Can a video game really teach someone how to play guitar? We crashed London duo Big Deal's house, forced them to cook us dinner, and made them play Rocksmith.
Rocksmith is a new Xbox/PS3 game that’s billed as the fastest way to learn guitar. This is advertised quite heavily, which suggests a lot of people avoid learning guitar because it takes too long. Which is true. Learning guitar takes a while, usually marked by long, desperate periods during which you’ll only play out-of-tune Oasis covers on a guitar bought from Walmart that always has a missing string. You’ll also spend more time burning demo CDs and sending them to record companies than you will practicing your scales. Stay in scale-school, kids. It’s good for your brains.
I asked Alice and Kacey from English-American duo Big Deal to help me test the game, half because it would be way more fun than on my own, half because I don’t have an Xbox, and totally because they promised me a hot meal.
Kacey’s Xbox is sickly so if Microsoft are listening, baby needs a new console. Right now it can only be made to work if you give it several gentle but firm punches (this wholly scientific process is documented across the web so don’t call the console-abuse cops).
We were super excited to play the game. Who wouldn’t be? It's full of heavyweight bands, some of which make sense—The Who, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Kiss, Iron Maiden—and some like The Smashing Pumpkins (with their hit song, “The Chimera”… nope, us neither), and Bush (no one needs to hear “Machinehead” again). It also features some really new bands like Splashh, JAWS, and PAWS, which is awesome because Big Deal toured with PAWS, so obviously Kacey and Alice will be really great at playing that song.
We turn the game on and our anticipation is riding high. Finally, a chance to play a something we’re certain to be good at from the start. After going through the calibration process—about which Kacey says, “This is fucking awesome. And I’m only tuning!”—we start our guitar mentorship.
It doesn’t take long for Kacey’s statement to become a terrifying portent of what was to come. We spend long minutes tuning the guitar before every performance. Worse yet, many of the 30 tracks in the game are in different tunings. So we have to retune the guitar completely every time. Sometimes down to Eb, or drop-D. Which is kind of understandable. But why include songs that aren’t at A440 concert pitch? If we wanted to play The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” we would have had to tune down 6 cents on each string.
Tuning. And tuning.
If I lost you with the tuning nerdery, this game might not be for you. As it turned out, us trying to play the songs was a little bit sad and a lotta bit pathetic. I didn’t take any video of us sucking at guitar, but here’s a sad photo of a kitten which should set the tone.
It reminded me of being 14 again and forming your first band. No one can really hear what’s happening, you’re terrible at everything, and your guitar needs to be tuned all the time.
I mean, seriously, we were not good at this game. It actually sucked our will to live and made us deeply question our choice of career. Before Kacey was in Big Deal he was a guitar teacher, and he was Dick Dale’s guitar tech. But Rocksmith wasn’t just schooling us, it was keeping us stuck in 4th grade until we had pubic hair and prostrate problems.
Until this ray of sunshine and talent entered the game:
In the photo above, Alice is shredding along to Slayer’s “War Ensemble.” It didn’t matter that she had never heard it: she had it covered. Same deal with The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Swoosh. But here’s the thing. Alice already plays guitar for a living, but she’s also super-sweet at Guitar Hero. Even though in Rocksmith you’re playing a real guitar, it’s still about playing guitar how the game wants you to do it.
And don’t be too modest when you start the game. When you first play, it asks how good you are at guitar. We said “average” because we were being British and self-deprecating, but as it turns out, this made it less fun and we couldn’t work out any way to change it.
When you get bored of learning other people’s songs, hit the Guitarcade for some zombie-killing, spaceship-destroying, police car-trashing, fine art-stealing, robot-crushing action. I’m not sure what the link between learning to play guitar and wide scale mass destruction is, but these games are made so you can practice scales, fretting, chords, and harmonics. They’re pretty good and killing zombies with the sheer muscle of your power chords is sweet.
Sidenote: More Big Deal! Check out their single “Swapping Spit” which is all about making out. Big Deal’s second LP, June Gloom, is out now.