[I'm learning to play the guitar by committing to 30 Days of Rocksmith. Here's how I got started.]
My time was precious today. So, against my better judgment, I went straight into Learn a Song. No warmups. No revisiting old lessons. No plunking around in the Guitarcade. I wouldn’t have even tuned up my guitar if Rocksmith didn’t require it before I did anything.
So I visited an old flame: La Sera’s “Love That’s Gone.” Good old alternative indie rock. Rocksmith recommended that I practice a certain string of notes before digging back in, so I made that singular concession. My wife had just hopped into the shower, so I had a few minutes to play a certain riff over and over without being self-conscious of her being in the living room with me.
So I took my 40 percent mastery of the song and went into the riff repeater. Rocksmith hacks off a stretch of the song and takes the speed down a couple notches. It sounds like a “chopped and screwed” rap tape, with the snare drums snaking out into a trebled echo, and the notes coming down the highway at well under the speed limit. About half speed.
And I just played it and played it, over and over again, with the track rewinding to the beginning of the section each time. I’d miss 10 notes. It’d rewind. I’d miss eight notes. Rewind. Seven, six, five. Finally, I got it down to missing only one or two notes in the section. I heard the shower shut off in the bathroom. I had only minutes before my wife would be back in the living room, and I’d have to deal with the added layer of ignoring her presence while I practiced.
(Don’t get me wrong. My wife’s great. She’s been nothing but supportive. In fact, before she took a shower this evening, she said simply, “Good job learning to play guitar.” Just all straightforward and matter-of-fact in her tone. She’s like that.)
Then, after running through the riff repeater a couple dozen times, I finally nailed it. I know that I nailed it because the upper right hand part of the screen said, “Nailed it!” Once I, in fact, nailed it twice in a row, Rocksmith sped it up a little. Then a little more. By the time my wife came out, I was handling that stretch of “Love That’s Gone” up to speed. Feels good, man. Until I fell out of my groove and started botching large sections.
I made a slight choking sound, just to communicate to my wife that, yes, I knew I was messing up, she didn’t have to say anything. Not that she’d say anything. She’s, again, been nothing but supportive. But learning an instrument in front of somebody else, even a person you’ve been married to for 10 years, is still a self-conscious act. I’m not sure she heard my screw ups. She was on YouTube, watching movie trailers. I blotted out her low-volume videos of The Martian and collage videos of Matt Damon Doing Everything. I pressed on.
I was satisfied and backed out of the riff repeater. I started playing the entire track. My muscle memory had gotten good enough during that single riff that I was no longer looking at the screen to play it. I was staring down at my fingers, sure, but that’s already an improvement between dividing my visual attention between the fretboard and the T.V.
As advertised, I was nailing it during the portion I’d rapid-fire practiced in the riff repeater. The rest of the song didn’t ask for anything much more complicated yet. I’m at 44 percent mastery of “Love That’s Gone.” I was botching up the other parts, though—the parts I hadn’t committed to muscle memory. But that was okay. Everything else went swimmingly.
If there’s anything I can take with me from Rocksmith into conventional video games, it’s that sometimes you just need to buckle down, and, through repetition, fight through a part until you “nail it.” Whether it’s a Spelunky-style roguelike with one-hit kills, or a Destiny-like shooter with generous shields and frequent checkpoints. Sometimes a video game isn’t being a villain simply by asking you for a little mastery of hand-eye coordination. Sometimes a developer isn’t trying to be an obvious bad guy, just because they want you to earn this next part.
Rocksmith is, by far, more technically challenging than any video game I’ve played before. Not that there aren’t games out there requiring the fingering skills of an Eddie Van Halen or a Joe Satriani on a gamepad. But, for me, if I were to take something from Rocksmith, it’s patience. It’s practice. Sure, at some point I’ll get to the point where I can “speedrun” a song, completing it flawlessly from beginning to end. But even speedrunners have to put in tons of practice to hone their run. That ability, and those videos, aren’t made by lazy, noncommittal people.
And so, even though I didn’t do my usual thing tonight—which is to mask my fear of progress by lingering in the easy levels—I went ahead and worked on my speedrun for “Love That’s Gone.” It could’ve been any song that latched onto me in the songlist. Those hooks just happened to get me with La Sera’s sweet little story of heartbreak and, ultimately, cardiac revival.