[I'm learning to play the guitar by committing to 30 Days of Rocksmith. Here's how I got started.]
In all my years as a saxophonist, I held onto 1st chair. “1st chair” is the order you sit in band. Your top player is 1st chair, then the next is 2nd chair, then 3rd chair, and so on, until you get down to (typically) the least-skilled player in the row, however many chairs down that may be. If your band has an outrageous number of saxophones, you could be 12th or 20th chair, who knows?
Yes, I was the most technically skilled sax player in North Bend High School in North Bend, Oregon, from 1992 to 1996. You’ve probably never heard of my town or my high school. That’s not the point. But I say “technically skilled” because, at heart, I wasn’t much of a musician.
There were always better players than me. I can admit that, this many years down the road. But no one could really out practice me. I lived with my instrument. I took it home every night, carrying that heavy, black case over the two-mile country road I lived down. And, since I went to all the trouble of lugging that thing around, I figured I’d better put an hour or two into it. I brought it back to school every day and put another hour into it during band. So, I held onto 1st chair, if for no other reason than because I just played the dang thing a bunch.
But, like I said, there were better musicians than me in that row. They were better than me at heart. All the other high-end sax players—2nd chair, 3rd chair, 4th chair—all of them were in jazz band, too. Not just marching band. Me? I stuck with the marching band, and that was it.
The jazz band kids could go nuts on their instruments. They had a heart for improvisation and a rhythm to their music that I just didn’t have. They could cut loose. They could run up and down their saxophones in ways that marching tunes and standard orchestral faire never asked of me.
I had very little confidence outside of a sheet of music. Sure, I could play anything you set in front of me, as long as it was written down. But ask me to improv a couple bars or go crazy, then no, that wasn’t going to happen. As a 1st chair musician, there are even times when you’re lined up for a solo. But I couldn’t blow. I didn’t have the guts to play anything solo. I was a band member in, perhaps, the purest sense. I played with the band. I didn’t play solo. I’d turn white when asked by the conductor to play louder.
Inevitably, I’d politely ask to pass the solo along. The 2nd and 3rd chair saxophones would eat up the opportunity. They lived for the chance to stand out, to blast a few notes above and beyond the rest of the sax line. But not me. I never had the chutzpah to push myself that far over the top.
But now I’m here with Rocksmith. I’ve got my Fullerton guitar. I’ve got a no-name strap buttoned to the guitar and slung over my shoulder. I’ve got two picks that I keep losing, alternately, one after the other; as soon as the second one shows up, I lose the first one; as soon as the first one shows up again, the second one bounces. I’ve got no one but my wife and five-year-old daughter as an audience, and they’re learning to play piano, which, if you haven’t thought about it, has nothing in common with learning to play guitar. (This, coming from a guy who doesn’t play both instruments, so I can’t tell you there’s absolutely nothing in common between those two instruments. But, if there is, I don’t see it.) I’m into the second half of my 30’s, and not exactly in a position—or even in the right town anymore—to round up the old sax crew. My 20th high school reunion is coming up next year, and I decided at my 10th that I saw no need to attend those shindigs any more.
The picture I’m trying to paint here, is that, as determined by several default switches, I’m going to be a soloist now. A guitar soloist. My wife isn’t forming a duet with me, her on the piano, me on my Fender knockoff. My kiddo’s lessons are coming along nicely, but she’s more into learning theme songs from animated films she’s watched. She’s not going to be turning us into a piano-piano-guitar trio anytime soon.
So it’s on me. I’ve got to learn this stuff on my own (via Rocksmith, of course). And, if I ever want to play the guitar for anyone outside of my immediate household, it’s going to be solo. I’ll have to play out. I’ll have to utilize the “economy of motion” that Rocksmith talks about, but I can’t turn white and hand the part over to 2nd chair. That’s not an option.
But, I’ve still got a ways to go before I expose anyone, except my high-tolerance wife, to my fat-fingered learning stage. She doesn’t complain as I start, every night, with that same old Shifting 101 lesson, warming up with fretboard navigation. It’s gotta be getting old from her perspective, but I still do a secret little fist pump in my head when I nail Shifting 101 with 100 percent.
Tonight I spiced things up by swinging by the Guitarcade. On Rocksmith’s suggestion, I fired up a new one called “Ninja Slide N.” It depicts a Minecraft-looking ninja, sliding between oriental rooftops on high wires, as I do slides up and down the neck of the guitar. That one’s pretty fun. And, if I may brag for a moment, it feels good that the leaderboards are nearly 100,000 players deep, but I always manage to score in the top 20 percent on my first try. After two or three tries, I’ll often creep into the top 15 to 10 percent.
Perhaps that’s because the majority of Rocksmith’s players don’t care about the Guitarcade. Maybe I’m just working on being the leader of a pack of losers. But I don’t care. These “technique games” are still building my skill set. There plugging muscle memory into something I have no muscle memory for yet. These are all new memories to me. I’m making memories in real time. So, if I slide my ninja across 38 towers and slink into a top 10,000 spot on the leaderboards, I’ll take it, thank you very much.
I end the evening playing a couple tracks from the Learn a Song section. I love this section. It would be contrary to the spirit of Rocksmith, but I wish I could pause the tracks when a chord comes down the line. I can, for the most part, and at my particular step in the learning curve, play any singular note headed toward me in the note highway. But I hardly have time to register the multiple string presses required to play a chord. By the time my eyes take it in on the screen, then shift down to the fretboard, then place my fingers, shakily, onto the right spots, then look back up at the screen for the cue to play the chord, I’m already way behind the 8-ball. And I probably missed the leading and following notes, too, trying to finagle the chord out of my fingers.
So, I won’t reach for the controller in the middle of Learn a Song so that I can force my fingers into position, then unpause the song. Like I said, that wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of Rocksmith. Rocksmith will slow things down as it sees fit, or have me repeat a certain section, just so I can hammer it down better next time. But pause takes you out of the learning moment. So, I’ll give it a shot, at the speed Rocksmith dictates. It’s been great so far. And, oh look, it’s 11 p.m. My wife’s been in bed for an hour now. Heck, my kid has been in bed for three. So I guess I’m rolling solo. Time to blow.
[Stay tuned for more 30 Days of Rocksmith: previous.]