Rock Band Made Me a Better Musician

Written by Benjamin Wiebe

Rock Band is one of many plastic instrument rhythm games. In the late 2000s, you couldn’t enter a Gamestop, Best Buy, Future Shop, or Walmart without seeing those cheap peripherals waiting to be sold. Over the course of five years, the giants of the genre, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, would release 25 separate games for the XBOX 360, Playstation 2 & 3, and the Nintendo Wii. Each game would be released alongside new plastic instruments, with new setlists for players to conquer. And for as fast as the genre came into existence, it would disappear even faster. 

Rock Band Rivals is an expansion for the 4th main title in the series, Rock Band 4, and was released on PlayStation 4 and XBOX One in 2016. The expansion could use older instruments, so long as you had the guitar/drum dongles for either Rock Band or Guitar Hero equipment. As well, it continued to receive support from Harmonix, with DLC song packs available weekly. And in 2022, I took the plunge into a game I loved as a kid. 

I remember Lego Rock Band being the first game I got for the Nintendo Wii as a Christmas gift for my entire family from my grandparents. We had one guitar, one drum set, and one microphone, and for a family of five, it wasn’t the full setup we needed. On a trip to the States later that year, I would buy Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock to get an additional guitar. Later my family would purchase Rock Band 3 and the keyboard, so the entire family could play. In those early years, I was a bassist at heart. I couldn’t move my fingers fast enough to do the crazy scales of Crazy Train, and my hands were too small to press multiple buttons to make chords accurately. By comparison, the bass line became my pride and joy. The bass groove provided visual feedback telling me just how cool I was, and the subwoofer in our basement meant I could hear the impact “I” had on the music.

Over the years, I would eventually move on from the Wii to the Playstation 4, and newer, cooler games like Destiny, Uncharted 4, and Spiderman would become my pastime of choice. By 2017, the Rock Band setup in the basement had become decor, slowly gaining dust in the corner of the basement. After I moved out, Rock Band had become little more than a memory of a time long past, games that existed in my childhood and disappeared into time. When I returned home for the summer, I would occasionally dust off the drum kit and try my hand at the harder songs, like Free Bird by Lynrd Skynrd or No One Knows by Queens of the Stone Age. These games were relics, and I thought there was no way I could play them away from my parent’s home…Until I found out about Rock Band Rivals. 

Getting into Rock Band in 2023 is a challenge not for the faint of heart. Unlike its glory days, the gaming peripherals needed to play the game are hard to find and often far more expensive than before. Also, outside of Rock Band 4, all of these games were made for consoles two generations removed from the present – and though digital marketplaces exist for the XBOX 360 & PS3, Rock Band and Guitar Hero were never listed on the digital stores. To play Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, one would have to hunt down an old console, a used copy of the game, the console-specific instrument, and any dongles needed for the instrument to be used. You would also need to hope there were no technical failures with every step of this process – whether it be scratched discs, hard drive problems, or instruments with corroded electronics. While some of these requirements could be dodged by purchasing Rock Band 4 or Guitar Hero Live, the titles released for the PlayStation 4 and XBOX One and found on the digital marketplace, more hurdles await. Firstly, Guitar Hero Live changed the controller entirely to have six buttons instead of five, and its controller is the first to be incompatible with any other game in either series. If you want to play the more traditional Rock Band 4, your experience will vary depending on the platform you use. The revamped instruments released for Rock Band 4 are even harder to find due to a short production line and can’t be used for previous releases on the older consoles. And if you had instruments for the XBOX 360, you would need a specific adapter to connect them to your XBOX One. With all of these hurdles, one would have to be insane to actually try to play Rock Band in 2023. 

I am that maniac.

From July 2022 to September twentieth, 2023, I have logged over 350 hours in Rock Band 4. I learned how to solder the wiring so that I could repair my broken guitar controller, and I ordered a new strumbar to replace the slowly breaking strumbar in my Blue Stratocaster Rock Band 3 Guitar. When I started, my goal was to 100% Free Bird on hard, a challenge I had begun at home on the Wii version of Rock Band 3. After 50 hours of playing, I achieved this challenge…so I started the next level. I attempted the song for hours at a time, trying to get good enough to play the expert difficulty and make it through the song without failing. I slowly got better at the patterns in the song. Sections that would have decimated me a year ago became my favourite sections to play. My fingers got faster at moving, and it became muscle memory. I had finally gotten good (enough) at Rock Band, and although I still haven’t had a perfect run of the song, I know if I practice just a little more, I can beat my 91% accuracy high score. 

The 350 hours I logged in Rock Band 4 weren’t all set to Free Bird though. The abundance of DLC, and completely new setlists, begged for me to try every song. On top of that, each week a new challenge week would begin, putting emphasis on trying out hand picked songs that went along with the games theme. To get the highest rank in these challenge weeks would require playing new songs I’d never heard before. Some of these would become personal favourites, like Lazaretto by Jack White, I Miss the Misery by Halestorm, and Dead Black (Heart of Ice) by Soul Remnants.  

My roommates often joked that the time I put into Rock Band could better be spent learning an actual guitar, instead of its goofy imitation of a guitar. But I persisted, assuming that getting an actual electric guitar would cost me thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. Even if I could get a good electric guitar for $700, I knew that I would have to purchase the pedals and amps to get any use out of it, and that cost was far too high for a budget student like myself. I may have spent $300 on Rock Band, but that was a fraction of what an actual instrument would cost. Or so I thought. 

In February of 2023, I would get a fully functional guitar setup for a sum total of $420 Canadian dollars. It consisted of an Epiphone Special II, a ¼ inch to USB cable, free software that simulates pedals and amps, and Ubisoft’s video game, Rocksmith. Rocksmith, like Rock Band, is a video game that aims to simulate the experience of playing your favourite music. Unlike Rock Band, however, it utilizes an actual guitar instead of a plastic imitation of one. You plug in your guitar to the game, and it acts as your amplifier and pedals. I have spent several hours on the main screen, messing around with riffs, because at its core, Rocksmith is a tool for learning guitar. It also has a setlist of songs, as well as “true tones” that accompany each song so that your playing can sound identical to the recording you know and love. Every song has a tab that ranges in difficulty from 0-100, so that you can learn each song piece by piece and not be overwhelmed. Adding to this is the ability to repeat a section and slow it down, so that you can commit individual segments to memory. Various techniques are taught to the player, like bends, hammer ons, pull offs, slides and chords. Throughout the last 100 hours of learning guitar, I have been able to see first hand just how reductive Rock Bands impersonation of guitar and bass is. 5 buttons can’t compare to the 126 individual notes that guitarists have access too; bends aren’t hammer-ons, and scales are more complex than a trombone slide. I don’t play Rock Band anywhere near as much, because I know that I could be instead using a “real” guitar to actually learn a song. And yet, I would be remiss to dismiss the plastic instrument games as a waste of time. These games certainly aren’t anywhere as sophisticated or complicated as actually learning an instrument, sure. But they laid the bedrock for my fascination with music and guitars to blossom. 

I grew up playing the piano. Music has always been a part of my life, whether it was learning the recorder, playing in a jazz band, or taking lessons from my own Mom. The radio was always on in my house, and after I bought an iPod touch, I would have access to hundreds of songs on the iTunes store that I could purchase with my hard earned money from my job delivering the newspaper on my block. And as much as I was surrounded with music, it was always the same kind of music. Pop songs from the 2000’s like the Black Eyed Peas. Classical music for piano, or songs from movie soundtracks I adored. In my Jr. High Band we would learn the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl suite. The Imperial March and the Force theme were some of my first recital pieces on the piano. I was enraptured with the same kind of music, and never felt forced to try something new. 

I already mentioned that Rock Band forced me to step out of that mindset, and it happened between every Rock Band game. Despite these games being called “Rock Band”, rock wasn’t the only genre that these games exposed me to. Country, Pop, Electronica, Grunge, Metal, Prog Rock, and Classic Rock are just some of the genres these games touch on. There is no one “sound” to all this music; everything is a little different and mastery requires understanding the tones, styles and rhythms of each genre. Metal goes from an antagonistic, ear-piercing genre not for you to a style demanding every fibre of your being (especially if you want to try your hands as a drummer). Country transforms into a suddenly challenging genre with difficulty spikes halfway through the song. Mastery over the song catalogue requires exposure to new music, and it “opens your mind” to what is possible. Without Rock Band, I would have never stumbled into the perfect discography of Paramore. Without Rock Band, I would never have understood the appeal of Nirvana. Without Rock Band, I wouldn’t have listened to Rumours… and probably never would have bought an electric guitar.

The second major impact of Rock Band stems from its gameplay: it is a rhythm game. You press buttons in time with a rhythm. And in music, you play notes according to a rhythm set before you by someone else. Every movement is dictated by someone else, and the most fun in any rhythm game is when you meet the expectation laid before you. When you see the notes coming down, and execute it perfectly. When you slide your hand up and down the fretboard so that you can hit the notes you need to, because if you don’t move, you don’t stand a chance. This all may be due to my nature as a perfectionist, but nothing is as satisfying as having a flawless performance of any song. The elation that comes from nailing every last riff, the rest that comes after the pressure subsides, is ecstatic. Guitar Hero and Rock Band may not be able to perfectly simulate making music, but they do simulate the emotional highs of playing something without mistakes. And in order to learn how to do that, you have to get better with rhythm – with seeing & hearing the patterns in the song and adjusting your own movements to match it. That is at the heart of all music – whether its written or improvised – and Rock Band has improved my artistry through that.

But above all else, what Rock Band really taught me was that failure is okay. I remember practicing piano for an hour a day as I was working towards my Grade 5 Royal Conservatory of Music. I would try my hardest time and time and time again to hit all the notes in the perfect succession of each song, with each attempt needing perfect play so that I could work to memorize the song. Mistakes meant restarts, because nothing was good enough except perfection. And I did it. I made this method of learning work. I got my Grade 5, then my Grade 6, and lastly my Grade 7 Royal Conservatory of Music. And then I dropped piano lessons and never wanted to play it again. I never attempted to go through the process for a grade 8. It was tedious, unfulfilling, and I couldn’t bring myself to practice. No part of my being wanted to touch the piano, because I knew I wouldn’t be good enough unless I practiced every day for hours and hours and hours, and even then, I would hate my inability to play as well as the professionals who recorded the pieces. 

Rock Band has a bonus for playing perfectly. And I continue to strive for those perfect, full combo playthroughs. But it doesn’t require perfection. Actually, perfection is often a deterrent to playing the game. The game moves in speed with the song, so if you make a mistake, you don’t get to restart from the last phrase of the music. You have to mentally recover and prepare for what’s next. You could choose to pause the game and restart repeatedly, but it’s time consuming, and breaks the flow of the song far more than any individual mistake ever could. And slowly, I began to reset less. By the time I bought Rocksmith, a game that also moves in time with the studio recordings of the songs, I no longer thought about resetting when I made a mistake. Occasionally I would start up the riff repeater to practice sections I knew I could do, but I needed practice for. But often, I knew I had to accept the mistake and push through. And then I could play it again, and use what I learned to get better at the entire song, and not just one section. Failure became a friend to me as a musician, and I wouldn’t have that without Rock Band. 

Did Rock Band make me a better musician? From a technical perspective, no, it couldn’t have. It didn’t have me learn scales or navigate a guitar neck or bend strings or experiment with different tones and pedals. But from the macro perspective – from that heart of music – I think Rock Band had a fundamental impact on my musicianship. And I think it could have that effect on you too. 

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