As rock-and-roll guitar fantasies go, mine are relatively modest. I would just like to be able to play Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" someday, perhaps around a campfire. So last year, I went to my local Guitar Center, bought myself a Yamaha Junior —my elf-like hands being too tiny for a grownup guitar—and settled in with a few teach-yourself-guitar books.
I lasted all of two weeks. Sitting alone in my apartment, plonking away in a vacuum—it just felt too much like a chore. Junior has spent the last 12 months on top of a pile of CDs behind the couch.
If books couldn't help me, then how about a video game? Rock Band 3, which came out this week, features an optional, $149 axe that's more akin to a real-life guitar than the game's classic, guitar-shaped controller. While I'm no gaming master, I was willing to give the Xbox method a shot. At the very least, I could pretend to be a champion shredder without aurally assaulting my friends and neighbors.
While the Rock Band franchise has been a big hit since its debut in 2007, it has also faced criticism for failing to capture what it's really like to play an instrument. After all, you played the original guitar controller by pressing five buttons on the neck and strumming a bar that looked like a big light switch. (You use the same controller to play the bass line.) As real-life rock star Carrie Brownstein put it in her Slate review, Rock Band bears about as much resemblance to guitar-playing as Operation does to performing surgery.
Rock Band 3 aims to change that by adding a "pro mode," which vowsto take players "into the realm of real musicianship." The key to pro mode is the schmancy "Fender™ Mustang™ PRO-Guitar™ Controller," which has a mind-boggling 102 buttons on the neck—one for each fingering position on a 17-fret, six-string instrument. The light-switch-esque strum bar has been replaced with a set of strings. While this new-fangled faux guitar is still plastic and feather-light, it makes the old controller look like a Tinkertoy. (Rock Band's drum expansion kit, meanwhile, has three improved cymbals, and the brand-new keyboard covers two full octaves.)
I was first introduced to the new guitar at the offices of MTV Games, the publisher of Rock Band. (The game was developed by Harmonix, the controllers by Mad Catz.) Even there, surrounded by several friendly PR folks, the device seemed infernally complicated and the onscreen notation abstruse. In classic Rock Band mode, the screen shows a five-lane highway; as little gemlike bars come speeding down their respective lanes, you press the corresponding colored button and then "strum" at the precise moment the bar reaches the bottom of the screen. In pro mode, the five lanes become six strings and the bars become little colored squares bearing a number from 0 to 17, indicating which strings to press and pluck. Though I tried playing along with the seasoned MTV folks, I couldn't help feeling like I was in the middle of a cocktail party being conducted in Cantonese. (I had a little more success on keys, largely because what you see onscreen is a straightforward representation of the actual keyboard—there's less translation involved between your eyes and your fingers.)
Once I got the game and the guitar home for a little private time, things got better. Rock Band 3 has an extensive set of lessons in its training mode—I started with note basics, which taught me how to play open strings before adding in frets. I'm currently stuck on basic power chords—thankfully, you can slow the lessons down while you practice—but I could eventually work my way upto major and minor seventh chords and arpeggiation.
While this is all pretty standard guitar-lesson material, Rock Band 3 has some advantages over those teach-yourself programs I'd been using. For one thing, I like that it encourages my plodding attempts. When you make it through a round without making a mistake, a big "100%" bursts on the screen; when you master the whole exercise, you are cheered and applauded. Those little carrots keep things fun, but the interactivity also makes for a better teaching tool. The six-string map shows you where your fingers are at all times, which helps you self-correct, and the game can also be set to pause a lesson whenever it senses you're screwing up too much. Text instructions show up on the right-hand side of the screen, and an image of the fretboard pops up on top. You can see where your fingers are and where they're supposed to be; when you connect with the right position, you hear a satisfying little plink!