It’s like Guitar Hero…. But real
I’ve been trying to learn to play the guitar for about 7 years now, but if I’m honest I’ve never really gotten past a few basic chords and riffs.
My problem has always been that I’m too busy (and tight) to shell out for actual lessons, and printed materials can only take you so far. There’s a wealth of videos available on YouTube, but their quality varies, as does their accuracy and helpfulness.
I’d pretty much given up, but after I spent close to a grand on a new guitar my other half was pretty insistent that I actually play it. Then Christmas came and I found Rocksmith 2014 at the bottom of my stocking.
Rocksmith, from Ubisoft, is a similar concept to Guitar Hero, except you use an actual guitar as the controller, connected to your PC or console using a proprietary cable. Rather than just checking that you’re pushing the right buttons, the software listens to the signals coming from your guitar to make sure that you’re playing accurately, and advises you if you’re not.
Getting to grips with it
I’ll start off by specifying that you’ll need an electric or electro-acoustic guitar in order to use Rocksmith, and you’ll also need at least one proprietary Rocksmith Real Tone cable. If you’re buying a retail package it should come with the cable, but if you’re buying on Steam then you’ll need to buy one separately.
Rocksmith is available for Xbox 360, PS3, Mac and Windows (the latter two coming as a single package). It’s worth noting that buyers will need to sign up for a free “UPlay” account which is used as an anti-piracy measure, but makes it difficult to play the game if you don’t have an active Internet connection. It’s a system that I’ve had a lot of problems with before, as have many others, but reliability has improved in recent months.
Rocksmith will start off by having you create a profile, detailing your previous experience, whether your right or left handed and whether you want to learn rhythm, lead or bass guitar. Once you’re setup you’ll be ready to start.
It’s a strange decision to put the “Learn a Song” option at the top of the menu, after all if you’re only a beginner you’re definitely going to want to take a look at the “Lessons” section first.
Also included is a Multiplayer section which allows two guitars to be connected at the same time for jam sessions, and a “Guitarcade” mode which helps to improve various techniques through various 8-bit style mini-games.
Most people will probably want to start with some form of lesson, rather than jumping straight in to learning a specific song. It’s a wise move, especially for absolute beginners, as the lessons start off with some basic principals like how to hold the guitar and how to use a plectrum.
They quickly move on to the basics of picking, slides, bends and chords, providing step by step guides on technique and practice songs which help you to perfect your new skills.
When undertaking the lessons, Rocksmith listens to the sound you’re making and will only progress to the next part of a lesson when it’s comfortable that you’re playing everything correctly. What’s more, if you find a particular section difficult the software will slow down the tempo after your first few attempts to allow you more time to get yourself in to position. Once you’ve nailed the section at the slower tempo it will then speed back up to see if you can handle it at full speed.
Personally, I found the voiceover to be slightly condescending when you’re not getting things right at first, but that probably says more about me then it does about the software. As long as you remember that it’s a piece of software and not an actual teacher speaking to you, you should be fine.
Overall I’ve found the lessons to be extremely worthwhile, and much better than printed materials. Whilst there are limitations in what the software can teach you, it will at least show you if you’re missing strings or have your fingers over the wrong frets. Still, you’re very much left to be the master of your own technique, with your only clues being the short videos that play during lessons.
Rocksmith 2014 comes with over 50 original recordings built in, covering a range of musical styles and featuring artists like The Rolling Stones, Green Day, Bob Dylan, Rob Zombie and more. Each song comes with it’s own custom guitar tones which will automatically be turned on when you start to play that song.
The way Rocksmith teaches you to play is quite ingenious really. To begin with you’ll be shown simplified versions of the songs which usually feature a few single notes and simplified versions of chords. Once you’ve played through the song, Rocksmith will check your performance and begin to add in more complex elements of the song when it thinks you’re ready.
Gradually you’ll begin to build up to the original recording, though in my experience it takes a fair while before you’re playing to the same level as the professionals. Ubisoft have a whole bunch of videos on their website showing people who undertook the “60 day challenge” which gauges their progress over two months of usage.
Personally, after a weeks use I’ve gotten “Knocking on Heavens Door” and “Love That’ Gone” at around 80% completion for rhythm guitar parts. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time just playing around with the basic versions of other songs, which is a great way to build technique, even if you’re not that interested in learning that particular song. Of course, I had some experience already, so beginners may find that it takes longer than a few days to get to grips with.
Although the lessons will show you the basics of a technique, it’s important to build on those techniques in order to become a decent guitarist.
Now, nobody likes doing boring technical stuff, so Ubisoft have turned some pretty essential technical practices into fun minigames. It’s essentially a way to try and get you to practice your techniques without getting too bored, and it works quite well.
I’ve not yet played all of the mini-games as my learning is not that advanced, but the ones I have played have been particularly worthwhile in helping me to master technique without really realising it.
Of course, for beginners it’s essential to practice like this in order to build strength, flexibility and muscle memory, so it’s an excellent feature even though it doesn’t get you playing anything recognisable. Bare with it and I promise that it’ll reap rewards when it comes to actually learning songs.
Although Rocksmith 2014 comes with over 50 original recordings, Ubisoft have gone one step further and offer a whole heap of extra songs which can be purchased as DLC.
Prices range from just over £2 for some individual tracks to around £10 for packs of songs from specific artists. Availability of packs and pricing may differ between platforms, but from my experience there are some excellent value deals available.
As an example, you can pick up a five song Iron Maiden pack for £9.69 which includes “Fear of the Dark”, “Run to the Hills”, “Aces High”, “Number of the Beast” and “2 Minutes to Midnight”. That might not be exactly to your taste, but there’s a whole heap of songs available from bands like Muse, The Who, Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Queen and more.
Once you’ve purchased a song it will be tied to your Uplay account, and available whenever you use Rocksmith in the future, so it’s an excellent way to expand the usefullness of the game once you’ve learned all there is to learn. If nothing else you’ll get a decent quality backing track to play along with.
Is Rocksmith a complete package for helping you to play guitar? No, but it’s probably the best featured single product available. Why do I say that? Well, learning anything is a very subjective thing. People absorb and learn things in very different ways, and while Rocksmith has most of the bases covered there will still be some people who won’t find it as useful as others.
What I would definitely say is that Rocksmith is probably the best all round learning tool when compared to printed materials and other electronic educational tools.
If you’re only going to use one tool to learn to play guitar then Rocksmith should be it, but it still can’t quite compensate for a decent tutor-led program. What I would suggest is that Rocksmith is used to consolidate existing learning materials that you have to hand. Don’t throw out your instructional books and sheet music, and definitely don’t stop practising with a tutor or with friends.
As a learning platform, some will find it difficult, but most will find that they make leaps and bounds in terms of their playing ability while using this program. It’s certainly allowed me to make more progression than I have done previously in a very short amount of time. As well as that, I’m playing almost everything I already knew better than I have done before.
One final point to mention is that there are already several threads on online forums about the quality of the “Real Tone” USB cable. In fact after only a week of use the sound from mine is already starting to break up, which is a major annoyance given that they’re £25 each. Officially, there is no support for other input devices, but if you have a look around on various support forums you’ll find that there are patches available for the PC version which allow you to use your existing guitar interface devices with Rocksmith.
This small problem aside, Rocksmith is an excellent learning tool and fully deserves the score below.