We could be guitar heroes

Before I went on holiday, I began to think about getting my Rock Band guitar controller to act as a MIDI instrument in GarageBand. I’m still fiddling with it, and since implementing a couple of extra features, I’m increasingly happy with the results.

The setup in ControllerMate, initially quite straightforward, is gradually becoming fairly hairy. Here’s what it looks like now. Click through to see a bigger, annotated version.

Rock Band controller MIDI setup in ControllerMate


  • Sends MIDI notes based on the fret you are holding while strumming up or down. Release the fret to stop the note, exactly as you’d expect in Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
  • Pick a major key by holding a fret button and tapping ‘Start’. First fret (green button) + start = C major, second fret = D, etc.
  • Hold ‘Back’ while picking a key to make it minor. e.g. 3rd fret + ‘Back’ + ‘Start’ = E minor. Update: in the most recent version, you just hold a fret and hit ‘back’ (rather than ‘back’ + ‘start’ together)
  • Additionally hold the next fret up to make it sharp. e.g. 1st + 2nd fret + ‘Start’ = C# major. 2nd + 3rd fret = ‘Back’ + ‘Start’ = D# minor.
  • Within the chosen key, first fret (green button) is the root note, while the others are intervals on the major/minor pentatonic scale. e.g. for C major, the frets are C, D, E, G, A. For C minor they are C, Eb, F, G, Bb.
  • Move the pickup selector to the 2nd position to engage ‘drone’ mode, in which the root note for the current key is played on a second MIDI channel whenever it is played. Handy for having a different MIDI voice sustaining the chord. I’d like to add ‘chord’ and ‘strum’ and ‘arpeggiate’ modes in other pickup switch positions, though I think strumming and arpeggiating could be better handled by plugins responding to simpler MIDI notes which represent the current chord.
  • The whammy bar controls the MIDI pitch bend. Different VST plugins choose to respond to pitch bend in different ways, so depending on your instrument you can even set this up to be a guitar slide rather than a simple bend.
  • Left and right on the D pad to move up and down by 7 semitones. allowing you to explore the circle of fifths. Sort of. This bit needs some more work.
  • Upper set of frets play up an octave.

If you’ve got a Rock Band guitar and want to use it as MIDI instrument, in GarageBand or anything else, I’m very happy to make the current version of my patch available. Most of the features should work with the Guitar Hero controller too, though I have not tried this yet. Let me know if you want to try my setup and don’t fancy re-creating it from the picture above, though obviously you’ll need the MIDI-enabled beta of ControllerMate, which is available to paying ControllerMate users who have paired their registration details with their forum membership, on the beta forum.

I think ControllerMate is easily worth the $15, and access to the MIDI-aware beta should make it an even easier decision.

Background / further reading:


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  1. About 21 seconds in, does someone get an MSN Messenger message, or are my ears playing tricks on me?

    Comment by Darren — August 25, 2008 #

  2. I think your ears are playing tricks on you, unless you’re confusing it with the guitar? :-)

    Rachel wonders whether you got an MSN Messenger message about 21 seconds in. Could that be it?

    Comment by Roo — August 25, 2008 #

  3. Well that’s what I thought too when I was listening to it and heard the noise, but then I realised I wasn’t even running messenger.

    I’ve just listened again on my non-fancy headphones at work and it’s much much harder to distinguish. I’ll check again at home, but it is always possible than it’s all in my head.

    Comment by Darren — August 26, 2008 #

  4. Hmm. I think it might be in your head as neither Roo or myself use MSN messenger…perhaps the dog was making noises.

    Comment by Ray — August 26, 2008 #

  5. Now you need this :-)

    OpenStomp Coyote-1

    Comment by Woo — August 26, 2008 #

  6. Kevin Kelly just posted a bit more about music controllers, specifically mentioning the Guitar Hero controller: http://kk.org/ct2/2008/08/other-isomorphic-keyboards.php

    Comment by Phil Gyford — September 1, 2008 #

  7. Hi Roo,

    Whats the latency like with this setup? Im looking into using it for triggering clips in Ableton during my DJ sets.

    Comment by James Moss — September 7, 2008 #

  8. Also, which version of the guitar are you using? PS3, 360 or Wii?

    Comment by James Moss — September 7, 2008 #

  9. I have not timed it, but it’s quick enough that I have not noticed any latency at all.

    I’m using the 360 version of the Rock Band guitar.

    Comment by Roo — September 7, 2008 #

  10. Thanks for answering my questions. I’ve got one more though :)

    Do the lower frets register as different buttons to the upper ones? Ideally id like to use the top 5 frets for triggering samples and the lower 5 for looping.

    Comment by James Moss — September 9, 2008 #

  11. Interestingly, they show up as the same buttons, but with an additional button held down. e.g. the upper frets use a modifier, rather than a separate series of switches.

    Comment by roo — September 9, 2008 #

  12. Explore the Circle of Fifths? Try this:

    Comment by Hamish — September 15, 2008 #

  13. [...] up next (that’s me!). I muttered some un-prepared and technical-hitch-ridden gubbins about my Rock Band MIDI guitar hack. Steve took the lovely photo on the right. I’m retro-engineering some explanatory slides, [...]

    Pingback by Roo Reynolds - Playful — November 1, 2008 #

  14. [...] I’ve now got a fairly good setup in ControllerMate. Here’s a description (with demo video) which describes how it works. August 5, 2008 | fun, geek, home, midi guitar, music, tech, where’s [...]

    Pingback by Rocking Outside the Xbox - Roo Reynolds — July 13, 2009 #

  15. Hi man..i just want know if there’s file or something like that to set controllermate because i think i’m not able to do that..i tried but probably not in the right way..tank u so much. Bye

    Comment by ANDREW — August 27, 2010 #

  16. Have you tried using this with the DJ hero controller, I’ve got everything ready at work, but I haven’t tried setting it up.

    ControllerMate doesn’t seem to let me link Keyboard Commands to MIDI outputs, or am I missing something?

    Comment by James — December 9, 2010 #

  17. sorry; not tried with the DJ Hero controller yet. Does the XBox one have a USB cable?

    Comment by Roo — December 13, 2010 #

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