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.
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.
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.
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."