Preview: The new Riffmaster Guitar controller is great, but lacks a classic Guitar Hero feel

PDP Riffmaster preview image of the guitar on a stand in front of an RGB corner lamp
(Image credit: Future / Duncan Robertson)

I've always loved guitar controllers. From countless hours playing the original Guitar Hero games to hogging their arcade machines whenever I find one, there's just no feeling quite like rocking out with one of these controllers in hand. Just when I started to get super nostalgic about this bygone era of rhythm games though, PDP sent me its newest controller that looks like it's been ripped straight from the time. 

The Riffmaster Guitar Controller, launching in April, is the first guitar controller I've seen released in ages. In fairness, there hasn't been much need for them, because since Guitar Hero Live's interesting spin on the formula back in 2015, rhythm games that use them have been few and far between. Now, with Fortnite Festival bringing renewed interest to the genre, the Riffmaster seems poised to serve as the go-to controller for it.

The controllers for Guitar Hero and Rock Band arguably helped to spark my love of the best PC controllers, because the combination of their design, features, aesthetics, and feel always provided this synaesthesia even modern controllers to this day still fail to capture so easily. 

PDP Riffmaster's fretboard buttons

(Image credit: Future / Duncan Robertson)

At $129.99 / £129.99 though, this isn't as universally approachable as I'd like it to be. I've now spent a decent amount of time testing the Riffmaster, and while it does evoke the same joy and immersion that these Guitar controllers always have, I'm not sure it warrants that price tag - especially at the moment.

At the time of writing, Fortnite Festival still doesn't even support guitar controllers, so it leaves the Riffmaster feeling a bit pre-emptive. To skirt around that, PDP has built the Riffmaster around Rock Band 4, a game that was released in 2015. While it will work with other games like Clone Hero on PC, I feel it should be made clear that if you opt for a pre-order now to amplify your Fortnite gameplay, you're going to wind up disappointed if support isn't added before April. Even if that is more of an Epic Games problem than a PDP issue, it's worth noting before you hit the buy now button.

That new sound you're looking for...

PDP Riffmaster hands-on image of the guitar's plastic body

(Image credit: Future / Duncan Robertson)

If you've played around with Guitar Hero or Rock Band Games previously, you'll know what to expect from the PDP Riffmaster. This is a fully licensed controller for PS5 and Xbox Series X which will work on PC, and it has the typical colored buttons along the fretboard, a whammy bar, a strumming switch, and some solo pads you may remember from later models. While all the classic design elements are here, the Riffmaster definitely packs in some really helpful improvements. 

For starters, the neck folds down into the back of the guitar, making it easy to pack away and store, or shove in a backpack and take to a friend's place. It connects wirelessly with a USB dongle like many of the best PS5 controllers, but the dongle slots away underneath the controller's detachable pickguard so you don't lose it. Furthermore, at the end of the guitar's neck, you'll find a handy little analog stick to help navigate menus and console UI - a swell little quality-of-life update from using the strumming toggle which has never had a side-to-side function. 

Perhaps the biggest quality-of-life innovation PDP has made with this guitar controller is the 3.5mm headphone jack on its bottom. Chatting with friends while jamming? No need to abandon the party. Rocking out but don't want to wake the lucky sods you live with? One of the best gaming headsets will slot right into the controller. 

PDP Riffmaster's analog stick on its neck

(Image credit: Future / Duncan Robertson)

Unfortunately, the guitar's body has a glossy finish, including the pickguard, which means any sweat, fingerprint smudges, or tears from trying to play a Dragonforce track will undeniably mark the guitar. This combined with the hollow plastic used in the Riffmaster's body makes me really question why PDP is charging so much for this device - because it certainly doesn't feel premium enough for a $100+ price tag. 

Nothing exemplifies that more than the detachable pickguard, which never fails to sound like it's snapping off when you remove it. The neck of the guitar feels quite premium, but the body seems like the cheapest of plastic knock-off toys. Even older Guitar controllers feel more substantial, which is disappointing.

There are great innovations and quality-of-life upgrades PDP has made here, but I wish they had used better materials for the price.

Go Johnny, go!

PDP Riffmaster folded up

(Image credit: Future / Duncan Robertson)

The good news is The PDP Riffmaster Guitar Controller plays beautifully. It felt authentic to a traditional Rock Band or Guitar Hero controller in that it took me right back to my early teenage years when I'd spend hours with friends trying desperately to 100% our favorite tracks. 

I think the buttons on the Riffmaster's neck have the perfect size and actuation to make rocking out with it a lot of fun. The fret buttons push in from all angles, making it nice and easy to press them in if you're dealing with a more difficult track or you're a real guitarist and have a lighter touch. The whammy bar is as badass to use as ever, and I personally felt like this had been measured to perfection so that it was easy to grab without losing your entire hand position. A lot of older Guitar Hero controllers had whammy bars that were too short, adding yet more stress to the middle of Hotel California's multiple solos. 

I also loved the fret buttons higher up on the neck, because just like the higher frets on a real guitar, these are much smaller than the regular buttons, so they take some serious getting used to if you want to be as accurate as usual. 

If I could change anything, it'd be the strumming bar, though. It works just fine, but it lacks the clicky feedback of some of my favorite guitar controllers. That tiny missing quality just makes the experience of strumming a bit less tactile, and slightly hamstrings the game feel a bit.

I guess you weren't quite ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.

PDP Riffmaster preview image of the finger smudges and marks on the guitar's pickguard

(Image credit: Future / Duncan Robertson)

One thing I would note is that while all of PDP's press materials claim the guitar has "anticipated support for Fortnite Festival", the packaging my Riffmaster came in states on its front that it's "compatible with Fortnite Festival and Rock Band 4." Maybe PDP is privy to information we aren't about when this support it coming. Maybe it's holding off on an official release date until this support is added. Either way, that raised some flags for me.

Luckily, PDP has updated me since I first published this preview to say that its packaging is subject to change depending on the final release date, which is a good thing. I wouldn't think PDP was the sort of company to advertise that on the front of its packaging if support is still "anticipated" at launch. That could have caused a lot of young Fortnite players to be misled, and unaware parents buying before they should.

At $129.99 / £129.99 though, this is a tough one to recommend to everyone. While the Riffmaster does harken back to guitar controllers of old and provides a faithful, fun experience, it's tough to see why it costs this much. Most of all, I'd look out for news of Fortnite supporting it before hitting the "buy now" button.

On the hunt for more controllers? Check out the best Xbox Series X controllers, the best joysticks, and the best racing wheels for PC.

Duncan Robertson
Hardware Editor

Ever since playing Journey at the age of 15, I’ve been desperate to cover video games for a living. After graduating from Edinburgh Napier University with a degree in Journalism, I contributed to the Scottish Games Network and completed an Editorial Internship over at Expert Reviews. Besides that, I’ve been managing my own YouTube channel and Podcast for the last 7 years. It’s been a long road, but all that experience somehow landed me a dream job covering gaming hardware. I’m a self-confessing PlayStation fanboy, but my experience covering the larger business and developer side of the whole industry has given me a strong knowledge of all platforms. When I’m not testing out every peripheral I can get my hands on, I’m probably either playing tennis or dissecting game design for an upcoming video essay. Now, I better stop myself here before I get talking about my favourite games like HUNT: Showdown, Dishonored, and Towerfall Ascension.
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