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Anyone Can Play Guitar

Video game keeps the dream alive for aspiring—and not-so-aspiring—rockers

By David King

My editor gave me a “You’re better than this” sort of stare when I pitched a column on Guitar Hero, the video game that lets players shred along to rock & roll classics on a simplified plastic guitar. My editor overestimated me. I’m not better than this. My dorky, rock-loving, video-game-doting self can’t resist the childish thrill of faux-rocking. And apparently neither can a large cross-section of the video-game-system-owning population.

Clearly, my editor has grown cold in his old age. He no longer finds joy in the childhood thrill of rock & roll. No. He digs the “avant garde.” He’s the kind of guy who gets his kicks from spending time “researching” “virtual worlds” and hanging out with some guy named “Linux.”

But Guitar Hero is not an exercise in the cutting edge. It is not the hippest of the hip. No, for Guitar Hero enthusiasts, the game provides a release, a sort of rock therapy that is on par with popping sheets of bubble wrap or playing with a Slinky.

The game is fairly straightforward. Presented in a very haphazard, I-made-this-in-my-basement fashion, it offers several levels of difficulty and a few choices of guitars, outfits and venues. You get to name your band (a popular choice seems to be to riff off Black Sabbath—Sax Sabbath or Black Cabbage, for instance) and then it is off to the gig. When a song starts to play, a fretboard appears, and notes begin to cascade towards you on the screen. You then attempt to press one of the five corresponding buttons on your faketar. You also get some helpful info in between jam sessions—tips like, “If the drummer is too tired for an encore, he is too tired for the after party.”

It’s not that I don’t know how to rock in real life. I have guitars, lots and lots of guitars. Fenders, Gibsons, even an unfortunate Ibanez, but none of them get much play anymore. But my love for plugging in and ripping away has been undone by a move into an apartment in the city, away from the open fields of southern Albany county where an impromptu jam session with two stacks and a drum kit at 3 AM could only bother a couple of cows, and maybe that prowling black bear. Guitar Hero keeps my love for the power chord alive. Instead of dealing with god-awful, you know . . . people, god forbid musicians, I plug in my faketar, turn up the skill level on Guitar Hero to “hard” and try to keep up on “Free Bird” or Megadeth’s “Hangar 18”.

In fact, many actual rock stars, who have the chance to hold arenas full of spectators in the sway of their guitar-manipulating prowess, have taken to jamming out to Guitar Hero before their gigs. Trent Reznor is an avid fan, as are Jack Black of Tenacious D and Jonathan Davis from Korn (but don’t hold that against the game).

If you want to talk about virtual worlds that contain the future of virtual interactivity, Guitar Hero is not the place to look. However, many actual communities have come about thanks to the game. Check out the bulletin board on a college campus and you will likely find postings for Guitar Hero tournaments. Clubs from Albany to Boston to New York host Guitar Hero nights, which generally draw big crowds on off nights.

And let me tell you, there is nothing quite like a room full of dorks standing in front of a row of televisions, straining to press the correct bright-colored button more times than their opponents while Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” kicks into high gear.

Unfortunately, while Guitar Hero currently provides pure, unadulterated fun for kids aged 5 to 99, it seems unavoidable that the game will be abused, dragged over the coals by corporations, stuffed down our throats until it just isn’t any fun anymore. In 2006, video-game giant Activision purchased RedOctane, the publisher of Guitar Hero, along with the rights to the game. It is expected that the company will now churn out slight variations on the game quickly, to cash in. The first expected release is due this summer, in the form of Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s. Meanwhile, MTV (yes, that MTV, the one nobody watches anymore) purchased Harmonix, Guitar Hero’s developer, and has every intention of flooding the market with a Guitar Hero clone called Rock Band.

The golden age of Guitar Hero may be coming to an end. But for now, I will cherish my time with my fake rock machine. I will tell the critics of the game to talk to my hand, and I’ll look forward to those times when I can sneak my PlayStation and guitar into uncomfortable family gatherings, or introduce
cubicle-drunk friends to the joy of the rock. And hope that one day, Guitar Hero might even melt the icy cold heart of my tech-savvy editor.

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