This weekend’s Rock Band 3 practice was spent playing I Love Rock and Roll over and over and over again; call me a simpleton, but I really enjoyed it in ways that bear on the way it feels (physically, not emotionally) to play it.
It’s a very simple song, built around the three simplest chords possible: I-IV-V, where I is an E power chord (open E string, index finger on the second fret of the A string, middle finger on the second fret of the D string), IV is an A power chord (open A string, index finger on the second fret of the D string, middle finger on the second fret of the G string), and V is a B power chord (index finger on the second fret of the A string, ring finger on the fourth fret of the D string, pinky on the fourth fret of the G string). So you move your hand between those three positions, with the occasional flourish thrown in.
And it’s the details of those hand movements that got to me. The I-IV transition is performed by shifting your entire hand up a string, reflecting the fact that each of the bottom four strings on a guitar is a fourth up from the next lower string. (Or, alternatively: the tuning on a guitar is chosen exactly to express that I-IV power chord shift; this is different from a violin, for example, where adjacent strings are separated by a fifth instead of the fourth.) Also lurking in this transition is the fact that you play the second fret on the D string in both chords: the chords in question are open fifths, so this expresses that if you go a fifth up from IV, you get back down to I, meaning that an E shows up in both of them.
Next, the IV-V transition. Here, the chords are a whole step apart from each other; that’s expressed in the simplest way possible, by shifting your left hand up two frets while playing the same strings. (So, in particular, the two chords have no notes in common.)
Finally, we go from V back to I. Power chords are open fifths, so the the two notes that make up the I are simply the E that’s its root and the B which is the root of the B power chord that’s the V in this sequence. (In any of these chords, the third note is repeats the bottom note an octave up.) In particular, B shows up in both chords, and in both chords, you’re playing that B with your index finger: and when making the V-I shift, you keep that index finger in place, but shift the positions of the other fingers. (Actually, when you make that transition in the song, it throws in a G (third fret on the E string, which in that context I play with my ring finger) between those two chords, but you can leave your index finger in place while playing that G as well.) This gives that transition a different feel from playing the I-IV-V power chord sequence in keys other than E: if you weren’t starting from an open string, then the V-I transition would involve sliding your whole hand left and up, so none of the fingers would stay in the same place.
So: your hands move less than you might expect, and that fact reflects something about the relationship between the chords involved, that they’re rotating somehow around the B. It’s not the only place where my hands moved less than I might expect: there’s a little flourish that you perform several times, and when I first ran into that in practice mode, I was a bit stymied by it. Eventually, though, I realized how little my hands had to move when performing that flourish, and it became much easier. (This unfolding of quiet simplicity happens to me all the time when learning bits on pro keys; not as often in the past on guitar, though I imagine that will change as I get better and have to deal with more notes.) That flourish sometimes comes after a I and sometimes after a V; in both cases, though, it’s approximately as easy to play, and in both cases that B you’re playing with your index finger is a key note.
Some other bits that struck me while going through the song:
The flourish mentioned in the previous paragraph involves a pull-off; I can go through the motions well enough for the game to score me as playing it successfully, but when I play it unmuted and plugged in, I sound a lot worse unless I’m very careful and crisp with my finger movements. So clearly something to work on.
Sometimes, when the guitar part comes in after being quite for a while, you play I, and sometimes, you play V. Which I hadn’t really noticed when listening to the song (my pitch recognition can clearly use some work!), but once I was aware of that possibility, I could tell which chord to expect: not so much because I recognized the notes but because my brain could feel that the V-I resolution was coming up. Which gave me a lot more appreciation for the Suzuki practice of listening to songs on CD over and over again before playing them: that’s what I’ve effectively been doing by going through every on-disc Rock Band 3 multiple times on multiple instruments before I first started playing them on expert pro guitar, and it’s seeping into my understanding at a subconscious level of how the songs are put together.
The song has two sections involving lots of alternating strumming. In one of them, where I had to shift which note I was strumming, I had to practice at slower speeds; I eventually managed to play it successfully at 95% speed but not at full speed. Close, though, and I’m glad I’ve started practicing hard bits slowed down and going through the whole solo separately. (I’ll need to do that more and more to have any chance at not embarrassing myself as the solos get less straightforward.)
In the other (much longer but much simpler) alternating strumming bit, though, I managed to keep my streak going for quite some time; listening to myself plugged in, I wasn’t quite as regular as I would have liked, but still: progress!
One of my disappointments when playing Beatles Rock Band was how hard it was to play guitar while singing: those are songs I know well, songs I should be able to sing on autopilot, but I generally couldn’t manage that while playing expert guitar. I was curious how much that had to do with the fact that doing two things at once is hard and how much had to do with the artificial nature of Rock Band fake plastic guitar.
As I started to get comfortable with the guitar part for I Love Rock and Roll, however, I noticed myself singing along with the song during easy sections and breaks in the guitar part; so once my guitar playing got decent, I pulled out a mic stand, turned on a second controller, and had the game score me on both simultaneously. I got 90% on pro guitar and 95% on vocals (expert in both cases), and while I can do better playing either side of that by itself, those scores are more than good enough to support the hypothesis that the structure of real guitar playing allows my fingers to work more on autopilot so I can devote more of my brain to my singing. Which isn’t to say that the two didn’t interfere: it was definitely a good thing that I didn’t have to sing during the aforementioned flourishes, and when alternating strumming bits showed up I generally stopped singing while my brain focused on establishing the rhythm, though I did manage to get back to singing after a few measures of the alternating strumming.
A great way to spend half an afternoon. And I’m only three songs in! I can’t wait to see what the rest of the songs are like in their full glory.
This post has not been revised since publication.