rocksmith
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A month with… Rocksmith

So first off, there’s going to be a format change from what was planned for my Rocksmith diaries.

Rather than eight threadbare weekly blogs, I figure you all might appreciate a ‘beginning/middle/end’ structure of three comprehensive overview pieces, so that’s how this is going down. There’ll be one more piece, in a month’s time, looking back on my full time with the game.

Secondly, I’m sorry to say that I’ve been having a hard time keeping up consistent practice over the last few weeks – changing living situation stuff and job hunting has made it tricky to practice without disturbing anyone.

That said, I’m still in excess of the 30 hours of practice I’m supposed to have at this point in proceedings, so this is now a slightly amended version of the original premise, with the resolution that I’ll be hitting the 60 hours in regular intervals more or less on schedule.

Progress

So even a month in, I’m struck by how significantly I’ve improved. I don’t really have a proficiency grade comparison point as I would with traditional music tuition, and I’m certainly not lighting up the frets with my righteous shreddage, but I’m feeling every aspect of playing guitar becoming easier. My left hand’s fingers find the right notes on the fretboard more regularly – barring any weird, infrequently used chords – I’m no longer picking the wrong strings with my right hand, my strumming is rhythmically consistent and I’m even increasingly able to incorporate other techniques like harmonics into my playing.

A week and a half in, I was sight-reading Rocksmith’s notation with relative proficiency, and with some practice I was playing certain songs at full complexity. That said, for a while I was having a perplexingly difficult time with some seemingly easy tracks. The most bizarre example was when I spent hours trying to play the opening to Weezer’s ‘Undone (The Sweater Song)’ a much harder way than I had to, purely out of inexperience.

I was also consistently tripped up by how much dexterity ‘R U Mine?’ by the Arctic Monkeys required and for some reason, the power chord variant used in the main riff of The Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ kept throwing me off.

It’s fascinating the way that the broad spread of different songs will just open up all the flaws in your playing to a rather embarrassing extent.

The auto-curated targets Rocksmith offers you provided great guidance for a while, ferrying me through the various features of the game and pushing me to really get stuck into songs. They measure proficiency in the ‘guitarcade’ games, they push you through the guitar tone simulator suite’s capabilities, and they challenge you to achieve depth and breadth of proficiency with the main songs.

That said, at this point the game really doesn’t seem to know what to do with me, demanding increasingly repetitive. “Achieve 50% mastery in a song”/”Achieve 80%+ accuracy in a song”/”Achieve 30% mastery across three new songs” milestones, and my time with the game is becoming self-directed as a result.

It never seem to have anything interesting for me to do anymore. It’s also hard to tell if the targets are curating themselves to shortcomings in my play-style, since they only get replaced when you beat one, rather than when it becomes apparent that you need to be targeting a specific thing through play.

As a result I have no idea whether or not I’m ignoring a feature that might really be helping me. If I find myself plateauing I’ll probably start with the targets again.

Features

Rocksmith 2014 has a whole range of things to do besides the standard song-playing modes, and they add a ton of new dimensions to the educational process. The most prominently hyped by the box and by the game’s targets is “session mode”, which is billed as nothing less than a virtual jam band.

You select a tempo, a selection of instruments to jam with (from a very broad, nuanced range of sounds), a key and a mode, and – in theory – you then have a sandbox with which to practice your playing.

I have never enjoyed playing with this mode. I can see where it’s going but it always feels confining to me. I get the sense I’m going where the automated band-mates want me to go, rather than them following me and aiding my creative process.

They simply don’t adjust from the initial settings responsively enough – and to be honest, I’m not sure how this would get fixed beyond shipping Rocksmith with a selection of capable session musicians crammed into a big crate.

But at a push, it seems the game could follow chord progressions with you, rather than keeping everything so very modal. You set a chord progression, and the band matches that progression, allowing you to experiment based on that progression.

As it is, everything’s too static and it feels like you have to drag adaptation to your playing out of the game.
Substantially more enjoyable is the “Guitarcade”, a range of fun mini-games built around standard guitar exercises. Running scales becomes a Final Fight-style brawler, slides become ninja-themed feats of precise movement, and many more besides.

By far my favourite has been Return to Castle ChorDead. It’s one of the weirder entries in the Guitarcade section, but also one of the most fun. Essentially, it’s Typing of the Dead, but with guitar chords in place of words, and it’s every bit as much goofy fun as that sounds. It’s also the most effective way to get the names of chords stuck in my head I’ve found thus far.

These really are an enjoyable way to get through meat-and-potatoes playing exercises and I can definitely see myself sinking more time into them.

A quicker piece of fun is the custom tone toolset. These allow you to build your own virtual guitar setup, from pedals and amplifier through to speaker enclosures and rack gear.

While Rocksmith obviously doesn’t have the kind of suite you get with with the full studio-grade amp simulator programs like Guitar Rig or Amplitube, they do have a range of fun, passable recreations including licenced Marshall and Orange amp sounds.

They also have something that sounds an awful lot like the legendary Boss HM-2 Heavy Metal distortion pedal, which means that I now have the most gut-wrenching Sunlight Studios Swedish death metal sound available to me in game at the touch of a button. All I wanted from this game was to be able to make all the polite indie rock tracks sound like they’re being covered by Unleashed, and now I can.

Finally, an increasing discovery throughout this month has been that one of the more fun things you can do in this game is to Riff-Repeat a song into oblivion, treating it less as a rhythm game and more like a genuine class on how to play the game.

The Riff Repeater function lets you repeat any section or sections of a song at any speed and with any degree of complexity, and honestly it’s fun to just sink an hour into learning one song right, slowly raising your game to the demands of one riff or one lead part.

The skills seem less transferable, since I get the feeling that the focus changes my playing style to the demands of the individual song rather than to a more useful generalist approach.

That said, it’s very satisfying to spend some time really getting to know a track you’ve never seen before, and then to see the “mastery” rating for that song immediately jump to something in the high 90s.

Notes

– On day nine I almost achieved 100% mastery of a song, meaning that I hit every note of a fully filled-in tablature. Most of the time when you’re learning a song in Rocksmith, it only requires a simplified playthrough – maybe you just play root notes of chords, maybe you only play the most important parts of a riff, maybe you only have to strum once for four repeated chords.

As you become proficient with what the game gives you, it ups the ante, escalating what it requires of you, until eventually, you’re playing the full song. For most of the tracks in Rocksmith, I’m still nowhere near this level yet – my dexterity is thoroughly lacking (in my defence, I’m a month in). But dammit, I’ve almost got a couple, and this was my first.

‘Sore Tummy’ by PAWS! is the kind of song I’d tell you I listened to if you asked me in person. Most of my favourite bands live in other genres, but the one I have most enthusiasm for in itself is this one. It is thoroughly my kind of shit.

Call it indie punk in polite company and emo revival if you’re willing to get into an overlong explanation of what does or does not constitute ‘real’ emo’ (the short version is that every band ‘00s teens called ’emo’ was a disastrous case of mislabelling, with the term having been successfully used for decades previous to describe what happens when former punk rock kids get really into Pavement and Tortoise).

One look at the band name and song title and I could tell you that they have a well-populated Bandcamp page, their official website is a Tumblr site, and their album covers are either old polaroid photographs or simple hand-drawn doodles, and either way are painfully sincere.

PAWS! sit at the intersection of punk rock, indie and 90’s emo revivalism. Their songs ring with the warm tone of a Fender guitar plugged into a Fender amplifier, and they find comfort in using American punk and alt rock traditions as an medium for emotional intimacy and vulnerability.

Apparently PAWS! tour with Japandroids and Ariel Pink, but I couldn’t tell you why they aren’t more in the You Blew It!/Chumped crowd because to me that seems like a better aesthetic and philosophical fit.

American indie rock, punk rock and revivalist emo have all converged on one another so much that if Best Coast, Beach Slang and Braid all started covering one another there’s no way you’d be able to tell they weren’t playing their own original songs.

Essentially the only dividing line at this point is which subculture of grotty twentysomethings pay their petrol money, and yes, it’s this congealed slurry of genres which I call home these days.

PAWS! are not the kind of band that makes a game soundtrack alongside ‘guitar hero’ bands like Iron Maiden and Slayer. They’re the kind of band I used to find on one of the few remaining genuinely small-time music blogs out there in a moment of boredom and go on to love disproportionately. But I found them on day eight of my Rocksmith journey, I sunk about three hours into learning this simple little song, and I freakin’ nailed it.

It’s so much fun to play – a small selection of perfectly selected, sparse chords and a fun line of picked notes that sounds great and feels more dexterous than it is. More importantly, it opens up so many possibilities! If I’d known I could be asking for this kind of music to be in the game, I wouldn’t have rested until the game had at least one Waxahatchee or Sorority Noise song. I mean, if anyone at Ubisoft wants to make a Bandcamp Alternative DLC pack, I could put together the quintessential track list. I’d go so far as to call it the job I was born to do. Send me in, coach! I’m ready for the big game!

– By the end of week two, I’d started nudging a few of my pet songs closer and closer to 100% mastery, including two Deftones songs and a track or two from The Cure. It was at this point that the seemingly simple ‘Undone (The Sweater Song)’ started kicking my butt. As soon as I clear the intro riff, a post-chorus bridge starts pushing me around. This song is so much harder than it sounds.

– As I pushed forward, the deficits in my playing style really began to weigh on me, and I took it upon myself to start correcting this.

Having spent the last six years almost exclusively playing rock-derived riffs in the drop-tuned single-finger barre power chords mold, I’ve really thrown myself into learning proper acoustic-style chords, so I ended up really trying to refine Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’.

Maybe it was my childhood babysitter’s playing their music every single day that wore Oasis out for me at an early age. Maybe it’s my resentment of Britpop for driving shoegaze back underground. Maybe they just exemplify the UK rock establishment’s inability to look forward and abroad, which in the face of rock’s waning relevance and the ascendancy of newer, American styles of music like hip-hop and R&B, makes them seem grudgingly provincial.

Either way, I don’t really have much time for the Gallaghers. I was four when they were relevant, they were completely in the past when I started paying attention to music, and I personally don’t care for the idea that people are obligated to like bands that were canonized by previous generations for its own sake, so I’ve never felt the need to hold them up in any way.

That said, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ is fun to play, even if it’s always been a meandering bore to listen to. It has a range of chords it demands of you, and it’s repetitive enough that you’ll have improved the chord transitions by the time you’ve finished a play-through. It’s just the song I need right now.

Also this happened:

rocksmith

I guess I’ve mastered this song so thoroughly I’ve elevated it to new heights even the original artist could never have imagined (to the tune of 6.3%).

– Somewhere near the end of this period, I bought a ton of song packs. Most notably, I caved and picked up the Slayer pack, because apparently the fifteen year old in me who just wants to mosh to ‘Dead Skin Mask’ never went away.

The available songs take note of the fact that the band’s most celebrated work, ‘Reign In Blood’, is carried almost entirely by its admittedly genre-topping opening and closing tracks, and so most of the Slayer pack is taken from from the underappreciated follow-ups ‘South of Heaven’ and ‘Seasons In The Abyss’.

These both eschewed the once-seminal speed and brutality of RiB for a more staid pace, eerie atmosphere and massively improved songwriting chops. ‘Reign In Blood’ might be the seminal Slayer experience, but these are both better albums in general.

In particular, the song ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ makes an appearance here, and it’s so fun to play, a seething catch-and-release of loose, Sabbath-esque open chords and tightly-wound, menacing grooves. Slayer wrote their best songs once they began to eschew the compulsive speed and aggression they themselves ended up encoding into the DNA of so many other metal styles, and those songs are on full display here.

I’d love to see another pack in here as well – ‘Blood Red’, ‘Spill The Blood’ and ‘Bloodline’ would all be great additions, as well as being an opportunity to show off the breadth of Slayer’s thematic range.

So I’m halfway through, and I’m curious to see what the next month’s practice will do for me.

See you all on the other side!

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