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!
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.