Guitar Hero 4 Drum Mod

Making your own GH:WT cymbals for under $25.

First published December 20, 2008

You read that right.

Like so many other unfortunate souls out there, my Guitar Hero: World Tour drumkit suffered from a fatal flaw: inherent crapness.

The kit worked fine for about a week, after which the cymbals became less and less responsive. I did the right thing, and ordered the MIDI sensitivity-tweaking doodad, and waited patiently for two weeks until it showed up.  Half an hour after getting the MIDI sensitivity-tweaking doodad home, however, I was swearing and cursing and vaguely contemplating some kind of nasty letter, as adjusting the sensitivity of the cymbals had almost no effect on the kit's playability. The whole exercise reminded me very much of trying to play Winter Games on the C64 with a broken joystick.

In short, one cymbal was registering one hit out of every three or four (even when hit with what I would consider a ridiculous amount of force), and the other cymbal would trigger three notes in rapid succession when a slight breeze wafted over it. To add to the calamity, the flimsy plastic base on the underside of both cymbals was extensively cracked.  This combination of failures made the drum part of the game completely unplayable (well, unless you play in hit n' drool "beginner" mode), just at the time I was starting to hit my stride and find some rhythm - I'd just finished the game's drum career on "medium" difficulty, and was keen to graduate to "hard".

Being the mindlessly enthusiastic tinkerer that I am, I whipped out the #1 phillips and laid the guts of the cymbal bare. Discovering only a piezo transducer element, a PCB devoid of components and a haphazardly soldered  3.5mm audio socket, I began toying with the idea of making my own cymbals while I waited for Activision to send me warranty replacements.

Iain, a good friend, like minded soul and partner in crime, had been having similar thoughts due to similar issues with his kit, and had bought a bunch of piezo elements from ebay. He kindly gave me a couple to play with, and volunteered to do some soldering.

I picked up a four-pack of 25cm "unbreakable" (hah!) plastic picnic plates from Woolworths.  Jaycar happily sold me two 3.5mm mono audio sockets. I had some wire, gaff tape and crimp connectors at home.  We did a quick proof of concept by tacking small spadey-type connectors to a piezo, soldering connectors to the audio socket, connecting the two, and gaff-taping the lot to the bottom of the plate with a bit of padding for the socket to prevent rattling.  To our surprise, when we connected the plate to the GH:WT drumkit and fired up the game's Recording Studio applet, the plate worked extremely well as a cymbal trigger. It was very sensitive though, even light finger taps were enough to record a note through the kit. It didn't skip any notes though, and it didn't register any double-triggers. Brilliant!

I decided that effort expended in going about this project in a slightly more thorough manner would pay off.
I bought some neoprene from Clark Rubber, Iain brought over a can of black spraypaint and a soldering iron, and we set about making replacement cymbals.

After about a day's worth of measuring, marking, cutting, gluing, sanding, grinding, soldering, taping, painitng, smoking, drinking and general mucking about, we had two working cymbal triggers, that are arguably better than the ones originally supplied with the kit.

Here's how.

Things you'll need:

  • A four-pack of 25cm (10") "unbreakable" plastic picnic plates. $4 from Woolworths/BigW (the brand name I used, ironically, is "Smash".)
  • Two 25-30mm piezo transducer elements. Available on Ebay apparently, in packs of 20, for $10. (I'll get info in the ebay dealer and post it here if there's significant interest.)
  • Approximately 60cm of 300mm x 3mm neoprene. I bought mine at Clark Rubber for $18 ($25 per metre).
  • Two 3.5mm mono audio sockets. Less than $1 each from Jaycar/Dick Smith.
  • Half a dozen old coasterised CDs or DVDs. Use Miles Davis recordings for tone and musicality.
  • A plastic spool or other suitable spool-like thing that vaguely fits over the GH:WT cymbal mounts and under the GH:WT cymbal retaining nut thingy. See below.


  • Sandpaper and a Dremel/rotary tool of some kind (although the morbidly patient could just use sandpaper, I suppose.)
  • Super glue, and lots of it. I'd recommend a 5ml bottle with a brush applicator. $5-ish from your hardware megastore of choice.
  • Spray paint (optional).
  • Stanley knife, good scissors, a metal ruler, permanent Artline or Sharpie marker (preferably not black, so you can see it against the black neoprene).
  • A soldering iron, some wire and solder. Anything bigger than computer-PSU-gauge wire would be silly, anything smaller than the awfully thin wires pre-soldered to the piezo would be fiddly.
  • Crimp-type spadey-connectory things, if you're not confident soldering stuff (or want to move things around and experiment later).


Take your "unbreakable" picnic plate, and mark as per the picture below. (Making a red-herring squiggled mistake line on the right side is completely optional.)

(Note the diagonal lines are drawn using the mark at the top of the outside of the plate and the marks on the inside "rim"):

Use the markings on the plate and the plate itself as a guide, mark out your sheet of neoprene. You want a triangle-shaped piece that covers the area bounded by the two diagonal lines and the outer rim of the plate.

Measure the distance from the outer rim to the inner rim of the plate, and mark this length from the tip of your triangle.

Use an object the same diameter as the inside rim of the plate to mark the upper curve at that point.

Using one of your dead optical discs as a guide, mark the location of the mounting hole on the underside of the plate and the neoprene. I used Win95-era game discs, because I knew the content of the disc would have no bearing on the "tone" whatsoever, and "musicality" isn't a real word.

Cut the marked piece out.  You should end up with a piece that looks roughly like this:

You'll need to cut out three more pieces of neoprene:

... and one smaller one for the underside:

The cymbal is now taking shape (you need three cds/dvds stacked up to get the right curve):

Head outside for a bit and take a break with a cool, refreshing tonic water.

Tonic water contains quinine, which used to be used to treat malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes. My idiot neighbour doesn't  look after his pool, and is thus a breeding ground for the little buggers. Quinine also glows under UV light, which is how they imitated Cherenkov radiation in the nuclear-sub movie "K19: The Widowmaker". Unfortunately, the dosage of quinine in your average Australian "tonic water" is too low to be effective as a preventative for malaria. The point is moot though, I don't actually live in a malaria-prone region so the danger of infection is practically zero. I just like tonic water and movies about nuclear subs and seeing cool special effects. I also hate my idiot neighbours.

Now that you've stretched a bit, grind (or sand, if you're very patient) the ridge off the inside and outside rim of the plate. Wear safety gear, and put a bucket around your dog's head. Then, put the dog inside for good measure. Dogs and dremels don't play nicely.

The finished (slightly blurry) plate.

Use sandpaper to roughen the area inside the inner rim of the plate (and smooth out the product branding and info), and superglue the two crescent pieces in place.

After a bit of drying time (10-15 minutes should be enough, depending on how much superglue you've slopped around), roughen the surfaces of the three dead discs, and glue them in place on top of each other. (Purists will argue that the shiny side must go up, because of quantum alignment of the fluxons or something, but purists will pay $600 for a wooden volume knob, and $2000 for a metre of speaker wire, because they're morons.) Cut a small hole in the center of the larger remaining piece of neoprene, and glue it to the top of the stack of discs. 

Be sure to confuse your camera's autofocus by wobbling the neoprene about a bit.

Drill out the mounting hole...

... being careful not to press too hard with the drill:

You bought a four-pack of plates, right? I'm glad I did. My first plate died in a failed attempt to cut the plate around the inner rim:

... you have been warned.

Grind or sand out the hole (gently! let the tool do the work...) so it fits over the GH:WT cymbal mounts. Trim the neoprene to fit also.

You should still have a small neoprene disc, cut a small hole in it, glue it to the underside of the plate, and trim once the glue has sufficiently set. Be sure to pose in a distinctly unsafe and unrealistic manner. The more astute observers will have already noted that I am right-handed.

Check the assembly to ensure it fits on the GH:WT cymbal mount. If not, back to dremeling. Or filing. Or if you're sanding - see you in another two days. You want a fairly loose fit to minimise the stand transmitting shock or vibrations from hits to the other triggers into the plate. A gap of between one and two millimeters should do nicely.

Paint the bits of the plate that won't be covered by the upper piece of neoprene. This is, of course, optional. You may leave the plate unadorned or covered in blue squiggly lines if you wish. Slap all the stickers from the GH:WT box on them, if that makes you happy. That would make Activision and Red Octane happy, I'm sure, but since you've already thrown a fair whack of your hard-earned money at them for something that doesn't really work that well...

Anyway, try not to get much paint on the outside piece of neoprene. Common sense suggests masking tape or some other shield-like technology. My sense is not often common.

At this stage, multiple coats, fancy metallic paint and/or demonic symbology are entirely optional and left to the taste (or lack thereof) of the user. I have taste, but little patience, so I opted for two coats.

Once dry(ish - ten minutes in the sun was plenty for me, check the instructions on your can of paint), glue down only the outer edge of the top piece to the larger crescent of neoprene.

You'll now need some kind of washer/gromit/spacer arrangement to make up the extra 10-15mm needed to match the thickness of the original cymbal. I was lucky, as I'd bought a spool of wire from Jaycar to complete the project, and the plastic spool itself was just the shape and size I needed...

... which finished off the construction phase nicely.

The piece on top is the plasticy retaining nut thingy supplied with the GH:WT kit.

Now to the electrickery.

Solder spade connectors to each of the leads coming from the piezo element, and solder two short (about 70-80mm) wires to the audio plug's terminals, along with connectors.

Here's the results.

Neither Iain or I are remarkably practised soldererers, so this may not be optimal. You could get all fancy with heatshrink and stuff or molex connectors or something even more exotic if you like, but try and keep it as light and flexible as you can. Or just twist the wires together and wrap them in 'leccy tape for that 70's car stereo feel. Be sure to add a coathanger bent into the shape of your country of residence and a Doobie Brothers 8-track cartridge.

Gaff tape the piezo element to the underside of the plate, brass side down, in between the mounting hole and the bottom edge.

Put another piece of tape halfway along the wires to provide some strain relief (just in case), and tape the audio socket to the plate, using a piece of foam or other suitably squishy material to stop the plate making mechanical contact with the socket.  This will protect the socket and solder joints from vibrations and shock (one of the major failings of the original GH:WT cymbals.)

Connect the socket wires to the piezo wires. It doesn't matter which way you connect them, as long as they don't short. To this end, tape the whole shebang down, ensuring no metal bits are touching other metal bits. (Er, except for the connectors, of course).

Lather, rinse and repeat for the other cymbal, unless you're lucky enough to only have one broken cymbal. I'd recommend making two anyway, as it's only a matter of time before the other original one fails anyway, right?

Mount the cymbals on your GH:WT kit, connect the plug to the socket, and you're done.

You may need to use the aformentioned USB-MIDI sensitivity doohickey to make the cymbals less sensitive, depending on how snugly the hole in your cymbal fits around the mounting peg. I suspect that a very tight fit would transmit vibration to the plate and thus trigger a false note when you hit something else on the kit, so try to allow a bit of wiggle-room when grinding out the mounting hole. Or, if you're feeling masochistic enthusiastic, gouge out the hole some more and add a rubber sleeve to the inside.

I adjusted the sensitivity of the cymbals right down, and playtested. Actually, Iain playtested 'cos he's better at drums.

Click the image above for a larger version, you can see a 97% score with a 53 note streak on the drums.

Pretty good for $25, eh? Celebrate with a well-earned Vodka, Lime and Tonic, served with ice, in a highball glass, and rock on.

(Sadly, I have no pictures of the rocking. I'm sure you'll survive.)

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