Rock Band 3 Review: You Might Accidentally Learn an Instrument

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Rock Band 3
MTV Games/Electronic Arts
Developer: Harmonix
Xbox 360, PS3, Wii
ESRB rating: T for Teen
System reviewed on: Xbox 360, PS3

Here’s where I’m coming from with these music rhythm games: I found myself in several bands throughout high school and college—band bands, not “Where’s my sheet music?! I lost my reed!” bands—playing guitar, bass, or drums depending on the situation. I also took piano lessons as a kid. Other than that, I have no formal music training.

The first time I played Guitar Hero, I remember thinking to myself that it was a really fun and unique game but that the guitar controllers would only teach the rhythmic part of playing a real-life guitar. The first time I played Rock Band, which came with a drum set, I remember thinking to myself that any kid that stuck with the Rock Band drums for long enough would eventually be able to sit down behind a real drum set and play. Guitar? No. Drums? Yes.

Fast forward to today and Rock Band 3 is available. The drums will still teach you to play real drums, but now there’s support for an $80 two-octave keyboard/keytar and a bewildering $150 guitar controller with six strings and 102 buttons—every single note you’d find on a real guitar.

New “Pro” Instruments

Holy. Moly.


This guitar controller could conceivably teach someone to play an actual guitar, but the fact that it employs individual buttons on the fret board instead of strings makes for a somewhat disjointed experience. I spent the better part of an entire day trying to get the hang of the controller before giving up and going back to the tried and true (and fun) five-button guitar controller.

A big part of the problem is that I can’t wrap my brain around the vertically scrolling tablature style used in the game since I grew up reading tablature horizontally from left to right. It’d be far easier to learn guitar with this controller first, and then move on to a real guitar. It wasn’t nearly as easy the other way around. Perhaps worst of all, it was frustrating; and these games are supposed to take the frustration out of being a musician.

The keyboard controller, on the other hand, is awesome.


You could absolutely learn to play the piano in real life by putting some serious time into Rock Band 3. The fact that the keyboard is only two octaves makes for a cramped experience at times and doesn’t lend much to two-handed play, but overall it’s a great way to get the basic fundamentals down while playing along to actual music. It comes with a strap and can be played like a keytar, which looks cool until you realize you can’t see any of the keys and have to play based solely on feel. To anyone who played keytar in an ’80s band, I salute you. I don’t know how you did it.

New Game Modes

The songs in the game can be played in standard or “pro” mode—the pro modes for guitar and keyboard will make use of all available notes, while the standard modes use five guitar buttons and five total piano keys. Not all songs feature piano parts, but you can use the keyboard to play the standard guitar and bass parts from songs.

Career mode has been revamped to serve as the overarching structure for the entire game. If you play songs for fun in free play mode, it’ll advance your career. If you go on the road, it’ll advance your career. If you make use of the in-game lessons—learning the keyboard, etc.—it’ll advance your career.

Furthermore, you aren’t forced to play through set songs when touring in order to open up new venues. Each gig will give you the option of a particular set list, a randomly selected set list based on genre, or the option of choosing your own set list based on certain parameters. If you’ve downloaded or imported songs from previous Rock Band titles, they’ll get incorporated in Rock Band 3’s career progression, too, which is nice.

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