My Rocksmith 2014 review

I’ve been playing with Rocksmith 2014 for a week now and I think I’ve had enough time with it to write my first review of it. If you haven’t heard of Rocksmit, it’s pretty cool: It’s a video game that actually teaches you to play the Guitar. Remember Guitar Hero and Rockband? Well, this is the same idea, except with a real guitar! It even has a 60-day challenge where they promise that you’ll learn Guitar by playing for just an hour a day for 60 days.  All you need is an electric guitar, the Real Tone Cable, and the Actual game.
tl;dr: I love Rocksmith (Although ‘the guy’ can be a condescending douche).

Let’s get to it then, shall we?

Rocksmith 2014

Rocksmith 2014 is the new and improved version of Rocksmith by the cool kids at Ubisoft SF. The idea is that you plug your guitar into your PC (or Mac, Xbox, PS) via a special cable, called the Real Tone Cable, and the game uses this connection to ‘listen’ to what you’re playing and provide you feedback. This feedback system integrates into all parts of the game and let me tell you: it can make for some fun days. Once the game initializes you can hear yourself play so if you don’t particularly feel like learning, practicing, or playing a song right now, you can just hang about in the menu and use the whole thing as your amp! Although if you have a good amp, you’re better off just playing through that!

Rocksmith Feedback System

The feedback system is the heart of the whole thing. Everything that involves listening to you play, aside from the mini-games, revolves around this. The screen shows you a stream of what you’re playing as well as what’s coming up and a whole lot more. The picture below is extracted from the game manual.

Song Gameplay Diagram
Song Gameplay Diagram
Guide
  1. Noteway
  2. Strings
  3. Active Notes
  4. Upcoming Notes
  5. Note tails
  6. Fret Numbers
  7. Missed Note
  8. Technique Symbol
  9. Venue
  10. Anchor Zone
  11. Upcoming Anchor Zone
  12. Phrase Banner
  13. Song Progress
  14. Current Phrase
  15. Mastered Phrases

My only issue with the feedback system is that you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on what you’ve missed (#7 in the picture above). Depending on the tempo of the song, the notes can be flying towards you at ridiculous speeds so by the time you know you missed something, it’s gone. Now for a simple note that’s not a big deal, for example in the above picture you missed the F# (7th fret) on the B string. However if the note was a bend you won’t know if you went too far, not enough, or just bent the 7th fret on the G string (or all of the above). I know, I know, the fact that I’m nitpicking is a good sign, isn’t it?

The only other (similar) app I’ve had experience with has been Yousician. Here’s a screenshot of me missing a note on purpose (of course) in Yousican.

Yousician Feedback
Yousician Feedback

If I compare the Rocksmith feedback system to that of Yousician, there are things I like better about the latter:

  • The note I just missed (along with all it’s annotations) is still on the screen even though I’m 2 notes ahead (white dot)
  • The Noteway not only tells me what I need to play, but also which finger to use. This isn’t always there with Rocksmith, but I’ve occasionally seen it.
  • It’s more like looking at guitar tab than Rocksmith. I find it easier that the fingers are color coded as opposed to the strings.
  • The direction of the notes’ flying feels more natural (To me. YMMV, right?)

Riff Repeater

The Riff Repeater is seriously cool. It allows you to select a portion of the song to play over and over with varying difficulties, speeds, or both (See items 12-15 of the Song Gameplay Diagram above). If you look closely at the diagram you’ll notice that the song is broken into multiple phrases, which is the smallest portion on which you can use the Riff Repeater. As far as the settings go, everything about the Riff Repeater is straight forward. The only warning I have for you is to set your Error Tolerance to ‘Low’ and not ‘None’. The reason is that there are times when you play the right note and it’s still missed, which makes for a frustrating experience (Again, YMMV, but today on my Ibanez, I couldn’t hit the C# on the E string to save my life and the guitar was in tune, I triple checked! ). One cool thing that I just noticed is that if you already have a bunch of riffs mastered the Riff Repeater automatically starts with the first one that you haven’t yet mastered. Here’s a screenshot of me learning “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith:

Purple riffs are mastered, Orange bar vertically represents the difficulty and dimmed phrases are deselected.
Purple riffs are mastered, Orange bar vertically represents the difficulty and dimmed phrases are deselected.

In the screenshot above, you’ll notice on the phrase banner that some phrases are dim and some are bright. The bright section shows the selected portion. Riff Repeater starts just before the selection and then rewinds at the end. If you had no mistakes or fell within the error tolerance the riff speeds up until you hit 100%. Once you hit 100% speed at the current difficulty level, the speed goes back to your starting speed, but the difficulty levels up. This continues until you can play the riff at full speed and maximum difficulty (i.e. no notes are omitted and all techniques are in).

Riff Mastery

Another thing you may notice in the Riff Repeater screenshot above, is that there are also some phrases that are Purple and some that are Orange. You can think of each phrase column as a vertical progress indicator. The higher level of difficulty that you master in that riff, the taller the Orange column gets. Once you’ve mastered the riff, that is, 100% speed and maximum difficulty, the phrase turns Purple. There are 2 ways to master a riff: First is by playing the track over and over: Sufficiently nail a phrase and the next time it pops up, it’s a bit more difficult until at maximum difficulty. The other way to master a phrase is using the Riff Repeater: Pick a phrase, a starting speed, and a starting difficulty level and work your way up. This, in my experience, is the quicker way.

Learn a Song

The learn a song feature, is another cool feature in which you can learn a song starting from a simple version to the actual note-by-note version. The Riff Repeater comes in very handy here since most songs repeat the same set of riffs. Play the whole thing over and over until you master it, or go riff by riff. It can seem a bit boring in the beginning since you’re playing nothing recognizable from the song, but get it right and it levels up (or go the Riff Repeater route). What’s cool is that before you start a song, Rocksmith checks to make sure that not only your guitar is in tune, but it’s tuned to the same tuning as required by the song (because otherwise the feedback would be a tad wrong, right?).

Song Collection

Rocksmith 2014 boasts a collection of more than 50 songs by a variety of artists across a multitude of genres, meaning there are going to be a few you recognize and even fewer you’d want to play. OK, maybe I’m a bit pessimistic here, but given the licensing costs and the amount of work that goes into creating the dynamic difficulty levels, a larger selection would be costly and probably affect the release schedule. Fear not, though, as there are 600+ more songs that you can download via DLC. If you have the original Rocksmith, that’s another 50 songs you can use.

Custom Songs

There is also an open source community with a selection of another 754 songs, however the legality of this content is questionable at best. When Rocksmith puts out a DLC pack, the original artist receives their share of the sales, but when you use a custom DLC, nobody gets paid. This could be a great revenue stream for artists. There is obviously a lot of demand and the current way seems hacky at best. My understanding is that you need to buy a specific DLC and since the custom DLCs are encoded with the same content id, they’ll just work.

Official Rocksmith Position on Custom Content

While researching the possibility, availability, and legality of custom songs, I came across a Reddit post that shows a comment by the Official Rocksmith Facebook page regarding said content. Rocksmith’s argument is that “the existence of unlicensed content has almost sunk a few partnerships with highly requested artists”, which is quite typical of the music industry: There seems to be some demand here so we’re gonna tighten up.

Make Your Own

So since custom DLCs exist, there has to be a way to make your own too, right? Well, there is. They don’t officially condone uploading unlicensed work, but that’s probably just the legal thing to say. Right? However, there’s nothing stopping you from creating your own stuff and sharing it, right?

The Lessons

As claimed, there is a section in the game for lessons and there are many of them. Some lessons are just informative, like how to attach the strap, and are not scored. Others often include a practice track that allows you to master what you learned. That’s right, I said master because you can either repeat the practice track until it’s all purple or learn it one riff at a time. I found this out in a rather annoying way: I watched all the videos, I played the practice track perfectly (or near perfect), but I only showed a 30% progress for that specific lesson. Initially I thought maybe that’s my overall progress, but soon enough I had a previous lesson reaching 96% while a later lesson was only 30%. If you feel like practicing, perfect each lesson and move on to the next. Your final score reflects the difficulty level of the lesson’s practice track and how well you played it.

Built-in Tuner

It has one! As you’d expect, yes, Rocksmith does come with a tuner and it knows more tunings than I do (honestly, though, that bar is pretty low).

Tone Designer

There is a rather large selection of real and fictional amps, cabs, and effects in the game. You can create your own tone and assign it to the Tone Stick. At any time you can hit the numbers 1-4 on the keyboard (and possibly a stick on the controller, if you have one connected) and switch to a custom tone.

Session Mode

I’ve heard good things about the Session Mode, but I haven’t had any experience with it yet. I found you a video, though, so you can get a feel for it.

Guitarcade

This bit is pretty cool. The Guitarcade is collection of arcade-style mini-games that are controlled via your guitar. Each game allows you to practice a certain technique. I’ve tried a few, but a couple of them really stood out:

  • Temple of Bends is obviously about helping you get your bends together! It’s a bit Indiana Jones-y. Your bends grow vines that a robot Indiana Jones has to use to either escape pirañas rising with the water from the bottom or crushers coming down from the above. Bend too little and the vines shrink, forcing you to bend again. Bend too much and the little guy is stuck on the vine until it shrinks down to where you should have stopped bending. Collect different colored gems to switch strings. The farther you go, the faster things get. It’s fun.
  • Star Chords helps you practice your chords and switching between them. You’re in a space ship and the guns fire with your chords. Shoot down enemy ships by playing the right chord. Take too long or play the wrong chord and they’ll shoot you. Play the right chord and they can eat your space shorts!

The Not-so-Perfect

Every once in a while I’ve had that one note that just doesn’t get registered. I can hear it loud and clear, but for some reason Rocksmith can’t. To get through one practice track I actually had to switch to my Les Paul. On the same day and a few tracks later because of the thick ass strings on my Les Paul, Rocksmith couldn’t detect my pull-offs on the low frets of the E string (although I could clearly hear the not change) and I had to switch back to my JS until it started picking up the pull offs and hammer ons. It’s a rare occurrence, but if you find yourself yelling at the game, it might be time for a break! 😉

Rocksmith vs. Teacher

While an awesome system, there are still places where an actual real teacher can teach you the finer details. My teacher (Dave Martone, great guy!) has to mention often that I need to alternate pick. Up, Down, Down, Down, Up, Up! It’s how you minimize your movements and play that much faster. There are also things that your instructor notices as you play that Rocksmith can’t. Essentially as long as you make the right noises Rocksmith lets you by. For example before Dave taught me to properly bend strings, I didn’t know what it means to bend ½ step or whole step. I also found bending anything over ½ step very difficult because I bent with a single finger.

With that all said, the videos still show you the proper way of doing things and at the very least you can start your one-on-one lessons from a more advanced stage.

My Guitar Background

As with anything else that involves a person’s background and skill level, your Rocksmith experience depends heavily on your musical talents, background, and skill level. Age also plays a factor. I don’t in any way consider myself old, but I feel that back in high school I picked up riffs a bit quicker than I do now.  I’ve been playing guitar on and off since ’98, but I stopped playing for a few years because I was fed up with my (lack of) skill, shitty amp, and that I couldn’t get a clean distorted sound (now there’s an Oxymoron!). I had too much extra noise like hissing, buzzing, and screeching in my tone even with a noise gate. I still played every once in a while, but the noisy signal always managed to turn me off. I finally managed to solve the noise problem with a small purchase of an isolated power supply for the pedals.

My Guitars

I now have 3 guitars and I want many more! 😉

  • An Ibanez JS2410-MCO
    • Joe Satriani signature model
  • An Epiphone Tobacco Burst Les Paul
    • Inspired by Slash’s 2003 Dark Tobacco Burst Les Paul
    • Seymour Duncan APH-2S humbuckers
    • Orange Drop tone caps
  • An LTD EX400-BD
    • I couldn’t get my hands on an ESP JH-2 since Gibson went apeshit on all Explorer designs, so this was the closest thing.
    • Orange Drop tone cap

Guitarporn

… and now some homebrew guitar porn