Thursday, November 10, 2011

EBGDAE #15: Meet The New Journey, Same As The Old Journey

Well, we're back. This time, with Rocksmith instead of Rock Band 3 Pro mode, and with a new format as well--this time, one of us will be writing each week instead of all three. Hopefully, that will keep everyone fresh and sustain this for quite a while.

However, the goal hasn't changed: learn how to play guitar.

This week, Tour Guide David Gloier is the primary writer, but first, a few comments from additional voices.

First, from Fredrik Skarstedt:
I saw your post regarding guitars and I have a short note. When people ask about guitars what springs to mind are Fender Squire and Gibson Epiphone, the two premiere American "starter" brands. I have tried and tried to like these guitars, but never could.

For beginner guitarists, I would actually recommend another brand: Ibanez. They are cheap, very well built, and not a "junior" brand. The Ibanez GR series usually retails around a 150 dollars (quick look: ).

What I really like about the Ibanez brand model of guitars is that they are some of the easiest to play for beginners. Their necks are very, very thin which helps with the dreaded hand cramp syndrome + almost all their fretboards are flat which tends to help with finger cramps. They are also very light so your shoulders will thank you for that. The Ibanez Infinity series pickups (usually comes standard on most cheaper versions) are really quite decent little pickups built by Seymor Duncan and have a great range and a great bite for rock sounds, but they also clean up really well.

Another great thing about the Ibanez guitars is that almost all of them come with a standard locking nut and floating bridge which makes the guitar stay in tune + you can have a ton of fun just slamming the whammy bar up and down without going out of tune.

If you want to step up a little, the RG series retails around 200-400 dollars which is a great medium guitars.

Dan Plantholt also sent in advice about buying a guitar, after a few comments about the game itself:
I've played it a bit more now, and am still liking the game. One thing that might be a little rough on beginners that I see is the length of sets as you progress through the game. 2 and 3 song sets are good, but 5 and 6 song sets get to be really long, and then add on an encore or two. Woof, that gets to be a long time standing and playing guitar there, and I can see where that would turn some folks off to the game, if that's what's facing them, and they need to break out at least half an hour to 45 minutes of solid playing. I don't know if it's possible to save halfway through the event, but I hope it is.

I finally got to some drop-tuned songs, and know now that it requires actually tuning your guitar down. It's better to do it that way, than with some kind of electronic pitch shifting, but that poses a little bit of a problem with my guitar, which has a floating tremolo bridge and a locking nut. It stays in tune like no other guitar, but to change to a drop tuning, I have to mess with every string. Oh well.

That leads to a couple of the points I had about getting a guitar for the folks that don't have one. I think David's got a lot of good suggestions, but I'd add that people should try to go to a place like Guitar Center and sit down with some of the guitars they have. They have demo versions of most of the ones out there, and there can be a lot of variation in the way guitars feel: Folks should try them standing with a strap, not just sitting in your lap. Check the weight, the reach, the balance - neck or tail, and most importantly for people, I think they should feel different kinds of necks to see what they feel like. There's a significant amount of difference in the way they feel, and someone with smaller fingers might not like, for instance, a wider Gibson fingerboard, or maybe the Fender thick neck won't fit them that well. Maybe they really like the way that Ibanez feels, or think that the cutouts on the Dean are really nice.

Also, going along with my point about the drop tuning, I'd *really* recommend staying away from a tremolo bridge, like on the Strats (and Strat style other brands), or talk to the guys at the store and see if they can set it up to be more fixed, with stronger springs. For a beginner, a fixed bridge is a lot easier to deal with, less frustrating to tune, and will be easier to drop for two songs in a set and then back up.

A last point about the guitars in the entry-level: There's certainly some variation in quality but overall they're pretty consistently passable instruments now (unlike when I got my first Harmony guitar from a Wards catalog which had the nut in the wrong place). And while a Squier or Epiphone might be more recognizable, or *maybe* slightly better quality than an ESP or a Dean at the same price point (or maybe not, since they're getting a little bit of premium for name and shape), I gotta say that if one of those guitars calls to you while you're there, and playing it, and you think it is so cool and you want to play it (assuming it's not a complete lemon, of course), then you should get that one. If it's inspiring you to play, that's worth much more than having a 'safe' brand, or one that would be good enough to play on stage, but doesn't make you want to play it.

I know, some of that advice is in conflict with what David said last week, but when it comes to guitars, there's always more than one opinion, and this gives you an assortment from experienced guitarists.

Now, let's bring in David, and this week he has more information about the game and how it plays:
Bill, I'll try to address some of the games shortcomings in another post, but I'm still so excited by this thing I don't want to badmouth anything about it, yet. It's doing too much right.

The more time I put in with Rocksmith, the more impressed I am with the AI the developers built. The game finds a way to push you to improve by challenging you with new techniques as soon as it senses you may be ready. It walks you up to the edge of the pool, lets you put your toe in the water to become acclimated, and then gives you a big shove into whatever depth it has decided you are capable of handling. At the same time, it has you on a lifeline and pulls you out the moment you start to panic and thrash. No matter how freaked out you become, it quickly settles you back down.

I know John commented that I'm probably not seeing the hand-holding the AI provides, as I'm playing at a higher level. Let me say that while I've been playing for four years now, I'm by no means an expert player and I have plenty of room for improvement, but I definitely have a lot of playing hours under my belt. Anyway, the AI is making noticeable adjustments on the fly when I play.

As a basic example, I went back and played "Play with Fire" by the Rolling Stones last week. I first played the song when it came up in the list of songs for one of the venues. I played it pretty well in practice and received a good score. Then I played it in a set to a crowd. They seemed impressed. I earned a similar score. I played what I felt was a pretty complete version of the song. It was, but it apparently hadn't been completely fleshed out. Once I passed the song and the set, I moved on and didn't go back to the song until the next day. When I started in on "Play with Fire" again, one section where a chord sequence had a note played on the open D string after a G chord suddenly converted that note to a D chord after the G. It threw my timing off, as I wasn't prepared for the chord change. A minor change in the note chart, but I was thinking about it too much, and when the sequence came back around, I missed the timing on the G D G change again. The song continued, but didn't give me that chord again in that sequence, almost like it could tell it rattled me, and I got back on track and finished the song. I restarted and, this time, I was ready for the chord change. It came at me with it straight away and I hit it dead-on the several times it tossed it at me. As I continued, it didn't drop back down to the easier chart this time. I finished the song with my highest score yet. Now I'm thinking "If the AI gives me an open string I should figure the corresponding chord they will use to replace it." So, not only am I learning the songs, I'm beginning to think more about how they are put together and planning for, instead of reacting to, what the game is going do next. Sure enough, the next couple of songs I play, a few single open strings were converted to chords. From that one song, the game figured out the next step I was ready to take. That is truly amazing. The changes aren't just suddenly there. It walks you through the process and it makes it seem not so difficult. The dynamic AI does a good job of tempering frustration while it challenges you with a higher degree of difficulty. It's all very satisfying.

I haven't been messing with the technique lessons or the mini-games very much. I've just been having too much fun playing the songs, but that's where I'm at in my playing at the moment. I've spent hours upon hours doing exercises, but now, in a way, the game is allowing me to play as part of a band. Rocksmith as a tool for learning the guitar parts of songs, in the context of the entire song, is fabulous. With the AI adjusting to my abilities, I'm picking up songs much at a much faster rate than if I was trying to play along with a recording of the song and having to constantly stop and start the song and learn it one little part at a time. A big improvement over Rock Band is the fact that the song continues to play when you miss, instead of giving your that horrid "clank". It lets you play badly. That seems only natural, as an amp doesn't come screeching to a halt when you miss a note. Pushing through mistakes is part of learning. When you finish a song, it also replays it, allowing you to listen to how you did and really understand what you played well and what you didn't, where you missed notes and chords, and how your tone sounded as you played. Sometimes, when you're playing the song, you're working too hard to really hear yourself. This has been a big factor, I believe, in my timing and rhythm improving since incorporating Rocksmith into my practice routine. Another nice touch is when you master a song and reach a certain score/percentage correct, it lets you play the song without the note charts. It's daunting, but well worth trying to unlock for each song, and a true test of just how much improvement you've made.

I've also noticed that my playing away from the game, whether it's songs from the game (please hurry with more DLC, Ubisoft) or music completely unrelated to the game, has gotten much stronger and more confident. I'm getting a ton of practice in away from Rocksmith because of Rocksmith, as I'm really enjoying putting the practice from the game to use. It has been fantastic for my muscle memory, as practicing with the game is much less tedious. I don't get stuck in a rut doing the same things over and over again when using the game. The AI brings things in as you learn them and, applying that knowledge into other songs as it sees you're able to handle it, sneaks in the repetition you need to build the memory without making it tiresome and frustrating.

One feature of the game I'm finding enjoyable is the Amp mode. You can set up any of the amps and pedals you've unlocked in any combination and toy with your sound, much like having a modeling amp. It's a open sandbox that just lets you noodle around and play whatever you want. I wish I'd had this years ago and maybe I would've spent a bit less money on amps and effects. One drawback is you have to either unlock all the amp and pedal models, or buy the bundle from Live, but the unlockables are another carrot at the end of the stick that may drive you to keep pushing forward.

I firmly believe that, for novice and bedroom players, Rocksmith is a fabulous practice tool that should remove much of the tedium from practicing. It's not the only tool you should be using, because it's not teaching you the "why" behind what you're playing, but as a tool for building the muscle memory you will need to become a better player, it's fantastic, and one heck of a lot of fun.

There you go, and thanks very much to David and the other contributors this week. Next week, it will be my turn.

Site Meter