Anyone can play guitar, but can a video game teach you?

I recently picked up a copy of Rocksmith 2014 for Xbox 360, a video game which purports to teach you guitar (in as little as 60 days at that). Unlike Guitar Hero and the like, you use an actual guitar, which plugs into the Xbox via a special 1/8th-inch to USB cable.

I already sort of know how to play guitar. I like to say I'm aware of how to play — I figure that's one step short of actually being able to play anything useful. I thought this game might be a fun way to polish my chops and maybe learn a lick or two.

What do they mean by "learning to play"?

There is no argument that playing Rocksmith teaches you to play Rocksmith. It also definitely helps you work on skills you can apply to playing other songs, for instance getting your fingers comfortable with new chord shapes. It also requires you to learn to not look down while playing, because if you look down, you'll miss the "notes" flying by on the TV.

Despite the way the game brings you along slowly, first giving you a few individual notes and partial chords then filling in the details as you demonstrate proficiency, it doesn't seem to do much to prepare players for the two main ways hobbyists learn songs: by ear and by looking up tablature-style transcriptions online.

The song playing experience can be chaotic, making you map colors to strings and numbers to frets, plus animations indication hit or missed notes all flying towards you at the speed of sound. I also find it tells me I missed a note if I play with the music I hear, requiring me to jump the beat aggressively. (Additionally, "missing" a note could mean any number of things: playing at the wrong time, playing the wrong note, inadvertently bending the string out of tune, etc.) Many of the notations on screen are only made clear by working through tedious tutorials.

The art of intentional practice

As a kid learning to play the trumpet, I would sit in front of the TV after school with my horn and play during commercials or whenever I was bored with whatever was happening on Benson reruns. It was a great way to log playing hours, particularly with an instrument like trumpet, which benefitted from frequent short breaks.1

By the time I got to college, I'd moved beyond playing the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation in front of the TV and thought I knew how to actually practice. But I quickly learned it wasn't enough to practice until I could play it; I had to practice it until I couldn't play it wrong.2

I don't know how wide spread it is, but I've definitely witnessed amateur guitar players practicing poorly.

This is the area where Rocksmith excels. The "Riff Repeater" feature takes you through an individual section of a song, progressively increasing the speed and difficulty after a certain number of perfect repetitions. The game prompts you to riff-repeat sections of songs and to complete various tutorials and arcade-style learning games.

No, this video game can't make any old schlub an amazing guitar player. If it could, it would be worth many hundered times the MSRP. But if, like me, you enjoy messing about on guitar but lack the time, effort or desire to hunt through terrible tab transcriptions, this is a fun way to kill a few hours on your guitar.

  1. Later in life, when parents paid me to make their own middle schoolers better at trumpet, I usually started by breaking the news to them that no amout of "teaching" could make them good if they didn't put in the hours.

  2. This really only applies to troublesome passages. If you're already playing it right, you probably don't need to take it to the woodshed.