Guitar Zero

Jonathan Bellman

I have to get this off my chest. I have had a roiling dislike and mistrust for the game Guitar Hero(XBox 360—I think that’s what’s downstairs) ever since my son started playing it. He knows, and has kind of enjoyed tweaking me about it; I don’t prevent him from playing it, but it really rubs me the wrong way. Only yesterday did I finally figure it out:

I would rather he play aggressive (meaning, like Halo; nothing worse) games than this. His sole comment: “That’s really weird, Dad. Everyone will find that odd.” I gave him to understand how much I cared about what his friends thought, which didn’t surprise him. But: for a psychologically healthy person to play aggressive video games is a kind of play-acting, a way of gettin’ yer ya-yas out in a controlled and safe atmosphere. It defuses the violent impulse, I’m guessing, by enabling one to play at it. Team play: stylized war, right? Like, frankly, football or soccer or any other sport. The only thing that differs is the stylization.

Cut to the music. The very last thing I want is to short-circuit the musical impulse, to enable people to play at playing music. What is this, an Eminee chord-organ? (Does anyone remember those?) Look: you want to play? Great. Practice an instrument, sing in a choir. Is that too much discipline? T.S.! You can buy your music, then; you get to be a pure consumer—that’s your choice. There’s some kind of bizarre, practicing-is-its-own-reward puritanical streak in me that believes that make-believe music-making past the age of young childhood…’tain’t fitten, an illegal shortcut. You want to thrash? Figure out how to make the guitar do that, and go do it—or, better, thrash and figure out how to make the guitar do something else also.  Time with the instrument, whatever instrument that is. No shortcuts. Shut up and stop whining. It’s music. This is what it takes.

Don’t ask me how I feel about karaoke. I have no opinion, and stay as far away from it as possible.

Not to mention that the Guitar Hero version of “Jessica” is presented, scandalously, without the piano solo…

It has been explained to me: the game not playing at playing music, it’s playing at being a rock star. This was not an argument I found persuasive. I can only echo the statement I heard Dr. John make on a radio interview in recent years: It’s about the music. So: open the piano, take a guitar pick out of your pocket, moisten the reed, warm up the horn. OK, all together now, with feeling!*

*I guess I concluded like this once before. No apologies; it can’t be said often enough.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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16 Responses to Guitar Zero

  1. J says:

    Interesting, but I think you’ve got it wrong both ways.
    First of all, Guitar Hero IS a musical instrument. It takes a lot of practice. It’s a strange instrument, one that changes for every song. It emphasizes rhythm over pitch, but it still counts as a musical instrument. I play a variety of real instruments, including electric guitar. The songs that I actually knew on guitar were much easier to play on Guitar Hero than the ones I didn’t know. So there’s some transfer of skills, and I expect there would be some transfer the other way too — kids who play a lot of GH will pick up the real guitar faster.
    Second, “getting yer ya-ya’s out” by playing violent videogames… no. It sounds like you’re talking about the catharsis hypothesis (Google it). It doesn’t work that way. You can’t “get it out of your system”.

  2. Galen says:

    I’ve only played GH once, for three songs, but back in 2002 I worked at a company that was making a similar product (Imagine my annoyance that we folded and everybody got laid off and that Guitar Hero is such a phenomenon. I bet I’d be fabulously wealthy right now.)
    J is right that there is actual musicality in GH and similar games — you have to hear and “read” (on a scrolling bar rather than sheet music, of course) rhythm, and you have to be able to mentally isolate your part from the rest, which actually offers a chance for a greater understanding of how the song functions strucutrally. I agree with you that it’s about “pretending” to play an instrument rather than pretending to be a rock star, but what’s wrong with pretending to play an instrument? To argue that GH “short circuits the musical impulse” or that enabling people to “play at playing music” somehow harms their actual musicality you would have to argue that GH replaces playing a real instrument. Obviously I don’t have any statistics, but I’d be shocked to find that there are people who would be playing actual guitar but didn’t bother because GH is easier. If anything, I’d expect that a small segment of the GH population actually ends up _encouraged_ to play actual guitar when they otherwise wouldn’t have.
    Bear in mind also that this is young technology — future versions will almost certainly be more musical as the designers improve the technology and the interface.
    At the same time, I don’t find it particularly wierd that you’d rather blow stuff up than play virtual guitar. I feel the same way, to a lesser extent. But that’s not because there’s anything _wrong_ with playing virtual guitar.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I figured I was stepping off the ledge with this one. My personal inclination is NOT to blow stuff up; it is to actually play an instrument and be able to play it alone or with people or for people. Maybe the comparison would be paint by numbers vs. painting, or a skateboard arcade game vs. skateboarding. There may not be anything “wrong” with playing virtual guitar–you’ll note I’m not preventing anyone from doing it–but I am absolutely within my rights in loathing it, and prefering that that particular desire be bottled to the point that one forces oneself to make actual music rather than making believe.
    As far as the Catharsis Hypothesis–I’m out of my depth, certainly, and can’t argue from studies. Make-believe is, nonetheless, an effective, consequence-free way to experiment with all kinds of feelings–this I have both experienced and observed. I guess it boils down to the simplistic view that I prefer my violence make-believe and my music real.

  4. billtron says:

    It seems like you take issue with Guitar Hero proficiency replacing the ability to play a traditional guitar. What would you think if your son could do both well?

  5. Jonathan says:

    Fair question. Depends on the definition of “well,” which differs for everyone. He does play some guitar, though doesn’t want lessons. It has been pointed out to me that this illustrates a healthy and avocational relationship with music, which…sounds to me like English words in a completely senseless order. Obviously, this is more my problem than his, though–that *South Park* clip nails it for me, and I am unreconstructably with the Dad. Owning something well enough to play it on an actual instrument is different from air guitar. For me, Guitar Hero seems a higher-tech air guitar, not a different “musical instrument.”
    Maybe that means I’m old, sure. On the other hand: remember the “orgasmatron” booths from Woody Allen’s *Sleeper*?

  6. Galen says:

    You’re certainly within your rights to loath GH in the sense that you _personally_ don’t find it enjoyable and don’t see what other people get out of it. I loathe Elliott Carter’s music in that sense. But your loathing seems to extend to wishing _other people_ would stop playing guitar hero. It seems to me that if you’re going to indulge in that sort of loathing you ought to be able to justfy why it’s either bad for them or replacing something that’s better for them. I think you’ve said you don’t think it’s bad for them (“There may not be anything ‘wrong’ with playing virtual guitar”), which leaves the theory that it’s replacing something that would be better for them. My previous argument that it’s not actually replacing “real” musicianship doesn’t seem to have stuck, so let me offer an illustrative analogy:
    “You shouldn’t watch ‘Animal Planet’ because it would be much better for you to spend that time visiting a zoo or going on safari or tracking animals in your back yard.” Okay, sure, but if Animal Planet disappeared tomorrow, would we see a boom in zoo visiting, safaris, and backyard animal tracking? More likely, we’d see people switch their TV viewing habits over to shows about blowing stuff up. And we might actually see less zoo visitation, because people won’t have picutres of cute little aminals on TV to inspire them to want to see them in real life. In short, the preferred replacement behavior has to actually be a _likely_ replacement behavior.

  7. billtron says:

    I should have shared this clip, in which Randy Marsh sneaks downstairs in his underwear to play Guitar Hero. Things don’t go so well for him. It seems his skills at the electric guitar are as untranslatable as he thinks his son’s skills at Guitar Hero are:

    All kidding aside, it is true that the creative possibilities of supposedly real musical instruments is more immediately apparent than that of the glorified video game controller in the shape of a guitar that is used to play Guitar Hero. This has much to do with the fact that musical instruments are relatively self-contained. No additional parts are required to make music with a guitar.
    Also, most people would agree that the amount of choice the user of a musical instrument has is considerably greater than the amount of choice and creative control of someone playing Guitar Hero. The guitar-shaped controllers are more akin to turntables than pipe-organ manuals.
    But, Adorno be damned, the use of popular culture commodities isn’t as passive as some people are apt to think. Playing Guitar Hero can be a creative and productive activity, and to downplay its importance to some people is to downplay their whole lifeworld value system thing.
    And you don’t want to do that, do you? Don’t be like the music department chair who told Tricia Rose that there’s nothing to the music of rap, that it’s just noise and a steam valve for angry young teenagers to blare out of their cars as they drive past his house late at night and wake up his family.
    If you don’t want your son to play Guitar Hero, tell him why. If it’s because you think he should be doing something more productive with his time, then welcome to the world of old people.
    Here’s a clip about Guitar Zeros, a band that uses Guitar Hero controllers to play live music:

  8. Jonathan says:

    Please. The fact that I dislike Guitar Hero does *not* entitle me to tell my son not to do it, at least in our ethical universe. He knows how I feel, and (thank God) doesn’t care. And, yes, he plays real guitar too. And I already am in the world of old people, thanks, though wanting to squeeze usefulness out of every last moment has been one of my characteristics for a long time. Conceivably I was never young (I was once, as an undergrad, told I was more like faculty than a student, but that was probably sociological). Still, the idea that “playing guitar hero can be a creative and productive activity” makes me smile–I accept that you’re a partisan, but…CREATIVE? Miming along with the screen and pre-recorded music?
    I’m no Adorno partisan, and I’ve heard similar glib put-downs about Rock from older contemporaries (“ROCK?? Well, if you can tell any difference among the stuff…”). Stupid, sure, but I’m not going to shy away from an opinion just for fear of sounding like an easily satirized Authority Figure. A friend sent a link to the movie about the Air Guitar championships (plus the gauntlet: I’m to be forced to watch it when they get it), and I see far more connection between Guitar Hero and Air Guitar than between GH and creativity and productivity.
    So if my son likes it, he’s free to play it whether I like it or not, and I’m free to hate it. Which was where I came in.

  9. Jonathan says:


  10. squashed says:

    The solution is fairly simply I think.
    Take the plastic guitar and start bashing it against the TV to create interesting sound.
    haa haa. (Just to follow your logic: that there has to be a real musical instrument, real exercise of making music, and getting your yaya’s out…)
    The future of digital punk is here!
    PS. I think people can differentiate between “music” and game of music. Plus, it gets people to play together on different subject than “killing/lowing up image”

  11. billtron says:

    To play the devil’s advocate again, I think that you can argue that interpreting a pre-composed piece of music on a traditional instrument is more obviously creative than “miming along with the screen and pre-recorded music” but I don’t see how you can completely rule out the creativity of one and not the other.
    Also, it sounds like you haven’t actually played Guitar Hero. Maybe giving a shot would change your opinion.

  12. ben wolfson says:

    Somewhat tangential—I downloaded “Jessica” after reading the praise for the piano solo, and I don’t get what’s so great about it. Does my having to ask indicate that I’ll never know, or can this be explained as if to a child?

  13. Jonathan says:

    Can’t be explained, no. Maybe you had to be there, with Allman Brothers records on California afternoons. But here’s a link to an old Morning Edition program where pianist Chuck Leavell is interviewed by Bob Edwards. Listen to Edwards begin jabbering, like an exultant college boy at a dormroom record session:
    I’ve *so* been there, that very place. Can’t explain any better than this.
    Being a pianist helps too.

  14. Kip W says:

    I never could manage a guitar, so the game passed me by without a ripple. I play Donkey Konga, though, which is somewhat similar and involves percussion. This weekend at the bowling alley, I finally tried Dance Dance Revolution, and I think I’ll try and get one of those for home. For the exercise, and practice in coordinating my feet.
    By coincidence, around 1982 I was trying to think of non-aggressive video games (not that I didn’t play the other kind), and thought of a musical studio setup that you’d essentially rent time on and input music with a keyboard and save it to your own cassette.

  15. bmulligan says:

    For years I’ve snickered at the youngin’s who like to sling the facsimile mini-guitar. But having played Guitar Hero for the first time last week, I have to admit to being a convert.
    My mom, now a 60 year old grandma, purchased Guitar Hero for the Wii and we had a family get-together for my daughter’s birthday last weekend. I tried it along with everyone else and it soon devolved into a competition between siblings and adults. My wife even engaged in the fray, and I’ve seen her play videogames a total of twice since I’ve known her. It was so popular I went out and purchased Rock Band so that we could all play together.
    This ‘togetherness’ is the crux of the phenomenon for me. We can all participate at pretending to be rock stars. At 40, playing the guitar is pretty much a non-option so picking up the fake guitar or 10-20 minutes after work with my son is time well spent. I’ll never get to be a Keith Richards, but I can have a damn good time pretending.
    In addition, I found that simply ‘mimicking’ button presses isn’t enough to play the game. Strutting, displaying the rockstar lean, hunched slightly forward, and pressing buttons ‘with feeling’, makes you play better and is the best way to experience this game.
    As my mom is still fond of saying to me, “How can you say you don’t like it if you’ve never even tried it?”

  16. Jonathan says:

    Great comment, and hard to refute. If it’s about the family togetherness where everyone is engaged in an activity without fighting and doing their usual family “stuff” (letting out a little about my family, here), then the activity lies entirely outside my criticism. I have tried it, actually, but it just doesn’t interest me; I’m a pianist by trade and can kinda play some guitar (just got a lovely new one over Thanksgiving break), so Guitar Hero really doesn’t touch me. I also find the strutting guitar hero personna distasteful, while I find great playing wonderful. So I’m simply not the potential enthusiast they’re looking for.
    But re: the family benefit–the sound you hear is my mouth shutting. Long ago Trivial Pursuit had this effect when we visited my parents once; several nights running we all had a good time, enjoying each other, with no fights or narcissistic pity-parties. Wonderful. I’m sold.

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