Guitar Assistant Chair Helps Design Rock Band 3

By 
Brenda Pike
October 29, 2010
"You've got to have the right balance of fun and return on investment of time," says Rick Peckham, assistant chair of guitar.
The display in <em>Rock Band 3</em>'s Pro Guitar mode
<em>Rock Band 3</em>'s Fender Squier guitar.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo provided by Harmonix
Photo provided by Harmonix

It might seem unusual for a Berklee guitar professor to participate in the design of Rock Band 3. If there's one criticism that's been made of the popular music video game in the past, it's that it gives players the illusion of learning to play music without allowing them to transfer their skills to a real instrument. "People who excelled at the game couldn't play a guitar and people who excelled at playing the guitar couldn't play the game," says Guitar Department assistant chair Rick Peckham. "Now they're trying to put those things together, and I think it's a great thing."

Peckham was on sabbatical this spring to do research on fingerstyle guitar, but spent some time at Harmonix's headquarters in Cambridge to consult on the integration of real MIDI guitars into the game.

"There's no substitute for being with a real guitar teacher," he says. "That being said, if you're going to be playing a video game, there's nothing that could help your guitar playing more than this one. I was even in favor of the five-button model, because it turned a lot of people on to guitar-oriented music that they wouldn't have known otherwise."

While Rock Band 3, released October 26, does include the familiar five-button guitar, its new pro mode allows players to learn real chords and even use a real guitar. "On the pro level, they're putting their hands on the instrument in the same way that you'd put them on a real guitar. They even have a Fender Squier model that has the guts of the game in the fretboard, so you're actually playing a real guitar while you're playing the game," Peckham says.

In fact, the Squier is a MIDI guitar that could be plugged into an amp and played at a gig. Transcribing the works of fingerstyle guitarists Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed during his sabbatical, Peckham used a similar guitar to enter notation into Finale.

"[Harmonix has] always been interested in fusing technology with musical knowledge, making it fun to learn about music," says Peckham. "That's pretty much what I'm doing all the time."

Peckham has a lot of experience teaching through technology. In addition to his regular Berklee classes, Peckham teaches at the college's online school, Berkleemusic.com. More than 2,500 people have taken his Chords 101 class. "It's a real trick to do," he says. "You have to demonstrate through videos and through examples. You're not able to say, 'Just move your hand here.'"

He adds, "The developers at Harmonix did an amazing job of coming up with this variation of the interface where you have these chord shapes marching towards you. So you have a G chord where you could see what's happening on the sixth string and the fifth string and the first string. If you've never seen it before, you get used to it very quickly."

Peckham encouraged Harmonix to add chord symbols so that students would learn the notation, rather than just respond to the shapes. "I gave them my book for Berklee Press, Berklee Rock Guitar Chord Dictionary, and they were able to use that as a naming convention," says Peckham. "They didn't go with it whole hog. They didn't go with the minus for minor—that's definitely Berklee territory."

In order to simplify the display, the game was originally going to feature notes that were either sharps or flats, not both. "Early on they asked me, sharps or flats, which is it going to be? You have to choose one or the other. I figured AC/DC, Rolling Stones, they're all in sharp keys, so if I have to choose one or the other, it would have to be sharps. But if you get into 'Power of Love' by Huey Lewis, you get into horn keys, like B flat. So later on I wrote this impassioned plea for flats. . . . I told them at one meeting, 'I don't want to be known as the professor who killed flats.' Anybody who has any hope of a theoretical background should learn this."

There are some strengths of the game format missing from a straight-ahead lesson. "You take advantage of the infinite patience of the computer," says Peckham. "It'll help you to get through these things that involve. . . a lot of muscle memory and repetition, and those are dark days for a lot of people. . . . You get points for learning theoretical things and taking lessons. You could have access to a better wardrobe; you could play at better venues. Instead of a metronome in a practice room, you've got positive feedback, at the toughest time when you're a player."

While there's no chance that the new version of Rock Band will put music teachers out of business, Peckham points out, "If you're a teacher, the best thing you can do is make yourself obsolete, because the person is off on their own, learning their own stuff in their own way."