Monday, October 27, 2008

Rock Band and Learning Real Guitar (your e-mail)

Even after writing this, um, "thing" for many years, I'm sometimes taken by surprise. This time, the surprise was your response to the "Rock Band and Learning Real Guitar" post, because it's something you guys are far more interested in than I expected.

First off, I'm not the only one who wants to learn real guitar this way. Here's a story from Phil Davies:
The guitarist for my (rock) band has this very issue, every time I go round his house, I see his real guitar sitting there on it's stand right next to his Xplorer, Les Paul and Fender controllers. He picked up a cheapy guitar and amp after Guitar Hero 2 and decided he was going to learn how to play properly.

"How is the guitar playing coming along?" I ask

"Not so good, you can't really measure progress without having set tiers of songs to move through and there seems little point if I'm not going to get achievements for it"

I think we'd all achieve so much more in life if it existed as tiered content and came with achievements and high score tables.

Boy, I know I would.

Chad Mercer notes the appeal of this kind of training aid, but also notes something about strumming that was echoed by several of you: it's much more complex than it looks.
First of all, I would love to have the controller you're talking about. I think it would be fantastically fun, and as a matter of fact, if you built the controller with buttons all the way up the neck--prohibitively expensive--you could actually map out the entire guitar part accurately. Which would definitely translate into being able to play a "real guitar"--so much so that as long as you could buy the Rock Band/Guitar Hero version of the song, you wouldn't have to be able to read tab. Or pick the song off of the radio.

It would be a literal sea-change in the way that bands learn cover songs...

All of that said, after playing guitar for 20 years now, I would say that strumming is one of the hardest things to learn how to do. After all, in a lot of cases--at least for rhythm guitar--you don't really change the position of your left hand that much. I've taught a number of people how to play guitar, and teaching chord fingerings just takes repetition and practice. However, learning how to strum is far more "musical"--if you don't have rhythm, it's obvious. And because a lot (most?) of guitar music is more "rock" than "classical"--it's hard to put what I'm trying to say into words--it's just hard.

David Gloier, who started playing real guitar because of Guitar Hero, amplifies the thoughts on strumming:
After playing for nine months, a strum bar is not going to cut it. So much is in your right hand. Well, rhythm, for one, and a simple strum bar doesn't really help you at all with rhythm on six strings (or two, three or four when that's all you need). It just doesn't. It's so much more nuanced than a strum bar can account for. I don't really know how to explain it, but playing basic chords on a guitar is just learning finger placement. Making your right hand strike right is the key. So much is in the timing of starts and stops. As many players tell me, good rhythm with the right hand covers a lot of mistakes with the left.

Strumming is easy if you're just strumming all six strings, but you don't really do that all that often. Sometimes you're only hitting 3 or 4 strings and it takes some time to learn to "miss" the strings you're not supposed to hit. Also, unless it's basic chords, you really have to take the time to teach yourself to pick notes and do alternate picking. There's also downstrums, upstrums, etc. There's actually quite a bit to it, and you can miss fretting a note and get away with it, but when you hit the wrong strings with your right hand, you know. Getting to a point where you can pick the correct strings without looking is time consuming. That's the real issue with the guitar: both hands work independently and as you learn, it's damn near impossible to keep an eye on both of them. That's why you spend a bunch of time doing picking exercises with your right hand.

Here's one last note about strumming, this one from Jim Reigel:
You describe the strumming as easier to learn, but I can guarantee that I found it easier to learn finger placement than I did accurately hitting just the strings for the chord that need to be hit (4 of 6 for a D chord, 5 of 6 for and A chord for example). When you're playing rapidly, you need to accurately hit the angle of attack with the right hand. When you're doing classical music, finger picked arpeggios are significantly harder than the same movement on a piano. It has a lot to do with the fact that the area you are hitting is maybe 3 inches wide at the maximum and there is NOT a lot of room between those strings. Add in the fact that upstrum/pick vs. downstrum/pick produces two totally separate sounds and there are at least three styles of finger picking plus the qualities of the note (ringing, tone, loudness) varies with which part of the finger or nail you hit with and it's a significantly complex exercise.

As a general summary: strumming. It's damned hard.

Another series of e-mails covered what kind of products are already available to help ease the transition into real guitar. First (mentioned by Neil Sorens) is the Fretlight, which is a guitar with lights on the neck to show you proper finger placement. It looks very interesting, but it's pricey--$400+ to get an electric guitar (and that's the cheap guitar--the best one is over double that) and a lesson pack, and additional lesson packs run $20 each.

Neil also mentioned the Yamaha EZ-AG, which looks like an excellent option for beginners. It's less expensive (only $199 for the accoustic version) than the Fretlight, but it still has lights to show you the proper chord placement. It can also break up songs so that you can choose to play both chords and strum, or just play one or the other.

Chris Clarke sent in a link to the Fisher Price I Can Play Guitar System, which is $60 and looks quite a bit like the idea I had in my head (even going one better with buttons for finger placement, but retaining the section of the strings that are used for strumming).

Finally, Ryan Brandt sent in a link to a product in development that I mentioned a few months ago: Guitar Rising. It's a Guitar Hero-style game that you play with a real guitar, but it's not scheduled to be released until next year. This could be great if they ramp the difficulty properly.

That's what's out there, basically, at least for now. I still expect an explosion of products like this in the next 2-3 years, though, because incenting the millions of people who play Rock Band/Guitar Hero into playing real guitar is a potential financial windfall that just can't be ignored.

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