In the last decade there has been an explosion in popularity of music and guitar related video games. These games can be great fun to play with friends, and deserve credit for introducing many people to rock music and guitar playing that they might not otherwise have listened to.
Most of these video games are advertised for exactly what they are – fun and innovative entertainment with a cool musical slant. But one of these more recent games in particular – Rocksmith – specifically markets itself as half game/half educational product. It particularly appeals to rock fans, players who already play a bit, who may have taken breaks or played on and off, who are looking for a fun way to get back into playing and get better at guitar. The question is:
Can Rocksmith be an effective substitute for a guitar teacher?
Can you reach the level you want on guitar by being self-taught and taking ‘lessons’ with a video game?
The following thoughts are my own views based on my experience as a guitar teacher of helping players who have used Rocksmith, who thought at first it would be a ‘quick fix’ but have actually become more frustrated with their playing in the process. Perhaps you can relate to some of the problems that they experienced trying to learn guitar this way. Here are 5 specific ways in which learning guitar through Rocksmith will hold you back and may even sabotage your long term development.
1 – PROPER TECHNIQUE
Rocksmith keeps score and assesses your progress as a guitarist based on you hitting the right frets at the right moments in time. But it is blind to HOW you played the frets – it gives you no feedback whatsoever on whether you played the notes with the best fingerings, posture, pick position/grip, or any other aspect of good technique. In the world of Rocksmith, as long as you got the notes out somehow, then everything is okay. This is totally wrong and is certain to have bad consequences for your playing. The problem here is that I could play something in the most horrible way that was setting myself up for future limitations and even serious injury, and Rocksmith can tell me I got it 100% right. This kind of false, incomplete feedback can be catastrophically damaging to your guitar playing and lead to developing so many bad habits that hold you back.
2 – TONE AND FEEL
Playing guitar with great tone means wringing the maximum emotion and expression out of each and every note you play. This is something all the best guitar players have in common, regardless of their style. Tone is one of the most critical aspects of your playing to develop (if you ever want someone to listen to you, that is). It is the most immediately obvious difference between a pro and an amateur, and it is instantly recognisable to music fans and other guitarists who plays with great tone and who doesn’t. Rocksmith can’t teach you anything about tone because it is a machine and as such it is oblivious to higher level artistic details like the way something sounds, the quality of the playing. Only a real human teacher can hear all these details and help you directly to get better with them. In the artificial world of Rocksmith so long as you play the rights frets you are ‘playing the song’, even when so much else is missing from the performance.
3 – PERFORMANCE SKILLS
It can be fun to play along with songs on Rocksmith – it’s a bit like an interactive backing track with tabs. However, what does the game teach you about real performance? The answer is not much. Coordinating yourself with a real drummer, real bassist and real singer and keeping everything tight and in time with all the different moving parts of a real life rock band is worlds away (and much, much more fun) than playing to sterile backing tracks. The best guitar teachers can truly teach you these things and provide an environment for you to learn these skills; a game, that you play at home, cannot.
4 – CREATIVITY
Rocksmith mainly addresses just one narrow aspect of being a guitarist – that is, working on covers and having a bunch of songs to play. Musicians call this having a ‘Repertoire’ and, though it’s important, it is merely the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible.
By focusing on playing songs, Rocksmith teaches you to parrot but not to create. When do you learn anything about how music works, why things sound the way they do, and methods you can use to create your own music? Never. When does it train your ear so that you can hear what chords and scales are being used in your favourite music, and be able to learn songs without having a tab in front of you? It doesn’t. How do you learn to improvise solos and spontaneously create, when all you are trained to do is play other people’s songs? If any of these things sound like goals you have then you are wasting your time trying to learn them from a video game. Creativity can be learned and enhanced through practice, but this kind of help can only be provided by the best guitar teachers.
5 – MEANINGFUL GROWTH AS A MUSICIAN
Self-taught players typically only practice songs and bits of songs, and sooner or later they end up extremely frustrated with their playing. Talking to players who are now students, I think that Rocksmith can deepen this cycle. The essential problem is this: You can only play songs that your current level of musical skills will allow you to play. If a song requires skills that you simply do not possess yet, then you will never be able to play it no matter how much you slow it down or how many hours you repeatedly practice it.
If you are a self taught player and have played for a few years, how many times (honestly) have you given up on learning a song because part of it you just could not get even though you might have spent several weeks or even months practising it? You slow it down but it feels like it is nowhere near where it needs to be, and simply repeating it isn’t having much if any effect. In these cases an underlying lack of development (or weakness) in core skills, technique, knowledge and the ability to apply them is usually to blame.
The only ‘cure’ for this frustrating and circular situation is for a teacher who understands what you want to achieve to break down what skills and knowledge are required for the type of playing you want to do, and then train you and show you how to practice effectively to develop, maintain and improve these skills. Of course neither Rocksmith nor any other game can even begin to do any of these things, so it won’t help you address the underlying reasons why you can’t play what you want to play.
I’m not saying don’t work on songs. It’s fun to work on songs. I work on songs and especially enjoy working on solo repertoire frequently, and I encourage my students to learn songs and perform them as much as possible. My point is that when you only work on songs (like you do in Rocksmith), and you work not at all or very little on skills, knowledge, and application (like you would do in real lessons with a good teacher), your playing level never really gets that much better (or does so at a very slow pace).
I have respect for anyone who sincerely wants to improve their guitar playing and is prepared to invest in something that they believe will help them. But I also couldn’t help but notice a consistent theme with the former Rocksmith players whom I have taken on as students. When these students first bought the game they thought it was the best thing since sliced bread and they were very excited about what it was going to do for their playing. But in a little while (usually a couple of weeks or months) the excitement wore off and they found themselves back in pretty much the same position they’d always been. They all praised it as being a fun game, but if anything it actually deepened their frustration and was the catalyst that prompted them to contact a teacher and get real help.
I didn’t write this to say no one should play Rocksmith or that it’s not an enjoyable way to spend some time. I realise part of the appeal is its relatively low price versus other tuition options. But like everything you get what you pay for. What you need to understand if you are considering the game is that from a musician’s perspective it is exactly that – a game. It is designed to be a fun way to blow off some steam, and maybe get a little better at playing some riffs in the process. And, in this respect, it does well.
But the point is there’s no way can Rocksmith or any other game even begin to replace the enjoyment and progress that comes from real lessons with an experienced guitar teacher. If you are serious about wanting to improve your guitar playing, reach your playing goals and overcome the obstacles that are truly holding you back, then absolutely nothing else is as fast, enjoyable or effective as having a great guitar teacher on your side.