Rocksmith, Powerful Training Tool or Just Another 'Guitar Hero'?

author: Jacques Nel date: 03/18/2014 category: features
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Rocksmith, Powerful Training Tool or Just Another 'Guitar Hero'?
A year or two ago, while jamming with some friends, one of them mentioned Rocksmith to me. Never having heard of it at that time I asked him what it was all about and the answer was quite impressive to me at the time. I was told that it's basically a lot like "Guitar Hero" but using a real guitar. What's more is that it actually offers lessons to improve your playing.

So once I heard of the new and improved 2014 version I just had to get it, being a massive "music-head" and admittedly filled with childish excitement at the thought of combining gaming and practice time. 

However, once I ordered it, in preparation of its arrival and as to sort out any technical issues I may encounter upon installation, I started reading up about it and realized this game is actually quite the topic of debate among musicians and non-musicians. The main subject of debate seems to be whether this game is really as effective at both teaching and improving guitar and bass guitar abilities as Ubisoft claims it to be.

There are tonnes of "success stories" posted around YouTube about John-Q-Public having known not even how to hold a guitar much less play it, and in a specified amount of time, now being able to jam along to his favorite songs. However, I doubt that a developer will post any video about anyone that could not learn from the game. 

So let's cut to the chase, through all the hype and all the media campaigns and answer the question: Is this an effective substitute for a guitar teacher or just another game with the addition of incorporating one of our favorite pass times into its premise?

...so, upon its arrival I installed the game, sorted out the one or two technical issues and started up, ESP in hand.

What does the game offer? You have the option of learning the songs included with the game (and where applicable the ones you download), you can take lessons, you can play arcade type games using your guitar as your joystick, you can jam with a virtual band and there is even an option to create your own tone, like using the game as a pedal.

The main focus for the purposes of our discussion is of course the first two, learning songs and taking lessons.

The game includes quite a decent list of songs from a few different era's and styles. From the Ramones with "Blitzkrieg Bop," to Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box," to Iron Maiden's "The Trooper" and much more. The list is undoubtedly made up of songs with quite enjoyable guitar parts.

The difficulty of the "play along" style learning of the song is adjusted as you hit more notes accurately. Afterwards you are given feedback based on how accurately you played the song you chose.

Regarding the lessons, the lessons offered starts from the very basics, such as how to hold your guitar, how to hold a pick etc. On the other end of the spectrum there are "master" lessons on your more "advanced" guitar techniques such as "master bending," "master slides," "master chord lesson" and so on. 

The automatic adjustments to difficulty apply to just about all aspects of the game, when you miss a lot of notes or struggle with a technique the game will slow it down for you until you catch up.

So all of this seems very impressive on paper. Does the actual game live up to all of the possibilities that this repertoire claims to offer?

The answer is not as straight forward as it may seem. On the one hand, if you are an absolute beginner and have never touched a guitar in your life, this will undoubtedly bring all the technical based skills to you in a practical and effective manner. No longer will anyone who wants to learn from scratch have to watch a video or read a book and then have to try and perfect any technical skill without even knowing whether they are doing it the right way. In short, it prevents you from picking up bad habits from your first days of playing. When a technique is not performed correctly, the game literally tells you.

In addition to teaching newcomers the basics, the game takes some of the boredom out of practicing each day by allowing you to incorporate your practice into a less mechanical method than sitting in silence practicing whatever technique it is you are working on, by letting you do this as means of playing games. Although limited, the arcade games do offer a quirky alternative to stringent practice sessions and possible loss of interest.

When it comes to those who are already familiar with a guitar or bass guitar, whether you are a beginner or advanced player, the grey area seems to come in with regards to what this game offers.

The usefulness of the lessons will depend on your level of playing, you may have experience in all the lessons offered but on the other hand, there may be certain aspects of playing that you struggle with and that can be improved by working through the corresponding lessons.

Seeing as there is always something new to learn when it comes to music, learning new songs like the ones available to play through the game, can offer you some tips or techniques or skills that you previously didn't have or didn't work on, and the points factor brings a type of motivation to the learning experience and encourages the players to work on fluency and accuracy.

When taking all this into account, it can definitely be said that Rocksmith does have a lot to offer in terms of teaching both new and experienced players some new moves.

Unfortunately though, this game is not perfect, and there are quite a few shortfalls that deserves attention.

On the technique side of things, the layout while playing along, although it could be much worse, can actually be quite confusing to players who use tab and are used to tab. There is an option to invert the neck, but even though this brings a tab look to the layout, it's still far from being fluent and effective.

While the lessons may be good in teaching technique, there is very little in the line of musical theory and the closest you will get to scales is a scale mini game in the arcade section.

Looking at all the factors we've touched on, even though we've only done so briefly, we come to the reason this game draws so many different opinions.

From one side, it can be said that all the lessons are actually just aimed at getting someone to fluently play the songs that are included. Even though it may provide a good foundation towards learning good habits and fluency, it provides very little in learning someone to improvise and does not give you the tools needed to prosper as a guitarist. The training wheels stay on if you are to rely solely on this as a learning tool.

From another prospective, Rocksmith actually does provide the means to practice techniques and build physical ability such as strength and speed, and provides a more stimulating method of doing so. The physical skill that can be taken from it by new players can be used in further learning. It teaches you your first words in the musical language, and should you continue to more advanced playing later these basic skills will always stick with you.

So, in conclusion, Rocksmith is an effective tool in getting new players started out, and experienced players obtain a new sense of fun in playing. As a stand alone teacher it's not enough to get you to the levels of your favorite guitarists, but can give you a strong foundation to build upon if you do take your training further. It introduces diverse styles of writing and playing by offering a wide range of rock music to learn that could stimulate creative development in budding writers and players.

The future looks bright for the genre if the educational range of this game can be expanded. As it is, it teaches good technique but seems to lack in showing players how it all fits together in the big spectrum of music. But hopefully, Ubisoft will not quit in expanding this game to reach its full potential in the near future.
More Jacques Nel columns:
+ Evolving as an Artist Artists' Discussions 05/22/2014
+ Nirvana - Pioneers of Modern Rock, or Another Over Commercialized Pop Act? Artists' Discussions 03/12/2014
+ How Players Lose Interest General Music 02/07/2014
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