I had the most fun going through the game's career mode, which rewards you for completing various tasks—not just mastering skills and "beating" songs, but also customizing your avatar or naming your band. (Finally, finally, I have realized my longstanding dream of fronting a band called Discipline & Punish.) The nonmusic sections actually helped me stay on track, by allowing me to let off a little steam without throwing my plastic guitar against the wall. When I wanted to give up after a frustrating hour spent with the "Blues Rundown" lesson, I just went and got my avatar a new pair of pants.
So can Rock Band 3 actually teach me how to play the guitar? Well, it is teaching me some real, applicable skills. After a few days of practice, the instrument no longer seems like an alien landscape; I'm starting to develop the coordination necessary to move my left hand vertically and horizontally across the fretboard while moving my right hand up and down the strings. Once I mastered the "easy" version of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" on the Rock Band guitar, I picked up my real guitar, set the song to play again, and found that I could follow along pretty decently. (Of course, to say I was "playing 'Rehab' " is a stretch—it would be more accurate to say I was playing seven or eight notes that happen to be found in "Rehab.")
Once I got to chords, the limitations of Rock Band as a teaching tool became clearer. Pushing those sensitive little buttons feels nothing like pressing a group of strings on a real guitar, at least an acoustic. I can actually do the former, if not very well; the latter makes my hand feel like it's been stuck in a vise. Meanwhile, my guitar-playing friend Mark was thrown off by the new Rock Band controller. When you press on the fretboard of a real guitar, you feel the tension further down the strings, which signals where you're supposed to strum. But when you're playing with Rock Band's guitar simulator, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. To Mark, it felt like a completely different instrument.
In the end, casual Rock Band players may not want to upgrade to the new controller—it's difficult enough to master that it's kind of a party buzz kill for instrument neophytes. (The PRO-Guitar can still be played in the classic five-button mode, however.) Hardcore fans who've already mastered the Rock Band catalog at the "expert" level, though, will probably adore the hours and hours of new, more complicated gameplay the updated plastic axe presents. And it must be said that while the PRO-Guitar isn't a real guitar, it is a real instrument—it's a fully functioning MIDI controller, so you can plug it into something like Garage Band and create your own digital music.
Ultimately, though, wannabe guitar gods may want to wait until next year,when the latest, greatest, fanciest Rock Band controller of all time will be released. The Rock Band 3"Squier® by Fender Stratocaster®" is a mash-up between an electric guitar and a game controller—it has sensors embedded in the neck so that it works with your game console, but you can also plug it into an amp and play for real. Rock!
The King of All Rock Band Controllers might be just the thing for easily distracted students like me, since the gaming elements will mask the rote, homeworklike nature of the guitar training process. Rick Peckham, a professor at the Berklee College of Music who helped develop the game, told me that while there are millions of people who play the guitar, there would be a whole lot more if it weren't for the "dark days" of the first few months. As someone who yearns to make it past the beginner phase someday, I just might ask for the Rock Band 3 Squier for a belated Christmas present.
And now, if you'll excuse me, Discipline & Punish is off to master "Du Hast" before we have to return all our loaner equipment.