When I last discussed Rock Band, I’d remembered the existence of the solo buttons, and thought I should give the hardest songs a try that way. So, the next weekend, I put down my GH3 guitar, picked up my Rock Band guitar, and gave Flirtin’ with Disaster a try.

It took a while to get used to the feel of the guitar and the location of the solo buttons; after a bit, though, I was rather enjoying myself on the solo. It felt a bit odd never to have to strum, but there’s enough to think about in that solo to keep me busy, and the failure modes felt more realistic than when I was playing the traditional way. (I.e. I missed a few notes, but didn’t completely fall off the rails when I messed up as I did when doing hammer-ons/pull-offs.) Not that I really know what realistic guitar playing feels like—I’m mainly a piano player, though in a pinch I can play Alice’s Restaurant on a guitar over and over again—but messing up the rhythm on a real guitar doesn’t kill you.

So, after a bit, I managed to finish the song: in fact, it said that I’d done a good job on the solo, rather better than I did on the non-solo parts! After which I spent an hour or so with Green Grass, both in practice mode and with the real mode. Again, I did noticeably better than with the old guitar, but this time it wasn’t enough to make a difference: that second solo is really long and, in a few places, really hard even with the solo buttons. Eventually, I decided that I wasn’t motivated enough to finish it: I’m fairly confident that I could if I put in enough effort—there are only two areas in the second solo where I absolutely need star power, and there are enough manageable star power recharge sections between them that, if the stars align, I should be able to squeak by—but it would probably take a whole afternoon, I’d largely be doing it for the achievement (since I still wouldn’t be able to finish the song at all reliably when playing with others), and it’s not worth the effort for me. (Dan, can you finish that song on expert? Do people at Harmonix generally find it pretty doable?)

After that, I decided to go through the bonus tracks to figure out which ones I was going to export to RB2. (Answer: Brainpower (and I really should go buy a Freezepop album); Day Late, Dollar Short; I Get By; Outside; Time We Had.) And, at some point during this process (when playing Seven, I believe), I realized:

The Rock Band guitar is awful. Sure, having the solo buttons is nice during hard solos (though I actually prefer the way hammer-ons and pull-offs play during the fast non-solo bits, e.g. the start of Green Grass). But you have to put up with lots and lots of pain to get those solo buttons, and in no way is the tradeoff worth it. It’s not an accident that I did better on the solo of Flirtin’ with Disaster than I did on the non-solo parts: the neck buttons are hard to press reliably, the strum bar is a lot worse. Initially I’d chalked this up to not being used to the guitar, but by now I’d been using the RB guitar for a couple of hours, so I should be used to it enough by then. But I was still having a hard time making it through Seven; I switched back to the GH guitar, and I couldn’t believe how much better it felt. My fingers could just glide over the neck buttons, my strumming improved drastically, and I was suddenly enjoying myself, instead having the game feel like a chore.

Which is, after all the point here: I’m not doing this because of the achievements, I’m doing this because I enjoy the game, because I want to be able to feel as much of the music in the songs as possible, and because I want to do so in multiplayer mode. In particular, I was hoping to be able to play expert more in multiplayer mode, since the songs just aren’t as musical in hard; but the difference there is dwarfed between the difference between the feeling of the RB guitar versus the GH3 guitar.

So: no more solo buttons for me. I imagine the RB2 guitar is better, but at this point I don’t trust Harmonix’s instrument production skills enough to be willing to pay for it without giving it a try first. (Anybody in the Bay Area have one and want to let me try it? And what is the deal behind the instrument quality difference, anyways? I accept that Red Octane has a lot more experience in that area, but Harmonix is full of musicians, I can’t believe they don’t find their guitar frustrating to play. Is it that hard to get neck buttons that feel good?) Will the GH4 guitar let you use the touch pad as solo buttons? If so, I’ll probably give that a try at some point.

So my journey through RB expert guitar comes to an end. I guess it’s time for me to try out the drums next?

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