Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #1

Expedition member: Me.
Total playing time (through Monday): 3:00 (:30 a day)

The first thing I noticed is that a real guitar is heavy. Really heavy, compared to our collective legacy of plastic guitar controllers.

Then I noticed that I didn't know anything. I didn't know how to properly hold the guitar or how to hold a pick. Trail breaker John Harwood, though, pointed me to Justin Guitar, which has a ton of video training lessons that were just what I needed. Very pleasant fellow, very clear explanations, and very enjoyable. Just hit the link and scroll down to "TB-The Basics."

Here's an example of what I've learned from the videos: I didn't know that you're supposed to press the string down next to a fret--not on the fret itself. I had no idea, and it makes a big difference.

Expedition guide David Gloier advised me, when I asked him about tuning, to go buy a Snark. It's $30, it's dead simple to use, and you can (literally) tune a guitar in less than two minutes. Well, well worth it.

When you sit down and you're ready to start the in-game tutorials, there's a white plastic bar underneath your strings that has to be in the "up" position, against your strings. If it's not, then push the bar all the way down, and then it should pop back up and actually be touching the strings. This is the string "mute", and if you don't do it, note detection in-game is going to be spotty, at best.

Next thing: Pro mode is absolutely fantastic. The tutorials have plenty of hand-holding, and there's also plenty of feedback (you can see your hand position on the screen, which is incredibly helpful). It's a magnum opus, and certainly the finest work Harmonix has ever done (and that bar is set very, very high). It's a privilege to play, and I'm not trying to be a smartass when I say that.

Now, after you play a few lessons, you absolutely have to buy an amp so that you can hear yourself. You're going to hear the notes you're actually producing if you're plugged in to an amp, and it's going to teach you all kinds of things about your technique. I haven't tried being plugged in to an amp while I'm actually playing the game yet--I've just had the game in no-fail mode so that I could see all the notes, then played along. Plus, if you do it this way, you won't see your hand position, so it forces you to move your hands "blind", which will help you develop your technique. If you just listen to the notes you're playing, you'll know where your hands are. I learned all kinds of things about my finger position on the frets by listening to myself play.

If you want to play along like I've been doing, just leave the MIDI-PRO box connected as your controller. That lets you get to Pro guitar mode, even without a guitar connected. So you can select lessons, etc., turn on No-Fail mode, and just play along to the notes on screen.

Okay, now a few notes from guide David Gloier. This is more of a collection of tips he sent me over the last few days instead of a narrative.
Expedition member: David Gloier
--when you are tuning, you just pluck the note once and let it ring, making adjustments until it tunes to that note. Make sure you're plucking the string open, not fretting anywhere. Oh, also, make sure the string dampener is in the down position.

--you need to pick up a real amp to run this thing through. While the game is going to teach you the basic techniques, with the strings dampened you'll never learn how to work the strings for your tone. With it up, its like constantly palm muting and there is no play in the strings. You miss a lot of nuance.

--the way the game displays chords and the tabs is not jiving with what my brain is used to. I mess with the song a bit, then move to one of my other guitars and just play it without the game and I can get into the rhythm of the song naturally. Then I go back and complete it on the game. My brain doesn't know how to process the on-screen info yet. Really interesting. I hadn't realized how much I don't "think" about my playing. The game interferes with how my brain and my hands have learned to work together.

--after fooling around with that White Stripes song ["The Hardest Button To Button"], I plugged in a regular guitar and just nailed the song. Wasn't note perfect with the original, but I didn't know that song at 5:30 this evening and now I can play it without thinking about it too much. I think that's a win.

--played some this morning before work. I think I'll will be primarily using this as a song trainer and highly doubt I'll ever be playing the game for scores. A little pro tip (not that I'm a pro) for you and John: use a little NuSkin or some other liquid bandage on your fingertips to give you some artificial callouses til the real ones come in.

--I noticed the action is a little high, at least on my guitar. Lower action is a bit easier on the fingertips, since you don't have to push the strings down as far or as hard. It's simple to lower. The smaller of the two allen wrenches is for the screws on the string saddles at the bridge that control the string height. Once you lower it, you have to reset the intonation, most likely.

--the best part of this game, so far, is the barre chord exercises. Barre chords are the post hole diggers of the realm. Real man-killers, but you aren't going to build a fence without them, and you won't be playing any music until you get the damn things down. You've never felt pain in your hands and wrist until you've spent hours working on them, and you will spend hours.

Anyway, they really make you work on fretting them correctly and changing shapes in quick time. I like the exercises because barre chords are tiresome and you can get sloppy, and when you do, your playing really suffers. The feedback it gives you on your technique is invaluable.

Finally, notes from trail breaker John Harwood. And if this sounds choppy, it's my editing, not John's writing.
Expedition member: John Hardwood
Total playing time (through Saturday): 16 hours (3+ hours a day)

Stamina-wise, while I am an incredibly lazy individual, I am highly motivated to continue working at something that captivates me. I played through all of the songs of GH2, RB1, and The Beatles in one sitting when they each came out. I've been known to put in 5 hours+ without much thought and pretty sure there have been weeks where I've put 40-50 hours in. I've been known to ice down my fretting arm so I could keep at it.

The first day, I spent the morning working through the easy lessons and those went surprisingly quickly [Ed. note: I just finished those lessons on the sixth day]. Came back in the afternoon and jumped right into medium lessons. very first lesson in the first set of medium lessons has you moving from 3rd fret 1st string and 5th fret 2nd string to 3rd-2nd/5th-3rd to 3rd-2nd/5th-4th and then back up. For a complete novice guitar player, you might as well ask me to knock out the solo for "Crazy Train".

Highlight: I played a real freakin' guitar!!!
Lowlight: From the 2nd fret to the 10th fret on a different string??? Are you kidding me???
Injury level: High. Slides blistered my ring finger (which you use a lot more than I'd have thought) and muscles pretty sore.
Lack of control: Ordered a Honeytone mini-amp, A/C adapter, 1/4" guitar cable, and a tuner. So much for holding off on that 'till later.

Because I'm stupid  tenacious, I started off going back to the 1st medium lesson for 10 mins. Still utterly failing, but can at least do it reasonably well at 60% speed now.

Ran through the first 5 power chord lessons on medium and those weren't bad at all and were pretty fun and satisfying.

Got my tuner about mid-day and had a blast tuning up the guitar. It shipped completely horribly out of tune (like almost a full semi-tone flat on most strings, if you can believe that) and is much more pleasant to strum along to outside of the game.

Injury level: High. Ring finger still blistered and very hard to press frets on high razor-wire strings. Hand cramping getting a little more severe and actually had some muscle spasms in my ring finger when trying to hold a fret for an extended period of time.

I'm now doing things similar to what I had gone through failing to learn my wife's acoustic guitar a few years ago, but real-time feedback on where my fingers are and what strings are getting pressed down makes it much easier and considerably more fun to learn.

Tried out the hammer-on/pull-offs lesson. More awesome! Just stupidly crazy-fun when it works. Night and day from doing that on a pretend guitar, actually hearing the effects of that had me go spend 15 minutes just playing around outside of the game doing that with various strings and various finger combinations. My amp came in today and the very first thing I did was try out hammer-ons and pull-offs with it.

Injury level: medium-high, fingers tender, ring finger still slightly blistered, hand still cramping quite a bit.

Ran through a bunch of easy level songs. Got completely floored by the chord changes in "I Love Rock & Roll" on G/M but slowed it down and practiced it and figured out what was going on and when to move my hands and got it down somewhat. Still tricky to do on the fly, but I can sort of get it down now and this is an excellent teaser of the type of thing that I don't think I'm all that far away from being able to do. Little concerned that I'm not getting all the foundation I need out of the game in terms of hand position and such, so...

Spent about 90 minutes watching the first portion of the beginner lessons on justinguitar.com and really enjoyed that. Good stuff, he's very engaging, and it helped fill in a lot of the gaps. I'm going to keep at his lessons while also keeping at RB3 and see if between the two I manage to come out any more well rounded than just the game or more motivated than just the instructional videos would leave me.

Completely hilarious to go from holding the Squier to holding a RB guitar. Felt like I was picking up a piece of paper and no matter how much better the RB2 guitar felt over the old GH guitars, it's not even in the same realm as a real guitar. For that matter, the Squier's not all that compared to higher end guitars, so no the plastic controllers are just that, they're not the real deal at all.

Highlight: I'm now finding a 2-fret split with my index and ring fingers pretty automatically without looking. Still have to glance down to make sure I know where I am along the neck sometimes, but if I'm just shifting strings, or moving a fret or two up and down, I can lock in on that very well.
Lowlight: Can't do "Runaway" on B/H at all, and I really really want to.
Injury level: moderate, blister gone, fingers still tender, but it's no longer any impediment to me pushing down the strings. So little pain, but nothing that slows me down. Wrist and finger pain is becoming pretty extreme to the point that may require a little backing off. Or not!

Little bit of chord practice from Justin's lessons, little bit of first position chords in-game. Spent a solid 30 minutes working on "I Love Rock & Roll" on G/H and while I'm encouraged by my progress, changing chords on the fly is still pretty damn intimidating at this point and it really shakes my confidence that I can't seem to find a way to wrap my brain around that. I know it'll get better with time, I just don't see how at this moment.

Highlights: I can sight read bass on medium!
Lowlights: Utter failure to strum 16th notes on bass
Injury level: moderate, blister completely gone, fingers still sore but not a big deal at all (played an hour straight without issue), but apparently gripped the neck too tightly or at the wrong angle as wrist is pretty bad now. May need to take Sunday off and rest. Or not.

I know we were all over the place in terms of style, but that will smooth out as we go. I hope you enjoyed the first installment, and we'll have another next week.

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