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A week with… Rocksmith

For someone who’s been playing guitar as long as I have – around six years – I’m astonishingly bad at guitar.

You’d have thought you’d pick up more skill than I have with guitar just sitting near one and absorbing guitar ability through the process of osmosis.

Self-taught in the most generous sense of the term, I learned enough guitar to play the sparse, doomy, ambient post-rock I tended to write, and never really resolved to take it any further.

I lack any range whatsoever outside of my fairly limited style. In fact, in spite of the fact that I semi-regularly play guitar, when someone asks me if I play guitar, I typically answer, “no”.

There are things people learn in their second or third lesson that I don’t know. It’s been a secret shame of mine for quite some time.

So Rocksmith piqued my curiosity. While the easiest way to explain it would be ‘Guitar Hero, with a real guitar’, the implementation of that concept essentially produces a full educational suite on how to play guitar and bass.

It’s a game, but it’s also a full gamified course of guitar tuition, purporting to be, ‘the fastest way to learn guitar’.

All I really want is to be brought up to the baseline level people assume all guitarists are at, a sort of publically understood level of competence – or as I call it, “Wonderwall level”.

So I’m going to be keeping a diary for the recommended 60 day period spent with Rocksmith. At least 1 hour a day, going through their automatically generated objectives and jamming to songs, to see how far I get.

Getting Started

The first day was a huge success, sore fingertips and all. It was so much fun that I breezed right through the hour mark and only checked when I was past two hours.

The quirks of the layout immediately caused teething problems – the lowest string on a guitar is by default the one depicted highest on the screen layout, meaning that the game’s notation for music is rather like reading standard tablature upside-down.

rocksmith
Rocksmith 2014

Each string is also colour-coded, which is fine as long as you can tell in a pinch the difference between the yellow and orange strings, and, spoiler warning, at speed you really can’t tell that difference.

But the software package is so darn accommodating, gently taking in newbies, giving them just enough to pull them in and then push them further and further up.

The game comes packed with lessons on every aspect of guitar and bass, but the real difference-maker is the dynamically adjusting tablature of the songs.

The input requirements at all but the highest stages of these songs are stripped down to make participation in the track possible with a fraction of the technical skill.

As you master the simplified version of the guitar parts, it gently adds complexity – extra strums, increasingly larger chords – until you find yourself playing parts you’d never have thought you had the dexterity to pull off.

There were a few mishaps where I couldn’t live up to what the computer expected of me but in most cases each step was an achievable challenge, and I came away from every play-through having played increasingly demanding parts more and more accurately, feeling like a better and better guitarist every time.

Song Selection

Another major factor in the fun of the game is the playlist. The base game features a diverse range of songs, many of which are great pulls I’d never expect to make the list but which are among the first I’d learn under my own steam.

‘My Generation’, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and ‘Paint It Black’ bring up the ‘classic’ section for those who are still weirdly impressed by their dad’s record collection. Weezer’s ‘Say It Ain’t So’ and Fang Island’s ‘Chompers’ are both still guitar pop magnificence.

Minus The Bear put in a surprisingly mathy showing, and ‘Everlong’ by the Foo Fighters continues to be the only proof anyone needs that even without Nirvana, Dave Grohl would have done just fine.

Meanwhile at the far end of the playlist, some of the best songs by Iron Maiden, Slayer, Mastodon and more taunt me for my inadequacies.

One day, Rocksmith… one day soon.

These are all fun, thrilling songs in which to participate, and while the styles are diverse, the quality is consistent across the board. Many of these are the songs that make people want to pick up guitars in the first place, and the rest are all gems I’ve enjoyed discovering.

Downloadable Content

The DLC only expands this, adding tracks from other artists and additional songs from just about everyone on the main roster.

The offerings are a smorgasbord of fan favourites for almost every band in the list, to the point where there are very few songs I’m dying to play by included acts that aren’t available.

The selection ranges from The Cure, Faith No More and Judas Priest, all of whom I love, to bands like Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace and Evanescence, who I know will greatly appeal to time-travelling fifteen year olds from 2005 and people with a weird amount of nostalgia for theme songs of pro wrestling pay-per-views.

Also, the Pearl Jam Pack doesn’t contain ‘Even Flow’, because if Pearl Jam has an opportunity to alienate their fans, they’re pretty liable to take it.

If they added a few American football songs and every track from best-guitar-band-in-the-world Kvelertak’s self-titled début I would never stop playing this game.

I’d bought DLC by day two: a Deftones pack and two Bill Withers R&B classics – but found the whole thing to be a less welcoming experience than I’d have hoped.

At £2.60, each song felt just slightly too expensive to be in its optimal price range for impulse purchase without a twinge of regret that gets in the way of the rock god fantasy rather a lot.

Browsing the DLC store is a constant loop of my internal monologue going, “I should get that song! Well, I’ll probably want more songs by that artist while we’re here… but the pack is too expensive to be this kind of impulse buy… but if I just get the one song I’ll feel like an idiot if I do eventually buy the rest of the songs and either way I’ll have spent more than I will be if I get the thing that’s… slightly too expensive.”

A few days later, the Steam autumn sale knocked off half the price tag for song packs and wrecked unholy havoc on my wallet, which vindicates my assessment nicely.

This Routine Is Hell
Within a few days of playing through Rocksmith’s personalised objectives and challenges, I noticed a few things.

The first was that the fingertips on my left hand hurt all the time, the strings slicing the weakness out of them. This is paying your dues, folks.

The second was a rather jarring latency issue. I repeatedly found that the visual elements and sound detection came slightly before the corresponding audio.

It’s just subtle enough that you can hear it if you play exceptionally staccato chugs you can hear the tone from the game continuing for a moment or so after you’ve muted the strings.

However, its effect on gameplay is striking. It effectively front-loads the input parameters, checking early relative to the actual song you’re playing; you’re more likely to get a hit from going slightly too early than you are for trying to be dead on with the rhythm and risking being even a little bit late – enough to put you outside of the input zone.

I’ve tried a number of correctional options but I’ve only ever been able to minimise it, not make it go away entirely.

I’m also slightly concerned with other elements. The range of guitar tunings you might need to use – I’ve seen them ranging from E Standard to Drop C – would usually require different string thickness to be properly tense.

Since I tend to down-tune in my own work, I tend to go for heavy-gauge strings, so down-tuning isn’t an issue, but bending the strings to modulate the pitch from one fret position really is.

Trying to bend Ernie Ball Beefy Slinkies in standard on a Les Paul is an experience that is at best a pain and at worst genuinely unachievable.

Likewise, those who are using thinner strings will have an easy time with bends but will find down-tuning a major hassle. There’s really no solution here, unless you have multiple guitars.

Day Notes
Day 3: I’m hitting a pretty major difficulty spike at this point, enough that the latency issues are causing real trouble.

Past absolutely beginner status, the game seems to struggle to know how to ramp up at the refined rate it once did.

The songs keep trying to introduce elements I can’t really handle yet, and there doesn’t appear to be an intermediate point they can go to first. Either I get it or I don’t. It’s just a matter of powering through at this point.

Day 4: Were early-mid 90’s Weezer incapable of writing a bad song? Rivers Cuomo has become essentially the best level designer I’ve experienced this year.

Day 5: The lessons are super-helpful, but they really highlight an issue with the game: it can’t know if you’re fluking it or if your technique sucks or any of the things a decent teacher could tell you if they were looking over your shoulder.

I faced several times where I was playing through the demo songs and I actually objected to the game passing me, knowing full well that I’d screwed up several parts and had only somehow managed to scrape out an approximation of the right sounds.

I guess if I want to be properly good, I’m going to have to get a real teacher sooner or later.

Day 6: The included Deftones song selection – ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’ – is a travesty. It’s not a bad song, but it’s a relic of the nascent alt-metal/nu-metal scene Deftones were already in the process of moving on from on the rest of ‘Around The Fur’, and which they would transcend entirely with the very next album, ‘White Pony’.

Two tracks from the latter album are available as DLC – ‘Digital Bath’ and the career-defining ‘Change (In The House of Flies)’, either of which could be convincing evidence for Deftones being called one of the greatest modern rock bands – as well as later single ‘Hole In The Earth’ and ‘Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)’, an ‘Around The Fur’ cut that lay out the path for where the band would head in their mid-career.

Any of these could have been better showcases for Deftones on the main roster, and frankly there are a great number of songs – ‘Minerva’, ‘Elite’, ‘Passenger’, ‘Beware’ – which would have been more flattering inclusions than ‘My Own Summer…’.

‘Change…’ in particular is a delight to play. I got into Deftones very late, outside of the context in which they were getting radio or video play, and so I always thought of ‘Change…’ as a buried but perfectly formed gem.

It’s a fascinating track on the album, sitting between a showy collaboration with Tool’s Maynard Keenan, ‘Passenger’, and the album closer ‘Pink Maggit’, filling the space between two tent-pole songs in terms of the structure of the album with something subtle but deceptively substantial and sumptuous.

It’s one of Deftones’ more intimate songs, breathy and dynamic, and it develops in some truly inspired ways, particularly involving vocalist Chino Moreno’s career-best performance.

Based on its placement in the overall structure of ‘White Pony’, I always assumed it was a product of a ‘late album genre experiment’ section before the threads of the record come together again for the final track.

I only found out today that it was the album’s lead single and Deftones’ biggest hit. This makes literally no sense to me, but I guess in 2000, something about guess back in the Dark Ages it was acceptable to bury the lead that late in the album, unlike in these more enlightened times.

Day 7: I’m getting callouses on my left hand fingertips! It’s so weird how quickly they’ve come in. This is what I get for basically refusing to let go of fretted notes when my fingertips hurt.

I ain’t getting beaten by a big metal string. But this may well mark this as the first time a game has physically changed me as a process of me getting better at it. That’s a weird barrier to cross with a medium.

Also the Minus The Bear song on here is pretty great. I still have this lingering tendency born of my hardcore kid youth where, when a ‘heavy’ musician inevitably starts to play music grown-ups and normal people would want to listen to, you ignore it out of principle as being a compromised version of whatever they could have done in their old band (see also: Fall Out Boy being entirely comprised of Arma Angelus and Racetraitor alumni, Wesley Eisold’s Cold Cave project, the last two Opeth albums) so I’ve always shifted between disregarding Minus The Bear and framing them as an obstacle keeping Dave Knudson from a proper Botch reunion.

The song on here, ‘Cold Company’ has completely shifted this perception. It’s a fun, mathy little number, and one of the most rewarding tracks the game has to offer. It’s built around a nice satisfying groove, but still has all the bizarre little math rock touches that shake up what would otherwise be a perfectly formed but conventional rock jam.

And while we’re on the topic of Botch alumni, Ubisoft, a Russian Circles pack had better be on your DLC list.

Oh, god. It’s happened. Ubisoft has finally created a game in which I’m excited for DLC.

So that’s where I am at the end of week one of this game; still curious, still optimistic, thoroughly dug into this whole process.

Join me again soon for the one month diary.

4 Comments

  1. You should have played the 2014 version, it’s just more polished and you can import almost all songs from the first one.

  2. Yeah, I should probably note – I am playing the 2014 version. Didn’t realise they were both being concurrently marketed and thus that there would be confusion.

  3. I found this really interesting. I’ve idly thought about getting Rocksmith at some point. I’ve been playing for probaby about 30 years, 20 ‘seriously’ and I’ve always wondered if this would be a fun purchase. The killer is the upside down notation though, bizarre they chose to go against well established tab tradition and do there own thing. Good article though.

  4. I experience no lag issues whatsoever running thru xbox360. The audio is hooked into an old totally analog Hitachi receiver. If you do the PC version, have at least the recommended hardware requirements. Both versions will crash frequently if you don’t.

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