Rocksmith put out a two quite substantial free patches at the end of last year. I’ve been playing Rocksmith significantly more since the patches, and in different (and better!) ways.

As I said in that post, I’ve switched my practice from being primarily based on browsing (leafing through my favorites and playing whatever catches my eye, basically) to one that spends more time working on actually getting better. Not that I wasn’t getting better with my prior approach — I learned a huge amount from that playing — but my focus was more on enjoying the music and the experience than on constantly ratcheting up.

It’s been quite a while, but I actually do have quite a bit of prior experience on the receiving end of music lessons. And my basic approach towards practice back then was pretty different from the browsing approach I had been taking with Rocksmith: I’d always have a handful of songs I was working on, I’d play the hard bits over and over again until I got the notes into my fingers (trying out different fingerings, phrasing, etc.), and as I got past mechanical issues I’d think about my performance from the point of view of its musical qualities.

Which seemed a lot more productive than my browsing approach! Alternatively, if you want a theoretical way of thinking about this, I should engage in Deliberate Practice. Don’t spend as much time in my comfort zone: spend more time beyond it. Not floundering, though: find some specific tasks that are slightly beyond what I can do right now but are in reach, work on those tasks until I can accomplish them, and then ratchet up by switching to new tasks that are at the edge of my new capabilities.


So I’ve switched the format of the bulk of my Rocksmith practice. Concretely, at any given time, I have four songs that I’m working on. (It used to be five songs, but that was a bit too much, I would end up coasting on a couple of them.) And, for each song in each practice session, I would ask a question: how specifically am I trying to push myself today while practicing this song?

If I’m still learning a song, or if it’s a song that is out of my fingers’ comfort zone, that almost always translates into finding a section of the song that I can’t yet play comfortably, and spending time on that section in Riff Repeater.

If I’m past that and if the song isn’t near the limits of my abilities, I’ll work on memorizing the song. Score Attack turns out to be key here: I’ll alternate between Master difficulty, where I’m confronted with playing the entire song from memory, and Hard difficulty, where I can see all of the notes. (And, I confess, I do look at the leaderboards at times; though the leaderboards on Master difficulty are frequently completely empty!) And, of course, sometimes I’ll need to repeat a specific section to memorize it (e.g. if I’m trying to learn a solo); Riff Repeater is my friend there.

No matter what, as I get more comfortable with the songs, I try to improve the musicality of my playing. Are my attacks crisp? Am I letting strings ring after playing them when I shouldn’t? Am I getting the sound I want out of palm mutes, out of fret mutes? How do I want to articulate notes? How tight are my bends?

Eventually, I’ll feel like I’ve hit my ceiling with a given song; I’ll pick one of the hundreds of other songs available to me to replace it in the practice list.


And, it turns out: this works really well. I don’t know that I’m the best judge of the quality of my playing, and I’m certainly not going to fool anybody into thinking that I’m a professional guitarist. But I am putting in the time; what I want the game to do is support me in how I’m trying to improve, and it does an excellent job of that. There are specific modes that help me for specific purposes (I’d largely been ignoring Score Attack mode until now, but, once I turned down the sound effects, it actually does a great job in helping me memorize songs), and the game does a solid job of giving me feedback in how I’m performing given the limitations of being software.

To be sure, I don’t spend all of my time in focused practice: one of the reasons why I’m only focusing on four songs instead of five is that it gives me half an hour or so of unstructured time in my play sessions. Sometimes I’ll go through DLC I’ve purchased recently, sometimes I’ll go through favorites in Nonstop Play mode, sometimes I’ll go through my list of previous focus songs to make sure that I still remember them.


I could have done this before the Remastered patch, but the patch really does help. Lists are a simple thing, but it turns out to make a difference to be able to distinguish between songs that I’m focusing on (list 1), new DLC (list 2), songs that I’d previously focused on and want to return to occasionally to keep up my memorization (list 3), songs that I’m playing with coworkers (list 4). (I forgot to mention that last category above: I’ve finally started playing guitar outside of game on a semi-regular basis, a few of us at work get together once a month to play.) And, of course, songs that I like (favorites): I’m taking a KonMari approach there, defining a favorite as a song that will bring me joy if it comes up randomly in Nonstop Play.

Riff Repeater has always been there, but now it reliably lets you focus on individual sections, and being able to set the acceleration parameters really helps: a 5% increment is much more useful to me than a 10% increment, and sometimes I even go to smaller increments. Also, I start at a number like 78% instead of 80%, because the jump to full speed always feels larger than other jumps of the same percentage.

And there was a second big patch as well: I don’t use its major feature (playing with an acoustic guitar), but, as part of its improvements to calibration, the sound balance on acoustic parts of songs is a lot better when plugged in, too. More than that, it just makes me happy that the developers are continuing to support the game (and supporting it through updates, not just DLC): I want to keep on playing it indefinitely, and to keep on getting new music indefinitely, so if I can keep on giving them money via DLC purchases and they can keep on supporting the game, that’s an exchange I’m very happy to make.


So, with the current iteration, I can structure my guitar playing in a way that is extremely rewarding for me, with the game actively helping in multiple ways. And, in fact, I could do a lot more: in the past, I’ve used Session Mode, Multiplayer, and Tone Designer, they’re all great, and I fully expect to spend more time with them in the future as my focus changes.

This doesn’t mean it’s perfect, just that it’s impressively close. So here’s my current wishlist. First, some straightforward potential improvements:

  • In Score Attack mode, don’t do a hard fail.

Stop counting my score after three failed sections, but let me keep on playing. Score Attack isn’t just useful for competition, it’s the best way to reliably see either all the notes in a song or none of them, both of which are useful for learning songs; and, when I’m using it for that purpose, being forced to stop halfway through is actively counterproductive.

  • In Score Attack Mode, default to the same parameters.

When I finish a song, have my prior difficulty selected, instead of falling back to Easy; and if I’ve selected a different part (Rhythm instead of Lead), leave me in that part instead of resetting the part.

  • Riff Repeater is a little buggy when practicing multiple sections.

Sometimes, when going through multiple sections at the same time in Riff Repeater, it doesn’t show me failed notes from my last play: I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s showing the failed notes from two plays before? (It’s possible this bug isn’t specific to playing through multiple sections, but I’ve never seen it when only playing a single section.) Also, when I’m playing through the entire solo in Two Princes as a block in Riff Repeater at 100% difficulty, it occasionally decides to lower the difficulty of one of the sections (always the same one, and it’s not even the section that I’m worst at); no idea what’s going on there, but Riff Repeater should never lower the difficulty on me.

  • Riff Repeater and Master Mode.

If I’m in Riff Repeater, I’m by definition trying to learn a section, which almost always means that I don’t feel like I have it confidently memorized. So show me the notes! There is an option for that, of course, and I’d be fine having Master Mode turned off in Riff Repeater: the problem there is that the option affects normal Learn A Song gameplay, so I can’t just leave it turned off, I have to always remember to turn it back on.

  • Difficulty bugs when playing a new song.

Every once in a while, when playing a song for the first time, the difficulty of a section will crash down to zero: it’ll look like it’s set at the normal difficulty, but then when I hit the first note of the section, the difficulty bar will empty out and notes will stop showing up. Now that I realize this is a thing, I pause it right then, enter Riff Repeater, and reset the difficulty to where it should be, but it’s annoying. No idea what triggers this.

  • Load times are a little long.

They’re a lot better than before the Remastered patch, but it still takes a couple of minutes for all of my DLC to be available: surely it’s possible to cache this information? Or does Microsoft require hundreds of network calls to reauthorize all the DLC every time I play the game? (I would hope that’s not the case; and I’m fairly sure I can use DLC without a network connection…)

  • Master mode and varying parts.

This one is more subtle, I’m not sure what the correct solution is, but: if a song has multiple sections that are largely similar but not identical, you qualify for Master Mode on them in lockstep. Which mostly makes sense: it is in fact the case that, if you’re capable of playing / memorizing one of those sections, then you’re capable of playing / memorizing all of them. But the subtle variations between sections mean that you probably haven’t actually memorized all of them: you might have memorized the first version or the most common version but not slight variants.

That would be okay, except that Master Mode then actively gets in the way of memorizing the variants. Say, for example, that there are three linked sections like this. I get the first one wrong, so I start seeing the notes. Then I get the second one right (because I can see the notes), and the third one right (because I can still barely see the notes). And then I go play the song again, and I’m back to the first section: Rocksmith says “you got it perfect the last two times, you clearly don’t need to see the notes”, so it again doesn’t show me the notes for the first section, with the result that I never actually see those notes! (At least without going into Riff Repeater or Score Attack Hard or something.)

This isn’t a theoretical example, exactly that happened to me with the harmonic sections in More Than a Feeling; and I’ve had related problems trying to memorize variants in Sweet Home Alabama or Smooth. And it hurts my playing of variants even if I’m not trying to memorize them: what frequently ends up happening is that I learn one of the variants and play it that way in all of the related sections, Rocksmith says “good enough” and continues not showing me the notes, I don’t get the benefit of seeing the variants, and may not in fact even realize that the variants exist! (At least in Learn a Song; this problem is one of the main reasons I’m using Score Attack more and more, because it’s not vulnerable to this problem.)

I’m honestly not sure what to do here. The best idea that I have so far is, in this situation, enter Master Mode in lockstep in all the sections, but once you’re in Master Mode, decouple the fade level of the sections for non-identical variants. That feels to me like it would be an improvement, but I’m not 100% sure what problems it would lead to.


There are some issues with Rocksmith that, I suspect, could best be helped by new hardware, though. I can’t say I understand how much of the note detection is done in hardware and how much is done in software, but the note detection does occasionally have problems, and I would be more than happy to buy a new cable if it would solve that.

Tuning in particular is an issue: it consistently wants me to tune my G string noticeably flat, and when I’m trying to tune the top E string, the displayed tuning is constantly oscillating by about 10 cents, enough so that it can take a little of work for the game to register a tuning in the expected range long enough for it to accept my tuning as correct. Fortunately, once I’ve gotten it to accept a tuning, I can then tune my guitar correctly with a separate tuner, and the game doesn’t ding me for my notes, so apparently it’s significantly more generous when playing compared to when tuning, but still: it’s a pain to have to tune twice, and, when the game says I got a note wrong, I don’t like having a nagging wonder in the back of my head asking whether that was really my fault or just bad note detection.

Also, even when the note detection is correct, it’s slow to respond. On both bends and slides, in particular, you have to leave extra time at both the initial and final notes: otherwise the game will frequently claim that you missed the note. Which is bad for musical reasons, because I want how I play to be governed by what songs good, not governed by note detection; and it’s bad for learning reasons because, honestly, I’m not as good as I would like to be at bending precisely, and it makes it that much harder for me to learn if the game’s detection also has problems, because it muddles the feedback loop.

Maybe I’m wrong about this being best helped via new hardware, though: like I said, I don’t understand exactly what the cable does. And actually, given the new mode added where you can play through a mic, clearly the game is capable of doing note detection in software. So maybe it’s not so much that the existing hardware isn’t good enough but rather that the existing software isn’t good enough, and that, potentially, a solution involving hardware assistance would be better?


The other hardware issue is audio latency: latency really is a problem with a standard setup, and it’s worse on the Xbox One than it was on the 360. I’ve got it solved in my local setup, but I’m in a situation where, whenever I recommend the game to friends (especially to experienced guitarists), I have to say “buy this game, but you probably also want this optical audio adapter from Monoprice plus a small amp, so you’ll be able to plug in headphones and get good audio latency”.

Obviously there’s only so much Rocksmith can do about this: if you go through the standard audio chain, there are multiple ways in which latency can get introduced that are completely beyond the game’s control. So, to get good audio, headphones are required. And it seems like the game can make that route much easier: I’m already plugging in a USB device, so can we use that USB connection to send audio out as well as in, adding a microphone jack to the cable? (Plus volume control, either on the cable or in game.) I don’t see why that wouldn’t work…


And then there’s one other big use case: getting from “I can basically play all the notes” to “I’m happy with the musicianship of this piece”. This is, ultimately, a human endeavour, so I’m not even entirely sure how much I want Rocksmith to tackle it directly; still, here are some of the concrete gaps that I see in that area.

One is simply being able to review your playing: not reviewing via metric-based measures like the number of wrong notes, but rather listening to your playing and thinking about how to do better. This is the one thing that the original Rocksmith did better than Rocksmith 2014: when you were done with a song, it would replay your performance for you, with the note track visible even if you were in Master Mode. And I remember being frequently surprised when I was doing that how bad I sounded, how much room for improvement it revealed; also, in Master Mode, being able to see the correct notes after I’d messed up was very useful.

What’s going on there is that, when playing a piece, a part of your brain is always going to be focused on the mechanics of playing. When you’re still learning the piece, or if it’s a piece at the limits of your ability, that’s going to consume the vast majority of your concentration; as you master the mechanics of the piece, your ability to step away from the mechanics and try to process the performance as an outsider improves, but even so, it’s extremely useful to be able to mentally switch fully into a critique mode instead of a performance mode.

Another issue that I have is that, when the game reports that I’ve done something wrong, I don’t always know what I’ve done wrong, or indeed whether I have done something wrong at all. So, if it’s not obvious what I’ve done wrong, I go through a checklist: if it’s a bend, did I not end the bend in the right place? Did I not start the bend from the right place? Or did I actually bend pretty much correctly, just not waiting long enough at the start or end of the bend for the game to detect it? If it’s a slide, I have the same checklist as for bends. If it’s a chord, did I not strum all the way through? (In particular, for a three-string power chord, did I strum all three strings, or only two of them?) If it’s a barre chord, did I let all the strings ring, or did I accidentally mute one of them by not pressing down hard enough? Am I so tense that I’m pressing down hard enough on strings to make them go sharp? If I’m getting a bunch of unexplained misses, are my strings getting old and I should put on new ones?

The vast majority of the time, I can figure out the problem by going through this (heck, the vast majority of the time, it’s obvious what I’ve done wrong and I don’t need to go through this); but it’s taken me years to build up the checklist, and there are still situations where, ultimately, I decide that the game is just giving me a false miss. (I have no idea why it frequently thinks I’m playing the chord sections incorrectly on the lead for Planetary (Go!), but it does.) False misses aside, though, it might be nice if the game could tell me what I did wrong? Maybe not, though: in practice, it might be annoying / unneccessary so much of the time as to be a bad idea.

And then there’s the flip side: situations where the game accepts what I’ve done, but actually my performance isn’t great, for relatively concrete reasons. In general, I think the game is right to accept those situations: it would drive me crazy if the game tried to figure out if I’d muted sufficiently or if I’d pulled off a pinch harmonic or what. But there are some situations where I could use a bit more help.

The most concrete of those situations is around rhythm: the game’s notation is designed in a way where other considerations (getting the correct notes, in particular!) are primary but where the depiction of rhythm is relatively imprecise. (Especially compared to, say, piano or violin sheet music.) Also, the game is quite forgiving about rhythmic imperfections in your playing. Both of these are the right choice for the game, but the fact remains: every once in a while a song has a rhythmically intricate bit where I wish that I could just see it written out like in sheet music and stare at a couple of measures, tapping out the beat with my feet and slowly going through the measures wih my fingers until I have the rhythm internalized.


Just to be clear: none of the flaws that I’ve listed here are in any way significant. Rocksmith 2014 is, by far, the best electronic tool for learning (not just learning music but learning period) that I have ever seen, so these suggestions are more along the lines of taking it from a 95% solution to a 98% solution. If you’re at all interesting in learning guitar, or even if you’re just at all interested in thinking about how to use software to help learning, then go out and buy a copy. (And, uh, maybe get an optical audio converter while you’re at it if you’re playing on a console.) I’ve been playing it for years and I fully expect to be be playing it for years more.

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