Thursday, June 02, 2011

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #12: The Bunny Lives!

Expedition leader David Gloier's PC blew up this week, so while he's reconstructing his post, we have a guest musician this week. Chad Mercer has written a guest piece of playing in Pro Bass mode (and Pro mode in general). Chad's in a band called Trip Sofa, so hit the link if you want to hear songs (I'm partial to "Pickled Hairy", "Bullet" (live), and "Tums" (which is available if you click the 'more songs' thingy)).

Thanks to Chad for making a guest appearance, and here we go.
First, a little background.

My dad played guitar and organ in high school and early college in the late 60's, before I was born. He was in a number of cover bands that covered everything from The Dave Clark Five to The Who. He taught himself by listening to the radio, which is a skill I never developed. I remember him playing Jim Croce songs to me on his acoustic guitar when I was very young. He only got his guitar out every couple of months, though, and we never had electric instruments in the house. My mom was a pianist and a singer, and she played regularly and sang all the time--mostly old musicals.

So I played piano (mandatory in my family) for four years, hated it, and quit as soon as I could. Although I have to admit, I did enjoy being able to play The Imperial March from Star Wars. One of my most vivid memories of piano, though, was coming home the day my 5th grade Sunday School teacher was involved in a school shooting. He was the principal at Goddard Junior High, and was the only fatality that day. I came home, looked at my mom--who had obviously been crying--walked calmly downstairs to the piano, and played The Marines Hymn. It was the only thing I knew to do. (He served in the Marines in Vietnam.)

I started playing viola in 4th grade, and continued through my junior year of high school. I was pretty good, but viola is definitely a "support" instrument, and doesn't have the glamour of violin or cello. It also wasn't much for rock bands.

But enough about the "dorky" instruments.

I wanted to be in a rock band in the worst way, and my parents were appalled at the idea--possibly because they wanted to protect me from negative experiences my dad had in his heyday. So my dad agreed to teach me how to play guitar--on that same huge dreadnought acoustic he'd had since college--but insisted that I could not play in a band. Of course, I agreed to his terms, and he taught me chords, so I could play for the youth group at church. He also helped me learn a couple of songs that I asked him to help me learn from "my music".

So...because of the agreement I'd made with my father, for two years I "got together with some guys and played music", but I wasn't in a band. Of course, all of my friends that were interested in music wanted to play either guitar or drums, so I decided that I'd play bass. My junior year of high school, we played one show--three covers, very lame--so it was easy to play the "not a band" card. However, once we started practicing regularly and writing songs, my parents had to accept that yes, I was really in a band.

So over the next 11 years (1990 - 2001), I played bass guitar in a band. (Sorry, Dad.) We started off playing thrash/punk--mostly because it disguised our total lack of skill--progressed to "hair metal" and then spent about 7 years playing a 70's influenced style of heavy alternative rock. The last 5 years or so was spent as a three-piece. Over that 11 year period, the drummer & I were the only two consistent members. We recorded four complete original albums over the years, and were recording a fifth album when our lead singer/lead guitarist abruptly quit the band. So that was the end of that. My musical journey was over, except for leading worship at church. Which, while very fulfilling and worthwhile, is decidedly not a "band experience".

Then, this guy named Bill turned me on to the original Guitar Hero. When the game was released, the band had been broken up for a number of years. It was incredible to have that "band experience" again, even if it was me alone in my basement. My two sons were also very young, and it was easy to get them started on an "instrument" as simple as three buttons on Easy. (I chastised them regularly for playing with the sound off, explaining that music is more about "feel" than just eye-hand coordination.) The fact that they were getting excited about music in a very natural way was wonderful. Much better than my wife & I forcing them to take music lessons on an instrument that they hated.

Of course, now that Rock Band has tainted him permanently, the older son is now a drummer in the school band, plays in a jazz combo, and accompanies me at church when leading worship. He's 12, and a complete beast.

The younger son? We'll get back to his story later.

So I started on guitar and switched to bass when I started playing in a band. Because of this, I played bass with a pick for the first number of years. The band I was in played mostly thrash and speed metal at the time, so using a pick made sense. After a number of lineup changes in the first three years, we ended up with a guitarist/singer that morphed the band's style to include a funk vibe. To complement this change, I decided to learn to play slap bass. This meant I had to play "finger-style", as it's tough to switch between slap and a pick. So yes, I'm a self-taught guitar/bass hack that played in a band for 10 years. And?

As I mentioned before, I "settled" on bass because everyone else wanted to play guitar...but I never lost that boyhood desire to play guitar solos. The Guitar Hero / Rock Band plastic instrument genre was incredible at scratching that itch, but it never really got me any closer to getting any sort of true, usable skills as a lead guitarist. So when I heard about this new Pro Mode Rock Band controller, I geeked out and immediately put in my pre-order. I got my guitar controller one day before I got my MIDI adapter, so I plugged it in to one of my amps, and was pretty impressed with the guitar. While I generally prefer much heavier strings (at least 11's), it played better than a lot of guitars I've owned over the years.

Once I got the MIDI interface, I started up the game and burned through the first couple of sets of guitar lessons with no problems. I actually found it easier to play most songs on a real guitar than on the old controllers. For one thing, the open string "innovation" on Guitar Hero World Tour is a necessary change that the Rock Band franchise didn't implement until Pro Mode songs. As a guitarist, it's really disconcerting when you can HEAR the open string, and the game is telling you to press a button down--it goes against years of experience.

I should note that all of my playing--guitar and bass--thus far has been rhythm playing. While some of the rhythms were fairly intricate, they were nothing like a lead. I'm glad to say that I've already significantly improved in my ability to switch strings when playing with a pick, which is one of my major shortcomings in "lead guitar". The other is my left hand speed, which I think the advanced lessons will definitely help.

I will admit that I haven't finished all of the guitar lessons. I find playing the songs to be more fun than doing scales--obviously--so I decided to just play all of the songs on Medium after finishing off the first levels of lessons. I certainly plan on tackling a lesson a week or so in the advanced levels.

As I told Bill in an email exchange, playing Pro Guitar chords in RB3 is _FAR_ more difficult than playing on a real guitar. They are hyper-specific and allow for absolutely no slop, while a real guitar is not nearly as picky.

For example, when you play a G chord on guitar (320003), you can add your ring finger for a little extra high end (320033). I do this regularly when playing for church--one song specifically brings it to mind, where I start with (320033) and progress to (320003) then (300003) then back to (320033) for a little more variation.

That said, the game is absolutely unforgiving (understandably so) when doing stuff like this, so you are FORCED to play the chords EXACTLY like the band that recorded them. (Which makes live versions of songs much harder to play along with, because musicians generally ad-lib quite a bit when playing live.) So Stone Temple Pilots "Plush" requires the extra ring finger, while many other songs don't.

The other thing is that barre chords are completely unforgiving in RB3 as well. On a real guitar, if you're a little sloppy, the chord still sounds correct even if you haven't completely pressed down a string. (That string is just deadened, so it doesn't give the complete sound, but it still sounds "correct" as long as enough strings are ringing.) So I have very little chance to make "A" barre chords (002220, 113331, 224442) work in game. My fingers are too big--swollen scar on my wedding ring finger FTL--so I end up with 00222x most of the time due to the way that I play them. (I actually make two barres--index finger & ring finger.)

Anyway, I'm very certain that I will 100% very few songs in Pro Mode Guitar due to the very precise nature of the game. Which is slightly disappointing, but it's still BY FAR the best way I've experienced to learn an instrument. Hell of a lot more fun than playing piano scales, that's for damn sure. But Bill asked me to write this up due to my bass experience, not whining about my non-Expert guitar playing.

As far as playing bass parts on the controller, it's a mixed bag. I definitely prefer larger strings and more spacing between them--I would gladly pay another $300 for a bass-specific controller. I also understand that it would be much tougher to build one for a number of reasons. There are a number of songs that would be much easier to play with bigger strings--Jerry Was A Racecar Driver is a good example, as that slap part that Les Claypool (my hero!) plays is brutal on those tiny guitar strings. (I even have a hard time playing my bass parts for the songs I've written on a guitar. The fingerings are just...different...due to things like fret spacing and string separation.)

As others have noted, the controller is definitely not designed to play finger style. The strings tend to "pop" off of the mute pad, which screws up the hit detection. A friend of mine who is an extremely good bass player played on Medium and literally could not hit a single note when playing finger style. Needless to say, he was quite frustrated, and didn't enjoy himself much. Since I've played guitar a lot, I'm more comfortable playing with a pick, so it doesn't bother me as much as it might.

The songs that are written for and played in a picked style work pretty well. They feel "more correct" than the songs that were obviously written and played in finger mode. (It's much easier to jump strings (low E to D, or low E to G, for example) when playing finger style than it is when playing with a pick.)

So...back to my younger son...

He (now 10) has decided to try to play bass, so I started him up with the Rock Band 3 trainer on the guitar controller last week. He's left-handed, playing right-handed, so it's much harder to learn. That said, he played through the first set of trainers. I watched him get more comfortable holding a pick in just the 30 minutes of going through the lessons. He definitely got frustrated--YOU try playing guitar backwards!--but he pushed through it. He was grooving along by the end of the practice time, and actually feeling the music.

The best part? When I made him stop playing to go to bed, all of the frustration was forgotten. He looked at me with a huge smile on his face and exclaimed: "That was FUN!" Now, if getting calluses and playing scales STAYS fun--I think we have a winner.

------------------ A FEW EXTRA NOTES ------------------
I would highly recommend learning guitar chords before switching to bass. "I'm playing a G on my bass (3rd fret on the E string) because the guitar player is playing a G chord, and G is the root of that chord." I still can't read music--at all--on guitar or bass, but I can pick out tab, and I can generally sight-read a chord sheet on either guitar or bass.

I really wish I would have started by watching Victor Wooten--his technique is incredible. However, I watched Les Claypool instead, and emulated him. I was pretty much self-taught, which lead to horrible technique that sounded really, really full, mostly because I was pounding the crap out of my pickups.

I mentioned that I'd like thicker strings, but the reason you can't use strings any bigger than 9's on the guitar controller is because larger strings cause more tension on the neck. The amount of tension on a bass neck would be significantly higher, which is another reason I don't think they're going to build a bass controller.

Another problem with building a bass controller would be how many strings? Other than some "fringe" bands using 12-strings years ago, most of the guitar world has standardized around a six-string guitar. Recently, a number of metal bands have started going to seven- or eight-string guitars, but in general, most of the songs in the catalog can be tabbed out on a six-string guitar. Bass? Not so much. Five- and six-string basses have been around for quite a while, and figuring out how to generate a note chart for a song written for a six-string bass against a four-string would be either impossible or extremely difficult. And if you go with a six-string model, you have two additional strings of tension. Not to mention the fact that bass strings are easily four times as expensive as guitar strings. Oh, and they'd sell about one tenth as many controllers--because, again, everyone wants to be a guitarist. :)

The backing track is incredibly useful in giving you the feeling that you're actually _playing_music_ which is a huge improvement to standard practice. I know I could practice for hours when I was playing with the band, but by myself? Maybe 20 minutes. Max.

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