Friday, August 1, 2014

How I Didn't Learn Guitar by Playing Rocksmith 2014

I was intrigued when the first Rocksmith came out - a guitar tutor disguised as a videogame? Learn guitar by basically playing Guitar Hero with a real guitar? It sounded promising, but I wasn't totally sold on the concept. Mixed reviews prompted me to leave it alone and try Rock Band 3's pro guitar mode instead. I didn't really stick with that long, though, as it had the unfortunate combination of (a) being really hard and (b) not actually teaching me to play guitar.

Some time later, I thought of taking up the axe again, rescuing my dusty guitar from where she was languishing in the corner of my bedroom. I got another nudge in this direction when a musically-inclined woman on OkCupid called me out on my profile photo where I'm holding a guitar. ("Can you actually play, or is that just to impress the ladies?" "It's to impress the ladies. Is it working?") Then Rocksmith 2014 went on sale and I read a glowing review of it, and I took the plunge.

(Incidentally, this is the first game I've ever played where I thought, "Man, I actually wish I were playing this with a Kinect." It's obnoxious to have to take your hands off the guitar and grab a controller to do basically anything. It would be amazing to be able to just say "Riff repeater, 50% speed!" and have it drop into the riff repeater at 50% speed.)

The game advises you to play for an hour every day, which I tried hard to stick to. Daily play was easy enough to achieve, but I didn't always manage to last a full hour. At first, it was because I felt like I was learning a lot very quickly, and needed to take a break to digest. But after a few days, it was because I was getting frustrated.

I hit a bit of a wall, and the wall was called "chords". Chords are hard, and the game didn't seem to acknowledge this, which made me wonder if I was just an idiot who didn't have what it takes to learn the guitar and I should slink off back to the keyboard. (I acknowledge that I may be biased by the fact that I took piano lessons from age five to twelve, but the keyboard is WAY more usable of an instrument. You don't have to memorize weird hand positions in order to play chords. You just put your fingers on the keys. But the guitar is just so much sexier.)

After going into a ton of detail about how to hold the pick, how to identify frets, how to strum, etc., Rocksmith just kind of throws chords at you as if they're not an order of magnitude harder than single notes. "Here, play this chord," the game says. "Whoa, hold on a sec!" I say. "Let me figure out which fingers to put on which strings at which frets, and how to contort my hand so that I don't accidentally mute the other strings with my palm." By then I have missed the chord, and the game says, "Okay, now play this other chord!"

Being able to quickly figure out and play chords rapidly became the biggest barrier to my progress, so I reasoned that what I needed was chord drills. I wanted the game to give me a series of chords to try to play as quickly as I could, over and over. The good news is that this is a feature the game has - the bad news is that they screwed it up pretty badly.

There's a play mode called "guitarcade" that allows you to practice fundamental skills in the form of various classic arcade games. For example, "Star Chords" has you piloting a starfighter and coming under attack by other ships. Each ship has a corresponding chord, and you have to strum the correct chord to shoot down the enemy. Even better - it first prompts you with the name of the chord (Em, G5, etc.) and then gradually shows you the actual fingering, and you get more points for shooting earlier - it's basically built-in chord name flashcards. This is exactly what I needed.

The problem is that if you take too long to shoot down the enemy, it shoots you, and you can only take so many hits before game over. I'm going to say that again - this is a tool to help you practice fundamental guitar skills and YOU CAN GET A GAME OVER. Every time I played, I'd eventually get a new chord I hadn't played much and I'd have to look down and figure out how to arrange my fingers. By the time I was ready to strum the chord, I didn't even get to find out if the game thought I did it right. Instead I had to wait while my ship blew up, sit through being told what my score was, and get kicked back to the menu where I could start a new session and be given a totally different chord.

I have written at some length about punishment being problematic in skill-based games, due to the way it interferes with learning. Having it show up here in a 'game' that is actually a learning tool really throws it into sharp relief, in a way that I would find fascinating were I not so busy finding it utterly infuriating. I have actually shouted "I am trying to learn!" at my TV when game-overing at Star Chords. When I went online looking for a way to turn on some kind of no-fail practice mode, all I found were forum threads where folks requested this capability, which apparently doesn't exist - for any of the guitarcade games. It would have been so easy for Rocksmith to give me what I needed here, but when making the guitarcade games they forgot that this is primarily a teaching tool, and so they created something that is nearly useless to me.

I knew my progress would be glacial until I got better at chords, and Rocksmith did not give me the tools to do that effectively. I considered setting up some kind of chord drills outside the context of the game, which would of course lack the game's feedback on whether I'd played the chord successfully - which would put me right back where I was before I bought the game in the first place.

So I tried switching it from rhythm guitar to lead guitar, because that has fewer chords. Instead I found myself working on hammer-ons and pull-offs. To try to pick these up, I went into Rocksmith's "Lesson" mode. These are videos that demonstrate a technique coupled with a brief section where you do the technique a couple of times. They way they're packaged, they feel like quick introductions so that you basically know how to do a thing, and then you go practice that thing in songs or guitarcade games or what-have-you.

But as you go along, they start to assume you have a certain proficiency level in other skills, and the section where you prove you can do the technique starts to incorporate those other skills. The hammer-ons and pull-offs lesson, for example, culminates in a riff that features quick movement between three different strings and various frets, which I tried for fifteen minutes but could not nail at full speed. Without doing that, the lesson won't complete, and quitting it results in no progress being logged for the lesson.

The result was that I felt like the game expected me to be able to do this in a few minutes and move on to bigger and better things. And I just couldn't do that. In a game that is touted for being noob-friendly and the fastest way to learn guitar, this was frustrating. It was increasingly difficult to believe that the game simply suffered from design flaws and that I wasn't actually constitutionally incapable of playing the guitar. I found myself dreading practice sessions and asking myself why I wanted to bother in the first place.

Because here's the thing - whenever I played Rocksmith, I was keenly aware that there were other things I could do with my time. I could write something. I could work on a website. I could go for a jog. I could call up a friend and go be social. As much as I didn't want to just give up on something because I wasn't awesome at it right away, if my rate of learning was actually really low then at some point the cost/benefit analysis says it's not worth the trouble.

I was playing the game over a few weeks vacation from work, and I knew that time was a sort of make-it-or-break-it probationary period for the game. My job keeps me plenty busy - for it to be worth continuing practicing the guitar once the break was over, I was going to have to make enough progress beforehand that the process was intrinsically rewarding, and would be at least a halfway decent way to unwind after a day at the office. So far, that wasn't happening from guitarcade or the lessons, so I turned fully to the game's main mode, Learn A Song. If I couldn't drill on the specific skills I needed to improve, I could at least just practice a song repeatedly, gradually mastering it. But here I ran into trouble too.

See, one of Rocksmith's main selling points is what they call "dynamic difficulty." In Learn A Song mode, the song adjusts itself based on how well you're doing. If you're struggling, it'll make things easier. If you're nailing every note, it'll make things harder (with the upper bound of the full, actual song tablature). This might sound cool - it's like a teacher that constantly adjusts to your skill level! But in fact it's terrible for learning. It means you never get to feel like you're actually improving - because as soon as you are, the game throws something harder at you. Ben Kuchera wrote this about the original Rocksmith, and it's just as true about Rocksmith 2014:

Rocksmith's dynamic difficulty means you're chasing goalposts that are always moving, up until the point where you can play the song perfectly every time. Until you put the hours and hours into proving you know the song, it's going to make the parts you struggle with easier and the parts you are proficient in harder. It never feels like you're getting anywhere, and this turns the game into a treadmill where it's impossible to find a good pace.

To me, it felt like being taught guitar by a reluctant older brother who's annoyed at your progress. Whenever it sounds like you're about to be able to consistently handle the current challenge, he says, "Okay, how about this?" and throws you off balance again. There was never the satisfaction of actually getting the hang of something that's been giving you trouble. That meant no intrinsic reward. And that meant that it would be incredibly hard to force myself to keep at it while working full time. And I knew I'd rather spend the willpower on something else. So I abandoned the game.


  1. Yeah chords can be a huge stumbling block as you get started with the guitar, and I hear you about Rocksmith glossing over that a bit (although it's a great game overall).

    If you want to work on some chord basics in a very interactive way, you might want to check out our Intro to Chords course over at Instinct. The experience is a lot like Rocksmith (pitch detection, animation, etc) but it's more focused on the fundamentals:

    Intro to Chords course:

    Year of Rock course, with more chords:

    (full disclosure: I'm one of the founders)

  2. It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, and you clearly don't want to rock and roll. Blaming the tool for your failure to master it is so sad.

    1. I don't think things are quite so binary. I mean, by this logic, the game shouldn't even exist, right? Anyone who really wants to rock and roll should be able to learn without it.

      Of course I want to rock and roll. I want to do a lot of things. More than I have time for. It's a question of priorities - how much do I want to rock and roll, given the time investment required, compared to the other things I'd like to do with my all-too-limited time? What's the most productive and pleasurable way for me to spend my hours and years on Earth?

      I've known for years that learning to play wasn't enough of a priority for me to accomplish it with just the guitar and the free lessons I could find online. I'd hoped that Rocksmith would decrease the friction enough and make the process intrinsically rewarding enough (if I can relax by practicing guitar, I am far more likely to stick with it because it becomes much less expensive to do so) to tip it over into being worth my time. That's why the game exists in the first place - to teach guitar to people like me, who need the extra push. Unfortunately - due largely to the design flaws I discussed in this post - it did not achieve that goal in my case.

      Is it Rocksmith's fault I can't play the guitar? Of course not. That's the result of a complicated interaction, and the biggest variable is me. But it is Rocksmith's fault that it isn't better designed. And it may be the case that if it were better designed, I would be able to play the guitar.

    2. Do yourself a favour, and go buy yourself a cheap bass. Even a $100 bass will do. Also, go download some custom DLC songs from

      I just got the achievement "I learned how to play 10 songs" where I got 100% mastery on 10 songs on the bass. I'm at 18 achievements out of 47 right now.

      It is so much easier to start with the bass because you mostly play single notes, as opposed to chords on the guitar which can be tricky to change quickly.

      But it feels truly great to play any instrument (guitar or bass) along with a song and end up getting a good score afterwards. It feels awesome when Rocksmith tells you "You're gonna be a superstar!" :-)

      I've been playing the bass for a few years now. I started as a complete n00b, but now I can play various metal songs in Rocksmith for two hours at a time easily. Which means that I could also probably pull off a small gig. Which, in turn, makes me feel really good about how I'm spending my time on Earth.

      I'm currently in the process of recording the bass tracks for my debut metal album, and I have a few songs left to record, and then I'm going to leave the bass for a while and pick up the rhythm guitar in Rocksmith 2014 because after I'm done recording bass tracks, I'm going to record rhythm guitar tracks.

      I found Rocksmith invaluable in terms of getting into the habit of playing every day or every other day, and of course in terms of building speed and skill.

      If you want to stick with the guitar, I recommend playing rhythm guitar in metal songs where you don't have complex chords. A great example is "The Trooper" by Iron Maiden, or "Enter Sandman" by Metallica. I'm above 90% in both of those songs on bass in Rocksmith 2014, and above 80% in both of them on rhythm guitar.

      When you're playing "Learn a Song", focus on the percentage which you get at the end of the song. Repeat a song enough times, and you will be sure to see improvement.

      Don't give up and good luck! :-)

  3. Castle Chorded is better for learning the chords. It's a little slower and before you're forced to use a chord to defend yourself you have to use it to attack an inanimate tombstone. The Guitarcade is ordered by difficulty, and that's why Castle Chorded is a little past middle while Star Chords is closer to the bottom.

    I've still had some moments of frustration, but it's much better following the order of complexity.

  4. Good article and agree with you 100%. It's infuriating that they could have made this such a fun and useful tool for guitarists of all abilities by giving you simple options to turn this type of shit off.

    If you know how to play and just want to learn a song being 'dynamically' fed baby fed single notes is maddening and such a waste/ The fact that there are so many similar comments on forums that they've ignored shows they really don't give a fuck.

  5. Anonymous: "If you know how to play and just want to learn a song being 'dynamically' fed baby fed single notes is maddening and such a waste/ The fact that there are so many similar comments on forums that they've ignored shows they really don't give a fuck."

    You can increase the difficulty for all sections to maximum in 30 seconds in the riff repeater. Or use score attack mode on hard.

  6. In Lesson Practice Mode, I was surprised at how much time I spent using the controller as opposed to the guitar.

    You watch the movies and then they cut you loose to the practice song. In some cases, it is maybe 30 seconds long. Then it kicks you to the summary. Then, you take your hands off the guitar, and click/load through some screens, listen to the MC blather, and some time later you actually get to practice again.

    I play piano quite well, and one of the biggest (necessary) time sinks is repetition. Repeating the same chord, melody, rhythm, over and over and over again. You get in the zone, and allow your muscle memory to forge the skill.

    The Game completely ignores this. Instead of allowing me to practice the lesson over and over in the zone, it yanks me out and makes me pick up my controller, go back to the menu, listen to the count in, and attempt something I don't really recall from 2 minutes ago.

    I don't understand what they were thinking here. The riff repeater kind of does this, but its only a 10 second part, and it again, wastes time and breaks concentration with the stupid rewind animation.

    Did they consult any real teachers?

    1. the riff repeater has options to let you set start and end points. You can also adjust the speed and difficulty level. tell it if it should ramp up speed, difficulty or both when you play perfect, and let you set how much leeway the software will give you (in terms of timing and playing other strings you shouldn't).

      Take a look at the options menu. You might find it better than you thought.

  7. Great posts. I have to say the game has been both fun and at the same time terribly frustrating for me. My main complaint I can add and suggestion to Ubisoft would be to make the Riff repeater adjustable in much more granular increments. I find that if I need to work on the part of the song, I don't want to have to play the part of that riff I know already over 100 times just to practice the 2 bars that I really need to work on. Give me way more control over how the size of the riff I repeat.

    My other complaint which ties into the dynamic difficulty is that it's very confusing to play something correctly once or twice and then have them throw and entirely new chord in or even worse half of a new chord . I have to pause just to figure out what the heck it was and it throws my previous muscle memory from learning it to that point completely out of whack. My good friend swears by this game and that he can play over 200 songs but it's my opinion that although I can can only play 80% of 30 songs I think I sound like I play it right. He doesn't yet he scores higher in the game. What's that tell you? Game is useful but I'm not sold that it's better than real lessons, video lessons, tabs or sheet music. It's in the end a game to me that helps me practice.

  8. I agree with some of this critique, in particular the guitarcade-games should definitely all have a "practice" mode where you score no points, but you also don't get game-over when you mess it up.

    But the game DOES have fixed-difficulty settings for all the songs; they call these "Score Attacks" and here you can choose between easy, medium and hard which correspond to about 20% 60% and 100% difficulty, these do NOT adjust dynamically thus even as a beginner you can get the satisfaction of hitting every single note perfectly and scoring a platinum (on easy) for a given song.

    You can also use the riff-repeater to repeat the entire song on a given difficulty, but I suspect comparatively few people actually do that.

  9. Having spent some time with this game myself, I can agree with most of what has been said. Some chords are hard (esp. those where your fingers have to contort and get in weird/uncomfortable positions). Barre chords are particularly hard for me and I've yet to consistently get them right. That said, I'm sure these are issues for anyone trying to learn (with or without this game to help). So, I'm not necessarily going to knock this game on that aspect. I will say that I picked up a cheap bass guitar and am breezing through many songs and am progressing at a much faster rate - such that I'm worried I won't try to pick up the guitar again. In any case, my son is now learning the guitar and we are having a blast playing the multiplayer mode with me on the bass.

  10. Nothing's perfect, hopefully the next version of Rocksmith will be even better. If you can handle the pain of being challenged every time you play a song, I think that Rocksmith can potentially turn you into a guitar player. Once you master the easy parts of some songs, they can't make it any harder, so you always have that. I also bought colored guitar strings by DR Neon that match Rocksmith's string colors. It looks silly but made learning through Rocksmith a lot easier.

  11. Nothing's perfect, hopefully the next version of Rocksmith will be even better! If you can handle being challenged every time you play a song, Rocksmith can be really helpful. I don't think I would have ever learned guitar without it.

  12. This post made me decide to post a list of Rocksmith tips on my blog that some people might want to check out:

  13. I suspect that another potential problem is impatience. The handle Doctor Professor suggests a person who has accomplished much and is proud of his/her accomplishments. It must be frustrating to try and fail at anything, particularly anything as trivial as a game.

    I've played guitar for many years. Mainly chords and rhythm. My weakness is in playing individual notes and navigating the full guitar neck. Both Rocksmith and even more so Rocksmith 2014 have helped me to improve exponentially.

    If you are struggling with chords, I suggest the Ultimate Guitar website. They have a cool playalong app that might be helpful.

  14. Rocksmith is an incredible piece of technology and the fact it exists at all is fantastic. That said, as a tool for learning guitar in and of itself I would agree it's not the best approach. It's a great supplement though for intermediate players and above, especially in learning different styles of music and expanding on technique. Being able to slow down tracks and set the sections to repeat on riff repeater are great (though I agree with another comment that it would be ideal to be able to set them down to the note level for certain passages)...I think that for guitar playing w/ Rocksmith the main problem is that beginners should start with chords and work on ear training...also to get a few lessons or learn from another player to get the basic technique right. All that said - for Bass it's another story. Playing bass w/ rocksmith is next level incredible - it was made for this instrument imo. Having something to actually accompany when practicing is so much more satisfying - and it running through songs is easier (imo) than with guitar and you really start getting timing down and seeing improvement, at least I did. I fully recommend RS Bass mode for players of all levels.

  15. I very much agree with this article. I can imagine the game being pretty fun, when you are intermediate or above at playing. But as a beginner it just gets frustrating very fast, with new chords being thrown at you all the time. Yes, it is possible to riff-repeat, and change difficulty there, but it's just not a very nice approach when trying to learn how to play. The one thing I miss the most is also mentioned in the article. A better way to practice chords. I would have liked to be able to say, select a number of various chords I would like to practice. Be able to set a goal on how many of those chord changes I should try to get in X amount of minutes, and let the game track my progress. This is a good practice routine (I've been told), and sure, you don't need a game to be able to practice like that. But a game would make a somewhat tedious practice session more fun. And also, it could track if you actually do play the chords correctly, or if you are making mistakes.
    I would love to see a new rocksmith or some other software being even more beginner friendly. As for now I think I will probably stay away from the game. Try to get the "basics" down without the game, and then maybe one day return to it. It's not a bad game. It's just not the game I was hoping for it to be.

  16. It is not possible for any begginer to grab a guitar and go 'chording' :) It takes time, patiente and commitement. If so everyone would be a guitar master. I reccomend you to google for open chords first and get good at switching from D to C to G to A to F to Dm to E to Em than you'll have to pratice power chords (as used in metal) wich you can easily accomplish by simplyfretting 3 notes. That is the fundamental skill to play songs.

    There are hundreds of songs with 3/4 chord like C Am G / C F G / D A F an so on...

    Hope it helps

  17. I agree with some points raised in the article, and the commenter Kenneth, about having more customizable tools to practice particular chords. I wish you could tell the minigames Return to Castle Chordead and Star Chords which chords you would like to use for the game so you could focus on them. But my biggest grip about the game as whole is the amount of time you have to take your hands off the guitar to navigate the menus. It would be awesome if you could map chords/notes to menu commands. The closest the game comes is allowing you to restart/continue by making noise with the guitar.

    Just streamlining the menus/animations would be great.

  18. Super old post, but I'm one month after picking rocksmith and a cheap guitar off of craigslist. I've never played guitar before.

    I totally agree about star chords. So many times I just want to practice the chords it's tossing at me, so I can try different fingerings without a time pressure. I just PB'd though: Managed to get 15 shots off in one round.

    However, the learn a song mode has been fantastic. It's a bit rough when a melody that used to be single notes suddenly jumps to all chords, but after a bit of suffering, I get better at it. The key thing I pay attention to is the mastery level (the percentage rating you get at the end of a song). At first, I could only get about 10% on any song I tried. Now, I'm extremely disappointed if I get below 25%, with most of the songs i like in the 35-40% range and a few power-chords-only songs up in the 60s. Generally, each night I play, I manage to up my mastery ratings on a couple songs (even if only by a couple percent), which means if the pace keeps up, I'll eventually be getting close to playing the whole song.

    I think the key is to just keep trying, find _some_ metric by which you can measure yourself (mastery percentage works very well for my motivation), and keep at it. Simply by sitting down each night, I'm noticing some things starting to become automatic, which is really cool. My hand is starting to correct its own mistakes if I'm off by a fret, or if a quick series of notes appears, my brain is starting to figure out where my fingers need to be beforehand.