The Rocksmith team recently released a (free!) update to Rocksmith 2014 that was substantial enough to deserve a new name: Rocksmith Remastered. It’s the same game, just better: they’ve looked at how people have used it over the last three years, where the rough edges are, how they could modify it to help your learning (e.g. some tweaks to make Riff Repeater mode a little more versatile), how they could modify it to keep you playing more (e.g. giving an option to fix your tuning in Nonstop Mode).
It turns out, though, the change that they made that had the most effect on me is a very simple one: the ability to put your song in lists. Before that change, I’d use the favorites as a grab-bag: songs that I liked, plus songs that I’d recently downloaded and wanted to get to know. So I’d spend most of my time there, kind of haphazardly: I’d try to dip into recent songs to decide what I felt about them, and there would usually be a few songs that I’d play in most practice sessions, and then I’d graze a bit.
So I used lists to clarify those. Now, “favorite” means “this is a song that I would be actively happily to play if it came up in a random playthrough”. I have a separate list of recently downloaded songs; a song goes off of that list if I either decide that I like it enough to make it a favorite or if I decide I’ve had enough of it. And I also decided to formalize the concept of “a few songs that I’d play in most practice sessions”: now I have a list of songs that I am actively working at getting better at, that I play through in every Rocksmith session and that I’ll frequently dip into Riff Repeater to try to polish.
Or, to look at it another way: I’m trying to step up my game by focusing on those songs. Which, in turn, means: how do I want to step up my game in this context, what are the specific criteria that I’ll look for to decide whether I’ve done a good enough job with a song?
In broad strokes, I’ve decided to divide up the songs I’m actively learning into two categories. The first are songs that I think that I should be able to play well: my goal here is that I want to be able to play through these songs completely in master mode, with no notes showing on the screen, and do a credible job of that. This is something that I’ve occasionally done before, but not seriously, especially given that Rocksmith 2014 (correctly!) shifted away from forcing you in to memorizing entire songs the way its predecessor did. (Fortunately, they did leave in a way to put the entire song in master mode; I hadn’t been using it much, but I’m using it now.) The songs that I’m currently working on in this category are Heaven Knows and Chelsea Dagger.
The other category of songs are ones where I don’t actually expect to be able to play the whole song well: certainly not memorize it, maybe not even get to where the game shows me all the notes in the solos. These are songs where I want to stretch myself more, or just hard songs that I like playing and am happy to take advantage of Rocksmith‘s ability to strip down the tough bits of songs. Initially, I was thinking that two songs in this category (for a total of four) would work as well, but there were actually three songs that I’d been working on somewhat that fit into this category, so I decided to throw in all three: 25 or 6 to 4, Fly by Night, and YYZ.
So now I have five songs that I play through every time I play the game; and, each time, I’ll spend extra time on at least one of the songs, going through tricky bits in Riff Repeater to level them up or get more reliable at them. Also, I have a playlist of those songs on my phone which I try to listen to every weekday, to get them in my ear and to help me pick up phrasing issues and the like, so I get reminded what the guitar parts on those songs sound like when played well, not just how they sound when being drowned out by my playing.
And it’s working! I now have played through both Heaven Knows and Chelsea Dagger with no notes showing and with no strikes: no strikes doesn’t mean that I get all the notes right, but it means that I get the vast majority of them right and that there aren’t any sections of the song that I completely screw up. I think I’m close to graduating on Heaven Knows, actually: I’m pretty solid on almost all the sections, and in the one section where I’m not reliably playing the exact right notes, it’s not that I don’t understand what’s going on or can’t play it, it’s that the guitarist is messing around with minor variations of the same melody in a few different ways, and my messing around doesn’t always map exactly to the messing around on the recording. (Or, to put it another way: what I’m doing is wrong from a “classical musician playing from a score” point of view but would be perfectly fine if I were playing the song live.) I have a little farther to go on Chelsea Dagger, but my guess is that I’ll have moved on from both songs in maybe a month or so.
The other songs have been more surprising: on all three, I’m now playing at a level where Rocksmith is willing to throw all of the notes at me, instead of simplifying some sections. Honestly, I’m not sure the game is right to do so: in particular, it feels like I’m missing a lot on the hard parts of 25 or 6 to 4. But it’s also definitely the case that playing those songs repeatedly has made a significant difference.
And that playing is also opening up lots of concrete questions. For example, in YYZ there are sections where I can barely get my fingers mostly in the right place more or less quickly enough; but the game is telling me to actually pick those passages, not use HOPOs. How much do I want to be just be happy if the game gives me a pass, how much do I want to focus on having it sound fairly clear without worrying about pick usage, how much do I want to really improve my picking technique? I don’t think I have a firm answer to any of those, and certainly I’ll give different answers to different songs at different levels of difficulty, but it’s a good question to be asking. And it’s a question that’s informed by listening to the songs over and over again: one section in YYZ where I ask this question sounds just slow enough that it feels like I should be able to master it, another one sounds fast enough that I’m less optimistic, and 25 or 6 to 4 sounds quite a bit more tractable when I listen to it than I manage when I’m playing it.
So I definitely have challenges to think about: going through sections of 25 or 6 to 4 over and over again on riff repeater, thinking about hand positioning, learning to not freak out when notes come fast and trusting my hand positioning, and relaxing my right hand and using smaller movements. (Whenever I watch videos of good guitarists play, I’m always amazed by how more economical their motions are compared to mine.) And, of course, there’s the question of when I’ll decide that I’ve hit my limit with the harder songs; I actually feel like my technique is good enough to play Fly by Night in master mode but my memorization skills might not be, whereas with YYZ that’s flipped (but the game might be generous enough to let me slide), and for 25 or 6 to 4 probably neither is?
This post has not been revised since publication.