I have mentioned in a few of my articles that the release of Rocksmith in late 2012 (in Europe) was a pivotal point in my guitar journey. I had dabbled with guitars for many years, since I was a boy, but I had never taken it seriously. I had also seen games like Guitar Hero appear on the games consoles. They had certain temptations, but I never really fancied the idea of trying to “play the guitar” on a plastic controller, even if it was shaped like a guitar! Nevertheless, I saw them as a promising sign, and I said to myself that as soon as there was a game where you could use a real guitar, I would buy it.
In 2012, that game appeared. It was called Rocksmith, and it promised to teach you to play the guitar. It was released in the US about six months before Europe; I read some interesting reviews and preordered the game. I had two electric guitars at that point (my unbranded strat copy and my Lag Arkane), so I bought the game with the required cable and I was all set.
At that point, I knew a number of chords in the open positions but I wasn’t good at barre chords. I could strum through a few simple songs, and I’d also learned some parts of a few songs that weren’t too demanding, like Tears in Heaven. I had a reasonable basis of general music theory but I didn’t really know much how it applies to guitars, which is noticeably different from the theory that I had learnt. I’d never heard of the pentatonic scales, for example.
Rocksmith (and its successor, Rocksmith 2014 – I don’t bother to make the distinction here since they weren’t that different) provides a lot of tools to help beginners or low intermediate guitarists to progress. There are quite a lot of lessons that cover the basics from how to hold the guitar through to most of the main techniques. There are games designed to help you to practise different scales and techniques. There’s a ‘session mode’ which generates a backing group for you to jam over (and some people think this alone is worth the price for the game). Then there’s what I regard as the main part of the game: the many songs that you can learn to play, with variable difficulty levels and the ‘riff repeater’ which allows you to practise individual sections of a song, even slowing them down so that you can train your muscle memory.
The variable difficulty levels (together with the essential technology of detecting your guitar notes) are the real stroke of genius in the game. At the lowest level, you start by playing maybe just one note per bar, and whenever you succeed in playing a section it will increase the difficulty to the next level, until you are playing the full part. The game also evaluates your playing level so that when you play a new song, it doesn’t start you at the bottom level but at a level that is reasonable for you. This system makes the game a great learning tool, and accessible to a wide range of abilities.
Each version of the game (Rocksmith and Rocksmith 2014) comes with around 50 songs, and there are hundreds more available as paid DLC (Downloadable Content), for around two or three pounds / euros / dollars each (which means that you can end up spending a lot of money). The songs depend on the publisher, Ubisoft, being able to buy the rights from the holder, so you won’t find all of your favourite artists in there (no Beatles or Metallica, for example), but there is a broad selection including bands such as Queen, Iron Maiden, Avenged Sevenfold, Boston, Muse, Slash, Alter Bridge etc. etc.
Another great aspect to Rocksmith is that you can use it with both guitar and bass. After I’d had the game for a few months, I decided to buy a cheap bass and start learning how to play it, and that has been a lot of fun. It also helps you to appreciate the different roles of the two instruments in a band.
There are gaps in what Rocksmith can teach you. It doesn’t say very much about string muting, and obviously it can’t look at your hands and tell you if your technique is good. You may be frustrated at not finding many songs by your favourite artist. I personally would like to see more structure to the learning side – they could incorporate graded songs, for example, to help you to see how you are progressing. To fill some of these gaps, you might want to use other sources – online teachers such as Justinguitar, books, DVDs or a real, live guitar teacher (which I did for a while and found helpful up to a point, but found that I preferred Rocksmith).
Since Rocksmith came out, I’ve been playing the guitar almost every day. Before it came out, I maybe dabbled a bit once a month. My playing has improved a lot, although there’s still a long way to go, and I’ve been inspired to buy far too much gear. It is no exaggeration to say that it’s been life-changing for me. I’m not claiming that it’s the solution for everyone – there are many different ways of learning the guitar, and the best one will be whichever one gets you playing and making progress. I do think it’s good to take in information from multiple sources too, because you will learn different things from different people, and the more you learn, the more you will develop and find out what works for you.
If you’ve never played Rocksmith and you are tempted to give it a go, I would certainly encourage you to do so. There are versions for PC, Xbox or Playstation. I play it on my Xbox One, which has the advantage of being connected to a large TV and that works well for me. You can have problems with audio lag on the console versions, and unfortunately the Xbox One version is a step backwards from the Xbox 360 version because of hardware differences. The PC version doesn’t tend to have the same issues, and there is a lot of unofficial custom DLC available for PC which you can’t get on the consoles. As the game is a couple of years old now, it can be picked up pretty cheaply, so give it a go!