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Rocksmith Retrospective

Learning Guitar in 60 Days (feat. Rocksmith Plus)

I’ve attempted to pick up guitar in the past, but could never get over the massive hurdles involved in teaching myself to play. Whether it be a lack of motivation, time, or just an intolerance for the pain when forming calluses, guitar always seemed like it just wasn’t for me. I always loved pretending by playing games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, but I just couldn’t break myself into the hobby.

In 2011 Ubisoft released what seemed like a miracle to me- a game that was just like Guitar Hero, but used a proprietary cable to hook the game up to an actual electric guitar. It came with a simple, yet bold promise- learn to play guitar in just 60 days. Unfortunately, having just graduated high school and working through engineering school in college, I didn’t have the time or money to spend on a guitar and an opportunity that may have been overselling itself. So I mostly forgot about Rocksmith, but always kept it in the back of my mind.

This past Christmas, I was gifted the game and while borrowing my old roommate’s guitar, I set out to accomplish my original goal. I would play the game for 60 to 90 minutes every day for at least 60 days in a row. I limited the playtime to 90 minutes so I wouldn’t go too far beyond the promise of the Rocksmith challenge. I also refused to practice in my free time or get too much help from outside sources.

Every day I made a small journal entry logging my experience playing the game, so let’s take a dive into the rocksmith experience and see the good, the bad, and even a bit of Rocksmith Plus to see if it really is possible to learn guitar in 60 days.

THE BEGINNING

After creating a profile, players are taken to a mandatory tutorial for setting up their equipment, learning the absolute basics of playing guitar and the game’s tablature, and testing out the system. It’s a good way to start off, though I wish it wasn’t mandatory every time a new profile is created. The game gives explanations for the different modes and a couple of suggestions for where to start, but then drops the player right into the main menu.

At first the options were incredibly intimidating. The main modes the player can try include playing through songs one by one in Learn a Song, jamming with a backing band in Session mode, going through a playlist for a certain amount of time in Nonstop Play, learning new skills with Lessons, practicing their technique in the Guitarcade, and a few other modes I’ll touch on later.

My first few days were a bit all over the place. I tried out some lessons and learned some basic picking and finger placement techniques before hopping into learning some songs. The game’s tutorials did a solid job of showcasing nearly everything a beginner needs to learn the basics, but the game has its limitations.

For example, some techniques such as muting the strings and hitting chords with extra notes can be cheated by ignoring the restriction or performing a simplified version. This is fine for a beginner to get the sense of how a song works before improving, but the game doesn’t have any advice for building up to these trickier techniques, which is perfectly exemplified in the bends tutorial.

Here, players are tasked with a simple set of notes to hit while bending the strings to change the pitch. The problem is that the game is very specific in what it wants while the track showing the bend itself only has a few arrows to indicate the degree of the bending required. And if the player fails, the game doesn’t tell them what went wrong. It could be that the note wasn’t sustained, that their timing was off, or that they didn’t bend the string enough or too much; the game doesn’t say.

After attempting this tutorial for over 20 minutes straight I gave up and saved it for later. I felt I was missing something and figured with more practice in other areas, this tutorial might become easier. That was when I noticed that my fingers really started to hurt. As anyone who plays guitar can tell you, building up calluses on your fingertips is a necessary evil of learning the instrument. In fact, this is what caused me to quit trying in the past, but I set this challenge and was determined to finish, deciding that unless I actually started to bleed I wouldn’t stop playing.

On day 3 I realized that playing for real isn’t like guitar hero- rather than pressing the strings down to the neck of the guitar between the frets, the strings just have to touch the metal fret bars themselves to play the notes. This little discovery not only eased the tension on my fingers, but also made hitting notes a lot easier- especially for chords.

This just shows another omission from Rocksmith- troubleshooting. While the game does have just about every technique for playing properly shown in video tutorials and laid out in their tabs, they failed to anticipate the things a true beginner might not understand. I think a section on common mistakes may have been appreciated with each lesson, or at least a menu that answers questions frequently asked by beginners.

Despite that, progress was extremely quick in the first few weeks. Minor improvements such as muscle memorization on frets, hitting the strings with multiple fingers, and adjusting how I held the guitar all contributed to rapid progression. I also bought a bunch of DLC to add some of my favorite songs to the game. That definitely did a lot to keep me motivated, though even with the sale all that DLC was really expensive.

Which brings me to one of the biggest struggles when learning guitar with Rocksmith- the temptation of fun over actual practice. The Learn a Song mode defaults to increasing the difficulty of a song over time by adding in more and more notes as players improve, which is fine for beginners. It’s a good way to build up skills over time, but it also lends a false sense of security. I genuinely thought I was playing these songs at nearly full difficulty, but it turns out that the difference between 70% of the notes and 100% of the notes is a lot of notes, especially when those notes become chords at full mastery.

The game does have a feature to turn the difficulty all the way up and increase speed instead, but there’s no way to make this the default. And this slow progression without actual practice is definitely more fun than the other modes if for no other reason than getting to play your favorite songs. Will a player get better by playing Learn a Song non-stop? Absolutely, but they’re also likely to stagnate and improve at a slower rate than if they continuously practiced the basics.

This is where lessons and the guitarcade come in. The lessons are usually boring as all hell to watch, using simple riffs to showcase techniques before having the player test them out, but it’s a necessary part of learning to play. I think one potential improvement would be to have the skills being shown used in various songs that the player may be familiar with to provide a bit more motivation, especially if the lesson linked directly to those songs in the game, but as is, the tutorials serve their purpose.

The guitarcade is a mixed bag. A selection of simple minigames that attempt to make the player practice their fundamentals. There are games for slides, bends, chords, even strumming volume. The problem is with the accuracy of the game’s pickup. It’s clearly more strict in the guitarcade than when learning a song, which would be fine if the game were perfect at detecting a player’s inputs, but it’s definitely not.

Missed notes, incorrect inputs, delayed responses, games involving accuracy are made incredibly frustrating since I couldn’t tell whether it was me or the game at fault at any given time. The best games were those involving chords, like Castle Chordead. These were much better at detecting player input while also teaching the player the names of different chords as they play. I do wish the game had its zombie slaying performed to a beat in order to make the game into a song, but I also understand the benefit of training players to strum out a certain chord on command.

With all of this in mind, I think the biggest advantage Rocksmith has over other kinds of guitar lessons in the beginning is in motivating the player. While the menu may be a bit overwhelming and its shortcomings can occasionally lead to frustration and confusion, the 60 day challenge is a great way to encourage players to pick up their guitar every day and the litany of modes ensures that players always have something else waiting if they get bored or stuck. Of course, that’s just the beginning. What happens when the game becomes an actual challenge?

THE STRUGGLE

Eventually, the daily play sessions became a routine. Every other day I would swap between lessons and nonstop play, with some guitarcade mixed in every now and again to break things up. It was still enjoyable, especially when nailing a new skill or getting better at a song I really like, but my inability to learn an entire song was frustrating, especially since I was exclusively playing lead guitar without realizing it.

One glaring omission from lessons, guitarcade, and any other mode is strumming patterns. In fact, the game never really acknowledges rhythm guitar at all. Rocksmith wants players to learn guitar and has arrangements for lead, rhythm, and bass on nearly every track, but the game never tells the player about how each role contributes to a song.

As such, I stuck with lead, not even knowing that rhythm guitar would be more in line with what I expected- a way to learn some of the major chords of a song to play outside of the game and annoy my friends with at parties. I know this is partially done to build up base skills before overwhelming the player, but rhythm guitar is extremely important and it’s usually the simplest way to learn entire songs when first starting out. Plus the arrangements occasionally have the lead guitar play the vocal melody of a song, leading to more confusion.

Another difficulty I experienced was muscle and joint pain. My fingers were pretty well calloused at this point, but when the songs began including new, more complex chords I wasn’t sure how exactly to hold the guitar, leading to quite a bit of pain in the wrist and fingers. Just another area that could have been improved with some beginner Q and As.

On top of all that, stagnation set in. The rapid progress I saw when first starting began to plateau and even worse than that was the inconsistency. It seemed like some days I was somewhat competent while others had me back at square one. Rocksmith’s inability to teach me to correct my mistakes made consistent results much more difficult to achieve. There were definitely days where motivation waned, even when progress was being made.

Still, I was determined at this point. I bought myself a cheap Squier guitar so my friend could have his Fender back and while the quality difference is noticeable, for the price it’s a solid beginner guitar. I also set a secondary goal of completing every lesson in the game before the 60 days were up, just to give that little extra push through the less enjoyable part of learning to play.

On the more enjoyable end, I was very fortunate to get Rocksmith on the PC. Unlike the console versions, the PC version of the game allows for mods, including custom DLC. And I dove right in! I went through the forums looking for any and every song I could think of, adding them to the game one by one and playing through to find my favorites. Getting an endless library of songs for free was incredible, plus the site I used refuses to give out DLC for songs that already exist for purchase in the game, which is a fair compromise.

Now obviously not every custom track is going to be a winner, but they did do a lot to teach the difference between a good track and a bad one as well as exemplify how the guitar fits into different genres of music and types of songs due to the variety available. I even tried making my own when the 60 days were up.

The middle of this challenge was both when it became routine to pick up the guitar every day and when the decision to do so was at its most difficult. Despite the custom songs and the new guitar, my interest in the game was fading a bit since I wasn’t reaching the level I wanted to achieve. It was time to change things up.

THE RESULT

In the final days of the challenge, I decided to try something new- learning a song from start to finish. Each day, after completing a few lessons, I would spend the rest of my time playing Life Will Change from Persona 5, Gusty Garden Galaxy from Super Mario Galaxy, and 1985 by Bowling for Soup on repeat. I used the riff repeater to perfect difficult sections, played over and over to improve the songs, and can now confidently say I can play them… for the most part.

But more on that later. First, the lessons and man, these last few days were brutal. Tapping the strings, pinch harmonics, barre chords, so many difficult techniques both to understand and execute made things extremely frustrating. I ended up deciding that I needed to work on the basics more, but did manage to finish every single lesson by the end of the challenge. Now, they’re really useful as a metric for progress when going back and cranking up the difficulty. I’m sure not every fancy trick possible on a guitar was covered, but it’s more than enough to learn to play, excluding the specific issues I mentioned earlier.

I also tried some of the tools I had never touched before- tone designer and session mode. Tone designer allows the player to make synthetic tones using settings on various real-world amplifiers and pedals. It’s the same system the game uses to turn your computer into an amp, meaning these are the real tones that you play while learning a song, which is really cool. And the options available are staggering, with more being unlocked as you play.

The downside is accessibility. There are no lessons or tutorials for what anything does or how it works, which is a major bummer. One of the lesser-discussed aspects of learning guitar is how to properly set up an amp to get that specific sound you’re looking for. Getting an in-game tutorial to experiment with different brands and plugins is a fantastic addition, but without proper explanations it becomes a missed opportunity.

Session mode allows the player to play along a scale while a backing band lays down a simple track to play over. It’s also not very well explained, despite a massive amount of effort clearly put into making this feature. It’s definitely cool to try jamming out on a scale, but I have no clue why it changes when it does, what the scale means, or what causes the band to adjust their playing style. There are even achievements for using this mode, I just wish they told players how it works.

So that’s how I spent my final days before wrapping up. After 60 days, one hour per day of practicing using Rocksmith, the challenge was completed successfully. So, did it work? Did I truly learn to play guitar in a mere two months? Personally, I wouldn’t call myself a guitarist or anything, but if someone asked I’d definitely say that I know how to play guitar, especially with the progress I’ve made since finishing the challenge.

Rocksmith itself does not teach you how to play guitar, it teaches you to play Rocksmith. Meaning that you may learn the basics of guitar playing, but you really have to think about why certain songs and techniques aren’t coming together and work to improve your abilities on your own.

With that said, I still absolutely recommend it for beginners, but also recommend utilizing outside resources as well such as YouTube tutorials, custom DLC, and online forums to answer any questions or concerns you might have as well as playing outside the game on your own. Also, contrary to what many guitarists will tell you, I recommend starting with an electric guitar since it allows you to build up calluses without too much pain.

Rocksmith is a great motivational tool, provides plenty of tablature to learn songs from every genre of music, and does a great job teaching how to learn guitar, but actually learning to play? That’s on you. And hey, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than taking lessons.

THE FUTURE

After finishing the challenge, I wanted to continue to learn guitar, but on a less rigid schedule. In the following months, I’ve continued to play, bought a bass and gave that a try, got more custom and paid DLC for the game, and improved. Without the previous restrictions I allowed myself to look up tips from guitarists on YouTube and had some great conversations with my roommate’s boyfriend where he gave me some solid advice and answered some of my pressing questions. Side note: he’s the rhythm guitarist for an awesome band, The Fool’s Agenda, so be sure to check them out on Spotify and YouTube. Or check out his personal Spotify- Nels.

I definitely play Rocksmith a lot less now than before, but I always keep the guitar nearby and play it nearly every day. I’ve gone through every song in my playlist multiple times in the various arrangements to get a sense of which ones I’d most like to learn as well as setting up a path for getting better in the future.

As far as the recently announced follow-up goes, I was lucky enough to get a beta invite from reddit user goincd3, so shout out to them for the help. Unfortunately, Rocksmith Plus is really disappointing in its current state. For one, it’s missing basic features like lyrics on the play screen, a streaming mode, and guitarcade, with a litany of options absent that were in the previous game but what’s worse is the bugs.

Keep in mind that this is the beta, but my guitar constantly hummed while playing and the songs never seemed to stick to 100% difficulty even after I turned off the adaptive difficulty setting. The track design is also more difficult to see with its minimalist design, which may look sleek but it’s not ideal for playing, something that’s sure to be even more of a problem when playing on the upcoming mobile app. 

Song downloads are also really slow, even on my considerably fast internet connection, meaning players are less encouraged to listen to previews of songs they haven’t heard before since that will take away from their time actually playing the game. Plus I’m not sure if the song list is just limited for the beta, but if not the offering is paltry, which may explain why there’s no options to view all the songs in the game- to prevent players from noticing the lack of content. Another failing of the overly-algorithm-reliant user interface.

I do like some of the new features like the chord progression mode, being able to play with a microphone or on your phone, and community features such as sharing advice and arrangements, plus it should still be an effective way to learn guitar for beginners, but the fact of the matter is that when you plan to charge a monthly fee for something that was originally a flat price, it needs to be infinitely better than the original. Rocksmith Plus has the potential to get to that point, something I emphasized in my feedback survey, but in its current state I’d definitely recommend players go for the existing 2014 Remastered game instead because right now Rocksmith Plus feels a lot more like Rocksmith Minus.

Going forward personally, I’d like to be able to play a few more of my favorite songs, maybe make some music for the game I’m working on, and improve my playing skills until I master the basics. I have no desire to become a rock star or even a great guitarist. This whole experience was about self fulfilment and experimenting with something new- and it was absolutely worth every second. And hey, I’ve come this far, might as well see if I can put all that practice to work…

That was ‘Nice Enough’, a song I wrote, composed, performed, and produced myself. It’s nothing complex and you can definitely tell when a baritone tries to sing pop-punk music, but I’m definitely proud of what I accomplished in a little over half a year. If you liked it, feel free to check it out on Spotify and other streaming apps. It’s also not monetized on YouTube so it’s free to use if you want it in your own video. But hey, if that’s not enough to convince you, I also played all of the background music for this video, mostly to avoid a copyright strike, but if it helps to prove a point that’s a solid bonus. I hope you enjoyed going on this little journey with me and if you have any questions about the game or learning guitar I’d be happy to answer them to the best of my knowledge in the video comments!

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