Ever play Rock Band on expert mode and wonder, “am I really learning how to play guitar right now? Can I teach myself to play instruments like this? Have the hours upon hours I’ve spent playing this game be of any practical use to me in the real world?”
Wonder no further. I’ve completed my investigation and am now in a prime position to tell you what the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series can teach you musically. I’ve been playing guitar for twenty years as well as the bass ukulele and, just for fun, drums and piano on the side. For now, let’s start with the guitar.
There’s an episode of South Park where Stan’s dad, Randy Marsh, tries to play Guitar Hero and fails a song he actually knows how to play. I empathize with Randy. If I knew a song on guitar, it was actually harder to play on the game because the dots don’t really line up with what the actual song would be on guitar. Playing in expert mode was easier than playing on the other difficulties because it was as close to the real timing and rhythm as the real thing. But if you are using any guitar controllers with the buttons, I don’t think you will be learning anything useful. If anything, using this as a precursor to learning guitar might actually build false confidence because the games usually quantize your sounds, even in “free solo” modes, where you don’t hear what you’re “playing.”
Rock Band 3 has some controllers that are only compatible with that game in the series, but were some of the most true-to-life musical controllers ever designed. The Squier Stratocaster Pro Guitar controller that came out with Rock Band 3 has 6 strings and 24 frets. Most people learn on Squier guitars as an inexpensive beginner guitar. I think this is a much more viable option to get comfortable with playing a guitar, but it is not very durable and has some minor differences from real guitars.Youtube channel Rose of Jericho does a video that shows a nice demo of using this as a real guitar and the shortcomings outside of the game, as can be seen here:
Despite the Squier Pro Guitar Rock Band controller having some minor issues, the game will help you with sight reading, rhythm, and tempo. You will know exactly when you make mistakes, especially if you aren’t on time, which is a great learning tool. You will also avoid the pitfall of online guitar tabs and trying to learn songs without instruction. (Sometimes, these online guitar tabs are also straight-up wrong.) Once you feel comfortable with a song on the game, you can plug into an amp afterwards and see what you sound like IRL. I would give this a score of 4 out of 5 stars.
The Rock Band 3 keyboard controller is clearly a real piano keyboard with buttons. It is an actual MIDI keyboard, which means you can plug it into a computer and use it with any digital audio workstation that can use MIDI instruments. It is only two octaves, which is quite small, but just enough to give you a taste to get a start. Again, when you play songs on easier difficulties, you won’t be playing all the notes that you actually would in the song, so it won’t actually teach you the song until you’re in expert mode. Once you are in expert mode, you will be playing the right notes, but the game will be switching octaves around for you without telling you. You can connect this keyboard to your computer via USB or iPads/iPhone via a separate accessory that lets you use it as a MIDI controller with different sounds on GarageBand or any other music software. I would again give this a 4 out of 5 because it teaches you some great basics but won’t teach you proper finger positions. Also, looking at a piano with only two octaves is quite limiting in some ways. For example, you can only play one B chord voicing, and certain keys are harder to experiment in than others.
Regarding the drums in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series, I have always been impressed with what they could do. One day a couple years ago, I decided to learn drums and I bought a $600 electronic drum kit for my house that had pressure-sensitive pads and an annoying set-up. The drum devices designed for the Rock Band series are almost the exact same thing. It took a lot of practice and determination to learn drums alone by myself. Having the Rock Band game actually makes it fun to learn the drums. It also keeps you on time, which is the most important thing when playing the drums. I would give this a 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone wanting to learn the basics of drums and coordination. This is because the motions you’re doing when playing the drums on Rock Band literally are the same way you’d move playing the drums.
The downside is, Rock Band 3 came out in 2010, making it ten years old. All of the controllers available now can only be found second-hand. MadCatz, which made most of the newer Rock Band controllers, folded in 2017, and Harmonix has moved onto other projects. Rock Band 4, which came out in 2015, only has support for the button guitars and the drums.
There is a game called Rocksmith developed by Ubisoft that links up to your guitar. Available for Xbox One, PS4, PC & Mac, Rocksmith has a “60 day challenge” that claims they can teach someone to play guitar in 60 days through the game. I have personally never played the Rocksmith series before, but I watched videos of people, including professional guitarists, playing the game, and I think it looks like an amazing tool to learn guitar or practice guitar if you already have some experience. It features most of the same things as the Rock Band Pro Guitar Squire guitar would teach you, except that you’re using your own guitar. There is also a mode where you can learn different techniques like finger tapping, Finally, there is also a “Guitarcade” mode that features small mini-games for you to practice in different ways that don’t make you feel like you’re just running scales or running drills.
Even though I’ve been playing guitar since the Playstation 2 came out, I think Rocksmith could very well be my next game purchase to keep learning guitar now that the COVID era has rendered personal one-on-one lessons out of the picture. For all our frustrations, maybe Randy Marsh and I were just playing the wrong guitar game all along.