Music is a vital and integral part of my life. It connects for me to something deep, primitive and fundamental. Anything I am doing is improved with a soundtrack. A perfectly built chord progression can and has brought tears to my eyes or a laugh to my throat. The patterns of expertly crafted music are more powerful, more resonant to me than seeing a perfect sunset, eating a world-class meal or the feel of warm sun on a bright spring day. And the only reason I pick up a musical interest is in the hopes of tapping into that primitive, powerful place.
It’s pretty easy for me to keep track of how long I’ve owned a guitar. I got my first real six string from my now wife, who surprised me with an Alvarez acoustic in the late spring of 1995. It was and is a beautiful-sounding instrument with a rich, deep resonance — a resonance that I wouldn’t really learn how to unlock for months or perhaps years.
Buying me that guitar had been a leap of faith in more ways than one for my then girlfriend and now spouse of 17 years. I knew nothing about playing guitar, and odds at the time probably were that I’d pick at it a few times before admitting to myself that music was not then nor had ever been my forte. After all, playing guitar is not necessarily easy, and it requires time, passion and maybe a little bit of blood, too.
From the moment I was able to coax out a reasonable-sounding open-G chord, I fell into a kind of on-again, off-again love with the guitar. There is something incredibly tactile about guitar, a way it resonates music not just audibly but also for the player, in a very physical way. You feel the tone in the bones of your fingers, up the meat of your arm, almost resonating inside the hollow sinuses of your head. The physicality of the instrument is undeniable, and there is a wonderful soreness — a lingering note of memory in the fingertips after playing — that has captivated me for almost 20 years now.
It is this intense love of guitar as an instrument, as a contact sport, and as a source of passion, that Rocksmith 2014 seems to fundamentally tap into and enhance. Putting aside all else — the vast improvements to the UI, the tightening of the responsiveness, the eclectic playlist, the exceptional implementation of Session Mode and the countless other tweaks and additions that make Rocksmith 2014 a superior piece of software in every way from its predecessor — putting all that aside, it is simply clear at every turn that this is a product made by people with an unrestrained love for the instrument.
I had steeled myself to be a little disappointed with Rocksmith 2014. After all, the original Rocksmith is an acquired taste. It requires your patience and asks that you not look too closely at the many blemishes. It was a proof of concept, a mostly successful experiment that pushed an envelope Harmonix had not been able to accomplish with Rock Band 3’s Pro Mode, and it lived and died on the single idea that people would take out that real guitar that had been languishing in the closet or under a bed and decide that they would finally learn the damn thing once and for all.
And for the most part it worked as advertised. The game coached you through lessons and mini-games, but also forced you to come to terms with tonality and sound in a way that playing Rock Band 3’s picnic-table of a guitar never could. Where previous music games had been strictly about timing and dexterity, Rocksmith placed its emphasis on musicality. It also eased you into the music with a dynamic system that increased or decreased the complexity of what you were asked to play based on how well you were doing.
In short, Rocksmith closed the gap that had always left other high-profile titles trapped in the limited realm of rhythm games. Rocksmith styled itself as a teacher, a way to actually learn an instrument. The goal of Rocksmith was not to be able to have the highest score or 5 stars on its at-times underwhelming tracklist. The goal of Rocksmith was that you could plug your guitar into an amp and play your instrument.
This is all relevant to a review of Rocksmith 2014 because this almost single-minded dedication to all things in service to the instrument carries through to the new version. There is a kind of selflessness, an element of risk to creating something that exists entirely to serve something external. There would be, I think, the temptation in many studios to take technology that allows input from a guitar, and by extension go down the road of simply thinking of the guitar as a kind of controller and music as the platform for a game. Rocksmith, however, chooses a very different path.
There is an important distinction to be made here between something being a game and something being fun, because whether or not Rocksmith titles qualify under a given definition of “game,” Rocksmith 2014 is probably as consistently fun and often moreso than the majority of games I’ve played this year. The software isn’t just a teacher of guitar, it is a good teacher, one that knows the quickest way to get someone to stop playing is to make playing not seem fun anymore.
Everything in Rocksmith 2014 is aimed at moving you smoothly through the options available to you, whether that is learning a song from the set list, practicing chords/scales/techniques in the Guitarcade or working on improvisational skills in the Session Mode. It is in its ability to intuitively understand both what you want to do and what skill level you are at in that thing that you want to do, Rocksmith 2014 shines bright. It’s as though the software is constantly listening to you, taking in feedback and applying that to the presentation.
The user interface, which was disappointing at best in the original Rocksmith, is as good as promised, if not better. Not only is it intuitive, but it clearly directs you to places you might be interested in, these options based off a system that offers skill-appropriate missions. Do them. Don’t do them. The choice is up to you, but in the vast majority of cases when I followed Rocksmith down the rabbit hole it had set up for me, it made things better. Just finished a song, but missed the A5 chord every time it popped up? Here you go, have a practice at A5. Having troubles bending notes precisely? Here’s a guitarcade game that will make you better at it. Want to just jam for a while in a pentatonic minor scale? Allow me to introduce you to my good friend, Session Mode.
People learn through repetition, and repetition is by its nature boring if not open disincentivizing. Rocksmith 2014 walks you down a careful line that encourages repetition when you’re open to it — Riff Repeater is chock full of options that encourage development through repetition and at the same time can be set to progress you through improvement and mastery — but backs off when all you want to do is something comfortable and familiar. Sometimes I don’t want to practice my Ionian scales. Sometimes I just want to play “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and really let go.
Regardless of which direction you want to go, Rocksmith 2014 is ready, able and adept at filling the need. It will always be there to gently nudge when it thinks you can do better or could improve, but it never forces the matter, and it always gives you a sense of accomplishment.
During the years since 1995 that I’ve had a guitar, I’ve always played it for a little while and then lost interest, either because I didn’t know how to develop, or I didn’t feel like I was developing anymore. It was directionless, self-taught growth full of learning terrible habits. The few times I’ve tried organized lessons, it inevitably sterilized the experience for me. I want to play guitar because I want to feel the thrill of creating music, and I want to have that sense of wonder and fun.
So, I will say this, and I do not say it lightly: For me, Rocksmith 2014 is not just a good way to learn to play guitar, it’s the best way. It evokes the pleasure, the joy and a sense of growth and adventure in playing music that I only began to experience with its predecessor, a sense I had only felt in brief moments in years of struggling. There is always something to do in Rocksmith 2014, something to learn, something to develop, and it makes those things easy to access, meaningful to the other things I am learning. And most of all, it makes them fun.
What I have to say, ultimately, about Rocksmith 2014 is that in the 24 hours I’ve spent with the software so far, I regularly feel like I am connected into that space. There are moments, and they are not all that rare, where what I have learned to do with the instrument rises to the level that Rocksmith has set, and everything works (pardon the pun) in concert.
Those are very happy moments for me.