When I was around 14, I became obsessed with the idea of being a guitar-player in a rock band. Having no musical ability, nor any instrument with which to make my dreams come true, I relied on my imagination to fuel my ambitions, cranking up tracks on the stereo while playing along on my brother's tennis racket. In my mind, I was up there, performing in my favourite band.
I imagine there has been a sizeable dip in the sales of tennis rackets to 14-year-olds since the invention of Guitar Hero and similar computer games. It is no longer necessary to imagine what it would be like to play along with the Beatles – you can come together with them in the virtual world. As Bill Wyman, former bass player in the Rolling Stones, pointed out this week, you're only playing with the Beatles in a gaming sense, not a musical one. He went on to complain that music video games discourage kids from learning to play real instruments. My own experience suggests quite the opposite.
Last year, I bought Guitar Hero III for our 14-year-son, Jack. For the uninitiated, the game comes with a plastic guitar-shaped controller that has six coloured buttons on the neck and a strum bar on the body. When the music plays, colour-coded gems slide across the video screen along the neck, toward a target line. The aim is to hit the matching fret buttons and the strum bar on your controller at the same time as the gems hit the target line on-screen.
Jack quickly mastered this process and entered an intense period of playing the game. My only real concern was that he was exposed to the music of some rather naff American rawk bands like Foghat and Slayer.
A few months later, while I was away on tour, a couple of his friends came around with a real electric guitar, wanting to plug it into one of my amplifiers. Playing Guitar Hero had taught them how to play along to a track while strumming in time. Now they wanted to see if they could apply that to the real thing. Jack's buddies taught him how to play along to his favourite songs using just his index finger on the bass string. He got it right away.
A couple of months on Guitar Hero had helped him over the difficult first hurdle for fledgling guitar players – how to strum with one hand while simultaneously making chord shapes with the other. When I came home from tour, I showed him how to use his second finger to play Blitzkrieg Bop. He has never looked back. He never plays Guitar Hero now, preferring to rock out in the garage with his mates.
Despite my attempts at getting him to learn an instrument, it was Guitar Hero that taught him the rudiments of playing and built his confidence to the extent that he was able to make a recognisable sound the first time he plugged in.
While the music industry blames illicit file-sharing for its many problems, my hunch is that the high price of recorded music and availability of video games has been the main cause of them. So let's not complain about a game that encourages kids to become music fans and, in our son's case, gives them the rudimentary skills needed to learn to how to play guitar.
Billy Bragg's 'Billy's Big Busk' takes place in Southend on 26 September; www.billybragg.co.uk