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Virtual reality takes hold in the music world
Posted May 7, 2008

Jaclyn Mittman
Staff Writer

An Interesting Idea

“Red. Green. Yellow,” music teacher, Tristen Waley said.

An instructor yells out to his student as to which colors to push on the plastic replication of a guitar. The student continues to stare deep into the television with a concentration that seems to be impossible to break.

“Now hold down yellow…Yes!” Waley said.

In the corner of a small shopping center on Baseline Road in Alta Loma, Calif., lies Alta Loma Music. Although it is a traditional music store, it nonetheless offers a unique and very odd music lesson. Posted in the front window is a neon green flyer that reads, “Be a rock star! Live the dream!”

One can assume this refers to general music lessons for students who would want to learn to play instruments and maybe one day become a “rock star.” But once you continue to read the rest of the flyer it says that Alta Loma Music now offers lessons for “Guitar Hero,” the popular video game.

Lessons for “Guitar Hero” at Alta Loma Music start at $10 a month and consist of one lesson a week. So far five students have enrolled in “Guitar Hero” lessons, Waley said.

The young student sitting in front of the television is Wyatt Smith. A 13-year-old from Alta Loma, he had begged his mother to pay for lessons after seeing the flyer on the window. This is Smith’s second lesson and he clearly loves it.

“I’m so much better at ‘Guitar Hero’ than all my friends now,” Smith said.

For some music fans, the worrisome part to the “Guitar Hero” frenzy is the fact that this is not a talent, nor is it actual music. The guitar controllers used are not actual guitars and they do not teach gamers how to play a real guitar.

Parents are willing to pay for video game lessons, instead of music lessons, which Alta Loma music is generally for. Guitar lessons are only $5 more than “Guitar Hero” lessons and require far more talent than pressing a few colored buttons.

“The kids seem to get a kick out of these lessons,” Waley said.

Peter D. Gamber, owner of Alta Loma Music, decided to offer the “Guitar Hero” lessons after watching the trend quickly grow.

“I figured this would be a great way for kids to have fun with music, as learning an instrument can sometimes be frustrating,” Gamber said.

The Story Behind the Frenzy

The original “Guitar Hero,” which is a “Best of E3” award winner, was released for Playstation 2 in November 2005 and was developed by Harmonix.

Instead of using a traditional controller, a guitar controller is used in order to simulate an actual guitar. The controller has five colored “fret buttons” and a “strum bar” instead of actual frets and six strings.

The “Guitar Hero” game was later taken over by Neversoft, a subsidiary of Activision, after “Guitar Hero II” was released in April 2007. After selling about 3 million units of the second edition of the game, “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” was released in late 2007.

According to the NPD Group, a global provider of consumer and retail market research, the “Guitar Hero” franchise was the top-selling franchise in 2007. Activision then announced that the franchise as a whole has surpassed $1 billion in North America retail sales in 26 months. They also announced that “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” was the top-selling title in 2007, grossing more than $820 million at U.S. retail, making it a record for any single franchise in one year.

The “Guitar Hero” game uses actual musicians to help endorse the game such as former Guns N Roses guitarist Slash and the band Aerosmith. The game also uses classic rock songs as well as the popular rock songs of the moment by such as artists Wolfmother and the Killers.

The game consists of playing the guitar and using the colored buttons on the controller as shown on the screen. When the game begins there is an extended guitar neck that is shown vertically on the screen and it scrolls down the neck as the song progresses. Along the frets on the screen are colored dots that correspond to the colored buttons on the guitar. Once the screen scrolls onto the dot, you have to press that same colored button in order to “hit” the note. The more correct notes you hit, the better you are and can progress to the higher levels. If you don’t hit the correct notes and miss too many, you get booed off stage and have to start over.

While the entire game simulates playing guitar and performing on stage, it isn’t actually requiring any musical talent. Video games are clearly just another form of entertainment, but it begins to cross the line and become a problem when it replaces actual talent and is even having to take lessons in order to get better. The question lies on whether “Guitar Hero” actually sparks an interest in music, or if it is killing it.

Taking Away Creativity

“Guitar Hero” allows gamers to play an instrument without actually having to learn to play, almost like a cheater guitar. Just like the flyer stated at Alta Loma Music, now anyone can play guitar and be a “rock star.”

“The game seems to be a mockery of music,” Pebber Brown, a music teacher at the University of La Verne, said. “In no way can you feel the music or play with any love for the instrument.”

Brown, who has been playing guitar for more than 40 years, said he wishes children today would put down the video games and learn how to play instruments. Being able to play an instrument is a remarkable talent and can enhance the mind and embrace creativity, said Brown.

“Guitar Hero” has become so popular that it is now being sold in music stores. Guitar Center carries every style of guitar controller that is offered, including replicas of such classic instruments as the Gibson SG, Gibson X-Plorer and Gibson Les Paul. These guitar controllers are displayed on the wall alongside the real guitars sold at Guitar Center.

“We sell out of these things real quick,” Clark Domae, a Guitar Center employee, said. “People come in looking for the controllers for ‘Guitar Hero’ more often than actual guitars.”

While each guitar controller is listed at prices ranging from $60 to $150, they still continue to sell out of stores.

“I play the game all the time, but I don’t think I would go crazy and buy every guitar offered,” Domae said.

Domae is also the lead guitarist for Rufio, a pop-punk band from Rancho Cucamonga that hit it big about three years ago and quickly disappeared off the radar after their bass player quit the band.

Domae agrees that “Guitar Hero” is being taken too seriously, especially among children and teenagers. He believes everyone should learn to play an actual guitar before taking lessons for a video game guitar.

At Alta Loma Music, Smith’s mother Marla sat patiently waiting in the main room for her son to finish up with his “Guitar Hero” lesson.

“I paid for Wyatt to take lessons because I knew it is something he enjoys and he never really wanted to learn to play an instrument,” Marla Smith said.

She said she didn’t think that “Guitar Hero” lessons are a bad thing and doesn’t believe that it takes away his musical creativity.

Enhancing A Music Trend

But not everyone thinks that “Guitar Hero” is sapping users’ musical creativity – some believe that it actually helps keep music alive.

At band practice, members of The Upwards War play “Guitar Hero” for about 10 minutes during a break from practicing.

“It’s fun, regardless of how it relates to musicians,” Ebby Safari, lead vocalist and guitarist, said. “We just play it to mess around, but Rob here can take it to a whole different level.”

Safari was referring to Rob Jacobs, the bass player for The Upwards War who can play the songs on “Guitar Hero” and then transfer what he learned to an actual guitar. Although this requires a tremendous amount of talent, some musicians really can just learn the songs from hearing the notes. This counteracts many of the arguments made by people who are against “Guitar Hero” and who think it diminishes creativity and requires no musical talent.

“It actually helps me in certain songs,” Jacobs said. “I can learn certain notes better by seeing them on the game as opposed to just listening to the song.”

There are some people who also argue that “Guitar Hero” is just a game and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. It doesn’t differ from any other video game, except for that fact that it simulates playing a guitar, Gamber said.

“I don’t see how this game would anger people,” Alex Senyo, backup guitarist for The Upwards War, said. “It’s just a video game, and a fun one at that. Why else would it be so successful?”

Senyo also said that taking lessons for “Guitar Hero” is a little outrageous of an idea and that the game shouldn’t be taken so seriously.

“That’s when it crosses the line,” Senyo said. “When you take a video game that seriously and actually pay for lessons, you’ve definitely replaced music with a game.”

The Determining Factor

As Wyatt Smith finished his lesson at Alta Loma Music, other students were peeking into the practice room to watch him play. They looked on in amazement at how good Smith is at the game, and then collectively said a big, “Whoa!”

One of the boys watching Smith ran over to his father who was standing at the counter and asked him if he could take “Guitar Hero” lessons too. The father looked at him in astonishment and told him no.

“I’m paying for your guitar lessons, not video game lessons, son,” the father said.

While this father’s opinion on the “Guitar Hero” lessons differed from Smith’s opinion, they both still paid for their child to take some sort of music lessons.

The only way for “Guitar Hero” to ever destroy music is if people continue to use it in place of music, instead of using it as a musical tool. Jacobs used “Guitar Hero” to his advantage and actually learned a new song from the game, but Smith, who is only taking lessons for the game, will suffer and bring down the importance of music.

By the industry using musicians to promote the game, they are keeping music involved with it and it is also helping artists in music sales by having their songs in the game.

Nielsen SoundScan data reported that for a dozen songs featured in “Guitar Hero II,” 11 of those 12 had increased sales in 2007, which included classics by Cheap Trick, Kiss and the Pretenders.

Another factor that contributed to music sales from the game is iTunes.

“The iTunes Guitar Hero Essentials Collection” is a mix of songs that are used in the game. The album was promoted on the iTunes homepage the week before “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” launched, according to Sidebar, the Gamespot news blog. The compilation includes songs from the “Guitar Hero” franchise and is easily accessible and ready for purchase immediately.

This allows older music to live on through “Guitar Hero” and will open the ears of many younger gamers. Not every child is like Smith, who only wants to play the video game.

“We had a kid who was obsessed with ‘Guitar Hero’ so much that he really wanted to play music,” Waley said. “So we asked him what kind of music he liked and what instrument he would ever want to play. He decided to play bass and he has been taking lessons with us for over four months now. He’s gotten very good.”

Depending on how you treat the game, “Guitar Hero” may be here to stay and will actually help music, as opposed to destroying it all together.

Jaclyn Mittman can be reached at jmittman@ulv.edu