In the August 2008 edition of Modern Drummer, I told the story one of my teenage drum students, Amanda, who played the video game Rock Band so obsessively that she subsequently improved her single stroke rolls on real drums. After further investigation, I discovered that when Amanda played Rock Band at an expert level, it increased her familiarity enough with each song and assisted her in reading through note-for-note transcriptions. Amanda suggested that I use colored markers to highlight the noteheads in the chart, corresponding to the colors found in the video game and on the drum controller. This helped her master the songs in very little time, and a new teaching method was born. I just didn’t know it yet…

Rock Band Update

Over the past two years, the Rock Band enterprise has exploded with Rock Band 2, The Beatles Rock Band, Green Day Rock Band, and now Rock Band 3. Harmonix, the game’s developer, has obviously realized the entertainment and educational value of the drum kit component (Besides the vocal mic, the drum kit is the only other peripheral that is similar in function to the real instrument). They have progressively improved the drumset part of the game.

For instance, Harmonix has made advancements in the Rock Band 2 controller, including velocity-sensitive drum pads with more rebound and less noise, a more durable kick pedal, and expansion plugs that allow for separately-sold cymbal pads manufactured by Mad Catz. Mad Catz now makes an expansion pack that allows up to three additional cymbals and an additional pedal for double bass drum playing. Alesis has introduced the Ion Drum Rocker, a premium drum set controller that doubles as a real electronic kit with the addition of a drum brain. Both the Mad Catz add-ons and the Ion Rocker plug right into the various platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation, and Wii.

The Drum Trainer mode in Rock Band 2 and Green Day Rock Band helps players practice beats and fills in varying tempos as do “Drum Lessons’ and “Beatle Beats” in The Beatles Rock Band. For Rock Band 3, Harmonix has enlisted the help of the Berklee College of Music to make a series of lessons to go along with 60 to 80 songs that were made just for the Drum Trainer

All of these efforts by Harmonix and the various third-party companies have really helped gamers pay attention to their drumming within the Rock Band virtual world. It’s also apparent that many of these people have been motivated to take a stab at playing a real drumset. Over the past two years, whenever I ask new drum students if they have played Rock Band or Guitar Hero World Tour, the answer is almost always “yes”.

However, there is something missing here. Excited by the prospect of learning to play real drums, these students bring some drumming skills with them: coordination, timing, and a sense of song structure. However, acquired video game drumming skills do not necessarily transfer over to playing real drums.

The Missing Link

Rock Band’s 3D scrolling note charts make it difficult to recognize complex rhythmic patterns quickly. The bright colors and the beautiful graphics that accompany the note charts serve to entertain but also can distract. Standard, stationary drumset notation is vastly superior in this respect. The question is whether scrolling note-charts are really that much different than standard drumset notation.

Examine the following transformation of notation:

Measure 31 from "Say It Ain’t So"
Hard Level, Original 3D Perspective from Rock Band.
The Note Chart from
Measure 31, now in 2-D.
Rotated clockwise 90 degrees

A white background replaces the black one,
and the note positions are changed,
now reflecting the positions of or relative pitches
of the parts of an acoustic/electronic drumset.

Notehead shapes now differentiate between
drums and cymbals (regular noteheads and X’s).
Beams clearly define rhythms, stems serve to connect
the noteheads, and the full staff (lines and spaces)
is used for easier separation of notes.

When I have placed colored drumset notation in front of students experienced in playing Rock Band, you can see light bulbs immediately go off. They feel good about using their prior knowledge from gaming to help them read music. Learning to play drums becomes a more fun, accelerated process for them.

Raising the Bar

Rock Band drum programmers have done a great job of generating drum parts. Through each of the four levels of difficulty, from easy to expert, players are taken through simple rhythms that involve very little coordination all the way to more complex rhythms that require increased coordination. The first 3 levels originate from the creative minds of the drum programmers. However, with a few exceptions, the expert level is a note-for-note transcription of the actual drum part.

The following partial transcriptions are gleaned from the bridge of Vasoline by Stone Temple Pilots and correspond to each level of the game.

Easy Level
Easy Level
Medium Level
Medium Level
Hard Level
Hard Level
Expert Level
Expert Level

How It Works

Rock Band transcriptions using colored noteheads can be used in a variety of ways to help a wide spectrum of people.

  • Gamers who aspire to be real drummers can use their plastic drum kits (or the higher end Mad Catz or Ion Rocker), position a music stand off to one side, place the colored transcription on the stand, and play the game. They can still receive feedback from the cheering faux audience (found inside the game) and their score. When they have memorized the chart, they will be able to again lose themselves in the cool virtual rock environment while playing.

  • Gamers can use the charts to improve their scores. After all, stationary, clearly defined drum charts have advantages over a moving, ambiguous “note” chart.

  • Drummers looking for a fun practice alternative could first use the game to gain familiarity with each song. He/she could then plug a pair of headphones into their TV and play the charts using a real acoustic or electronic drumset. In this case, Rock Band becomes a visually stimulating play-along.

  • Persons with learning disabilities, including dyslexics, young children, and seniors will find the colored noteheads easier to digest, making learning to play an instrument much easier.

Anyone using this method will still be better served hiring a drum instructor. Though every Rock Band game comes equipped with drumming tutorials, a private teacher can most efficiently help you through coordination problems, technique, dynamics, rudiments, etc. It’s always easier to learn about any musical instrument from a qualified teacher.


Drum teachers often use tradition methods that have been passed down from generation to generation. Many of these practices have proven their worth over the years. Look at all the amazing drummers in our midst these days who grew up on Stick Control and Syncopation.

These days, most instructional methods come in book form (or as DVD’s). With advancements in technology such a faster internet, tablet devices such as Kindle or the iPad, and interactive instructional software programs, educational products will undergo a major metamorphisis in the future. However, for legions of gamers and potential drummers entranced by music video games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero, learning to play the drums might be as simple as going to a website, downloading digital files (PDF’s), and printing colored drum charts in the privacy of your own home.