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I play the piano (on a low level) but want to try something new. I stumbled on the console game Rockband 3 where you can attach a real e-drum set (the Roland TD9-SX seems to work) and play the game with it. Two questions:

  1. Do I learn "real" drumming or is a different skill? Could this perhaps even be detrimental for learning real drumming (e.g. by establishing bad habits)?
  2. The game features primarily rock songs. In the long run I'd probably like to play in big bands or brass bands (swing, jazz, ...). Are the fundamentals of drumming the same for all genres?
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2 Answers 2

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No. I'm an accomplished drummer but I can't play Rock Band for toffee. Rock Band is a game, so it's designed to present a challenge to the user, one that's accessible to and enjoyable for adults and children with no musical knowledge. For this reason, it omits some things that are a big part of playing drums in an ensemble:

  1. Volume. By this I don't just mean the dynamics written in the piece, but of each individual note: the articulation, both written and interpreted. This is something that's easy to understand on a real kit. It's harder on an electronic kit, just like how you can't learn piano just by playing a keyboard. It's not possible at all when you don't have any feedback about what your articulation sounds like.

  2. Notation. The "scrolling dots" view that Rock Band gives you might be good for beginners, but I'm sure you understand it's unrelated to sheet music. Different publishers write their drum parts in completely different ways, and the easiest way to learn what the notation means is from experience of playing from lots of sheet music.

  3. Counting. Not only does the "scrolling dots" view always tell you where you are, the game also makes sure you're kept busy all the time. If only composers thought the same way! Alas, unless you're playing heavy metal, or some kinds of jazz, you're likely to spend a lot of time playing 16-bar rests. In a way, this is the hardest part of drumming with a big ensemble. Everyone has their own strategies for coming in in the right place, and this is something you can only learn by playing real music with an ensemble.

  4. Tempo negotiation. Rock Band is like playing with a metronome. It's all too common for rock and pop bands these days to use a "click track", which is practically the same thing, but most drummers have to follow a conductor, or possibly set a corporate tempo for the rest of their ensemble. This is a skill in itself: it's not just about being able to play in time, but being able to vary the tempo to suit the music and accommodate the other players (e.g. to let them breathe at the end of a phrase). I suspect that too much Rock Band would be a source of bad habits.

Of course, I'm not including here any of the things that a teacher will tell you but are hard to learn from any self-teaching method: what it should sound like, what kind of potential you have, how to set up a kit, how to sit, equipment recommendations, local bands who might want you, and so on.

Overall, I'm not advising you never to play Rock Band. One of the things you need to do to improve on kit is to put in the hours playing the same rhythms over and over again: the percussionist's equivalent of practising scales. On the harder difficulty levels, the arrangements it gives you are pretty representative of some standard rock beats. Once you've learned some technique on a real drum kit, I imagine Rock Band could help make that practise more interesting, if you have the discipline to keep using your technique, and not "cheat" by just hitting the pads any old how.

What I am advising is that if you turn up to a jazz band or another ensemble having only played Rock Band with an electric kit, you will end up looking pretty silly: maybe even worse than if you'd turned up with no experience at all.

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As you say: by all means, PLAY rock band. But don't try to use it as a learning tool. There are plenty videos on youtube about bands trying to play their own songs in Rock Band and failing miserably (Rush comes to mind, trying to play Tom Sawyer). I'm also an (amateur) musician and the times I've played rock Band/guitar hero I only do well with songs I don't know, and I have to remain aware that it's a GAME. –  Chochos Oct 10 '13 at 14:49
I learned to play the basic 4/4 pattern (and a few variations) by going through the little lessons in Wii Music [with the Wii Fit board acting as the pedals]; when I finally got to play on a real set I was delighted to find that the muscle memory and concepts I had picked up transferred nearly effortlessly to the physical set. But no, trying to learn to play a real drum set (other than just trying to hold the sticks correctly) with Rock Band is like trying to learn to shred on an electric guitar by playing Guitar Hero. –  AsianSquirrel Feb 15 at 21:04
I think the difference between these two "games" is whether or not you know what you are hitting --not just "oh okay green here and red here", but "hihat doing this" and "bass drum here", "switch to ride cymbal", "tom-toms!". Stuff like that. –  AsianSquirrel Feb 15 at 21:06

What you learn in Rock Band is close to real drumming, but there are limitations.

  • To the game, you either hit the drum on time, or you don't. It has no concept of dynamics or tone. So you could learn to play a part such that Rock Band would give you a perfect score, but it would sound awful.
  • Rock Band doesn't teach you technique. It's happy to give you a good score for getting the hits in at the right time, but you could be getting those hits using methods that will do your future playing no favours. Use other learning methods - a teacher, videos, books, etc. so you know the proper techniques.

Rock Band in conjunction with books and tuition might be a good combination. On the harder difficulty levels, it's a good way to learn songs, and a good source of backing tracks.

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