I’ve played the guitar on and off since I was in middle school. And by that I mean when I got my guitar in 7th grade, I learned the first couple of bars to a couple of my favorite songs and told myself I played guitar.
In reality I would just sit in my room repeating the same three tabs I knew — “Crazytrain”, “Dammit”, and “99 Red Balloons” — over and over until I would get yelled at for not doing my homework. I was pretty terrible. Music has always been an important part of my life, but I lacked the drive and discipline to sit down and teach myself how to actually be good. I put the guitar down pretty quickly, and since then have only picked it up to repeat the bits I know for a few minutes before getting frustrated and moving on once more.
Recently I was sitting at home and, in a spurt of creative motivation, reached for my guitar like I have so many times before, and I realized that I genuinely wanted to learn to play; that my quality of life might actually go up if I could reach for it and actually hammer out some real music. So I started looking into lessons, but everything was pretty expensive. Then my research led me to Rocksmith 2014.
I had heard the name before but had just written it off as a Guitar Hero imitation, like Rock Band was — and yes, I know Rock Band had other instruments. It was still based off of Guitar Hero, and was inferior overall. Anyway, I was looking at Rocksmith, and on the cover art I saw that it claims to teach you guitar. So I looked into it, and it turns out, Rocksmith is very different than Guitar Hero or Rock Band, in that you plug in your actual guitar, and instead of five buttons you can press in time with strumming, it utilizes the entire range of notes on the instrument. Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.
Now, as a result of exponentially more note options than on Guitar Hero, Rocksmith is understandably much more difficult. In fact I was recently debating someone on whether or not it can actually be considered a game, and not just a virtual tutor. There are definitely valid arguments for both sides, but eventually the debate devolved into a philosophical conversation about what makes a game a game, leaving both parties unsatisfied and the question unanswered. I’ll get to that, but first, let’s get into how and whether or not Rocksmith actually works.
When you start out, you can select whether you want to shred on lead guitar or offer up some tasty support on rhythm guitar or bass. Being the egoist that I am, I chose lead.
To start out, you jump right into a song, and it’s a familiar format, except under each colored button–the colors represent the different strings–coming your way in the screen, there’s a little number under it indicating which fret the correct note is played at.
Based on your first performance, Rocksmith analyzes your talent, and begins to suggest exercises for you, ranging from lessons in chords, bends, and slides, to the “riff repeater” which takes a small portion of the song, slows it down, and repeats it until you hit every note. Once you hit every note, the speed is increased, and once you play the segment at full speed, it slows down again, but this time, the segment goes up in difficulty ands there are more notes to play.
Essentially Rocksmith is an adaptive teacher that does its best to tailor itself to your learning curve, and for the most part, it works. I’ve been playing it for a couple of weeks now, and I feel like I actually have the smallest modicum of skill at the guitar, and I am infinitely happier for it. The only problems with it that I can see are that sometimes technology can get in it’s own way and your TV and console may have calibration issues, meaning your notes won’t register on the game when you play them on your guitar, and that sometimes it may take you a bit ahead of your learning speed without realizing. But if you’re determined, that will only help you improve faster.
So, here’s why I think it can be considered a game and not just a virtual tutor: While for the most part it is to teach you guitar, the means by which they do it are 100% video game-y. It’s actually pretty brilliant. There is a section of the game called the “guitarcade” in which there are 15-20 mini games, each designed to help you hone and perfect a specific aspect of playing the guitar. One example is “Star Chords” in which you are a spaceship flying around, and in order to make your ship fire at opposing ships, you are prompted to play a chord. Take too long and your ship will be hit.. How awesome is that? it”s like Math Blaster or Mario Teaches Typing all over again.
All in all Rocksmith 2014 does what it advertises. It may not be the best way to learn specific songs you want to learn, but if you’re looking to improve your overall skill and familiarity with the instrument, or maybe just looking shake off some dust, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more fun and creative means of doing so.
Written by: Richard Reitzfeld
Photo credit: Ubisoft