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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on XBox Live by his tag “Hanzo55″.