I've tried to learn the guitar, but it takes a lot of dedication and patience – and besides, I'm tone-deaf," admits die-hard rock fan Martin Parsons, sadly. Until fairly recently, the only way Martin and other wannabe music gods could emulate their favourite bands was to play air guitar when no one was looking. "But then along came Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and everything changed," he says. The hugely popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band video-game series are the ideal virtual-reality experience for reluctant rockers. Clutching a plastic Gibson Les Paul or SG guitar-shaped controller, you can strum along to your favourite songs, perform blisteringly fast lead breaks, and strut around the living room like Keith Richards pumping out Jumpin' Jack Flash at the O2.
Music gaming is a huge growth area for the games industry. It started three years ago with the release of Guitar Hero, which was developed by Harmonix for the PlayStation 2. What made Guitar Hero stand out was that it was controlled by a Gibson SG-shaped controller rather than by a typical gamepad. With its five-coloured "fret buttons" and "strum bar" instead of metal frets and strings, the innovative fake "axe" simulated playing a real electric guitar. That, mixed with the game's soundtrack, which comprised 47 playable rock songs from the Sixties to modern rock, led to Guitar Hero selling 1.5 million copies. Then came its sequels, Guitar Hero II and III, and a string of successful stand-alone titles such as Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (Guitar Hero: Metallica is scheduled for release next year).
Meanwhile, games publisher Electronic Arts decided to up the ante with a title that didn't just appeal to would-be guitarists but to singers, bassists and drummers – offering them a fully formed band in a box, called Rock Band. Launched late last year in America, the game received widespread acclaim and sold four million copies, with global revenues of £400m – and since its release, players have downloaded more than 28 million songs via the game. It has a guitar, a bass, a drum kit and mic, and you can play in single- or multi-player mode, or battle it out online against rock fans worldwide. Following its chart-topping success, Rock Band 2 was released this autumn.
But in November this year came the fight back – Guitar Hero World Tour, which includes more than 80 songs from the likes of The Eagles, The Doors and Sting, along with cuts from the latest Metallica album, Death Magnetic. Besides guitar and bass, Guitar Hero World Tour comes with a drum kit and mic, and allows you and your friends to play as a band, or even compete band-to-band online. The drum kit is designed to feel like the real thing with its raised cymbals and "velocity sensitivity" (hit the drum heads hard and it's loud; hit them soft and it's quiet).
With CD sales in decline and digital downloads not expected to make up the shortfall, the combination of video gaming and music looks set to be the future for the music business. "Industry insiders are learning that video games are the radio and distribution channel for the music industry of the 21st century – and they're learning quickly," says Tommy Tallarico, a game composer who has scored more than 275 video games – a world record.
In 2007, Guitar Hero and Rock Band made £100m more than all digital music sales from services such as iTunes. The Aerosmith single "Same Old Song and Dance" was featured in Guitar Hero III. And according to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks digital and retail music, sales of the song jumped by 136 per cent the week after the game was released in late 2007, and by 400 per cent a week after Christmas that year. Even the most successful groups are getting in on the act. Rock Band has secured the rights to release a stand-alone video game featuring The Beatles, scheduled for release next year.
In Britain, there are currently around 12 million young people aged between three and 18. According to a study by Youth Music, the UK's largest music charity, more than half of them play music games on consoles, and around 2.5 million of these have been inspired to learn real musical instruments. Christina Coker, chief executive of Youth Music, believes the music-education sector should be capitalising on this interest. "[We should be thinking] about how we can incorporate consoles and games into traditional music education and be more open to embracing these tools in our teaching."
The game most likely to fit educational needs is Nintendo's Wii Music, released last month, as it places a strong emphasis on teaching the rudiments of music. Using the Wii remote and Nunchuk, you can play guitar, piano, trumpet, violin, cello and harpsichord, among many other instruments. If you've got a Wii Fit balance board, there's also a drumming option, while one of the mini-games lets you conduct a whole orchestra. There's also a lot of scope for improvisation and putting your own individual stamp on the songs you play. In effect, Wii Music makes traditional music learning fun.
But UK blues artist Chris Scott thinks all music-simulation games miss the point of what music making is about. "Yes, music games teach you timing and co-ordination – music at a basic level – but they don't teach you how to inject expression and feeling, which are the two ingredients that differentiate great music from the mediocre."
Not everyone agrees – Hayley Williams, lead singer of the band Paramore, who provided motion-capture for her in-game avatar in Guitar Hero World Tour, thinks the game could be the making of shrinking violets everywhere. "It gives people the chance to try out, even if they're too scared to go on a real stage." Even if the stadium stars of the future fail to get their first breaks playing Rock Band, it's safe to say that anyone who is willing to give music games a go is guaranteed a rocking night in.
Top tunes: The new music games
Korg DS-10, £29.99
The Korg DS-10 is really a fully working version of a real-life 1980s synthesiser, the Korg MS-10. There are two synth channels, four drum channels, a mixer and FX board. And in wireless sync mode you can play with others. There's even a DS Lite orchestra at http://vimeo.com/dsliteorchestra.
Wii Music, £39.99, Nintendo Wii
Lets you simulate more than 60 different instruments. You hold the remote/Nunchuk like a real instrument, pressing the buttons or shaking it in time with the song. You can also play with, or against, up to four friends, and learn tunes from classic ditties to the 'Super Mario Bros' theme.
Rock Band 2, £49.99, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Like the original 'Rock Band', this lets you create virtual bands. You can create and customise your in-game character, changing hair, body physique, clothing, tattoos, piercings, onstage movements and instruments. Eighty-four songs are included on the game disc. You also get 20 free downloadable songs, and hundreds of additional downloadable songs are being released for the Xbox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 3 versions.
Guitar Hero World Tour, £49.99, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Wii
Comes with more than 80 songs from top rock acts and includes a music studio for composing, editing and releasing over the web your own music. Plus there's a Battle of the Bands feature to pit your virtuosity against other bands over the internet. Also included is the imitation guitar with touch-sensitive slide bar; drum kit with pressure-sensitive drum pads and high-hat and cymbal; and a high-quality mic which connects via a 15-foot USB cable.Reuse content