Nov 26

Rocksmith 2014 – Shredding for Dummies

It’s been over a year since I sat down with the original Rocksmith and sunk my teeth into it. The first game in the series offered players a chance to use a real electric guitar as their weapon of choice, and although a bit rough around the edges, the original Rocksmith delivered a solid, memorable experience. I emerged with a new passion for playing the guitar and felt like I developed an actual real-life skill. So, when Rocksmith 2014 arrived at my door a few weeks ago, I was eager to see if they had polished up those rough edges, and if it would re-ignite that spark. This review would have been done sooner, had it not been for the fact that I can’t stop playing. The TLC that Ubisoft has applied to the original Rocksmith recipe has made it both extremely fun and difficult to put down.

Rocksmith 2014 - Navigation Menu

New navigational options make it easy to find a song quickly in Rocksmith 2014.

The Jimi Hendrix User Experience

Getting to the right song as quickly as possible is key. The original Rocksmith user interface has been cleaned up in 2014, allowing greater flexibility to reorganize and navigate through your tracks. It can get cumbersome to seek a specific track when your playlist grows in relation to the DLC you purchase. Rocksmith 2014 throws a massive new set of sorting options at you. By using the right button (RB on the XBox 360), the basic “sorts” are there: artist name, song title, year, difficulty, song length, source (Rocksmith, Rocksmith 2014, or DLC), even the number of times you’ve played a song. The really convenient options, however, are ones such as mastery (a percentage of how far along you are in your quest to master a song), recommended (what Rocksmith 2014 thinks is good for your particular skill level), and tuning (great for knocking out a bunch of songs without having to adjust strings in between). To round this out, Rocksmith 2014 also lets you mark certain songs as your favorites — and yes, you can sort by favorites, too. As an aside, certain sort orders (eg. song title, artist name, etc.) let you skip sections quickly by using the left and right triggers (LT and RT on the XBox 360). Don’t forget about the left button, either (LB on XBox 360); while RB specifies the sort order, LB flips the entire list forward or back, quickly taking you to the beginning or ending of the list. Navigation is a breeze!

Rocksmith 2014 - Riff Repeater Interface

Analyze and perfect any part of any song with Riff Repeater.

Repeat Performance

Ubisoft delivered a much better feeling of progression this second time around. Progression is, after all, a measure of your skill growth, but since all songs in Rocksmith 2014 (along with its predecessor) scale appropriately to your skill, hiding parts of the song library as a means of progression feels artificial and, frankly, quite lame. By moving the focus of progression to your “percentage complete” on individual songs, Rocksmith 2014 frees you to choose your path at every gaming session. For those who prefer to explore on their own (like me), you can immediately dive into Learn a Song, picking from the full song list and get jamming within minutes, regardless of the song’s complexity.

Both the old and the new game benefit from its unique tech which adjusts the difficulty of the song on-the-fly (something I raved about in my Rocksmith vs Rock Band 3 Showdown last year). Rocksmith 2014 takes this to the next level by adding in new functionality called the Riff Repeater. At any moment in any song, you can pause the action and drop down into Riff Repeater, then adjust a myriad of dials and switches that let you practice and refine specific parts of each song. Riff Repeater is fantastic; nearly anything in this mode can be adjusted: the current difficulty of the riff, the speed, whether or not you wish to increase difficulty as you perfect your style, how many times you want to repeat a perfected section before advancing, how much error tolerance you want to allow for…the list goes on. You can even have Riff Repeater eject you seamlessly back into the song once you’ve mastered the section. Each song in Rocksmith 2014 is subdivided into many individual sections, and you can control how small or large a section you want Riff Repeater to apply to. For something labelled a video game at the end of the day, its strength as a guitar tutor is quite spectacular.

Other tools are at your disposal throughout the song, including the ability to see all the chords in play (and their respective fingerings), as well as all the techniques the song employs, whether they be bends, slides, vibrato, tremolo, or a host of others that can all be displayed on-screen, ad hoc, without having to dump out to the main menu and search for tutorials. Learning the guitar is an intimidating and monumental task, and Ubisoft has made a concerted effort to ensure that learning the guitar is not impeded by gameplay design decisions.

Rocksmith 2014 - Session Mode Interface

Session Mode lets you customize and jam with your own virtual band.

Quest of the Rad Guitar

Whether slaying internet dragons or making digital drug deals, I love the freedom of a good non-linear world; why should playing a guitar video game be any different? Some players prefer to be led down the right path, however, and Rocksmith 2014 wraps a warm blanket around these folks as well. Enter: Missions, an ever-present set of  options, akin to a quest log, providing the aforementioned direction. If you’re still too green under the collar and unsure what is best for you to work on in your pursuit to be the next Eddie Van Halen, missions guide you down this path. At any given moment in Rocksmith 2014, you’ll be provided with a host of various tasks to accomplish, tailored to your skill level. Commonly, these missions direct you to the comprehensive Lessons section of the game. Here, you’ll be presented with dozens of videos, many of which drop you into an interactive trainer to confirm you’ve learned what was taught. Missions aren’t limited to lessons, however; you’ll also be taken to Session Mode, where you can construct a virtual band of various instruments to play alongside you while you practice the fundamentals. Here, you’ll learn jam out free-form style on various scales and roots, and play with varying tempos and styles. Your virtual band listens along and speeds up or slows down based on your own intensity. It’s in session mode that you’ll ultimately begin to form the building blocks of great guitar knowledge and style — skills that you’ll carry with you long past Rocksmith 2014.

Missions will also take you into the Tone Designer, where you can customize your own tones through the mixing and matching of various amplifiers and pedals. Rather than just throwing a bunch of guitar paraphernalia at you, the tone designer missions actually teach you about what produces certain electric guitar sounds and why. Core knowledge of pedals are a staple to all electric guitarists, so make Joey Santiago proud and do your homework in the tone designer.  Again, Ubisoft makes education the first-class citizen, as how to play always follows what to play. And yes, you can save all the customized tones you build in the tone designer, even assigning them to directions on the analog controller. Your tones, whether custom built by hand or loaded from the various songs in the library, activate with a satisfying thump as the amplifier drops into the room in the background. When Ubisoft wants you to feel like a guitarist…they mean it.

Rocksmith 2014 - "Scale Warriors" screenshot

Scale Warriors challenges your memory of guitar scales with hot 8-bit beat ’em up action.

That Old-School Sound

Guitarcade also returns in Rocksmith 2014, letting you improve specific guitar techniques under the guise of retro arcade games. One such entry is “Scale Warriors”, which tests your knowledge of scales (eg. Pentatonic Major and Minor, Aeolian, Dorian, etc.) in a River City Ransom-style beat ‘em up. Also notable is “Return to Castle Chordead”, done in the style of Sega’s classic gun shooter “The House of the Dead“. Astute gamers should pick up on Ubisoft’s nod to other classic games like Tapper and Track & Field as they meander through the Guitarcade. Parallel to these lessons-disguised-as-arcade-games are the Score Attacks and Leaderboard Challenges. Each song in your library can be played at a specific fixed difficulty in an attempt to amass big points, but only three misses are allowed before you dump out. Additionally, Rocksmith 2014 will issue out individual challenges on both your song library and the guitarcade, looping in other players’ online scores as an added threat…

…which brings me to multiplayer in Rocksmith 2014.

Playing (Guitar) With Yourself

Alas, if there is but one shortcoming of Rocksmith 2014, it is the absence of online multiplayer support. Multiplayer in Rocksmith 2014 consists solely of plugging in a second electric guitar, and playing against another local player on a split screen. Depending on your point of view, this can either be no big deal or a tremendous oversight. For myself, I have several guitar-playing friends that own the game, and it would be nice to have a few online battles with them without driving across the city/country to do so. As I’ve discovered, learning to play the guitar is profoundly a personal experience, and it’s hard to get in front of your friends (particularly of a gamer mindset) and proceed to demonstrate how much you suck. That fact alone means Rocksmith 2014 could benefit from an online mode, shielding you from the embarrassment of your skill, while slowly working towards pwning noobs on the leaderboards in real-time. Besides, until you have local gamer friends that also just happen to be interested in playing electric guitar, how realistic is a local multiplayer mode anyway? Not implementing online play was shortsighted on Ubisoft’s part, a slightly untuned string in an otherwise great rock symphony that is Rocksmith 2014.

Rock You

The game itself is incredibly fun and horribly addictive, so much so that it was hard to put it down long enough to write this review! I still find it hard to believe that, as a genre, music-themed video games struggle to find an audience. Hopefully, Rocksmith 2014 gives more people an opportunity to think twice about picking up a six-string. I’ve outlined nearly all of the features Rocksmith 2014 brings to the table, but my review doesn’t even begin to address the fact that all of the game’s features support bass as well as lead guitar; a fact well worth the price of admission. Did I mention you walk away from the game with a real-world skill? Or the fact that the USB cable can be carried over to your PC, allowing you to hook up your electric guitar to professional software mixing/effect applications? Check out Guitar Rig if this is an interest of yours.

I’ll leave you with what is often the first thing most gamers think about when they hear about a new music-based game: the track listing. As with most games of this genre, the licensed tracklist is very much subject to opinion, and I will say that there is a healthy amount of stuff for just about anyone, old or young alike. The good news is that Rocksmith 2014 is compatible with the DLC you’ve already purchased for the first Rocksmith game, and for a small fee, you can import the library from the first Rocksmith game as well. For your perusal, the complete tracklist is below, and I’ve taken the liberty of starring a few that I found particularly fun to play. Don’t forget: DLC continues to flow in, allowing you to slowly build a set of music you wish to play over time.

And you will really play it. Yes, you will. Any guitar will work; why not give it a try?

  • Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”*
  • Alice Cooper – “No More Mr. Nice Guy”
  • Alice in Chains – “Stone”
  • Arctic Monkeys – “R U Mine?”
  • Avenged Sevenfold – “Bat Country”
  • Bob Dylan – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
  • Boston – “Peace of Mind”*
  • Bush – “Machinehead”
  • B’z – “Ultra Soul”*
  • Def Leppard – “Pour Some Sugar on Me (2012)”*
  • Deftones – “My Own Summer (Shove It)”
  • EarlyRise – “Wasteland”
  • Fang Island – “Chompers”
  • Foo Fighters – “Everlong”
  • Gold Motel – “Brand New Kind of Blue”
  • Green Day – “X-Kid”
  • Iron Maiden – “The Trooper”
  • Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”*
  • Jaws – “Stay In”
  • Joe Satriani – “Satch Boogie”
  • Kiss – “Rock and Roll All Nite”
  • La Sera – “Love That’s Gone”
  • Magic Wands – “Black Magic”*
  • Mastodon – “Blood and Thunder”
  • Minus the Bear – “Cold Company”
  • Monster Truck – “Sweet Mountain River”
  • Muse – “Knights of Cydonia”*
  • Nirvana – “Heart Shaped Box”*
  • Oasis – “Don’t Look Back in Anger”*
  • Pantera – “Cemetery Gates”
  • Paramore – “Now”
  • Paws – “Sore Tummy”
  • Queen – “We Are the Champions”
  • Radiohead – “Paranoid Android”*
  • Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop”
  • Ratt – “Round and Round”
  • Red Fang – “Wires”
  • R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion”
  • Rise Against – “Savior”
  • Rush – “The Spirit of Radio”
  • Screaming Females – “Rotten Apple”
  • Slayer – “War Ensemble”
  • Splashh – “All I Wanna Do”
  • System of a Down – “Hypnotize”
  • Tak Matsumoto – “Go Further”
  • The Dear Hunter – “Stuck on a Wire Out on a Fence”
  • The Kinks – “You Really Got Me”*
  • The Police – “Every Breath You Take”
  • The Rolling Stones – “Paint It Black”
  • The Shins – “For a Fool”
  • The Smashing Pumpkins – “The Chimera”
  • The Who – “My Generation”
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”*
  • Weezer – “Say It Ain’t So”*
  • White Zombie – “Thunder Kiss ’65”
Jun 13

Rocksmith vs. Rock Band 3 – The Pro Guitar Showdown

A quality chess tutorial could have you moving pieces within minutes. A smart guitar lesson could have you playing Smoke on the Water in nearly the same amount of time. However, one does not simply sit down at a chess board and become the next Kasparov, or pick up a guitar and become the next Eddie Van Halen. The path from beginner to expert is a long and winding road, and we stay the path because of the journey; we do it because it is fun.

Can learning to play guitar be turned into a game, and can that process be made fun? That’s what Rock Band 3 by Harmonix, and Rocksmith by Ubisoft both attempt to do.

The Tools

For Pro Guitar mode, Rock Band 3 lets you use an 112-button Fender Mustang controller, or the Fender Squier, a controller that looks, feels, and acts like a actual guitar. (The Squier is, sadly, no longer commercially available, but can still be found used in some places.)

While the Mustang controller is smaller, lighter, and not technically a real guitar, the Squier is absolutely passable for the real thing. In fact, if it weren’t for its neon blue power light and suspicious d-pad, an untrained eye could easily be fooled into thinking it was just another electric guitar. There is no secret to how the Mustang functions; combinations of button presses equate to guitar fingerings, which then register in Rock Band 3. The Squier is a bit sneakier. Since it is an actual guitar that uses real guitar strings, it communicates your command of the instrument in an ingenious way. When you press various strings down against the fret to form a chord, you close a circuit — the equivalent of an on/off switch. By playing the Squier as though you would a real guitar, your fingerings are sent back to Rock Band 3, allowing you to interact with the game by, basically, playing a real stringed guitar.

There is a side-effect to this form of “closed-circuit” playing. The heightened frets prevent the player from physically pushing the strings all the way down to the fretboard. This works against both the beginner and the expert. An amateur could be conditioned to develop bad habits, inadvertently muting all chords, which wouldn’t be audible until plugged in to an amplifier. A novice may also fail to develop the finger strength necessary to play correctly, once with real guitar in hand. Meanwhile, a professional player probably would try to push the strings all the way down to the fretboard, and while doable, it is not easy…and hurts a lot. After only a few minutes of playing some songs on the Squier (especially with barre chords), your fingertips — even calloused ones — feel like they are on fire. This fingertip pain is a side-effect of pressing too hard on the strings. Once you discover this nuance of the Squier, you can adjust your grip accordingly. Unfortunately, the concept of grip, posture, pressure on strings, muted chords, etc., isn’t taught to the player by Rock Band 3 at all. Fingerings are either on or off.

The hardware for Rocksmith, in comparison, involves no controller. Instead, a USB “True Tone” cable is provided with the game, which plugs directly into the output jack of any electric guitar. You can purchase any electric guitar you wish, and it is automatically compatible with Rocksmith. No special fingering tricks are required. The magic is in the cable, which sends the actual tones produced by your guitar to the game. Rather than expecting a multitude of on/off switches and translating them into chords in game, Rocksmith actually listens to the music you produce when you play your guitar.

The result is more natural gameplay than in Rock Band 3, but there’s also a catch: Because Rocksmith detects tones, there is a degree of latency ever present in gameplay. When you strum an F-Chord, Rocksmith must analyze, on-the-fly, if you’ve struck the appropriate strings, and produced the appropriate tone. Since that analysis happens in real-time, there are often noticeable delays. At times, you may feel compelled to play a chord early, but since the game adjusts your scores based on early/late chords strumming, this strategy is often futile — and not a good habit to get into, either.

Which way is better? Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, but after trying both, I favor Rocksmith’s approach, which removes the need for specific (and, in the case of the Squier, discontinued) guitar hardware in favor of a simple cable that works with all guitars. It’s worth mentioning that the Rocksmith USB cable additionally works with a PC via ASIO4ALL*, which in turn, integrates with popular effect processing software like Guitar Rig, the value of which is quite significant considering the cost of amplifiers, pedals, cabinets, mixers, and their ilk.

Navigating the Game

You can navigate Rock Band 3’s interface using your game console controller. If you have the PS3 version, the d-pad on the two Fenders work well; for XBox 360 owners, the intermediary MIDI Pro-Adapter provides navigational control. In Rocksmith, navigation is handled via your console’s controllers, since you are already working with an actual electric guitar. Both systems work as well as they can. It’s awkward to be reaching for a game controller with a guitar slung across your shoulder, so players will have to learn to avoid accidentally driving the arm of the guitar through their TV while bending over to pick up a game controller when switching songs.

Choosing a song in Rock Band 3 is easy; you can sort your library various ways, and quickly jump from song to song, either by difficulty, artist title, song title, or one of a handful of other options. Additional filters to remove specific songs from the list (such as ones that are not Pro-Guitar** compliant) make the navigation a breeze. Unfortunately, Rocksmith song navigation is not as flexible. Players must scroll horizontally from one end of the song list to the other. One might have had the foresight to add a “wraparound” feature, letting us press left once, which would hypothetically jump to the end of the list…not the case. The years of work Harmonix poured into refining their games is evident in the Rock Band 3 UI polish, and sadly, Rocksmith suffers mightily in the UI department. But on the plus side, this gives them lots of room for obvious improvement in Rocksmith 2.

Rocking Out

Rock Band 3 and Rocksmith have two vastly different delivery methods for rocking out. RB3 utilizes the traditional, familiar “scrolling highway”.

Players watch multi-colored bars of light scroll toward them, strumming when they cross a line at the base, close to the bottom of the screen. In Rock Band 3, the scrolling highway now displays all six strings of the guitar, and the multi-colored bars of light are replaced with aqua blue “mountains and valleys”. These aqua-colored blobs don’t convey their meaning as concretely as the multi-colored bars did. The player is forced to spend time in the lessons and tutorials to understand their true meaning. Ultimately, the aqua blobs represent a combination of fret placement, finger spacing, strings to strum, and direction to strum (up or down). The benefit of Rock Band 3 is that, when strings are pressed down, the number of the fret lights up in-game on the scrolling highway, telling you where your fingers currently reside, so you can adjust without having to look back down at your guitar.

Additionally, names of chords will display along the side of the vertical guitar arm, so seasoned guitarists can see chords like “Em7” and “Csus4”, and know immediately to play an E-Minor 7th, or a C-Suspended 4th, respectively. The visual chords are immensely beneficial, especially as a learning tool, teaching new players what chords sound like as they are being played. However, there is one important caveat: RB3 only cares about the one specific way the chord should be played within the context of the current song. Experts beware: when the game asks you to play a G chord, make sure you pick the correct one of nineteen different fingerings. Choose the wrong one, and Rock Band 3 logs it as a miss.

Learning what the strange aqua “mountains and valleys” represent takes some getting used to. Harmonix was clearly constrained by trying to fit real guitar into the existing scrolling highway visual interface of previous Rock Band and Guitar Hero-like games, trying their best to come up with an intuitive way of describing fingerings. True, the numbers denote fret placement, but the blobs’ girth only provide generalizations of how far apart your fingers should be. And unfortunately, Rock Band 3 is not a game about generalizations, but pinpoint accuracy. Play the wrong fingering — even if it’s the right chord — and it’s counted as a miss. So, while the tutorials provide the necessary mechanism to learn each song, complete with every specific fingering, the aqua blobs racing toward you in-game are less than adequate to convey the same information. Players will have a very hard time “jumping in” to new songs without first spending significant time in the song’s lessons.

Rocksmith, on the other hand, doesn’t force the player to sit in song tutorials first. The gameplay interface is a new horizontal bar which reflects the arm of the guitar. Using this horizontal representation, every fret can be shown at once, allowing the player to accurately see the exact placement of their fingers for a particular chord. The guitar arm intuitively zooms smoothly in and out during the song as necessary. Every 3rd fret is numbered, matching up with the dots on the physical guitar arm held by the player. This unique interface, once the player is accustomed to it, becomes a joy to work with. It makes matching fingering a cinch. There’s never any guesswork, because it’s clear exactly where each finger should be placed on the fretboard. Rocksmith also displays real chord names alongside the fingerings, too, so as you play you can begin to associate certain hand positions with proper chord names.

The beauty of the Rocksmith interface isn’t just the switch from vertical to horizontal but the constant feedback loop it provides. In Rock Band 3, when you have practiced The Hardest Button to Button to the point where you feel like you’re ready to step on stage, if you botch certain chords or notes, all you get is a “miss” in-game. Your bonus multiplier resets and your score is impacted. That’s it. You have no way of knowing what it is you truly messed up. Did I pluck the wrong strings? Did I have the wrong fingering? Was I too early or too late? Is the game just being a bitch?

In Rocksmith, however, you constantly get feedback from the game on what you’re doing incorrectly as you play the song, so you can repair the damage on-the-fly. Here comes a fifth fret E, but you accidentally play a fourth fret E. In-game, the E string glows bright and an arrow flashes to the left, indicating that you need to move your finger down a fret. If you’re lucky, and it happened to be a sustained note, you might actually be able to fix the note quickly and get a partial score. In Rock Band 3, there is no concept of “fixing” a mistake — you either hit or miss. You’re either amazing … or completely inept. In a game built around the incredible complexity of playing a guitar, something that takes a lifetime to do well, and lots of practice to get better at, Rock Band 3 provides no gray area whatsoever. You either play the song exactly as described, or you get booed off the stage.

The Verdict

Rocksmith is fun to play because its gameplay is completely built around the steep inherent complexity of learning real guitar. It dynamically eases the player into the songs in its library; no one particular song is too difficult to start with, and it provides an interface that is both intuitive and precise. While Rock Band 3 provides multiple levels of difficulty to the player — albeit via a far greater library of titles — there are some songs in the library that an amateur (or even an intermediate) player has absolutely no business starting with. The “easy” versions of the RB3 songs are definitely easy, but even stepping up to “medium” or “hard” is often a massive undertaking that requires concentration, patience, and repetition. The game interface is imprecise, forcing you out of the game and into lessons just to learn new fingerings. Every Rocksmith song you play improves you without the need for separate tutorials or lessons; the gameplay is the lesson, and that’s what you are judged and scored on. Conversely, when you play Rock Band 3, you’re playing a game for a full band that just happens to include great — but not perfect — real guitar support, too. You’ll be judged on how accurately you pluck every string, and play every chord. Though it provides the tools necessary to learn guitar, integration into RB3 gameplay is awkward, and the result often forces you to dump out of the song, restart lessons, pause for correct fingerings — all of which add up to an experience that isn’t nearly as fun as it could be.

* ASIO stands for “Audio Stream Input/Output”, and is a digital audio protocol which accesses audio hardware directly.
** Detailed tutorials on how to play a particular song only exist for Pro-Guitar songs, and only a subset of songs in the RB3 library are Pro-Guitar compliant.

Feb 13

I’m not a Guitarist in Real Life (but I play one in Rock Band)

When a co-worker recently found out I was a southpaw, the first thing he said was, “I imagine you also play a number of instruments.” Well, I did take seven years of band in school, focusing mainly on the trumpet, but I was one of those students that was always pushing the teacher to give me more instruments to try. I ended up bringing home a valve trombone, a flugel horn, a french horn, and even a clarinet. I know, I know… I was kind of a badass. Let’s not kid ourselves here, the real cool kids in band were the ones on guitar. There was something always appealing yet terrifying about the possibility of picking up a guitar. It seemed like everyone in my family could play one, notably my grandfather and father, both having played guitar for years. It was something that has always been in the back of my mind. As luck would have it, my passion for video games finally managed to cross paths with my love of music and learning instruments with the advent of Rock Band 3. What better way to learn a new instrument than by playing a game in the process? Let me relay to you the first four weeks of my experience, and what level of play I managed to reach.

Week 1

I had already taken it upon myself to learn the drums via Rock Band, investing in the entire Ion Drum Rocker kit, and after playing through hundreds of songs across Rock Band 1, 2 and 3, I was ready to explore new territory. The weapon of choice: a Mad Catz wireless Fender Mustang pro-guitar controller. Now, just in case you’re still getting caught up, this isn’t the Guitar Hero controller of yore. Gone are the five colored Simon buttons along the neck. In their place are 102 buttons along the length of the guitar neck, allowing you to completely reproduce finger positioning for guitar chords. And you don’t strum a bar-button–you pluck the actual six strings at the base of the guitar. For all intents and purposes, it is a perfect representation of a real guitar, though won’t necessarily make much music if you try to play it outside of Rock Band (unless you hook in to its MIDI interface). This controller would be my gateway into the world of playing guitar. The question was, would RB3 be an appropriate tutor?

The Mad Catz wireless Fender Mustang Pro-Guitar Controller

Right from the main screen in RB3, the game immediately knows I have a Pro-Guitar controller, and it takes me directly into a series of lessons. The lessons are very basic: perfect for someone who has never picked up a guitar in their life. Within minutes of watching the introductory videos, I’m playing my first chords: E5, A5, G5; simple chords that only require two fingers. I spend about 10 minutes going over the initial tutorials, which are a breeze. By the fifth tutorial, RB3 begins to start having me move back and forth between two finger fingers, and plucking individual strings. It takes a little longer to adapt, but I eventually get it. Twenty minutes in, I’m through the first section of tutorials and am ready to play my first song: The Hardest Button to Button by The White Stripes.

I actually don’t do half bad on my first go around, scoring 3 of 5 stars, having practiced a few play-throughs first. Learning a song in RB3 is extremely convenient, because it has a built-in tutorial for every pro-guitar song in the game. This allows you to learn fingering, slow the song down (if necessary), and focus on the key parts of the song one step at a time. After a 2nd attempt of another 3 stars, I’m convinced I can improve. On my 2nd day, I complete a few more tutorials, and return to the song in “Medium” mode, thrusting myself back onto stage. Again, 3 stars, but barely. Each song is divided into four levels of difficulty: Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert. As you choose higher difficulties, more and more chords are expected. By the time you reach Expert, you should be playing the complete song as if the original artists themselves were playing up on stage. I give it five plays at “Medium” before I decide to crank it up even further. At “Hard” mode, it’s now expecting a lot from me. And this is where my wrist begins to ache. I get 3 stars on Hard mode and call it a night, granting my wrist some relief.

Rock Band 3’s in-game Guitar Trainer

The third day I come back to Rock Band, I’m determined to play the real song, taking it all the way up to “Expert”. After a couple of Hard mode completions to warm-up, I enter the song’s tutorial for Expert. All at once I realize this is not going to be easy. I slow the tutorial down and very carefully focus on every individual string and chord that must be hit, and I play them again and again. My kids ask me how many more times they have to hear the song. “Until I can do it,” I reply, hoping they pick up on my dedication. With my wrists aching, I exit out of the tutorial and get on stage. I complete the song twice, once with 3 stars and once with 2. I can barely feel my wrist at this point. I want to go again but decide to take a break and let what I’ve learned sink in.

By the fourth day I’m executing tutorials with much greater accuracy and am ready to explore new songs. The next ones on the list are: I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones and The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson. I get through them without much trouble on “Medium” but keep pushing myself to crank up the difficulty. On days 5 and 6 I continue working through the tutorials and songs, and by the 7th day, I’m able to complete the tutorials and get through the songs at “Expert”, earning a suite of achievements. The first week of guitar is a success.

Week 2

The next week I spend exploring a few more songs in “Warmup” (the easiest in RB3), such as In The End by Linken Park and Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode. None pose a real threat, and by now, having spent about 30-40 minutes. a night practicing, my wrist has toughened up. However, this comes to a crashing halt when I try Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1 by The Flaming Lips. The culprit? A low barre F chord, requiring all five of my fingers in place on the neck of the guitar. The positioning is painful; I have to physically move my fingers on my right-hand (remember, I’m a lefty) with the help of my left hand, into their proper placement. I think to myself, there’s no way I’m going to be able to switch to this chord as the song plays. On top of the regular wrist aches, I’m now getting pain in my thumb, more than likely because of how I’m barring (holding) the chord in place. This is where RB3 could do a much better job of explaining how you should hold the chord; showing the fret fingering on-screen is vital, but doesn’t speak to your grip or provide best-practices. This is essential for learning guitar, because as it turns out, you can develop a lot of bad habits early on if you learn the instrument wrong, and eventually, you’ll have to unlearn those bad habits.

The painful barre F chord

I get into a rhythm of practicing a set minimum amount of time each evening, hoping it pays off like it did years ago when I was in high school band. Each night consists of warming up with a few of the tutorials, practicing scales, chords, finger exercises. From there, I move to the songs I know (but never in the same order), replaying them, practicing them, trying to improve a little bit each time. I continue to work on broadening the scope of songs I can play, adding such classic to the list as Blue Monday by New Order, and Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I knock these songs out of the park, but The Flaming Lips song still haunts me, the barre F chord preventing me from completing the song with any degree of proficiency.

I also develop a pet peeve with the Mad Catz controller; at times, I notice that one of the 102-fret buttons stays partially depressed, long after my fingers have left the chord. This, of course, eats into my accuracy, and I usually don’t realize it until I notice my score plummeting and the crowd booing me off the stage. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens enough to force me to review the controller between songs–and can be solved by dragging my finger up the length of the neck, resetting all the buttons in the process. As the 2nd week of playing guitar ends, I’m able to play through six songs at “Expert” difficulty.

Week 3

Week 3 introduces me to my first guitar solo, complements of the infamous grunge track from the 90s, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. The solo kicks my ass. I’m not pleased with my performance. I end up spending an exorbitant amount of time in the RB3 trainer, playing the solo over and over. I repeat this process for extended periods of time over Week 3. The solo is unrelenting. Each time I think I have it down, I get on stage, and it completely unravels, missing nearly every note. One of the contributing factors to this “fail-out” of the song, is due to the design of the Mad Catz controller. Since I am a lefty, I hold the guitar so that I strum with my left hand, and provide chord fingering with my right. When the controller is flipped over, the directional game pad, start button, back button, and XBox power/sync button are at the top of the guitar, rather than the bottom (well out of the way). So, when strumming, the meaty part of my thumb is constantly brushing up against these buttons, often pausing the game and bringing up the XBox menu, completely throwing my concentration off. With concerted effort, I can improve my posture and avoid touching these buttons, but as songs become more difficult, it becomes harder to focus less on “complete the song accurately” and more on “avoiding pressing buttons accidentally”. This is a depressing design flaw of the controller, and is something I simply have to learn to live with.

The perils of being a southpaw

Frustrations aside, I’m determined to continue practicing, with the knowledge that, over time, I’m going to improve bit-by-bit. This proof comes on the 3rd day of Week 3 when I surprise myself and earn consecutive 4 of 5 Star completions in “Expert” mode on We Belong by Pat Benatar and Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Knicks. This gives me the boost of courage to get back into Nirvana, and bust out the solo, which ends up earning me the Pro Guitar Streak (100) achievement.

Week 4

By week 4 my confidence with the guitar is building, still having never actually picked up a real guitar. Out of the 25 songs in the “Warmup” category, I’ve completed 13 in Expert mode, with 5 at 90% accuracy (or better). I still have one major speed bump, however: That damn song with the barre F chord. I continue going through the tutorials and trainer, practicing finger exercises, trying desperately to program my brain to place all my fingers on the chord at once. Then, during one session through the trainer, I have an epiphany: as I am playing the D-minor chord (which precedes the barre F chord), I figure out that I can pivot on my middle finger, leaving it on the fret board, as the middle finger’s position for both chords is the same. I try this technique out, and am amazed to see the results; it boosts my accuracy from a measly 32% all the way up to 79%. At last, I finally feel like I am getting it, and find my thoughts wandering throughout the day, contemplating the possibility of actually buying a real guitar.

I have a long to way to go before becoming the next Eddie Van Halen, but the first four weeks of learning how to play guitar with nothing but a video game and a massively buttoned guitar-shaped game controller has proved surprisingly successful…and fun! The Mad Catz Mustang is a convenient toy that works very well as a learning tool, and aside from a few of the aforementioned pet peeves, I have to say that it has made the experience an enjoyable one, and provided me with the necessary motivation to explore a real guitar at some point in the future. I recommend it to everyone with any interest in music and guitars, and have a love of gaming.

Shawn Holmes is an avid gamer, programmer, and connoisseur of music. He can be reached at or on XBox Live by his tag “Hanzo55″.

Nov 28

Rock Band’s Fourth Birthday

The original Rock Band was released four years ago on November 20th, 2007. Do you remember this 2007 demo video of a super early beta version of Rock Band, with the HMX team playing “Welcome to the Jungle”? That was the exact moment I realized OMIGOD I HAVE TO HAVE THIS.

(by the way if anyone from Harmonix is listening, we’re still waiting for that song to appear as DLC..)

How time flies when you’re rocking, eh? In commemoration of Rock Band’s fourth birthday, Harmonix put together a ton of behind the scenes retrospectives and commentary. Hear the untold story of the original Rock Band, as told by the people behind the game!

Hear how the guitar, drum, and keyboard hardware almost never made it!

The companion blog post is Rock Band instrument prototypes and insider stories, where we learn what could have been:

We had this AMAZING folding drum kit that would fit under a couch. It had removable heads, integrated cymbal options and custom inserts that allowed to to change the quality of the strike sound so each pad sounded a bit different. It supported 3 pedals, a completely adjustable kick location. This thing was boss (and also would have cost over 200 dollars at retail).

There were SOOOO MANY strum bar prototypes. Clicky strums, spinny strums, smushy strums, stringy strums, clacky strums, invisi strums. We tried everything.

Another crazy idea we has was to attempt to modularize the wireless equipment for each console into a small box that could be plugged into any RB3 instrument. We wanted a way to reduce the total number of models in production, but at the volumes predicted for the RB3 launch and with all the legacy hardware already in the market, we couldn’t justify the additional cost of the Wireless Module. A lot of the tech/design made its way into the MIDI box, though.

It’s also a little scary to think what the Rock Band logo could have looked like:

Harmonix employees reflect on their first Rock Band experience in Rock Band Fourth Anniversary Harmonix Stories, Part One and Part Two. And Harmonix podcast episode 56 focuses entirely on sharing their first Rock Band experience.

I distinctly remember waiting outside Best Buy at midnight to get my Rock Band 1 full game kit — and how deliriously fun it was to play as a full band for the first time.

What was your first Rock Band experience?

Oct 19

Rocksmith Lag Instructions

I received my copy of Rocksmith and guitar today!

Inside, I noticed there was a little flyer about dealing with lag, which I thought was important enough to share. Click through for a larger, more readable version:

Before setting up the game, you should first follow these steps to ensure your HDTV system is optimized for Rocksmith:

  1. Follow the Display Lag Correction instructions found in the in-game manual.
  2. Make sure your console is set to match your TV’s native resolution (1080p, 720p, etc.) and your TV is set to match your console’s native resolution.
  3. If your TV has a PC or Game mode, select it. For more information, check your TV’s manual.
  4. If your TV does not have a PC or Game mode, access your TV’s Options menu, disable image scaling, and turn off all processing effects. (This is effectively what “Game mode” or “PC mode” does.)

We never recommend using HDMI as your primary sound source. If you are experiencing lag and are using HDMI for audio, try switching to Component cables. Alternately, you can use the appropriate Audio Adapter Cable for your console with an external audio source like speakers, headphones, stereo, or home theater system. If HDMI is your primary sound source, we recommend that you do not use your TV’s speakers for sound.

Note that for best results, you need to have discrete audio and video outputs from your console — and the worst results are from a combined input to a single television.

I thought you could also use a Y-splitter on the 1/4″ guitar output — routing one side to a real guitar amplifier, and the other side to the Rocksmith USB adapter and your console. However, it appears you need a true powered / buffered signal splitter device for this to work, and those are not cheap…