How to be a failure at Guitar Hero III
Review Guitar Hero III and Rock Band are totally unavoidable in shopping trips to consumer electronics stores. As a guitar player for 40 years, I view the in-store demos of the games as primarily exercises in pitiless annoyance. What could be more embarrassing than people holding plastic toy guitars in public while trying to mime along to classic rock hits played by cartoons on a TV screen?
I also saw very few women or girls as opposed to young boys lining up for these try-outs. Was it because they were put off by the excess virtual testosterone, or did they just have more sense than the opposite gender?
In any case, if you're a guitarist then you know a good instrument is a fine piece of wood, and just the act of picking it up and settling in with it is a tactile pleasure not easily duplicated by anything else. What was it with a plastic 3/4 size thing with no strings?
But one can gripe and grump for only so long before curiosity becomes irresistible. While playing a computer game with attached guitar controller can't possibly be like playing an actual guitar, here are some comparisons after I stood in line to play Guitar Hero III.
No one who plays guitar can transfer their skills to Guitar Hero III or Rock Band.
If you try seriously to do this, you'll be reduced to tears and/or sputtering impotent rage. Or you'll have a laugh, depending on your point of view and composure.
It took only a minute or two for me to make a fool of myself trying to play along to the Dead Kennedys' Holiday in Cambodia. The song is easy, but the game doesn't really allow for the playing of its guitar controller the way a real guitarist approaches music.
Part of this is locked into the screen cueing which, if you're old enough, can be likened to a variation on Sing Along with Mitch's follow-the-bouncing-ball musical TV variety show from the '60s. Only you use your fingers and the controller's buttons and picking hand flap to follow along instead of your voice.
Which leads to another interesting point: In both games, you don't seem to have to actually hear the music to play it, meaning someone totally tone deaf could be great at both games. On the other hand, you do have to be able to see the screen, so the idea of being a Blind Lemon Jefferson is out, along with any benefit from being able to intuitively play by ear.
Anyway, to play a guitar requires one to become one with a song. I couldn't do this with Guitar Hero III, not even a bit. You lag the performance unless you've played it so many times it's a hardwired part of your eye-hand-coordinated memory.
As I tried to play, funny electric sproing-like noises - meant to show mistakes - came out of my figure. That it seemed to be an image of a girl onstage wasn't helping. The song sputtered to a stop and the view panned back to show the embarrassment and failure.
I practiced some more but could see how it was going to end. Without a few hours to spend, it would be a frequent smash-up. Because of that, the games draw you in the same way as getting shot down repeatedly in a flight simulator. There's an immediate desire to master it in a short term, to put uncoordination and ineptitude well behind you.
A recent article in the New York Times on the guitar games wheeled out some egghead to claim that: "There is an aspirational element to Guitar Hero... [it satisfies] the desire to interact physically with music."
No, not even close. In Guitar Hero III, I noticed, the guitar sound is essentially always the same, no matter what one does. The key to tone in an actual guitar is the direct physical interaction between the player and the instrument. This is expressed in the guitarist adage that everyone's tone comes from their hands.
Further on in the Times piece, the reporter gets it right in passing mention that Slash is a fan of Guitar Hero (it features his music), but that he has confessed to stinking at it.
My observation was the longer you've played guitar, the worse you'd tend to be at the games because instinct fights the mechanics of play until a new conditioning sets in.
In any case, there's no facsimile of chicken pickin', no slide (although you might be able to play the controller behind your head), no thumping the instrument with your hands in time to the riffs so you sound like an old bluesman.
Of course, no one will ever summon the cops on you for playing too loud in the garage and you won't get heckled after performing most of a set by some guy yelling "Play your other song!".
Paradoxically, the stores carrying Guitar Hero III and Rock Band in the US also sell cheap guitars made in China by slave labour. American guitar companies like Gibson have extended their brand names to Chinese plywood-guitars-in-cardboard-boxes, available out the door for a little over $100.
Guitar Hero III and Rock Band are a bit more expensive, plus they won't hurt your fingers or discourage you from playing because they are poorly made and won't stay in tune. ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.