Buttons vs. strings

An exploration of the new interaction between music and rhythm video games

Will music video games inspire a new generation to pick up an instrument or teach them that there’s no need?
Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh
C. Moon Reed

Badass Trend: Music gaming

Dusty guitar breeds cobwebs in a forgotten corner of my bedroom. Yet I have faithfully carried that instrument thousands of miles, through three states and at least six residences. I last remember playing it in residence No. 2, my sophomore dorm. Here’s the paradox: I know I won’t get around to strumming its strings, but if I throw it out, I’ve eliminated the possibility. So while I have no intention of playing it, I have no intention of throwing it away either, which means I’ll lug the thing around the world before giving up the ghost. Call it the musical version of the Travelocity gnome.

That said, I played Rock Band last week. What gives?

Not that you haven’t noticed, but we live in an age of technological upheaval, whose results are unknown. When the dice finally fall, what will improve? Decline? Will social networking bring people together? Or isolate them in a screen-and-pixel facsimile of friendship? Will cell phones cause brain cancer and Blackberries cause our thumbs to fall off? Will Google make us stupid, insta-grat addicts (saying the full phrase “instant gratification” takes too long these days)? And will Rock Band, Guitar Hero and the genre of rhythm and pitch video games benefit music? Or kill it?

Only one thing is certain: Demand for music is an eternal constant. But what happens if a generation of youth raised on the insta-grat of rhythm games doesn’t have the patience to learn to play real instruments? What if the next Jimi Hendrix can’t be bothered to learn a C chord, much less play a right-handed guitar left-handed?

Steven Wells, music blogger for The Guardian online (and former Weekly contributor), proposes (facetiously?) a futuristic solution: Make guitars easier. “Why are they still making guitars with ‘real’ strings that are difficult and boring to learn how to play and really make your fingers hurt?” he asks. “Do we still slaughter our own cows? Dig our own wells? Work in the turnip fields for 18 hours a day, six days a week? No. Buttons have proven themselves to be much easier and more efficient.”

Obviously, Wells is trying to make some point about how Guitar Hero and Rock Band are but cheap, lazy substitutes for real musique. His sarcasm inadvertently brings up some valid points, however. Namely, what does one have to do to fit the criteria of “creating” music? Are traditional instruments necessary? Can a toy guitar count as an instrument if placed in creative hands?

Visual artists such as Sol LeWitt have already questioned these issues by separating idea creation from its implementation. LeWitt toyed with the idea of creative ownership by hiring assistants to build what he designed. In what could be considered a moral justification of both file-sharing and the musicianship of Guitar Hero, LeWitt famously said, “Ideas cannot be owned. They belong to whoever understands them.” Arguably, if you can punch the red-green-yellow button combination of “Black Magic Woman,” then you “own” the song.

Though the battles are long forgotten, some of these questions have already been hashed out with the invention of recording and amplification. Does a recording of a song count as that song at all? If you can’t hear the sound of an instrument, but only its amplification, does that count as live music? The consensus is yes. Perhaps the same will be true for these rhythm games in the future.

Some “h8ers” have yet to grasp the ethereal concepts of conceptual art. One such person is Atlantic Monthly writer James Parker. Though admitting video games are fun, Parker invokes an image of kids playing Guitar Hero at Best Buy as a sign of the music apocalypse: “The in-store lighting imposes upon everything a violent sterility, as if we’ve all just been ejected from some loud and lovely dream. Has rock history ended, its glorious teleology exhausted?”

What did Parker expect to find at an electronics store? While Best Buy might be good for investigating the decline of CD sales, the future of guitar would be better divined at a music store. Had Parker done so, he would have found business booming. “I’m not going to lie to you. During the holidays, we had uncountable amounts of parents coming in and saying, ‘My kid got Guitar Hero last year, and he really wants to learn how to play now.’ So definitely, there has been a huge increase,” says Andy Price, sales and training manager of Guitar Center on Charleston and Durango.

Price, an avid music-gamer, illustrates the new balance emerging between playing Guitar Hero and playing the guitar. He plays Rock Band at his guitarist’s house. And yes, he has a guitarist, because he’s also in a band (Cops and Grave Robbers). Price—a “real life” singer/songwriter and “virtual” guitarist—describes these video games as “incredibly fun. Nothing like playing the real guitar, but it’s fun.”

The games’ preview of virtuosity has led Price to see “a lot of people purchasing and getting interested in guitar that probably normally wouldn’t be.” An industry has sprouted to help kids achieve their newfound goals. “We have all kinds of books that teach you how to play the songs from Rock Band and Guitar Hero specifically,” says Price. “We even sell a product called Gamer to Player. There’s a whole culture in the guitar world of trying to get kids more into guitar by basing it off of Rock Band.” Of course, Guitar Center also sells Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

One of the most willfully ignored truths about the music industry is that rock stardom is one giant pyramid scheme. The biggest crowds to which most musicians will ever perform are digital. Despite his immense talent, local drummer Tony Sermeno of Vegas band Numbers Like Pi has had to accept the hard reality of the music industry. “I just like playing music and recording it and playing for people; if it goes anywhere after that, I’ll take it as it comes. I don’t even plan on people paying for the music,” he says.

Sermeno is a fan of Rock Band as a “fun game with a group.” He sees a definite artistic distinction between his “Rock Band parties” and creating music. “It’s fun, but it’s not something I sit at home and think, ‘Oh, I need to go play Rock Band.’ I sit at home and think, ‘Oh, I need to go to my garage and write some music’ or ‘I need to play the drums.’”

Adam Michaels, singer/guitarist for local band Searchlight, does not share the other two musicians’ love of music video games. He tried once and wasn’t hooked. (“Playing Guitar Hero is as educational music-wise as shooting the gun on Duck Hunt and saying you’re a marksman.”) Oddly enough, Michaels is such a big fan of video games that he created a song inspired by the game Resident Evil, which actually wound up in the film Resident Evil: Extinction.

Perhaps one of Michaels’ frustrations with Guitar Hero/Rock Band is that they allow novices to get the satisfaction of playing music without paying the dues of practice. “You gotta walk before you can run, and Guitar Hero is not like that,” he says. After all the time I spent carrying around a guitar, I totally understand. It’s just not fair that millions of people could have so much fun without first having to practice and/or lug a heavy object. But now that Guitar Hero: World Tour includes the options for gamers to write their own music, the old rules are nil. Will the faux Philip Glass please stand up?


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