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Are tomorrow's guitar heroes playing 'Guitar Hero'?

Some claim that video games help kids hone real musical chops and interest in the instrument.

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2008

Watch and Learn: Shane Spears follows the music on the screen of 'Guitar Hero' with the video-game's plastic guitar. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled his name.]

Jeff Gritchen/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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For Lary Spears, a guitar hero is not someone who jacks into a game console and hits push-button chords. The longtime bassist, now a sales executive at G&L Guitars, used to build instruments at the company's Fullerton, Calif., factory.

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So he winced when his son, Shane, piled up the money he'd been given for his 10th birthday this fall and announced his plan to buy "Guitar Hero III." Shane already owned a G&L Tribute electric guitar – customized by his craftsman dad – that he seemed to enjoy thrashing in front of his bedroom mirror.

"I've always been kind of an old-school guy," says Mr. Spears. "If you want to play guitar, go pick up a guitar. You don't need a video game for that."

Still, once his son was gleefully gaming, Spears drifted into the room to see what all the buzz was about. He sat down, he says, and really worked the "GH III." It was a revelatory half hour.

"It teaches him tempo, meter, how the guitar works inside of a song, the little skip beats – the 'and two' kinds of beats," says Spears.

Don't fire the guitar teacher. But real-life instrumental mastery might just get a boost in the mock-rock age of "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" (in which a full array of instruments, including drum kit, is rendered in plastic facsimile).

"It has been a gateway for some players," says Kiri Miller, an ethnomusicologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I., who has studied the culture of gaming and its links to music. Game competency comes relatively quickly, she says. "It has helped some people say 'OK, I could achieve this [in game form] – and it might be worth really working to achieve this on a real instrument."

That's hardly universal. For many hard-core gamers, there is a "flow experience" that's not so much about musicmaking as it is about YouTube potential. "They love the ridiculousness of making all of these motions that have nothing to do with the sounds that come out," Ms. Miller says. "They love that disconnect."

Others prefer to see connections. The rapid rise of music-based gaming has taken the music world by surprise, says Joe Lamond, chief executive of NAMM, a nonprofit trade association of some 9,000 retailers and manufacturers of musical instruments. Released late 2007, "Guitar Hero III" made $115 million in its first week, straddling demographics that ranged from nostalgic boomers to ironic millennials to kids whose parents support nonshooting games.

"Our hope is that this is just maybe proving what we felt: that inherently there's a real desire for everyone to make music," says Mr. Lamond. He resists trying to guess whether some guitar gamers will pick up stringed instruments, but he believes it's worth probing, and others do, too.

"Some of our more progressive members are already out there doing promotions with 'Guitar Hero,' " he says. One preholiday promotion: A consumer who bought Guitar Hero at Guitar Center could get $50 off a guitar.