Computers and software have transformed the recording industry for even amateur musicians. No longer do you have to rent expensive time in recording studios to make professional-sounding recordings. A quick Google search will find multiple stories about entire albums being recorded on an iPad or an iPhone. If you intend to use only virtual instruments, all you need is GarageBand and an iPad or Mac, but it isn’t quite so simple if you want to record real instruments. To connect a real guitar, you need some sort of interface equipment, and my husband Butch and I have reviewed two of these interfaces, the Behringer Guitar Link UCG102 USB interface and the Positive Grid JamUp Plug, in the past year. (See related posts at the bottom of this post for links to those reviews.) Both of those devices worked extremely well, but you still had to keep up with a separate device.
Fender recently introduced a USB guitar that eliminates the need for a separate interface. Their Squier by Fender Strat Guitar with USB and iOS Connectivity requires nothing more than a miniUSB-to-USB cable to connect to your Mac or PC or a miniUSB-to-30-pin-connector cable to hook up to your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. (You’ll need a Lightning adapter if you want to use this guitar with the latest generation iOS devices.) I purchased one of these guitars for Butch for Christmas, and I thought he should try it out to be sure it was okay before I wrapped it up and stuck it under the tree. Because it meant he got to play with it a bit longer, he agreed to record a couple of GarageBand samples for us, too. Let’s see what he thinks about this inexpensive USB guitar.
All images can be clicked for a larger view.
Right now, the Squier USB guitar is available only from Apple. Perhaps some of the Apple stores in larger cities have them on site, but the Greensboro store didn’t have one for Butch to look at. He actually was a bit hesitant to order one sight unseen, because he was afraid he wouldn’t like how it played or sounded, especially considering how cheap it was. He said he liked the guitars he already had, and he liked the Behringer interface, and he just didn’t see the need for this guitar. I’m persistent, though, and he finally agreed
to stop my harping about it after he read some favorable reviews of the guitar. I placed my order and waited only a couple of days for the guitar to be delivered to my home.
Squier guitars are Fender’s “entry level” instruments. This particular instrument has a solid-body construction in the Fender Stratocaster shape. It’s available only in the color you see in this review, which I’d guess is the Tobacco Sunburst, based on the color charts at Fender. It’s available only as a right-handed guitar – sorry, lefties.
There aren’t any tech specifications about the guitar at the Fender site or at Apple. The manual is a single, small sheet of paper with no information other than the names of the parts of the guitar. I really don’t remember where I saw this, because I read quite a bit of information before I decided I wanted to get one for Butch, but I remember seeing that the body is made of basswood and the neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard. I can’t find any official confirmation of materials. The packing box only says the guitar was made in Indonesia.
In the Box
- Squier by Fender USB Stratocaster guitar
- Tremolo bar
- USB Mini-B – USB Type A cable
- USB Mini-B – 30-pin iOS cable
- User manual (Basic setup guide)
Each cable is 6.5 feet long. (The cables are shown with Op/Tech Strapeez cable wraps that I added.) Although they look like standard cables, they “offer bi-directional audio streaming.” This means the signals travel from the guitar to the recording computer/tablet, where they are processed and then returned to the headphone jack in the guitar so you can monitor what you are recording. Butch said the only way he could hear what he was recording on the iPad was through the headphone jack. (Plugging in the cable to the 30-pin connector on the iPad apparently disables the headphone jack on the iPad itself.) He could monitor his recording through the computer’s speakers or his headphones when using GarageBand on the Mac mini.
The Squier USB guitar didn’t come with a case or even a gig bag. I bought a Fender bag as part of the gift, which cost about $50. Butch says Fender’s choice not to include a bag was the right choice; the cost of the missing bag was better spent on the guitar construction anyway.
I was a bit disappointed that the guitar was only available in this two-tone color. I’d never seen a Sunburst up close, but I always thought the Sunburst guitars I’d seen in pictures looked dark and drab. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up the box and saw the guitar. The lighter, inner color is a bright, glowing amber/honey color that shows the wood grain, and the dark outer color is opaque black or very dark brown. The white pick guard looks nice with these colors and brightens up the overall look.
The finish looks smooth as silk, without bubbles or flaws that I could see. It feels smooth as silk, too. I didn’t weigh or measure the guitar, but it seems to be a standard size and weight. Butch agrees with that assessment. Adding the USB circuitry didn’t add any appreciable weight to the guitar.
The above picture is twice the size, when clicked on for the enlargement, that I normally use with my reviews so you can get a better look. The hardware is shiny and looks like chrome. The headstock does look like maple, and the fretboard is rosewood with pearlescent, round Fender-style inlays.
You’ll notice there’s a standard analog output jack on the front, so you can plug this guitar up to your standard pedals and amps, too. It has three knobs: the top one is master volume, middle is tone, and the bottom knob is the volume for the headphone jack (as you view them while playing). The pickup selector is a five-position rocker switch. There are three pickups; the neck and middle pickups are single coils, and the bridge pickup is a double coil. I couldn’t find anything that specified exactly what type of pickups were used.
The guitar came pre-strung, but it did need to be tuned before playing.
The miniUSB port and the headphone jack are on the bottom, near the strap connector. Putting them here minimizes the impact they have on the look of the guitar, but it’s not a good location for them. You can’t set the guitar down on its end when the cables are plugged in without using a guitar stand, or you risk damaging the cable or the connector itself.
Playability and Sound
I’ll try to convey everything that Butch told me as well as I can.
He says the action on the strings is very low and very consistent, so it’s very easy to play. Despite the very low action, there was no fret buzz anywhere on the fretboard. Once the guitar was tuned, it held the tuning very well, despite a lot of string bending. Butch says the USB Squier plays really well, especially considering the price. He says it actually plays really well for a guitar of any price.
The sound from all five pickup selections was good – deep and rich. All positions give very different sounds, but all are rich and clean sounding. The neck-position pickup gives a traditional “thick, fat Strat sound”. Butch says the bridge pickup position is “hot and twangy”, probably because it’s a double coil.
Recording with GarageBand
We have GarageBand on our Mac mini, and Butch also has it on his 3rd generation iPad. Although the Squier USB guitar is compatible with Windows PCs, we didn’t have one to test the guitar with.
Butch started with the Mac mini. He simply plugged the cable into the guitar and computer and was ready to start recording. He recorded a track for us. In this song, he recorded one track with the USB guitar. It’s the very bright, very clean lead melody. All other instruments are virtual instruments in GarageBand.
He had an initial problem with recording on the iPad. He rebooted the iPad itself hoping to clear up the problem, but he said he still couldn’t monitor the recording. It finally occurred to him that the headphone jack on the iPad was disabled by the miniUSB-to-30-pin-connector cable. Once he plugged the headphones into the headphone jack on the guitar, everything was fine. The iPad song is shorter, but he recorded three tracks with the USB guitar for this song. The first track uses a very clean sound while playing chord arpeggios; the second is a high-gain, distorted sound for power chords; and the third track is a clean signal with delay and reverb for the lead melody. GarageBand virtual instruments provided the drum and bass tracks.
Butch said there was absolutely no latency using the Squier USB guitar with GarageBand on either the Mac mini or the iPad. He said he couldn’t quite quantify it, but he felt everything sounded “better” while recording on the iPad. He doesn’t know quite what the differences were that made him feel this, but we may have discovered the problem while photographing everything for this review. The miniUSB end of the cable used for the Mac recording was a little bent – sitting crooked in the rubber jacket where the plug attaches to the cable. We don’t know if the cable came that way, or if he forgot and set the guitar down on its end while the USB cable was plugged in and damaged the cable. We don’t actually know if the cable had anything to do with the perceived differences in recording on the Mac and on the iPad. In any event, Butch is in the process of contacting Fender customer support to see if he can get a replacement miniUSB-to-USB cable. Wouldn’t it be nice to learn that the “bi-directional” cable is just a standard USB cable that he can pickup locally if he damages one in the future?
Butch is very happy with the Squier by Fender Strat Guitar with USB and iOS Connectivity. He says it plays and sounds like a much more expensive guitar. Recording is effortless on either the Mac or the iPad, and he doesn’t have to bother with a separate interface or special software required by some of the interface devices. I think he was pleasantly surprised at what a great guitar and a great recording experience he got for such a low price.