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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.

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Sales of guitars declined nationally in 2006 after a decade of growth. The industry attributes the slide to everything from high gasoline prices (eating into discretionary income) to the dominance of hip-hop. But guitars remain the highest selling musical instruments in the United States, according to NAMM (3.4 million were sold in 2005), although piano remains more widely played than guitar and bass combined.

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Plenty of guitarists shrug off the use of any video-game version of their art for anything but pure, slack-jawed diversion. Many favor a roots-up approach to learning: Get a beat-up six-string acoustic and play until calluses form on fingertips. Self-expression, several point out, is very limited within a scoring structure that's based on staying in synch with an animated figure.

Criticism of guitar gaming can be harsh. "[It's] yet another example of the minimization of life expectations sold to our children," says Paul Green, founder and president of the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Philadelphia and the presumed inspiration for the Jack Black movie "School of Rock."

But technology as music aid – even in game form – has had a long run-up. Bill Purse, chair of guitar and music technology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, points to G-Vox, a now defunct firm whose screen-based product worked with a real guitar. He calls it the great-grandfather to the "Guitar Hero" franchise. The interface was a street musician trying to please a crowd. "It taught the notes on the instrument just like 'Space Invaders,' " he writes in an e-mail. "You would see them on the screen and play them on the guitar."

Professor Purse and others see instrument-makers becoming more game-oriented in their own product development and in the methods they're using to promote a lower-barrier entry to the musical experience. Consider Gibson's self-tuning Robot guitar, or the latest version of a light-up teaching tool from Optek, the Fretlight FG-401 acoustic guitar.

The prime directive of the console games, of course, remains play. Physically interactive, "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" are to some degree "exergames" like the frenetic cult favorite "Dance Dance Revolution." That gives them an edge among many parents over first-person shooters or even driving games in which the object is to dodge law enforcement.

There's more to the appeal. Spears's son, Shane, relished going head-to-virtual-head with a rock legend. "He was very proud of beating Slash," says Spears. He and his wife are certain their son will continue to advance on his real guitar, too. "The game has introduced him to new music."

Developing a personal catalog, guitarists say, comes only from long sessions on an instrument. Jason Darr, guitarist and singer for the Canadian alt-rock band Neurosonic, says he has spent hours on tour buses playing "Guitar Hero." He prefers the latest versions of "Call of Duty" or "Halo," and jokes that real-life warriors probably prefer "Tetris" – or "Guitar Hero III."

Darr also suggests that any aspiring guitar player just pick up a real ax – and play. "For me, the best way to learn anything is to get your hands on it and do it," he says. "The time you spend [playing a video-game version] is time that could have spent practicing the real thing."