“It irritates me having watched my kids do it — if they spent as much time practicing the guitar as learning how to press the buttons they’d be damn good by now.”
— Nick Mason, member of Pink Floyd
Using video games to learn the guitar is not something that’s agreed upon among musicians.
And yet, regardless of age, desire to learn to play the guitar has surely tickled more than a few of us, hasn’t it?
From the age of 8 or 10, or during adolescence, when we memorized riffs from our favorite guitarists, or even still in adulthood, the guitar has always represented an unsatisfied passion.
For many, and notably for men, playing the guitar is an activity that is placed in the Top 6 most important things to do in life, after breathing, eating, drinking, shelter, and falling in love.
Activity number one on the “To Do List”?
Playing this instrument is like a powerful spell has been cast on the dormant music lover inside each reader. The only way to conjure it is to start playing the guitar.
Starting off on this adventure to learn the guitar often begins with buying your first guitar, followed by electric guitar lessons, online guitar lessons, and then, one day, after a few months, once a certain level has been achieved, enthusiasm declines as quickly as it came.
Excuses, often false, are made: “I don’t have an ear for music.” or “my fingers are too fat,” “it’s too hard for me,”…
Like learning a foreign language, it’s not the morphology that matters most, it’s the motivation, the work, and the frequency.
Can you learn the guitar with the help of new technologies?
Even if you can play a large number of pieces, taken from your favorite artists, this feeling that you’ve reached your limit persists, like an impenetrable glass ceiling, and you adopt this idea that you’ll never be able to totally master this instrument.
Fortunately, the Internet and video games are going to renew inspiration.
Learning the guitar with a video game console, seriously?
Superprof takes a look, in this article, at the video games that enable you to learn to play the guitar, and weighs the pros and cons of using this kind of video-amusement.
Since 2006 (yes, already over a decade), there have been to options for playing the guitar like a pro, for serious training or for fun with friends.
The first game, which was an immediate success, is Guitar Hero (2006), and then, in 2007, its principal competition arrived on the market: Rock Band.
Let’s look at the differences between these two games, what they offer in terms of playability and manageability for learning the guitar.
Guitar Hero is a series of video games developed by Activision.
The game is played with a three-button guitar and is appropriate for beginners as well as experts of six-strings.
The configuration of the notes on the screen was designed so that the player can place his or her fingers on the neck of the guitar naturally.
It’s not necessary to read a guitar tablature, or to know how to play scales.
The game shows you everything you have to do: in a thorough guitar tutorial, Guitar Hero gives the keys to performing the first basic solos, tuning the guitar, and playing the blues, rock, or even jazz or folk.
The guitar is equipped with digital buttons that control the different modes of play.
Any microphone with a USB plug can be used; it can be plugged into a console to play with a friend or to combine guitar-voice tracks and play like a professional.
The first video game for learning guitar: Guitar Hero.
The advantage of learning the guitar with Guitar Hero is that the player is right on stage: he or she is the rockstar and faces an adoring audience.
During the performance, the audience will react differently, making the experience even more realistic, more immersive.
Plus, the environment changes as well: it’s possible to play in stadiums and festivals in front of thousands of people or in more intimate clubs.
With Guitar Hero, you have the chance to put yourself in the shoes of a guitar star, with the opportunity to access more than 100 constantly updating pieces.
Rock Band is, on the other hand, a musical video game developed by Harmonix and, as of today, is in its fourth version of the series (Rock Band 4 was released in October 2015).
The nice thing is that all of the instruments from the older versions of Rock Band can be used and are compatible, and that new accessories have appeared.
Like Guitar Hero, Rock Band puts the player in the shoes of a guitarist and transports him or her to the stage.
The game Rock Band is now in its 4th version.
While Guitar Hero only offers the guitar, Rock Band offers a complete set with instruments specially developed, such as:
Two playing options are possible with Rock Band: the storyline mode, which begins with forming a band and going on tour (for up to 4 players); and show mode, which also allows multiple players but without the pressure of performing.
Each player can join or leave the game as they like.
Freestyle Guitar Solo mode offers the opportunity to play real guitar solos, and during your performance, as elsewhere, the crowd will respond with approval or dislike.
While games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are known for their success, they’re somewhat outdated and the excitement has worn off.
The two games offered to make players into real musicians with “toys” that tried to resemble guitars.
Now, a new video game has come to enhance learning the guitar: Rocksmith.
This new game radically changes the tone because the user will be able to become a player with a real electric guitar.
Become a real guitarist with Rocksmith!
Rocksmith is a new means for learning the guitar, both quickly and efficiently: the user just plugs his or her guitar directly into a game console (XBox 360, Playstation) or even your computer, like a gaming PC or your Mac, and the guitar lessons begin:
Rocksmith will become a true personal guitar teacher: it will analyze style of play, adjust the level of difficulty depending on skills, and introduce new sequences as and when progress is made, until the player knows how to take on his or her favorite pieces.
To tell the truth, almost everything. The sensation of playing on a real guitar is now here, under the fingers of the player-student.
The different scoring systems, the goals, and the mini-games make the guitar exercises more fun and will put some spice in the 6-string progressions.
This game is more interactive and more realistic than the two mentioned above.
It makes it possible to work on your guitarist’s ear.
It’s not necessary to learn to read sheet music or know how to read guitar tablatures to play your guitar on Rocksmith. Because the guitar’s six strings will displayed on the screen in real time.
Have confidence in the manufacturer Ubisoft and you’ll play the song of your choice.
So replace your amp cable with a Rocksmith cable and try some wild riffs!
Aerosmith, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix are within reach!
The objective of Rocksmith is simple: it wants to offer an immersive guitar learning experience whereas Guitar Hero and Rock Band remain on the surface.
With their progressive learning system, you’ll really develop your playing, and you’ll make visible progress in just a few weeks.
However, that’s not all a guitarist wants!
The same goes for Rocksmith: it’s not easy to play the guitar perfectly, to master a piece on first try.
To avoid frustrating players for whom levels are variable or approximate, Rocksmith adapts itself to its apprentice players.
For those who don’t know much about playing, Rocksmith will indicate only the main rhythm, and if the first notes are executed perfectly, the game will quickly increase the difficulty by adding bar chords and other more complex chords like seventh chords or even arpeggios, until you can perfect the specific piece.
But will this help you understand a piece, to analyze its mechanics?
Learn to break down the bend technique.
The game Rockmith transcribes each note and each nuance that appears on the record.
Brian Adam McCune, a 31-year-old man who has spent numerous years arranging music for high school bands and also performs at Carnegie Hall as a percussionist, conductor, and composer, participated in the Rocksmith experience.
With his team, McCune attentively listened to all of the songs in order to retranscribe each note and each chord in the Rocksmith game program.
Of course, you can, like him, reproduce each note of your favorite music, but does this help you understand the mechanics of a song?
Will the budding guitar player really be able to reproduce the music without the aide of the game afterwards? We will see below that we have doubts.
While Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Rocksmith are the leaders in the musical video game market, there are other games that allow you to learn the guitar on your own.
Below is summary of those that exist as of this writing.
Put out by Ovelin, a Finnish start-up, GuitarBot offers the ability to learn to play the guitar without an internet connection.
Video games allow you to reproduce rock pieces. From there you will be able to play all kinds of musical styles in the street…
The course materials are simple: one guitar — electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or electric-acoustic — a computer, and a microphone.
The GuitarBots program offers more than 300 lessons adapted to learner style and covering all levels of play, from beginner to advanced and even expert.
For only five minutes per day, you can play for free. Otherwise, it’s a subscription based game, costing $9.99 per month.
A note recognition technology allows you to play a real instrument while the screen displays the notes, the errors, and the correct fingering: which string to press, where to place your index or middle fingers, etc.
Like with Guitar Hero, the game offers scrolling colored bubbles to indicate the note to play. Additionally, the user will have access to numerous tutorials, to a looping function, and an editor level.
Released in 2013 and developed by Realta Entertainment Group, BandFuse allows the player with a real guitar sheet music that scrolls along the bottom of the screen.
It’s a game for Play Station 3 and Xbox 360 that allows the user to learn to play their favorite pieces while forming good habits: you learn to use the proper fingering because the placement of the fingers is also indicated.
Pantera, The Pixies, Alanis Morissette, Blink-182, Coldplay, Blur, Pearl Jam, Santana, Slash, Sublime, The Offspring, Hendrix, Incubus, Lynyrd Skynyrd: the Rock amateurs will be overjoyed!
Imagining the guitarist Slash, of Guns ’n’ Roses, as our particular instructor, our personal trainer for the guitar? Unthinkable! And yet, that’s the case on the screen.
Gameplay offers up to four players, by connecting guitars, basses, and microphones, playing in real time.
It also offers the player the chance to go on tour for concerns and festivals at the heart of a professional musical career. The game is progressive, starting at a beginner guitar level and progressing towards an advanced level.
And for each step along the away, you play an original piece! BandFuse has succeeded in bringing authenticity to its players. Because it’s never easy to decipher a guitar piece with your ear, especially when you’re a beginner.
Thanks to this game, everything is included: the tablature, the chords, the spots where you press the strings, and the rhythm to memorize by listening.
These six video games offer you, in a certain way, to take a free guitar lesson. But it’s merely reproduction, not creation, never mind technique or music theory.
Let’s look at the negative points of using video games to learn how to use the six-string axe handle:
The player can play his or her favorite pieces, which is of course very nice.
Does a Guitar Hero learn to keep in perfect tune, even during a packed concert?
But a guitar that sounds bad is less like an instrument and more like bent shovel…
Under the force of playing, from sitting, from being in its case, a guitar gets out of tune even if the weather changes back and forth from humid to dry, hot and cold.
The wood works to influence the tension of the strings. How do you re-tune a guitar that’s completely out of key?
This little detail that changes everything will certainly lead to more than one online search, asking a guitarist friend, or buying a tuner…
And how do you tune with A, C, E? Where are the reference points?
Apart from GuitarBots, which video games show beginners the fundamentals of tuning? (First find A, then press the A string in the fifth fret and leave the D string free. If the latter note is different — too high or too low — you must adjust the tuning key of D string to get the same sound.)
Conclusion number 1: video games don’t allow you to truly learn how to tune.
When you begin on the guitar, it’s common to learn legendary pieces such as “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, “My Friends” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, or even “Come As You Are” by Nirvana.
Being virtuoso of the guitar is possible with video games, but as for the creativity, that’s another story…
To be a guitar virtuoso is possible with a video game, but what about creativity…
The video game lessons described above will productive in terms of learning where to place your fingers, the sequence of notes.
Thus you can learn to play bar chords and the left-hand series of chord grids in between them.
For example, D minor (low barred, frets 5 to 7), G major (high barred, frets 3 to 5), C major (barred on frets 3 to 5).
The most popular rock songs rarely use more four basic chords. And within those, you’ll find only three different notes, played within their octaves.
The video games like Rocksmith or BandFuse allow you study these wonderfully.
But on the other hand, how do you learn the complex guitar chords, the sevenths and ninths, the four-note jazz chords used to play Gypsy swing, like “Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt or “La Gitane” by Angelo Debarre or Biréli Lagrène?
There’s a multitude of online sites where you can find dictionaries of chords.
It’s also important to study the substitutions and transpositions on the neck that allow you to play the same chord but with a different fingering, in different frets.
The risk of reproducing pieces played on the screen is that outside of the musical video game, the player might be lost and become a perfect novice because it doesn’t lead to memorizing the different possible chord schemes on the neck together.
The primary conveyor of music is the exchange, it’s an international language!
It’s ideal to play with other musicians. It’s what’s called a “jam session.”
In playing with others, you must not only master your dexterity, you must also understand — at least basically — harmony. Often times, a guitarist sets the rhythm — or the beat — while one or two others play solos.
In improvising with other instruments, you must know how to leave a piece, the tablature, to juggle the compatible notes within the range. Replace an E with an A, use a seventh major B in place of a G…
Improvisation, it’s a bit like skiing on the slope of the guitar!
Therefore, you must know how to situate yourself in the rhythm, know where the notes are in a particular range, how to stay in tempo to the music, and be precise false notes made in a solo tarnish a whole piece by themselves.
It’s a learning process, and there’s reason to doubt video games’ effectiveness in enhancing this specific skill set.
If games like Rocksmith or BandFuse allow you to play the guitar and imagine yourself a pro, there remain some pitfalls that demonstrate that this type of guitar training has its limits, notably in terms of curriculum.
Of course, placement as well as positioning of the fingers is clearly indicated for the chords, but this isn’t the case for all the notes in a piece.
The game doesn’t indicate how to properly position your fingers: do you need to put your thumb towards the top? On the edge of the neck? With which finger do you press a particular string?
These are just some of the questions and details that will arise for novices who will turn to the Internet in order to find the necessary information.
This type of training, let’s be clear, could never replace proper instruction with a guitar teacher.
Learning the electric guitar, learning the flamenco guitar or classical guitar require time, patience, technique, self determination, and above all else lots of practice.
A guitar teacher listens to you.
There are numerous advantages to enrolling in guitar courses with a teacher, whether it’s a private teacher or an instructor in a music school or in an association:
All of these things are positives are impossible to have when you learn with a video game.
Even if the gaming world facilitates interactivity, it remains virtual.
Guitar playing video games could be complements to learning with a teacher.
Especially if you’re a beginner on guitar, they’ll help you to play and motivate you to play your favorite pieces, but no one will ever understand the guitar in this manner.
A guitar course with a professional brings advantages to the student, and will help you progress technically as well as psychologically.
Learning the guitar by video game would be altogether more difficult for a beginner who’s never previously done anything musical. Because with music, it’s not enough to simply imitate.
Reproducing the notes — I’ll say bluntly — by repeating the tablature runs the risk of producing music that’s flat, cold, without any feeling.
Can video games replace a guitar teacher?
Because what matters more than anything is interpretation and nuance.
Your guitar piece must live: you could substitute the notes, play an E in place of an A or a C since one note will agree with your playing (tonic, fifth, third, seventh, or ninth).
What matters is the style in which you play the note: bending, hammering, pooling-off, picking up, strong or not, muffled or not, etc.
But these things —technique and music theory — can only be learned with a guitar teacher.
Signing up for guitar courses is easy, there are lots in the U.S., notably on the Superprof platform.
Learning the guitar needs to be alive, concrete.
Because playing a piece of music with other musicians is more exciting and motivating that playing in front of your TV, isn’t it?