Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cheap Guitars

I'm working on a post devoted to determining just how cheap a guitar can you use on Rocksmith. This may include or possibly be a separate blog entry from my evaluation of kids' guitars for Rocksmith. At the moment, there's sort of an unavoidable overlap.

Among all the possible entries for this study, I've always presumed I would have to include First Act instruments. They're sold at Target and I think also at Wal-Mart. I've bought First Act brand strings and found them lacking in tonal if not material quality. But, there are tons of First Act instruments out there - from trumpets to drum set - and I suppose it bears investigating whether their guitars are at all playable as Rocksmith instruments.

I have all but conclusively established (at least in my own mind) that the quality, age, and condition of your guitar strings can make or break you in Rocksmith. Being in tune is critical and you can't stay in tune with bad or old or bad old strings.I think I have discovered that the same principle applies to guitars. You don't need a $5000 Gibson LP Custom to play Rocksmith. But, my experience tells me that you will get better scores with a better guitar. I'd guess that pick-ups as much as anything are the deciding factor. Noisy or weak pickups seem to limit your scoring potential.Sustain also seems to play a role in getting better scores. My new EG112 has incredible sustain - especially considering what I paid for the guitar. And, since I've started playing that guitar, my RS scores have been significantly higher.

But, back to First Act guitars. My first step in researching these instruments was to look them up on the Internet. Lo! and behold - they actually have a website. (Predictably, it's And, it's at least nominally an American company - based in Boston, Massachusetts! Like other more famous "American" instrument companies, the vast majority of First Act instruments are made somewhere other than in the U.S. However, I was shocked to learn that they have a custom shop (called Studio for Artists) which makes guitars right in Boston (or nearby) for professional musicians. Adam Levine of Maroon 5, for one, plays First Act guitars! I'm not a Maroon 5 fan, but they're getting paid so they must be doing something right. Brad Rice, guitarist for Keith Urban, also plays a First Act custom rig.

So, what's the deal? Well, apparently First Act makes four high-end "limited edition" guitars - the Lola, the Delia, the Delia LS, and the Sheena. (They also make a limited edition bass called the Delgada.) These are apparently made by American luthiers at the First Act Studio for Artists shop in MA, USA. These things were rated pretty highly in a review by Chris Gill at Guitar World Magazine. Of course, that was 6 years ago. That fact that First Act is still posting the review on their official website does tend to make me wonder what they've done in the past 6 years. . . The Lola lists for $1500.00. Based on the GWM review by C. Gill, that's a bargain price for an awesome guitar. Certainly worth checking out.

You can also have a completely custom-built rig made by the same luthiers at the Studio for Artists. Evidently, a whole bunch of players have done that, including one of the guitarists for Avril Lavigne's band. There were 18 pages of names on the First Act website of artists who play First Act custom axes. I stopped when I got to Hugh McDonald of Bon Jovi. Good enough for me.

Of course, you've always got to ask yourself a couple of questions. First, did these guys buy their guitars with their own money, or were the guitars given to them to generate buzz for the brand? Second, if the latter, are they actually playing the brand? Or, are the "First Act" guitars they're playing really one-off custom jobs that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the instruments First Act would sell you or me? I cannot tell you the brands, but let's just say that I once worked on a major Indy racing team and we had a certain spark plug maker's name on our car. But, we never ran their spark plugs in the car. We went to considerable efforts to make sure that nobody knew that, too. So, I'm somewhat suspicious. But, I'm not unwilling to believe that First Act could actually make a decent guitar, possibly even a great guitar that you could buy for a lot less than a comparable Gibson or Fender. I do have to wonder, if that's the case, why they'd sell their stuff at Target or Wal-Mart - but, the Epi LP Junior/RS bundle is sold at Sam's Clubs and my second-hand Epi Junior is a nice little guitar. The fact that I could buy one in the same store where I buy marinated artichoke hearts really has no bearing on it's quality. Just kinda weird marketing strategy.

Clearly the LE and custom guitars built at First Act's Studio for Artists are not the ones you buy in Wal-Mart or Target. So, what's the deal on their regular line of instruments?

Well, it's a little hard to tell. On their website, First Act lists First Act Instruments and First Act Discovery brand instruments. Discovery stuff is clearly for little kids - basically relatively realistic musical toys and some stuff suitable for elementary school music education programs. But, there is no link for First Act Instruments. . . I guess I'll dig into that a little deeper when I get a chance.

I'm still not sold on the notion that First Act guitars are anything more than really cheap Chinese junk made for the not-so-serious music student. But, I'm open to the possibility. More later. 

A Short, Successful Practice Session

Due to some non-guitar activities, I got tied up last night and didn't even start playing until close to 11:30. My intent was to noodle around for about half an hour and get to bed, but it didn't go quite that way. It was a relatively short and quick practice session, but I still managed to drag it out for over an hour. Worth it, though. And, I'd have to say it was one of the most pleasant practice sessions I've had in a couple of weeks - at least.

[Note: I realize now that I need to start tracking which guitar I'm using from night to night or song to song, and also when I change strings. Last night's practice was all done on the EG112, which I just had set-up and restrung this past Saturday, March 17th. Probably should note what sort of strings, too, but I didn't even ask that when I picked up the EG. I was just relieved that I didn't have to pay for a new neck!]

In Bloom
First, as per the new practice regimen, I pulled up In Bloom (combo arrangement) to get that song mastered if possible before the play count reaches 40. The last time I played this song, according to my rehearsal notes, was January 15th, so my first play through last night resulted in a predictable drop in score. 82550 was the only score I had recorded from prior plays. My first attempt after several weeks away from it was 78665 (79/64). Then things steadily improved:

2d play: 89041 (88/81)
3d play: 93094 (91/76)
4th play: 98724 (93/71)

After the 2d play through, I went to the Riff Repeater to see what phrases needed work to max. As usual, the solo was the only phrase left that I needed to work on. I tried several runs through the Leveler with no success. I felt like I was getting close, but Leveler didn't seem to think I was close enough. Rather than argue about it for 30 full iterations, I quit and jumped to Free Speed. But, I also bumped up the mastery level to 100% per a tip from an anonymous commenter on my blog entry from 3/16. (BTW, thanks for that tip, anonymous commenter!) This way I can see what all is coming. I actually moved the speed up a notch somewhere in there, but I clearly wasn't going to max the solo last night and still get any sleep before work this morning. So, I let it go for the night having at least familiarized myself with the solo a bit. After that I went back to the song and played through it two more times with the results above. Clearly the work I did on the solo helped my score even though I still haven't mastered it. That's progress.

Carol of the Bells - Single Notes
Since this was supposed to be a short practice, I figured I'd just rip through a couple of plays on this arrangment to keep things moving along and to close the gap between my single note and combo scores. First score dropped, even though I had just played this the night before. But, the next two scores were improvements over the previous night's best.

Tuesday night's best: 39194 (88/87)
Last night's 1st play: 33287 (77/41) - pretty bad drop!
Last night's 2d play: 42682 (86/83) - more like it
Last night's 3d play: 44573 (81/52) - again, improved score with worse accuracy and shorter streak

I levelled up somewhere along the line and got a bunch of new notes thrown at me! But, apart from that and the weird disconnect between overall score and accuracy/streaks, it was pretty straight-forward progress.

Of course, after that little bit of semi-serious work, I wanted to cut loose and just rock out with something that I can actually half-way play. Choices are limited. Despite the rather sour taste left in my mouth by last week's substellar performance in the forum Weekly Challenge, I went for my old stand-by - Surf Hell. With a twist. I noticed that I had played the single note arrangement just once before, so I played that arrangement just to mix things up a bit (and to continue my house-keeping progress).

Surf Hell (Single Notes) - Master Mode Unlocked
Like Angela, the difference between combo and single note arrangements of Surf Hell are minimal. In fact, there are just two: The troublesome barre chords are replaced with just the E- string bottom note of the respective chords, and the other three-note chords played during the chorus are replaced with 1/8th note Gs played on the 6th string (with a couple of B-flats thrown in at the end of every other measure). That's it. Funnily enough, I started out playing the barre chords out of habit and discovered that you don't get extra credit for that. In fact, it appears that you get penalized for it.

My one previous score on this arrangement was 41941 (88/85) on February 8th.
Last night's 1st play: 58229 (92/146)
Last night's 2d play: 88355 (98/149)
Last night's 3d play: 110,307 (98/294) !!

Time out! Master Mode not unlocked with a 110,307!? Holy WTF, Guitar-Man! To the Riff Repeater! Apparently playing the barre chords (C, B-flat, D) instead of the single notes (C, B-flat and D) that come up on the note highway on this arrangement actually causes you to level down that phrase. Easily fixed. About three runs through Leveler took care of that little problem and I got the phrase maxed. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Last night's 4th play: 115,983 and Master Mode unlocked.

The similarity between the two arrangements makes the fact that I mastered this specific arrangement in 5 plays pretty meaningless. In reality, I have played this song more like 120 times. I had the core of the song memorized weeks ago and I was pretty sure I had the simplified replacement notes for the barre chords well in-hand. So, no way I was going to pack it in for the night without having at least one go at a Master Mode Performance.

Last night's 5th play in Master Mode: 230,414. And, that was with some mistakes that I knew I made.

Now, I'm pretty stoked about that score except for one thing. As I said, this arrangement is practically the same as the combo arrangement other than the barre chords, which I believe I was playing just fine on the combo. So, why the tremendous difference in scores? Granted, a 230k still wouldn't have bought me the privilege of choosing the Week 6 forum challenge song, but it certainly would have put me solidly among the top 5. And, while that appeals to my competitive bone, that's not even the point. What the hell was I doing wrong on the other version that kept my score down to 205k? I can play barre chords, dammit! I don't NEED to replace barre chords with simple notes to get a a good score!

Maybe it was the guitar. Many of my scores have improved rather significantly since I switched from my Special II (with very worn strings) to the EG112. And, I think I was still playing the SII when I turned in my final Weekly Challenge score last Sunday night (though I can't really remember and - like an idiot - I didn't write down which guitar I was playing). So, tonight I'm going to play through Surf Hell combo on the EG112. My lag setting is at 0 already, which is the setting that seems to work best for everybody (makes me wonder why they put the adjustment tool in the game - under what circumstances would you use anything other than 0?).

Progress Trends and Rehearsal Strategies
I love the fact that Rocksmith puts a number on each play through a song. Even though I'm not entirely confident that the numbers are completely accurate indicators of overall mastery, at least I can get a reasonably objective picture of where I am.

Generally speaking, it looks like my practices tend to follow a fairly constant pattern. The first time through a song for the night is like my "Oh, yeah, that's how this song goes" refresher. Then, once I've refreshed my memory of the song, I make some improvements. (Obviously for brand new songs that I've never played, the first time through is often more of a "Oh. That's interesting." But, from there my progress seems to follow the same trend.)

Where I find myself getting consistently worse or making minimal progress, Riff Repeater seems to be my best move. Figure out what phrases are weak and work on those at least a little - not necessarily maxing everything but at least working through specific sections of the song before playing through again. Sometimes OCD will kick in and I'll beat myself up trying to max something until I'm just pissed off. That doesn't seem very effective for me even though I may be naturally inclined to do that. Then, after maybe 30 runs through the Leveler and possibly some work in Free Speed mode, go back and play through the song again just to put that section into perspective.

I think if I roll with this concept, I'll avoid the situations where I've played a song 48 times and still can't make any headway. And, I'll avoid the sometimes very strong desire to throw a pretty decent guitar through a very expensive TV screen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Going with the Flow - To Master or Not to Master

Rehearsal Notes - Go With the Flow
Last night was another good one with the new EG112. (Not sure if I'll even call it a Yamaha anymore now that it has a whole new neck on it. . . ) I pulled up Go with the Flow for the first time since I first saw it as an encore at the end of Event 2. That was around January 14th. Looks like I got 76,920 on this song the first time I ever played it, so it's obviously fairly simple - at least the combo arrangement. Apparently I played it a few more times after the encore performance, but I only recorded two scores in my rehearsal notebook: my very first score and a score of 86,600. I didn't remember the song at all, but I took one run through it last night and unlocked Master Mode with a score of 104,284. Only 7 plays total. It's just that easy to play.

After that success, I pulled up the Single Note arrangement of this song for the first time ever. Again, pretty straight-forward piece to play. I played it through 6 times and, with one exception, improved my score each time starting at 82,211 and working up to 107,515. But, I didn't master it because I hadn't yet maxed out the intro or verse phrases. With a little work in Riff Repeater, I maxed the first verse easily. The second verse is a little trickier and the intro is even a little trickier still. The intro has a whacky back and forth slide thing going on that I just wasn't getting.

I think the awesome sustain on the EG112 really helped on the Single Note arrangement. 90% of the song is sustained notes high up on the fret board (between frets 12 and 19).

Rocksmith Scoring Quirks
Of course, once I max out the remaining two phrases of Go With the Flow, I'll have to replay the song to unlock the Master Mode because not only do you have to score 100k or better, you have to do that AFTER maxing out the phrases. That's right. As I've pointed out before, to unlock Master Mode, you have to max out all the phrases and you have to score 100k or better - and you have to do it in that order. So, oddly enough, although I have a higher score on the Single Note arrangement than on the Combo, I have Mastered the Combo but not the Single Note arrangement. 

Another quirk I noticed is that I got 95% accuracy on both arrangments, but there's a huge difference in streaks. I have a streak of 230 on the combo with a score of 104k. On the single note arrangement, I have a higher score - 107k - but a much, much weaker streak of only 36. This sort of suggests to me that the streaks don't contribute to your score at all. 

It's a little odd to me that you can "master" a song but still have a lower score than you have on an unmastered song. I tend to think of the score as an overall indicator of mastery. Clearly that's not how Rocksmith sees it. I intend to get a better handle on the scoring algorithm and attempt to explain it here in the near future.

The Progress Spreadsheet - Play Counts Updated
I've created a separate page to post the progress spreadsheet on, but since I've updated my play counts I figured it would be easier to just post the latest version of the spreadsheet right here. This is everything I've played in Rocksmith. Purple fills at the top indicate songs I've unlocked Master Mode on. Gold fills indicate songs that came up as encores (once I master those, they become purple, like Do You Remember and Run Back to Your Side).

Song Artist Date First Played Event # Qualifying Score High Score Best % Best Streak Play Count
Do You Remember - Combo Horrors The 26-Jan-2012 5 61800 250645 88 50 14
Satisfaction, Chord Arr.  Rolling Stones The 5-Feb-2012 n/a n/a 217479 99 272 11
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen Brian Adam McCune 28-Jan-2012 n/a n/a 206823 94 102 143
Surf Hell - Combo Little Barrie 19-Jan-2012 3 ? 205787 98 181 118
Next Girl Black Keys The 14-Jan-2012 1 ? 205498 98 158 6
Run Back to Your Side - Chords Eric Clapton 23-Feb-2012 6 n/a 204506 100 89 10
Angela (Single Note) Jarvis Cocker 26-Feb-2012 4 n/a 203555 97 264 13
Breed - Combo Nirvana 2-Feb-2012 5 28800 202526 96 122 33
Angela (Combo) Jarvis Cocker 23-Jan-2012 4 ? 202435 99 302 30
Satisfaction - Single Note Rolling Stones The 14-Jan-2012 1 ? 202003 97 155 65
Go With the Flow - Single Note Queens of the Stone Age 1-Feb-2012
n/a 107515 95 36 7
Go With the Flow - Combo Queens of the Stone Age 14-Jan-2012 2 n/a 104284 95 230 7
Outshined - Combo 2 Soundgarden 22-Jan-2012 n/a n/a 96609 91 88 48
I Can't Hear You Dead Weather The 15-Jan-2012 3 ? 95739 95 80 40
Mean Bitch - Combo 2 Taddy Porter 6-Feb-2012 6 41000 86737 89 89 19
Vasoline - Combo 1 Stone Temple Pilots 15-Jan-2012 3 ? 85738 95 138 25
In Bloom - Combo Nirvana 15-Jan-2012 2 ? 82550 0 0 33
Are You Gonna Go My Way Lenny Kravitz 6-Feb-2012 6 16400 79776 90 60 22
Higher Ground - Combo 2 Red Hot Chilli Peppers 1-Feb-2012 n/a n/a 79735 88 66 21
Higher Ground - Combo 1 Red Hot Chilli Peppers 15-Jan-2012 2 ? 79013 95 110 54
Rebel Rebel David Bowie 6-Feb-2012 6 19500 76799 91 58 15
Smoke on the Water * Deep Purple 5-Mar-2012 n/a n/a 75592 92 127 7
Song 2 Blur 23-Feb-2012 6 n/a 74507 0 0 1
High and Dry Radiohead 8-Feb-2012 6 25200 72970 90 86 10
Slow Hands Interpol 15-Jan-2012 3 ? 70966 0 0 21
Number Thirteen - Combo Red Fang 24-Jan-2012 4 11700 66064 90 144 25
Use Somebody Kings of Leon 22-Jan-2012 3 n/a 60425 87 98 19
Where is My Mind? - Combo Pixies 24-Jan-2012 4 29300 59846 0 0 6
Play with Fire - Combo Rolling Stones The 24-Jan-2012 4 22280 58677 80 42 ??
When I'm with You - Combo Best Coast 2-Feb-2012 5 31100 58578 95 128 19
Carol of the Bells - Combo* Seth Chapla 17-Mar-2012 n/a n/a 57807 83 35 5
Unnatural Selection -  Combo Muse 21-Jan-2012 4 ? 57289 87 105 48
Freebird - Chords* Lynyrd Skynyrd 17-Mar-2012 n/a n/a 46782 86 95 1
Surf Hell - Single Note Little Barrie 8-Feb-2012 3 n/a 41941 88 85 1
Outshined - Combo 1 Soundgarden 10-Feb-2012 4 ? 40728 0 0 2
Carol of the Bells - Single Note* Seth Chapla 17-Mar-2012 n/a n/a 39194 88 100 9
Boys Don't Cry The Cure 22-Jan-2012 1 n/a 32372 0 0 1
Plug In Baby - Combo Muse 5-Feb-2012 5 n/a 29715 0 0 1
I Want Some More - Combo Dan Auerbach 26-Jan-2012 4 n/a 23837 0 0 1
Unnatural Selection - Single Note Muse 30-Jan-2012 n/a n/a 21438 0 0 2
Higher Ground - Single Note Red Hot Chilli Peppers 1-Feb-2012 n/a ? 18106 0 0 1
Play with Fire - Single Notes Rolling Stones The 24-Jan-2012 n/a n/a 14660 78 24 ??
In Bloom - Single Note Nirvana 1-Feb-2012 n/a ? 13249 0 0 7

A New Policy
Looks like I master songs that I'm going to master within about 17 plays. (I didn't count Surf Hell, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, or Satisfaction in that calculation since I've played those songs many times since mastering them.) Or, put another way, if I haven't mastered a song within 17 plays, chances are I'm not going to master it.

I've played Outshined (combo) and Unnatural Selection 48 times each and I'm nowhere near Master Mode. I've played I Can't Hear You 40 times and despite a 95% accuracy I haven't reached the magical 100K mark on that one yet, either. In Outshined, it's the solo that's killing me. The other two songs I have no idea - seems like I'm playing everything right, but obviously I'm not.

After 54 plays, I've only got 79,013 on Higher Ground, combo 1. Yet, with only 21 plays (less than half as many), I have 79,735 points on the other combo arrangement of this song. And, again, the lower scored arrangement actually has a much better accuracy and streak.

So, my new policy is if I haven't mastered a song or arrangement by 30 plays, I'm putting that arrangement aside - if not the whole song. I will try In Bloom (combo) one more time before I start this policy since I've played it 33 times and haven't played it for quite a while. Maybe I'll get it. But, if I don't master that one by 40 plays, it goes "in the vault," too.

I'm not quitting or giving up, but this gives me a definite point at which I can cut bait on certain songs and move on. For example, I don't even like Unnatural Selection - it's not a very pleasant melody, not really any fun to play, and it's extremely long. But, I've played it 48 times trying to master it. Enough! As one of my friends here pointed out during my recent funk, perhaps I'll have more luck with it if I lay off for a while and come back to it later. Some of these songs I really just don't care enough about to bother coming back to. Especially if RS keeps piling on the new DLC.

Future Plans and Goals
I'm still working toward having the 3 Christmas DLC songs (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Carol of the Bells, and We Three Kings) live-performance ready by Thanksgiving of this year. I'm well on the way. I've mastered and memorized GRYMG already. I'm better than half-way to mastering one arrangement of Carol of the Bells and I've got a good start on the alternate arrangment. So, I think I'll be able to pull that off. We Three Kings looks like it could be a real challenge, but that'll be a good test of RS's dynamic difficulty system.

My broader, long-term goal is to master/memorize a dozen songs so that I could play them at least passably with a live band. I sort of settled on this goal while watching the Metallica Big Four DVD. They played about a dozen songs. That's it. I'm sure James and Kirk could play a thousand songs from memory, but for a huge concert in a soccer stadium filled with fans they only needed about a dozen songs. So, there's really no reason that I need to memorize all 51 RS songs. Ever. Especially songs that I don't even like. If I could play a dozen songs that I really like and enjoy playing, I'd be good. Anything beyond that would be gravy.

I appreciate that RS picked particular songs for their level of difficulty, techniques, and general suitability as teaching tools. And, I'll give all of the songs in RS a fair shot when they pop up on my RS setlists (except for California Brain which I wish I could just delete). But, if I don't have them mastered in 30 tries or less, they're done. In fact, I wish RS had a more robust way to organize songs so that we could pull songs that we just don't want to play out of the line-up and move them out of the way. At the same time, I'd love to be able to group the songs I really like together for easy rehearsal access.