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."
What's not to love about a game that has the power to knock yet another episode of SportsCenter off the box?
Plenty, say some musicians and music teachers. But even most of them reluctantly agree that the games are fun.
Allen Hill, the antic frontman for the Allen Oldies Band who also teaches guitar and plays guitar and bass in several other cover bands, is in the anti-camp. He believes that any time spent playing the game could be better spent learning to play the guitar for real.
"Videogames didn't create the need to play guitar or make a band," he says. "All this stuff can be done; you've just got to apply yourself and really want to do it."
Guitarist/singer Jaime Marroquin, who as "Jaime Hellcat" leads Houston "vato-billy" band Flamin' Hellcats, has played the game and says that he is "terrible" at it. Even so, he enjoys the game and says it is not without its benefits.
"I think it does give non-musicians a sense of what it feels like to be onstage in a band, especially a terrible band," he says.
In the game, when you hit too many duff notes in a row, the song ends abruptly, the crowd boos unmercifully and silence, interrupted only by the crackling hum of an amp, descends, as your character hangs his head in shame.
"I have been in some terrible bands in my time, and it feels a lot like that," Marroquin says. "Now people know what it feels like to suck in a band."
And he also feels the inverse is true. "Or when you are kicking ass, that high you get. There's nothing like it."
That may be so, Hill believes, but he thinks that Guitar Hero devotees are cheating themselves out of some of the best parts of life as a musician. "A big part of playing music is that you are in an ensemble and you are playing with humans," he says. "Nothing against technology, but in some ways I feel these games cheapen the experience a little bit."
No matter what you think about the game's ability to re-create life as a musician, few people will argue that Rock Band and the Guitar Hero series are masterpieces as pure videogames. Both of them demolish all the rules of gaming.
Chad Edwards, one of the Rock Band-loving patrons at Lucky's, says that Rock Band is one game that gets you out of the house. "I don't know this guy or that guy"—he points to two of his virtual bandmates—"but we've all played Guitar Hero and we've all played Rock Band, and this is just another way for us to get together and do something that we would otherwise do at home. The fact that I can do it here and maybe meet some good people is pretty cool."
Think "hard-core gamer" and chances are you picture a geeky male, ranging in age from 12 to 35. Music games explode that stereotype. Many women who are bored by sports games and the über-violent likes of the Halo series find Guitar Hero and Rock Band utterly engrossing.
Law-Yone has another theory. "I know a lot of my female friends don't like holding a regular controller," she says. "But since this is shaped like a guitar, it doesn't feel so intense, and they can relax and lean back. When I play a game like Halo, I'm like leaning forward, and it's a lot more intense."
In a time when all of the news from the music industry seems to be bad, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have spurred interest in old bands and songs, revitalized the careers of some musicians and refocused a generation of kids on rock and roll. In an era when people seem more and more isolated, alone in front of their screens and walled off from the world by the sounds blasting from their ear buds, these games have brought men and women and young and old together around the gaming console.
But are these games breeding a generation of young musicians? Is there any educational value to these games at all?
Not much, says Ken Arnold, an employee at Houston guitar shop Rockin' Robin. "It's basically a glorified game of Simon," he says, referring to the primitive handheld pattern-matching electronic game from the 1980s. "Everybody that I've talked to that has played has said that it has nothing to do with playing real guitar."
Houston guitar salesman (and cover band guitarist) Michael J. Juarez, who, unlike Arnold, had played Rock Band, gives the games a bit more credit. "I think it will teach people to learn rhythm, to be able to coordinate their left and right hands," he says.
Law-Yone, a pianist in real life, cross-trains, using her real music piano background to enhance her virtual guitar playing. "If I have a hard time picking up the rhythm of a song on Guitar Hero, I'll go over to the piano and try to figure it on the keyboard," she says. "Of course, you have to hit a piano harder than a controller, so I know if I can do it on the piano, it will be easier on the game."
"Real guitars are for old people."
— Eric Cartman of South Park
Or are they?
Rockin' Robin's Arnold is not as opposed to these games as he might sound. Guitar Hero specifically has sparked a sales boom at his shop. "They wanna graduate out of the game and get a real guitar, so it is kind of helpful for us. We get kids in here all the time wanting Gibson Les Paul Sunbursts, because that's the guitar in the game." (Actually, there are numerous Gibson models in the game, thanks to their canny endorsement deal. Wisely, Gibson's rival guitar maker Fender inked a similar deal with Rock Band.) "I also had some of the [Guitar Hero] songbooks in here, and they flew out of here."
Few people younger than 25 bother with the radio, so for many, videogame soundtracks have filled the vacuum. What's more, there's a difference in intensity between hearing a song through your computer, iPod speakers, or on the radio and experiencing it in an interactive music game. Pretending to play a song, especially along with or in front of your friends, is a much more visceral experience.
Record companies have taken notice. Labels love the fact that these games have a limited number of songs on the soundtracks and that players will hear each one many times over the duration of their interest in the game.
And so now there is a bit of a scramble to land songs on these soundtracks. It wasn't always such: On the original Guitar Hero, the soundtrack was almost entirely composed of sound-alike recordings of famous (and many not-so-famous) songs, with a few utterly obscure bonus tracks coming from the bands of the game's programmers and their friends.
Since that game was such a success, the labels have been much keener to allow the use of master recordings. On Guitar Hero III, more than 50 of the 71 songs on the game are the originals, and even the notoriously protective and expensive Rolling Stones licensed a master to Rock Band.
Music retail is likewise getting aboard. iTunes has cobbled together 75 of the songs from each of the games in one of its "Essentials" playlists, so fans can find and download most of the songs with ease. Playable versions of songs are also available—for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 users, Rock Band offers new music for download every week. In eight weeks, more than 2.5 million songs were sold for use on Rock Band, and some of the charts have been host to a surreal invasion of old guitar rock.
Unless they have been specifically re-released to radio, as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was in the wake of Wayne's World in 1992, Billboard doesn't allow old songs to recur on their "bricks and mortar" sales chart.
Billboard has no such restriction on digital sales, and especially right after Christmas, when both Guitar Hero III and Rock Band were top sellers, that chart displayed a definite Guitar Hero effect. The lower end of the top 200 singles was littered with songs from the games—everything from hoary classic rock chestnuts such as the spooky 41-year-old Stones dirge "Paint It Black" and Foghat's riff-a-riffic cock rocker "Slow Ride" to Metallica's "One" and "Enter Sandman" and Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle."
Even the two most overplayed songs in American radio history enjoyed a sales bump: Apparently, there were 23,000 Americans who both did not already own and were not sick to painful death of "Free Bird" and "Stairway to Heaven," a fact that says as much about the death of rock radio as it does the power of Guitar Hero.
If you apprise Allen Hill of stats and figures like that, he'll laugh and say something like this: "Yeah, but can you break a string in the middle of a song in Guitar Hero?
"The old man in me gets more and more pronounced every year," adds the 30-something. "Part of the point of playing music is getting there, the journey, and toiling away and then finally getting to the point where you say, 'Wow, cool, I can do that.' And learning things like how to tune an instrument."
Hill maintains that these games are at best, akin to karaoke. "Yeah, you can just get up there and go, but there's so much more to music than the karaoke version," he says. "And I guess the thing about karaoke is that it is an acceptable format to suck. That's practically the expectation."
What's more, Hill says, the interaction between a person and an instrument is the very process that makes one musician sound different from another, even if both of them have perfect pitch and play the same song on the same instruments.
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"You lose the interaction with the instrument in producing the note," he says of these games' tone-neutral, pitch-perfect controllers. "Music in its simplest form is singing—that's why so many people do it, but if you are doing it right, you actually use your whole body to produce the note. Your vocal cords are just the reed. You're breathing, and it shows if you smoke or if you run. The physical element is part and parcel of creating music that is meaningful."
Hill sounds a lot like San Francisco Chronicle games reviewer Peter Hartlaub, who granted that the games were a ton of fun. In fact, that is the problem with them.
"Every once in a while I'll speak at a junior high school about my job, and as part of my spiel (don't do drugs!), I always try to explain the difference between fun and happiness," Hartlaub wrote in November of last year. "Fun is staying up with your friends on a school night and playing Halo 3. Happiness is getting into a good college, working hard in your 20s and later settling into a profession where someone will pay you to play Halo 3.
"Getting three friends together to play a nearly perfect version of Blue Öyster Cult's 'Don't Fear the Reaper' in the game Rock Band is a lot of fun. Getting the same friends together, buying some instruments, practicing really hard and playing a really shaky version of 'Don't Fear the Reaper' is a lot more likely to make you happy."