It’s been a while since I’ve written about Rocksmith, but I’m still happily putting time in on the guitar every weekend; so I figured it was time for another post about the game. And, this, time, I wanted to talk about what sorts of things I might like out of the next evolution of Rocksmith.

Which, in turn, raises the question: why exactly do I play Rocksmith, what am I trying to get out of it? Or, if I take a Jobs to Be Done lens, what am I hiring the game to do? Because ideas for the game don’t make sense in a vacuum: there should always be some underlying goal that I have in mind when making any suggestion.

Though there’s no one answer for what I’m trying to get out of Rocksmith: I’m getting different things out of it at different times, and I’ve gotten different things out of it over the years as well. Which, to be sure, is a strength of the game: it can build on the same underlying capabilities to serve players in different ways, or to serve the same player in different ways at different times. (That latter point is one difference between Jobs to Be Done and the “Persona” concept that I see in UX design: focusing on the end goals rather than on the people. Not that Personas are bad, just slightly different.) But this lens is, I think, still useful as a way to focus on the effects of different design choices.


At any rate, here’s my list of jobs:

  • Improving your skill at a technical level: going from zero guitar experience to being able to play basic songs to tackling harder and harder stuff.
  • Enjoying the experience of moving through music: playing through a song that you like to listen to or that like how it feels on your fingers, then moving onto the next song, potentially going through dozens of songs in a single session.
  • Honing your performance: figuring out what it means to play a single song well, not just on a “did you get the notes right?” level but at a deeper musicality level.
  • Improvising: being able to jam with a band without specific notes to play, just a chord progression or a basic riff or something to build on.
  • Understanding the bones of the music: appreciating music theory and the theoretical underpinnings of composition.

I’m going to talk about each of those in the context of the game, how Rocksmith currently supports those modes of learning and how it might support them still better.


Improving your skill at a technical level

I didn’t start playing Rocksmith from zero knowledge: I had a tiny bit of guitar experience from messing around one summer in college a couple of decades back, and I played Rock Band 3’s Pro Guitar mode for a year or so before I started in on Rocksmith. (In fact, the Squier Rock Band 3 controller was the guitar that I used when first playing Rocksmith; Rocksmith quickly made me realize the problems with that, so I bought a much better guitar a few months later.) Rock Band 3 had a lot of problems when it comes to learning guitar, but it got me past the initial hand pain of barre chords, taught me how to move around a fretboard, and gave me a baseline skill level of pick usage (including alternating strumming).

Having said that, I am 100% positive that Rocksmith would have been a much better place to start. It would have taught me all of the above; I might have taken a little longer to focus on barre chords, but I’m not sure that that’s true or that that would have been a bad thing. (Rock Band 3’s controller also had some limitations that had serious conceptual musical downsides, but I don’t want to go into details here.) And Rocksmith comes with a nice set of lessons to introduce you to guitar techniques.

What really makes Rocksmith special in this regard, though, is the way it adapts songs to your level, and does that on a per-phrase granularity, with (typically) a dozen or more difficulty levels available for every single phrase. And, to be clear: this isn’t just a way in which Rocksmith is better than Rock Band 3 was, it’s a way in which Rocksmith is better than human teachers or printed music.

Because one key to learning of any sort is to constantly be going up against challenges that are within reach but beyond your comfort zone. (“Deliberate Practice”.) And arguably Rocksmith’s single most important didactic design decision is to do exactly that: it is constantly asking you to stretch your limits on every part of every song that you can’t yet reliably play all the notes on, but it stretches you in a way where the next goal always remains within reach.

A second key design decision in this regard is Riff Repeater mode: once you get to where the next step on a given phrase really is a significant challenge, then you’ll need to put in some effort to work on it; so Riff Repeater lets you play that phrase over and over again, with various knobs (speed, in particular) to help you work your fingers until they’re doing the right thing. (And to help your brain understand exactly where and how your fingers aren’t doing the right thing!)


You can make a huge amount of progress with the tools that Rocksmith currently has. Having said that, if I wanted Rocksmith to do better in this regard, it seems like there are two potential areas for improvement: detecting techniques more accurately and more broadly, and having a richer holistic understanding of the player’s skill level.

Rocksmith gives notation for a fairly wide range of techniques, but it doesn’t actually grade you on most of them, it restricts its grading to playing the right notes at the right time. Which, in general, is the right choice: most of the time, I don’t actually want the game to give me a grade as to how good my palm mutes are.

I do want it to grade me accurately on the notes, though. Which it does a pretty good job of, and it errs on the side of accepting what you play, which is also the right choice: it’s very frustrating to play the right thing and have the game tell you you’ve done something wrong.

But occasionally the game tells me I’ve done something wrong when I don’t realize what I’ve done wrong. A lot of the time, I can eventually figure it out: e.g. I have a habit of not always strumming through three-string power chords, and sometimes the game is correctly pointing that out! (Not that there’s a huge musical difference between two-string and three-string power chords, but I would like to have the pick control to reliably choose the one or the other.) Similarly, I occasionally get the rhythm a bit wrong on a section without realizing it (especially when a song has similar sections with varying rhythms). So, in both of those situations, I appreciate the game telling me I’ve made a mistake; I just wish that it could tell me what mistake I’ve made. (At least if I’m playing in Riff Repeater mode.)

But whenever I encounter those situations, I also don’t always trust the game. This comes up most frequently in bends: Rocksmith won’t reliably detect bends unless you pause at both the start and end of the bend to give it a clear signal on the pitch of the note. Which isn’t right musically; and it means that, if it says I’ve gotten a bend wrong, I don’t know if I was being sloppy about the ending pitch, if I was being sloppy about the start and started bending before I’d strummed at all, or if I was playing in a reasonable way that was just too fast for the game to detect.


The lessons are good to start with, but they have their problems as well. Sometimes playing through the lesson is frustrating, because it doesn’t want me to get past a section until I’ve 100%’d it; if I’m having trouble with that section because it’s too hard for me, that’s fine, but if I feel like I’m doing what it asks and it’s still showing failed notes, then that’s annoying, and it feels like it happens in the lessons more than it happens in regular playing. (I’m not sure if Rocksmith tries to detect techniques in the lessons that it doesn’t try to detect when playing songs? It feels that way…)

More broadly, the game doesn’t feel like it has any real concept of what techniques I’m good at, what I’m bad at, and how to help me with the latter. I’ve been playing the game for years, and just this morning, when I was playing through a song, the game had, as one of its recommended items, to play through the Chords 101 lesson; trust me, Rocksmith, I’m not going to get anything out of going through Chords 101 again.

The other tool the game has for technique improvement is the Guitarcade games. Probably I should spend more time on those; but what I find happening is that it asks me to do something faster and faster, I start failing, and (on many of the games) it feels like my failure has as much to do with slow detection (e.g. taking a while to decide that, yes, I have strummed the chord it asks for) or failed detection (harmonics, bends) than it has to do with my failures. Which is frustrating, and I react to that by staying away instead of trying to pay attention to the part of the grading the game is doing that really does reflect on me.


Ultimately, if I look at Rocksmith through this lens, I’d like the game to better understand what I’m good at technically and what I could use work on and to have it more frequently give useful, actionable advice on the latter.

The flip side, though: a lot of this is on me, and the tools are there for me to take control. Sometimes I don’t know what I need to get better at or how to do it, but a lot of the time, I know what I need to work on, I just need to put in the time; and Riff Repeater helps me do so. Or at least it helps me do so if I can map my technical difficulties to specific sections of songs; but usually I can, because if a technique doesn’t show up in a section of a song, then I’m not likely to care much about it!


Enjoying the experience of moving through music

This is the aspect of Rocksmith that I find most seductive: just diving into songs. Picking a song, or having the game pick it for me; playing through it once, maybe playing it a second time if I enjoyed it and I either want the experience of going through the song again the same way or the experience of trying a slightly more complex version now that I’ve gotten the phrases leveled up a bit.

I can easily spend a couple hours solid just doing this. And it’s clearly something that the devs care about: Rocksmith 2014 was better at this experience than the original Rocksmith, and the Remastered patch added on still more improvements.


What more would I want when approaching the game in this mood? Honestly, the basic flow is really good: I’ve got various ways to pick the collection of songs that I want to play, and then the game is happy to either let me go through the selected songs manually or to serve them up to me itself. In the latter mode, it can sometimes be a little hard to pause things if a song particularly catches my interest, but that’s only a very minor issue.

So, really, it feels like the major remaining issue is the number of songs that are available at all: the number of songs I have available in my actual library, and the number of songs that are potentially available but that I may or may not have purchased.

The first step there would be to remove that distinction: switch to a Spotify model where everything’s available as long as you pay a subscription fee. This is clearly the way the music industry is going; I imagine Rocksmith will switch to this at some point, I just hope all the licensors are on board.

But, as vast as the Rocksmith library is, it is nonetheless even more vastly smaller than the total library of guitar music! There are certainly incremental changes that I’d like (e.g. add in some complete albums), but, ultimately, that’s a problem that will need algorithmic solutions: growing the library by depending on manual notetracking is not going to scale.


I assume that, 20 years from now, there actually will be something algorithmic that can do a credible job of acting like Rocksmith for my entire music library, or for the entire world of streaming music. (People are already giving this a try; at some point I need to give Capo a spin to figure out how good it is…)

I don’t expect that product to be an evolved version of Rocksmith, though, because it would require a complete business model shift: this looks like a classic low-end disruption scenario to me, and that almost never turns out well for the incumbent. But that future is also far enough out that I don’t see any point in worrying about it now, anyways: if the Rocksmith folks wanted to worry about it, I’d tell them to try to make money by satisfying their existing customers, see if they can use Jobs to Be Done theory or something to set up a lateral move, and in the mean time explore automated technology somewhat themselves, as an internal tool to speed up the process of note tracking.


Hmm, that last sentence makes me wonder: maybe I’m wrong and automated song detection is a sustaining innovation instead of a disruptive innovation? I was going to say that I doubt it, because of the business model shift, but maybe I’m wrong about that, too: Rocksmith should be able to successfully shift gracefully from a “buy individual songs” model to a “pay a monthly fee to stream from a fixed library” model, I think. And shifting from the latter to a “pay a monthly fee to stream from almost anything” model, with most songs handled algorithmically but some popular ones handled with human intervention, might actually work just fine?

I guess the problem is competing against something like Capo that’s a one-time fee piggybacking on existing payments to a traditional music-listening streaming service, but that doesn’t sound so intractable. And maybe the existing business model would make the Rocksmith developers reluctant to really focus on getting good algorithmic note tracking. Not sure…


Honing your performance

Rocksmith does encourage you to learn all the notes in a song. It nudges you towards 100% in various ways: gradually leveling up sections of a song, changing the color of a section when the game is willing to show you all of the notes, a Score Attack mode which then pushes you towards going on longer and longer streaks without missing a single note, and Riff Repeater mode to support you in learning individual sections that are giving you trouble.

And, once you’ve shown you can play all of the notes in a section, Rocksmith then asks you to memorize the song, by switching into Master mode. Its implementation of Master mode in Learn a Song mode is a little iffy, honestly: sometimes it throws me into Master mode inappropriately (especially when there are multiple similar sections in a song), and sometimes it obstinately refuses to go into Master mode. But it’s still pretty useful as a tool, and more so as an aspiration: the point is to really learn the song. And Master mode is there in Score Attack as well, to test you more comprehensively: would you be comfortable playing the whole song in a band, without the notes in front of you?

Knowing (and being able to play) the notes is just the table stakes for being able to perform a song, though: there’s a big difference between being able to fumble your way through a song more or less correctly compared to getting something deeper out of the music. Here, Rocksmith’s tools are fewer, but it has some: the fact that it shows you accents and vibrato is a reminder that not all notes are created equal, that you should think about which ones are more important and how they work together.


Helping you develop the musicality of a piece is, of course, an extremely difficult task for software to undertake. Software can only grade what it can measure; and different interpretations of the same piece can be equally valid, and I wouldn’t want Rocksmith to judge me for every time I different from the interpretation of the recording I was following. I won’t swear that there’s not more that Rocksmith could (perhaps optionally) do — e.g. sometimes my chords are muddy, sometimes I play notes in a way that makes it clear that I’m just barely managing to get by, and perhaps Rocksmith could point that out? (Which, I think, it already tries to do with its suggestions of which sections to work on in Riff Repeater, but that could be more actionable.) But maybe this is an area where I don’t want Rocksmith to take the lead.

But I do want Rocksmith to support me when I’m thinking about how I want to perform a piece. Which, of course, I try to do when I’m playing, but it’s hard, especially if I don’t have the piece ingrained in my fingers. When I’m working on a piece on the piano, I’ll stop, think, experiment with fingerings and phrasings for a measure or a few notes, write down stuff on the score; if Rocksmith could let me do that, then that could be nice, but I don’t have any super concrete ideas how to do that beyond what’s already there in Riff Repeater.

Rocksmith does have a significant advantage over sheet music over a piano, though: it should be able to record what you’re doing easily enough. And, in fact, this is the one thing from the original Rocksmith that I miss in Rocksmith 2014: when you finished a piece in Rocksmith, it would play it back for you, letting you hear your performance, showing you the notes (even if you’d been in Master mode), and showing you which notes you missed.

And it was really eye-opening to hear just how bad I sounded on sections where I could just barely 100% them: I realized how much work I had to do beyond just improving my completion percentage. Even on sections where my fingers were more confident, though, listening to myself helped point out sections where I stumbled a bit or where I just might want to think more about how to approach a phrase; and it was extremely useful as a followup when I was playing in Master mode, as a learning tool for the sections that I’d thought I had memorized but, in retrospect, hadn’t. (Admittedly, Rocksmith 2014 has much better Master mode tools than the original Rocksmith, but even so, I think seeing the notes and seeing/hearing my mistakes after the fact would be useful.)


So that’s my main request for a future Rocksmith in terms of improving my musicality: some sort of Review mode. It would play back your performance; it would show you all of the notes in the song, even if you’d played in Master mode; it would show you your mistakes; it would let you drop into Riff Repeater in the middle of a piece to work on a section that doesn’t sound good.

If the Rocksmith developers had more ideas about how the game could give you suggestions about musicality, Review mode could be a place for that, too: it would be a context where you can think and talk about your performance after the fact, which removes issues of grading and real-time feedback. So if they have ideas about ways the game could give feedback that aren’t reliable enough for real-time scoring, and that do a better job of matching the player’s performance than the current rudimentary “here’s a lesson you should try” capability, then this could be a place for that. But that would all be a bonus: just being able to listen to your performance in a way that ties into existing Rocksmith capabilities would be enough.



When I play guitar with my coworkers, we spend a lot of time doing jam sessions; it’s fun, I wish I were better at it! And of course Rocksmith 2014 took direct aim at this with Session Mode.

I don’t have a lot to say here, unfortunately: I’ve spent several hours with Session Mode, I’ve gone through all of the Session Mode missions, and I’m quite glad I did, but ultimately I only have so much time that I spend with Rocksmith each week, and I’ve been spending that time playing songs instead of improvising. Also, I don’t have much domain knowledge here; I don’t know that I’m significantly worse at improvising than my coworkers, but it’s not something that I’d feel comfortable doing in a more formal situation, either.

So, while I genuinely have a lot of respect for Session Mode, I don’t feel like I can say anything particularly productive about its strengths and weaknesses. I’m leaving in this section because I think that “be able to play in a jam session without being embarrassed” is an important Job to Be Done for Rocksmith; I’m glad the Rocksmith developers have been thinking about it, I hope they continue to do so. (And if I had more time to practice guitar, I’d definitely carve out time to spend in Session Mode!)


Understanding the bones of the music

Basically: what can Rocksmith teach you if you want to write your own songs, or just understand what the composers of the songs in the game might have been thinking?

This has significant overlap with the previous job, of course; maybe I should have combined them into a single entry. And Session Mode does have some tools that attack this directly: it focuses on both scales and chord progressions.

When playing through songs themselves, Rocksmith doesn’t help as much with the underlying musical structure; it gives you the names of chords, but that’s not really what’s important, what’s important is there those chords are in relationship to the underlying key.

Though actually two decisions that Rocksmith made in Learn a Song mode do help with this in a roundabout way: it lets you play whatever you want during blank spaces in the song (and doesn’t actively penalize you even if you’re experimenting when it tells you to play specific notes), and, when you’re playing a new song, you don’t generally get to see all the notes. The latter decision actively poses the question of what notes would make sense in this context; and the former lets you experiment with how to answer that question.


I’m vaguely curious what it would be like to play Rocksmith with it labeling chords with I / ii / IV / V instead of, say, E / F#m / A / B: that feels like it would help me train my ear to recognize the different chord progressions, which would in turn help me understand them better. But in general I don’t have a lot to say about this job, and of all the jobs I’ve listed here, this one feels like the most of a stretch; Rocksmith made the right choice to focus on improvisation over composition / music theory, I think.


If I had boil this down, what I most want is: 1) let me review my performance after playing; 2) do a better job of quickly and accurately detecting what notes I’m playing; and 3) keep the business model up to date so it continues to be worth supporting Rocksmith. And, of course, the developers probably have completely different ideas, either to help with the above jobs or for completely different jobs; Rocksmith 2014 certainly brought a lot of improvements that I wouldn’t have known to ask for. As long as I can keep on playing guitar, and can keep on getting better, I’ll be happy…

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