By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
For 21-year-old Kelly Law-Yone, aka "the Tipper Queen," years of preparation had gone into this show, the biggest night of her life. You could say she had been practicing for this gig ever since her first music instruction—piano lessons, beginning around the time she started grade school, followed by years in middle and high school bands.
After getting to college, she had worked toward this big show almost every day, honing her strumming rhythm to a titanium razor's edge, her frenzied fretwork now so intricate it looked like nothing so much as a spider scuttling to wrap up some juicy morsel of prey.
Big sponsors had flown her from her home in Texas to Vegas, where they had put her up in one of the best hotels in town. Here, she would duet on "Welcome to the Jungle" with none other than Slash, the very same iconic guitarist whose apocalyptic six-string mayhem helped change the course of rock and roll history.
She stroked the neck of her guitar for luck as she waited in the wings, and as no less a luminary than Bill Gates looked on from stage right, the emcee's spiel seemed to drag on and on. At last, her time had come to shine. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Tipper Queen!" he said, and she strode out on the stage.
"I'm gonna show you people that girls really know how to rock!" She couldn't see the crowd past the first row because of the lights. She just tried to focus. Good thing she doesn't get stage fright.
Law-Yone never broke a sweat as she nailed every note, every hammer-on and pull-off and whammy-bar wobble and growled sustain. The crowd went wild, and they went still wilder when Slash himself joined her on the stage.
Except only Slash played a real guitar. Law-Yone's ax was a $35 plastic controller, the kind that comes in a bundle with the game Guitar Hero III.
And this wasn't a concert, but a skit during the keynote address of this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
All over America and the world, in living rooms and dorm rooms and, increasingly, in public, there are hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, male and female, whaling away on tiny plastic guitars and stripped-down little drum kits.
Videogamers, one and all, dreaming that they are rock stars.
Lucky's Pub is a sports bar in Houston's Old Chinatown, a watering hole for the young denizens of the condos and lofts that have lately sprung up on downtown's eastern fringe.
Most nights, after the buzzer has sounded on the Rockets game, the bar's 21-foot video screen is beaming reruns of SportsCenter to the patrons. Not on Wednesdays.
On those nights, you're more likely to see and hear a scene like this: As the bass notes from "Creep," Radiohead's iconic '90s jam, rumble past in 4/4 time, a 20-something guy in a white ball cap shakily croons Thom Yorke's words into a plastic microphone:
"You float like a feath-eeeeerrrr, in a beautiful world, I wish I was special, you're so fucking specialllll..."
The guitarist springs into life with Jonny Greenwood's famous growling little four-note "duh-duh: duh-duh" figure.
The drummer whales away at the three plastic drum heads on his kit like they owe him money.
As the music reaches its grunge-opera crescendo, the bassist and guitarist swing their guitar necks in unison, and the foursome attains blissed-out, though counterfeit, Radiohead nirvana.
If Kelly Law-Yone is the Jimi Hendrix of fake-guitar games, these people are your local bar band—good enough to play in public, but nowhere near ready for the big time.
Let's back up and explain these games a little better. In the Guitar Hero series, players re-create classic and contemporary rock songs by "strumming" a thumb-wheel and pressing colored buttons on the fretboard in time with the music. Players can play solo, compete head to head or collaborate.
Rock Band uses very similar guitar game play but supplements that with a pitch-detecting microphone for vocals and a stripped-down electronic drum set, complete with kick drum. (Of the instruments in the game, the drum set is the most similar to its real-life counterpart.) As many as four players can play simultaneously on different instruments.
These games trade on a common and powerful fantasy. Who, other than Kurt Cobain, wouldn't like to be a rock star?
But becoming a real rock star takes time, money, talent and desire. These games are relatively cheap, and since each game has multiple levels of difficulty ranging from easy to expert, they take a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.
At least in terms of public play, Guitar Hero seems already like yesterday's news. Rock Band's ability to accommodate four players easily trumps the two of Guitar Hero, and with Rock Band, karaoke is rolled into the package as well. (Rock Band and its sequels may eventually spell doom for stand-alone karaoke nights.)
Anthony Wegmann, one of Lucky's owners, says that his club has seen an upswing in business on Rock Band night. "The last couple of weeks we have started getting phone calls from people wanting to know what time we start playing," he says. "...It's not quite as good as a live band, but it is at least some form of entertainment, whereas we would just be having reruns of SportsCenter on ESPN otherwise."