I got my first guitar in third grade when my older sister, an irrepressible hippie of the 1979 variety, bought me an old acoustic at a garage sale for $20. Five years later, I bought my first electric (on layaway!) and spent many happy hours after school faking my way though the Beatles catalog.
In those days, learning guitar was about buying actual chord books and learning riffs from the older kids in the neighborhood. But this is the brave new digital age, of course, and things are different now.
To wit: The hybrid instructional/recreational game “Rocksmith 2014” ($79.99, rated T), which is designed to turn your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 game console into an interactive guitar learning tool. A largely improved update to the 2011 original, “Rocksmith” combines a familiar rhythm game interface with a wide array of tutorials for various skill levels.
Pros and cons
The principal hook, as it were, is that with “Rocksmith” you can plug your electric guitar or bass directly into your PS3, X360 or PC/Mac, by way of the included USB adapter cable. The standard quarter-inch plug on the business end of the cable fits the output jack on virtually any electric guitar or acoustic pickup rig.
That is to say, with “Rocksmith” you are playing an actual guitar as opposed one of those plastic peripheral toys of the initial “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” craze. The downside of this is that “Rocksmith” has some unavoidable technical problems.
Due to certain audio processing issues that I barely understand – and I’ve tried – “Rocksmith” has a huge audio lag issue if you’re using your TV speakers and the standard HDMI cable to connect to your game console. When you pluck or strum your guitar, the sound coming out of TV comes about a half-second later. This has to do with digital to analog conversion, but it any case, it renders “Rocksmith” almost entirely unusable, and it’s not something you’ll be alerted to on the back of the retail package.
The workaround isn’t all that onerous, but most players will need to pipe their console audio out through analog component cables (not included) to a separate speaker, amp or home theater system (also not included, not included and not included). You probably have the cables and speakers you need lying around (I did – old desktop PC speakers work fine), but it’s a drag to have to monkey with all this every time you want to dig into “Rocksmith.”
Great learning tool
And you will want to dig in, because the game’s generous package of instructional options provide an entirely new, and entirely efficient, way of learning guitar.
Returning players will find that the Rocksmith interface has been entirely overhauled. The “note highway” is the game’s primary learning tool, and it operates like a more detailed version of the scrolling notes prompts from the “Guitar Hero” games. Each note slides down with the proper fret number affixed along the six color-coded guitar strings.
This is how you learn your riffs and melodies, and it’s a good system once you get used to it. But older players who grew up on guitar tablature or traditional music notation will have to unlearn some habits.
One valuable new addition is the Riff Repeater function, which allows you to isolate troublesome passages in a given song, then slow them down and adjust the difficulty and speed of the riff. Experienced guitarists will find this helpful in certain instances. I found it helpful pretty much everywhere.
Lots of features
The game’s other features include an effects studio for tweaking distortion and reverb; a handful of arcade mini-games that make practicing more fun; a Session mode for jamming with a virtual band; and a series of tutorial videos especially usefully for newcomers learning basic technique.
The included song list features selections from the 1960s to 2013, across a spectrum of styles and difficulty levels. Double secret bonus tip: Stay away from those Rush songs until you’ve been practicing for several dozen years. Additional song bundles can be purchased online. “Rocksmith” also offers a retail version without the adapter cable for $59.99, or a guitar bundle with a Epiphone Les Paul Jr. guitar for $199.99.
The new “Rocksmith 2014” is a generous suite of learning tools for those serious about learning guitar who are willing to jerry-rig their game console audio setup to do it. More casual beginners are better off with a $20 used acoustic and some chord books.
New this week: The repackaged “Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition” updates last year’s blockbuster title for PS4 and Xbox One, with all DLC content, improved frame rate and some new next-gen console specs.