Things: Rocksmith

A line of blog posts highlighting something I found interesting. Something that sparked curiosity, whiled away over a few hours. Something I liked, anyway.

This entry to the series comes with a promise to revisit it in one month’s time. Something of an ‘okay, prove it’ sort of declaration.

It’s about learning to play the guitar. Tech-style, with a game called Rocksmith.

Rocksmith title screen.

Following heady days of the musical computer games Guitar Hero (main series 2005-2010) and Rock Band (2007-2008), Rocksmith snuck surprisingly under the radar. It was certainly noted at the time, but I don’t recall much of a furore over it, and many thought it had faded away over the years. It very definitely hasn’t. Where the former two properties used instrumental peripherals, essentially game controllers that had been redesigned to look or act like instruments, Rocksmith did something a little different. This game let you use a real guitar.

The principle mechanic of the above games may be familiar: a popular song is selected by the player, and they watch the screen as a series of coloured markers scroll down at a steady pace. Each marker matches with a specific controller input on the ‘instrument’ and, if hit correctly, the notes of the song corresponding to that section are played out loud by the game. The goal is to hit as many sequential notes as possible in order to play the song fully, and difficultly levels can be adjusted to put together more complex and ‘realistic’ strings of markers. The positions of the inputs on the controllers very approximately line up with the inputs on a real instrument – including ‘frets’, strumming and a whammy bar.

The games are colourful, engaging, and show you how accurately you followed the demands of the song – it is rewarding to play through a tricky one with a ‘passing’ score.

The two main properties competed with a range of releases and instruments over the years, including a basic electronic drum kit in Rock Band. But Rocksmith arrived later, using the delay to do things differently. Using a specially designed ‘Real Tone’ cable, Rocksmith converts the standard 3.5mm jack found on guitars to USB allowing it to plug into a computer, Playstation or Xbox. This effectively turns the machine into an amp, and allows the game to read the inputs of the guitar.

A series of E chord coming at you to strum. Stum when they hit the front strings.

Players load up the game, plug in and calibrate their instrument – then play in a similar way to Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Though this time players are actually manipulating an instrument, and the game is guiding them through learning how to play the songs. Note by note, one technique at a time. Via the same difficulty mechanic, the songs steadily increase in complexity until the player is actually playing the song properly.

If you feel that this sounds suspiciously like learning an instrument, well yes, you’re exactly right. I’m a fan of learning while having fun, and Rocksmith is designed to do just that. While being a ‘game’, it uses the familiar interface of the genre to guide you through playing. And as an instructional piece of software, the player knows that they are actually learning to play an instrument.

Since release, the game has continued to be been updated and remastered, and has had numerous additions created for it, including huge numbers of additional songs in multiple genres. It now also supports a range of amps and pedals, as well as bass guitar and acoustic guitar – either through a jack if you have an acoustic-electric, or by fitting an aftermarket microphone / pickup.

The Real Tone cable.

The Rocksmith website is pitched at teaching guitar as much as it is about being a game. More so, in fact. With the original enthusiasm for the genre fading over time, it looks like Ubisoft have established a sound footing for the future with the title, one where they provide ongoing educational service for those who want to play the guitar.

You can learn to play the guitar in other ways, not least by enrolling in courses, or by playing along to songs with a book of chords and a song sheet or tab. Or you can use YouTube videos. Or private lessons.

But for those without the financial means to afford a formal or professional education, or just wanting a way into a hobby, I like the idea that there is cheap modern technology that uses a game interface to teach. I’ve tried some of the tutorials, and while it’s not great at saying what you are doing wrong – where a professional tutor would certainly help – when you do get it right, then, well, you are playing the guitar. One particularly good feature that I have to mention is that Rocksmith learns how good you are and then ups the difficulty itself. It gave me single notes the first two times through one song, then changed to chords when I had worked them out. I didn’t have to change any settings.

Regular demos show the right technique and check that you are doing it. The game listens.

For £26.00 (via Steam, for PC, at time of writing), plus the Real Tone cable at another £25, you now have yourself a learning system. Just plug your guitar into a PC and get going. It doesn’t even need to be a particularly powerful PC (system requirements here).

Which is where my original comment comes in. About eight years ago I picked up a lovely Fender acoustic-electric, but I never really committed to learning to play it. For the best part of the intervening time it has been gathering dust in the corner. I also picked up Rocksmith a few months ago, figuring that it is high-time I learned to play. I tested the tutorials, realised it will work, and then… did nothing.

So here is the challenge to myself. My guitar skills are non-existent and it’s time that I change that. Ubisoft have a 60-day challenge on the Rocksmith website, and I will promise myself to at least do the next 30 days. If I travel anywhere, I’ll take the guitar and my laptop.

One hour of every day will be dedicated to guitar, and I will post again in 30 days to say how it’s going.

So. Pretty.

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