Rock Band drumming vs real drumming


This is part 2 of the Using an electronic drum kit with Rock Band FAQ.

While playing the drums in Rock Band is undoubtedly closer to the real thing than the guitar, it still isn't exactly the same.  So are you really going to learn some useful things about drumming from Rock Band, or are you just fooling yourself?

First, the good news.  You definitely learn a lot of useful things about real drumming from drumming in Rock Band.  Here's a list of different things to be aware of as you play the game so you know what you're missing out on … and what you aren't.

Things you won't learn from playing Rock Band

As a note, the list of things you don't learn is actually more of a list of things that Rock Band doesn't explicitly teach you.  In nearly all of the cases below, being exposed more thoroughly to music via Rock Band is still far superior for your skill set than having no exposure whatsoever.

1. How to memorize a song and play it blind … and how to read tablature.  Obiviously, you need to memorize songs if you want to play music with other people in a band.  Then again, this is true of reading from anything, so it's hard to call this a minus.   What might be a minus would be if you use the visual cues on the screen exclusively instead of feeling the beat by playing to the audio and just using the tablature on the screen as a cue to guide your hits.

If you're really serious, however, you can try to play the song without looking at the screen…and this would arguably be an extremely effective way of memorizing a song and training yourself to feel the rhythm yourself rather than relying on the game.

2. Controlling the velocity and character of your hits.  Obviously, Rock Band teaches timing, but controlling the velocity and where you hit instruments is also important in getting the sound right when you play real music.

3. How to play with more than four pads and a pedal.  Real drum kits have more percussion choices than that…typically 7-9 at a minimum, and we're not counting rim shots where you hit the edges of a particular instrument.  This is speculation, but it's not hard to imagine the reduction in game was done out of a desire to produce a palatable experience for all kinds of game players, as well as practical limitations surrounding a drum controller that needs to be affordable for use with a game.

The way Rock Band works around this incongruency is by charting multiple instruments into the same lane.  If you're interested in translating some of the Rock Band experience into practical drumming experience, this is the most difficult difference to work around .  Fortunately, in most cases, the drum charts have been designed so that at least the same instruments are consistently mapped into the same lanes across all songs.  So it's simply up to you to make sure that you hit the correct instrument  for any particular note that comes at you.  Run through a song a few times, and when you're ready, you should have a feel for what instrument is being hit at the appropriate times.

4. How to freestyle or play great fills.  If you want to lay down a funky groove with the drums by yourself, you probably aren't going to get a great sense of this from Rock Band alone. 

5. How to sett the tempo for the rest of the band.  The drummer is like the metronome for the rest of the band, so it's important that you be able to set the beat consistently yourself, not follow one that's been laid out for you.  In Rock Band, the song plays along and basically cues you to the timing of the music.

6. Good posture, relaxation, style, grip, etc.  Without someone looking over your shoulder, you might pick up some bad instinctual habits simply because you don't know any better.  Look for some drumming tutorials online so that you get off on the right foot.  Expert Village has some that can get you started.  Do this early on so that at least you know if you're doing something wrong and can steer yourself clear in the learning phases.

7. The hi-hat pedal and/or double kick technique.  Opening and closing the hi-hat with your other foot is important in drumming, and Rock Band doesn't really simulate this.  With the electronic kit modification, you can make an effort to play songs "correctly", but there is no way to do this if you just use the standard Rock Band kit.

Also, since the Rock Band kit only comes with one pedal, the game only charts songs to be played with a single kick pedal.

The above cons really fall into two categories … thinking you know something you don't, and habituating too far in the wrong directions early on without proper guidance.  But again, some exposure is still far better than none.

Things you WILL learn from playing Rock Band

With very few exceptions, playing on the drums on expert difficulty in Rock Band is identical in timing to the real drum track of the song.  This means you ARE learning the following.

1. Timing – The game obviously teaches you to hit notes on beat.  This is the first and foremost thing you do as a drummer, so this is a great starting point.

2. Hand/foot independence – If you have no training in this area, you're basically relying on a lifetime of learned and instinctual habits linking your hands and feet together that have to do with counterbalancing your movements as you walk or run.  Breaking these habits is HARD.  If you get better at Rock Band, you *will* be breaking those habits.  Also a very good thing.

For example, the offbeat sections of Here It Goes Again, Wave of Mutilation, and Reptilia used to give me tons of trouble.  I would zone out, my hands and feet would move together and I would fail or barely pass the section.  Just a few weeks later and I'm now at the point where I can see the beat coming and consciously react properly instead of losing control.

3. Speed – Without practice, you won't be able to hold fast rolls rhythmically and quickly, nor will you be able to do those quick hits with your foot on the kick pedal.  Instead you'll be spazzing out or just trying to hit notes without any precision or rhythm.  Rock Band gives you an excellent way to practice rolls as you play and gives you instant feedback when you do well.

In particular, certain songs like The Hand That Feeds, Orange Crush, Ballroom Blitz, and Run to the Hills consistently ramp up the speed and difficulty of rolls that you need to perform in order to pass these songs.  After a while, you'll start to instinctively know what an 8 note roll feels like and how to pull one off.

4. Muscle memory of many REAL drumming patterns – Rock Band gives you instant exposure to a wide variety of drumming patterns.  When you play these, you're really getting to play around with different styles of drumming.  With enough exposure, you'll be able to link new patterns that you see to ones that you've practiced before and be generally used to trying out new styles because you've been doing it all along in the game.

5. Endurance – Drumming isn't like running on a treadmill or anything, but it certainly is still a bit of a workout.  The foot pedal, in particular, can be tiring for newcomers.  Quick double or triple hits in an extended series will quickly wear you out.  Also, as your playing style loosens up, you'll be moving
your arms and body more by allowing your momentum and rhythm to carry you from hit to hit.  This actually conserves energy and is a good thing.  On the other hand, you can use that confidence and flow to become a showier drummer, which uses more energy.

Welcome Home, Paranoid, and Maps are examples of songs that I've come back to after a couple of weeks and breezed through because my foot wasn't giving out on me halfway into the song (along with other general skill improvements, of course).  I'm still a bit stiff on songs when I play, but as I advance skill levels, I find myself starting to loosen up on the easier tiers when I play.  I let the sticks bounce more instead of trying to control them all the way up and down each stroke.   Again, this is also a good thing.

The bottom line is that if you play enough, you'll eventually find yourself able to keep up with the faster and more punishing songs.  You also won't be as tense as you begin to commit some songs to memory.

6. Sticking.  Sticking is all about knowing which notes to hit with which hand.  It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you want to hit a series of notes and end the last note on a drum to your right, you probably want the note before that on another drum to be hit with your left hand so that your right hand can be in flight for a little more time.

Rock Band doesn't force you to learn this per se, but it quickly becomes apparent that you're never going to nail some of the patterns in the game if you don't figure this out on your own.  After a while, you'll start instinctually  recognizing how to stick certain patterns.

It's still important to read a bit about sticking because some sticking techniques are ones that you won't be likely to find on your own.  Here's a good post on sticking to get you started.

7. Most importantly, if you play Rock Band, with or without a real drum kit, you'll have a lot of fun doing it.  The instantaneous feedback you get from the game, as well as being able to see your scores, compare them with friends, and easily download new songs all add up to one thing … a desire to play more and do better.  You'll also begin to listen to and pick out the percussion parts in songs that you never paid attention to before.

Personally, I'm just not the type of guy that would enjoy sitting at a kit and practicing to a metronome for hours on end.  Playing along with Rock Band gives me:

  1. A very easy way of trying new songs every week via downloadable content.
  2. Instant feedback when I miss notes.
  3. A clear and direct way of measuring my improvement on each song via the scoring system.

Motivation and enjoyment are perhaps the most important qualities you'll need to learn faster and advance your drumming skills … and Rock Band provides that in spades.

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