first 4 buttons for selecting notes, saving the last (orange) 
button for special purposes. This photo shows all the different combinations of the first 4 
buttons and how I assigned them to chords within a key. 

• Notice that chords are assigned in a binary progression? Pretty geeky, but it works! There 
are 16 different combinations, spanning 2 octaves. That's just enough of a range to work 
with, in my opinion. 

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21st-century Keytars 

Step 4 

Select / Start 

Whammy Ba 

Fret Buttons 

* Strum Bar 



Guitar Hero 



• The strum bar is naturally used to trigger notes. Lucky for us, the bar can be pressed 
either up or down, enabling 2 different potential results. With the power chord guitar sound, 
for example, I wanted a down-strum motion to produce a palm- muted effect, while the up- 
strum would let the chord ring out. And if you flip the strum bar up and down rapidly, then 
all the chords are palm-muted. 

• On the other hand, with most of the bass sounds, the up-strum plays a note 4 steps 
higher, which makes it easy to play bass lines that alternate between a note and its 
relative fifth, common in some styles of music. 

• Use the start and select buttons in conjunction with the fret buttons to choose different 
sound modes, adjust output volume, and perform key changes on the fly. 

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Step 5 

• On a real electric guitar, the 
whammy bar reduces string 
tension, lowering the frequencies of 
the notes being played. So I 
thought to do the same with 
Fretbuzz. However, not all methods 
of sound synthesis allow for pitch 
changes on the fly, so the effect is 
available only for certain sounds. 

• This is where the controller gets 
interesting! The tilt sensor in the 
newer controllers is a high-quality 
accelerometer that detects the 
orientation of the guitar in 2 

• What in the world should this do, 
musically? There's no such tilt 
detector in a real guitar, so this is 
new terrain. I chose to apply 1 
dimension of tilt to a band-pass 
filter, which produces a wah- pedal 
effect. It's good for performing 
solos — just ask Jimi Hendrix. 
What to do about the second 
dimension? I've tried a few different 
things, but I'm still exploring. 

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Step 6 — Try out the solo modes. 

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Use eioow on 
the strum bar 
while shredding 
fret buttons with both hands! 

© Make Projects 

• In addition to the fret combination 
approach for chords, I designed 3 
different solo modes that employ 
the fret buttons and strum bar in 
different ways. Imagine assigning 
each fret button to a relative 
change in pitch rather than an 
absolute pitch. In the basic solo 
mode, you can ascend a scale 1 
note at a time by simply holding the 
blue fret button and flipping the 
strum bar. Or descend the scale by 
thirds by holding green. 

• By alternating between ascending 
and descending within a key, while 
flipping that strum bar as fast as 
you can, you can produce some 
scorching lead lines. 

• Any Eddie Van Halen fans out 
there? This guy is a two-hand- 
tapping master, and Fretbuzz 
definitely needs a two- hand-tapping 
mode. Much as in the basic solo 
mode, the fret buttons are assigned 
to pitches relative to one another, 
and the strum bar is used 
creatively to shift the notes of all 
the fret buttons at once in full-on 
arpeggio glory. But how do you use 
the strum bar when both of your 
hands are mashing fret buttons? 
With your elbow, of course. 

• The concept of Star Power is 
unique to the Guitar Hero game, 
but I wanted to bring new meaning 
to it within Fretbuzz. I designed a 

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special chord/solo combo mode 
where you have to engage Star 
Power (tilt the controller straight 
up) to initiate the solo playing style, 
then tilt the controller back down 
again to return to chord mode. 

Step 7 — Finally, make music. 

• It's up to you to use Fretbuzz however you like, but I suggest you find a friend, plug 2 
controllers into your computer at once (assign 1 to the bass sounds and 1 to the guitar 
sounds), jam out together, and write some tunes. Then of course, turn the volume up to 1 1 
and blast your eardrums. Only kidding. 

• Seriously though, it's difficult trying to re-create songs that were originally written on a real 
guitar. It's like learning a piece of music on guitar that was originally written for piano: 
sometimes shortcuts and adjustments are necessary. Fretbuzz might turn the Guitar Hero 
controller into an instrument, but it doesn't turn it into a guitar exactly. 

• Designing Fretbuzz has been so exciting for me. It was no trivial task to turn the Guitar 
Hero controller into a playable, dynamic, and expressive instrument. Whatever your 
talents and interests may be, working within a constrained medium, as I did with this 
project, is a super way to get your creative juices flowing. 

If you have questions about this project or need help getting Fretbuzz to work on your computer, 
or even if this project inspired you in some totally different way and you want to bounce ideas off 
someone, shoot me an email ( I'd love to hear from you. Happy 

This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 15 on pages 56-59. 

This document was last generated on 201 2-1 0-31 1 2:04:25 PM. 

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