Rocksmith

I’ve been playing Rocksmith on PS3 for about 10 days now. We bought the game & cable bundle; It is very, very good.

Any review of a guitar-teaching game should start with some information on how competent a guitarist the reviewer is before playing it: in this case “not very”. I can play 4 chords, specifically the bare minimum you need to play “For Your Love” by The Yardbirds. I can play the opening riff from “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” passably-well about 90% of the time.

I guess we should cover equipment as well: I have been using a BC Rich Mockingbird for the guitar sections and a Stagg Fretless Bass for the bass part of the game. I also tried my wife’s Epiphone Les Paul, but quickly reverted to my Mockingbird because I prefer the feel of its neck. I also played one session with a Line6 JTV-69; I was using the game to test the guitar. Unless otherwise noted, I will use guitar to refer to both guitar and bass below.

The bundled cable has a USB A connector that plugs into the PS3 and a 1/4″ TS plug that goes into your guitar. The PlayStation Eye camera is not used. Obviously therefore the game has no information about what string you are playing or where your fingers are other than what it can “hear” from your guitar’s output.

Onto the game then: like DDR, Guitar Hero, EBA, Rockband, and its other forebears it uses the tried-and-true mechanic of notes scrolling towards a target area which indicates the time at which they must be played. Unlike those games, you are holding a real musical instrument with all the complexity that entails. The interface tells you which notes to fret on which string and how to play them. It can tell the difference between hammer-ons, pull-offs, palm-mutes, harmonics, and normal picked notes; you have to play the right note in the right way for maximum score. If you play the right fret on the wrong string a yellow arrow tells you to move up or down a string as appropriate. Similarly if you are one or two frets out on the correct string you get an arrow telling you to move to a higher or lower fret.

The range of songs is excellent; it seems to cover all genres reasonably evenly. I haven’t had to play anything I’ve hated yet. The progression of songs has been sensible, getting progressively more complex without any huge jumps in required skill.

Each song is available in at least one arrangement. These are described as single-note, chord, and mixed. They have tried to be faithful to the original track in splitting it up, so if it was recorded by one guitarist performing both rhythm and lead you will only have a mixed arrangement available.

Each arrangement is split into separately-scored phrases, again these are modelled on the original track. You begin playing a cut-down version of each phrase with the missing parts played-in, if you do well you will see the message “phrase level up” and next time around you will be playing a harder version of that phrase. This is a problematic mechanism because if you get a phrase level up on the last repeat of a phrase in practice mode you are then faced with the more complex version as soon as you start to play it in a gig. It is shocking the first time it happens, but you can always practice it more until you can nail it at the top level: then there is no problem.

Does the game improve your ability to play the guitar? In my case yes, noticeably. I find once I have got the hang of a phrase I am no longer looking at the screen, but instead I am playing the notes where they need to be in the rest of the music. I was relieved to notice myself doing this because I had feared that I would become dependent on the scrolling notes to be able to play anything.

Incidentally, if you play the right note in the right way on the wrong string you usually get the points: the game only knows what it can hear. This is an unnecessarily difficult way to play the game; I tried it so you don’t have to.

The pitch accuracy required to score well is quite high; your guitar needs to be in tune, and you need to be sure you don’t bend the string as you fret it. This may give you trouble if your guitar has tall frets. It also makes using the fretless bass quite tricky. The game tests your tuning before each performance; although if your guitar needs tuning more than once a session take it to a guitar technician and have it set up properly. I have used and can recommend Hayward Guitars in Winchester.

Rocksmith has digital models of various effects and amplifiers which it uses to modify the sound from your guitar. Each song has a predefined set of effects/amp, and beating a given score on that song unlocks one or more of them for use in the freestyle amps section of the game (more on which later). The predefined amps are designed to match the effect used on the guitar in the original track, so your playing will blend in nicely and, if perfect, have the same result as the original. They have done an excellent job of this: on tracks which were originally made with a fat guitar I get pretty-much the same tone as the original; tracks which were originally recorded from a guitar with single-coil pickups don’t match up quite as well (they were perfect with the JTV-69 in Strat mode).

If you do not have a guitar already there is a bundle which includes an Epiphone Les Paul Jr: by all accounts this is a good first guitar; I have never tried one. Based on my mucking around with the JTV-69, a guitar with a humbucker pickup at the bridge and single coils towards the neck would be a good compromise; you could use the bridge pickup for the Les Paul tracks and the neck pickup for the Strat/Tele sounds. There are plenty of these around, just avoid anything cheap with a whammy bar as it is unlikely to stay in tune: this will be tricky because for historical reasons most guitars with this configuration are designed to look like Stratocasters. Magic words to try in Google: HSS, “Fat Strat”, “Super Strat”, Jackson Soloist. Of course if you want to drop over a grand on your first guitar the JTV-69 is awesome.

Free amp mode is potentially very useful to the budding recording artist. You can configure any chain of pedals and amp that you have unlocked and play through it. In this mode the game is not making any other noises, so it is perfectly viable to take the optical S/PDIF output from the PS3 and feed it into a MacBook Pro running GarageBand and record the output there. It is probably better to record the output of the guitar and then loop it through Rocksmith effects later, as that way you can tweak the effects later without having to re-record your playing. It may seem redundant to do this when GarageBand has its own effect- and amp-models, but Rocksmith has a key advantage: you can load the same presets that it uses for the songs in game mode when you are in free amp mode, so if you want to record your own version of the songs from scratch this is a good way to go.

Bass mode is good fun, and not the afterthought it could easily have been. There is good coverage of bass-specific playing techniques such as walking- and slap-bass. If you do not have a bass but you do have a guitar there is a bass-emulation mode which drops the output of your guitar by an octave before processing it as normal. It is quite effective, provided you have the volume up loud enough that you can’t hear the strings’ natural sound, but I found it a lot easier to use my actual bass even though it is fretless: slap bass on the flat-wound low E of a bass is a lot easier to play than on the round-wound E from the set of nines on my Mockingbird.

The bundled cable is a USB soundcard so far as my Mac, iPhone and iPad are concerned. This means I can use it easily with GarageBand on any of these devices. Probably it will work equally nicely with PCs. You can buy extra cables separately in order to play multiplayer; we haven’t tried this yet.

A final note for Mark, who was concerned that it was potentially expensive: I have only spent £950 so far on fancier guitars since buying this game.

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