Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Eleven Tips to Get the Most out of Rocksmith 2014

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 26, 2014

RocksmithCarryOn1Now that Rocksmith 2014 has been out almost six months (I’ll have a six-month report in early May), articles and reviews about it have dropped off significantly. This is unsurprising, but also unfortunate, as Rocksmith 2014 is a game / tool that is best evaluated over the long haul. Sadly, that’s not how this industry works. Learning to play a real guitar is not much like mastering the plastic controller – it’s a lot harder, and has a lot more room for error.

When I was a teenager, I learned to play well enough that I’d consider myself an “advanced beginner.” Over the years, I’d played off and on (usually off), but never quite getting over “the hump” into what I would consider the “intermediate” stage of playing. I got nice surges thanks to two games that let you play a real guitar – Rock Band 3 (Pro Mode) and the original Rocksmith – which got me part-way up the “wall,” but still hadn’t translated into regular practice or gotten me to the point where I would safely feel like I was of intermediate skill level. I re-committed with Rocksmith 2014, and I have been playing the guitar almost every day since, generally for 30-60 minutes a day. At this point, it’s habit, and I hope I’ll stick with it.

I’ve gradually but noticably improved over the last four months, without additional formal instruction, which is beyond awesome.  For people who haven’t played it (much or at all) but are considering it, here are a bunch of tips for getting the most out of the game to help you learn to play the guitar.  Now, your mileage may vary (of course), but these are the things that have seemed to work the best for me, through trial and error:

1. Go ahead and play your favorites, but…
I started out by playing some of my favorite songs. This is awesome, as the game does a pretty good job (after a couple of times through) of setting up the difficulty level to where you can handle it – it’ll be just above your comfort level.

One thing I found is that I hit a wall in my favorite songs – which are usually pretty complex pieces – is that I hit a wall. I just can’t play the riffs fast enough, or my chord changes are just too slow and sloppy. With over 20 play-throughs, I’m still stuck at something in the 80% – 95% mastery range. At this point, it’s usually best (for me) to give it a little bit of a rest. Sure, practice makes perfect, but …

2. … Check out the easier songs
In RS2014, you can sort the songs by difficulty.  When I got frustrated hitting the wall again on the more challenging songs, it is nice to choose an easier song – including one I’m unfamiliar with – and really get it down, cold. Some of these songs I found myself liking after a while (but some… I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tolerate Rotten Apple).  But the simpler songs are there for a reason, and it’s awesome to be able to actually master a song. It’s a big confidence boost, and it allows me to focus less on the mechanics and more on making the song sound good.

In some cases, three months later, I’ve gone back and found almost immediate improvement in some songs where I’d hit a wall.  I feel like I’m building a bit more of a foundation.

3. Mess with the mixer
It’s hard to hear how well (or poorly) you are playing sometimes with the original music playing. Go into the mixer and increase the relative volume of your own guitar so you can hear how you really sound against the music. I discovered that some of the times I thought the game was mis-reading my inputs were actually because I was playing it wrong – missing some of the strings on a strum, having fingers too far back (or forward) from the fret, or – especially on the low E string – pressing down too hard and causing an inadvertent bend. Changing the mixer settings allowed me to hear my own playing above the music better, and hear what I was doing wrong. (In less extreme cases, I can just play with the volume knob on the guitar, but on my cheap guitar that can lead to some side effects).

4. The Riff Repeater Is Your Friend
Seriously. Trying to just keep up, Guitar Hero style, is going to result in repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Go to the riff repeater and practice the troublesome parts over and over until you get them perfect (or nearly perfect), and let them level up.  For the more difficult ones, I still get clobbered because my speed isn’t there yet – but I can slow them down and nail them pretty well. In many cases, once I get to 100% difficulty, I end up having to turn off the auto-acceleration and just manually adjust the speed at 1% increments.

5. Guitarcade – Technique Games
While I’m not sure about all of them, I think the guitarcade technique exercises can be very, very helpful in developing accuracy. My accuracy sucks, but it sucks a lot less now than it did five months ago. I don’t think Guitarcade is a complete replacement for some basic (and, admittedly, boring) exercises, like just practicing scales or  chord changes over and over.  If your basics are sloppy, then frantic Guitarcade practice is going to be just as sloppy.  But it is a fun supplement.

6. Use Score Attack to Identify Trouble Areas (and to feel awesome)
I started doing the “Score Attack” games just to pick up some extra achievements on Steam. One thing I found is that it was helpful is that when I’m playing on hard difficulty (the full song), I can see where I’m having the most trouble. In Learn a Song, after a point – especially once I start going into mastery mode and the notes start disappearing (which you can re-enable easily enough if you need to) – it can hard to tell where I keep stumbling. I just know my accuracy is at 94% or something and not really improving. Score attack, which plays like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, makes a loud announcement when I screw up, and color-codes the section based upon just how many notes I’ve missed. It’s handy to see exactly what I need to practice and revisit with the riff repeater.

It’s also handy to go back and review a song I haven’t played in a while and may have forgotten some parts.

It is a nice ego boost to play through a song and get a gold or platinum rating, even if it is on easy or medium.  It’s cool to feel like you can play along with a song, if only a simplified version of it, and see that you are nailing it. I don’t really know what value playing on these settings can be, other than being motivational, but I imagine if you are really struggling with the difficulty of a song – especially if you aren’t very familiar with it – it’s nice to go through and just get a “feel” for it at a skill level well within your grasp.

Additionally when trying to fail a song ten times on Hard to get a “secret” achievement (“Maybe you should try another song”) , I actually ended up figuring it out and playing it, clearing the song. I may have missed one chance at the achievement, but clearly it is entirely possible to learn to play a song this way.

7. Memorize Scales
This one I’m taking on faith, having too many people in my life who really do know music and music theory.  Scales are the building blocks of how you improvise, how you pick up new songs quickly, how you transcribe, and so forth. While games like Scale Racer and Scale Warriors are pretty cool in this regard, sometimes the best thing to do is just set up a scale in Session Mode and practice. The nice thing with Session Mode is you can reveal the larger scale in steps or all over the fretboard to practice the scales in more than just a single hand position. While it doesn’t teach you much about theory, it does help you learn to hear how all these things work together.

8. Hunt down additional instruction
You will hit the limits of Rocksmith 2014‘s instruction pretty quickly, even though the lessons are pretty good. Fortunately, in this day and age, you are no longer limited to buying a book or hiring an instructor. Tons of instruction are available on the Internet, often for free or the cost of a donation. More advanced instruction can be had for pretty cheaply too. A lot of people have done quite well by Justin Guitar (including myself), and it’s really, REALLY worth it to go through some of his lessons or look up topics online. The game doesn’t tell you much about strumming or picking patterns, theory, etc. It cannot offer much advice when your music just sounds wrong, either.  It’s hard to say which is the primary and which is the supplemental instruction, but I’d strongly suggest that you pick up what you can through other sources.

Seriously – Rocksmith 2014 is much, much better than its predecessor, but it still leaves a lot of gaps. Some pretty basic, free instruction found online can make a huge difference. If nothing else, it’s helpful to learn from two or three different sources and perspectives, as one might give you the “ah-hah!” insight the others don’t.

9. Memorize Songs
This one is a challenge for me, but it seems like this is the obvious goal — being able to pick up a guitar and play a tune that anyone can recognize, without having to pull out the sheet music. RS 2014 really helps push you towards this goal, and it’s really cool.  If you haven’t practiced a song in a while, you can always temporarily turn off “master mode” or play it with master mode turned off in the riff repeater – OR play it on “Hard” in Score Attack – to remind yourself how to play it.

10. Unplug
Once you have songs (or just riffs) memorized, play without the song backing you – maybe not even plugging into Rocksmith or any amp at all.  Just as with the suggestions to mess with the mixer levels, this allows you to hear exactly how you sound, without the original music convincing you that you are hearing what you want to hear.  RS2014 will ignore a lot of mistakes or let you get away with some sloppy playing – accidental strings, poor rhythm (it won’t always tell the difference between repeating a strummed chord / string or just sustaining a previous strum). Unplugging and listening to yourself – seeing how close you can get to making the right “sound” with your palm mutes and strums or whatever.

And then, finally, here’s a bonus tip, which isn’t really much of a tip at all:

11. Practice!

The single greatest value in a training tool like this is that it gives you a fun way to practice, and an excuse to commit to daily practice. It gives you a bunch of tangible goals to strive for, either through the game itself (through the missions and achievements), or simply by giving you a way to measure your progress and set goals for yourself. I expect that more than anything else, simply putting your hands on the guitar and regularly practicing.

I used it, personally, as a “trick” to commit to a goal I kept slacking on every year – to really improve on the guitar. By being able to measure my progress (if indirectly), it’s worked really well in that respect. I don’t harbor any desire to become a professional musician – I just want to be able to play guitar. It is great to finally hear improvement.

Filed Under: Guitar Games, Mainstream Games - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Cuthalion said,

    Neat. Makes me want to get out my guitar again!

  • David Carlton said,

    Nice list! I’d call out Session Mode, too (though you did mention it in the bit on scales, and I agree, it’s a very good way to learn scales) – I’m the sort of person who likes clear direction on what to do, which makes it too easy for me to gravitate towards playing through songs instead of messing around, and I really appreciate the way Session Mode forced me to mess around while giving me enough support to let me feel like I wasn’t completely at sea.