The Rock Band instrument big box set arrives.

I’d like to ask a simple question. Can music games improve your ability to play a real instrument?

After drumming in Rock Band for almost a year I’ve decided to learn the drums properly again. While there is no definitive answer for you just yet, this is a subject I’d like to return to as as my real drumming improves.

But before we get to the lessons themselves; a little information on my musical history.

My musical history

The Drums

Now I have to be honest I have played the drums before, but I would describe myself as extremely amateur. Largely self taught. My practical drum experience was from about 11 years ago, and I’ve largely forgotten. I’ve picked up a lot of bad habits from RB2, so I’d like to start over.

Other Musical experiences

I played the violin when I was very young, and I also played in a percussion section (Xylophone, Glockenspiel mainly) so I used to have a fair understanding of musical theory. However I am sad to say this knowledge has completely drained from my head.

Rock Band 1 & 2

On July 15th 2008 I unboxed my Rock band instrument set for the first time. But who was I kidding, I bought Rock Band and it’s sequel so I could play the drums first, and second for the music and for the sheer joy of experiencing one of the best multiplayer games ever made.

After muddling through Easy and Medium difficulties, by November 2008 for the release of Rock Band 2 I was playing on Hard exclusively. And now less then a year after I bought the original game I play on Expert difficulty for the vast majority of songs.

My drumming aims

  • To learn the drums properly, with an emphasis on musical theory.
  • To ditch any bad habits I’ve picked up from teaching myself in the past.
  • To figure out whether playing RB for the last year has helped me to improve over what I could do before.

Week One – Re-learning the basics

It’s been years since I’ve sat in front of a drum kit this big, and I’m suddenly extremely nervous. First things first apparently the way I am holding the sticks is good, thankfully I have learnt some of the benefits of stick bounce from RB2, I’ve noticed I tire less when I let the recoil of the stick do most of the work.

We go over the basic drum names, and I hit problem one straight away – the high-hat sat on the far left of me, which forms the basis of the main beat in my starting drum grooves, we play it closed today but even so, I now have a second pedal to worry about when I am now more used to one. So not a problem for now, but perhaps a problem for later.

I have a total of nine drums to manage rather than five Rock Band ones, that’s the biggest hurdle.

Two Rock Band Kits show the difference in drum positions.

Problem two is that I have to return to playing cross-handed, that is right hand over left so I can play high-hat and snare. To deviate a little:

When playing RB2, your main drum beats are on the red and yellow drums. Snare is usually the red drum on the left in-game, and yellow the high-hat.

Except on a normal drum kit setup, it’s the opposite; your high-hat is on the left, and you play cross-handed (as a right handed person) to prepare your stronger hand for faster beats. I’m no expert on the subject, but I am guessing Harmonix changed this around to make the hardware more accessible to non-musicians.

We start building up a basic groove, my tutor seems pleased that I play all drums on all hands and feet very evenly, apparently this normally takes a while to get right in your head. (Thanks RB!)

I drum along to my first song (Californication, Red Hot Chilli Peppers) I am trying to relax but I’ve noticed how much I stare ahead at one fixed point like I am looking at a screen for guidance. Must try harder not to do this next week.

Week Two – Testing my memory

As I suspected the hardest thing to unlearn is the fact that I am no longer taking direction from a screen. I need to learn to relax and loosen up a bit. I manage to play the grooves from last week without too many problems, but taking on new stuff is hard. I am used to playing by ear and suddenly I have to remember to count and think again. So the majority of this lesson is just spent practicing what I can do over and over and over. This hits hard, although still fun – it’s a step back from the immediacy and accessibility of the game and a reminder that in the real world things need to be slowly perfected over time.

My hands do in fact need some tweaking to help prepare for faster beats, I need to move away from my RB method of parallels sticks so that they form more of triangle shape on the snare. This helps, but my left hand is weaker and frequently messes up it’s beats on my fills. I would like to improve this.

Co-incidentially I am practicing (outside of my lessons) on the Rock Band kit atm, less than ideal. Not enough drums for one, but at least I have some real sticks and something to hit! For this reason alone the drum training mode of RB2 is a genuine blessing, until I am ready to commit to something a little more permanent at least.

The drum trainer mode in RB.

One thing RB does not prepare you for is the space between the different drums, at least not sufficiently, extra time has to be factored in between the beats. Biggest problem for me is moving to the cymbals in proper time. I also forgot how incredibly noisy the crash cymbals could be. Teacher recommends some ear plugs, I might just.

Perhaps RB has not been as much of a help as I originally thought. I mean it’s helping me to juggle all the various new grooves that much more quickly, but I am still finding it hard to relax and bash the hell out of the real drums, but anyone that’s seen me drum on RB will know this will not last long.

Overall feeling? The real work has started now and I need more practice, so off I go. Stay tuned.

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