Rocktastic: How Guitar Hero brought stardom to the masses

Guitar Hero is not just a video game phenomenon – it's changing the way we listen to music, and reshaping the record industry. Tim Walker plugs into a revolution

Thursday 16 April 2009 00:00 BST

If you'd been living in the woods for the last 10 years and needed a quick pop cultural primer to bring you up to date, you could do worse than watch the new video by Eminem, for his single "We Made You". There's Sarah Palin, enjoying the attentions of the Village People's Alaskan chapter. There's the rapper dressed as Mr Spock, in anticipation of this summer's blockbuster Star Trek remake. There's Lindsay Lohan and Sam Ronson. There's Amy Winehouse.

And between the celebrity-based barbs there's Eminem, as himself, prancing back and forth on what appears to be a giant guitar fretboard, surrounded by brightly coloured dots. This, in case you really have been away for a while, is what Guitar Hero looks like.

Guitar Hero combines two favourite activities of the frustrated rock star: karaoke and air guitar. It contains the live performance aspect that has made singing off-key cover versions in public so popular with amateurs, while cutting out the caterwauling that makes karaoke so disagreeable. It's simple: plug in your games console, strap on the accompanying plastic axe and strum away, hitting the five coloured plastic keys in time with those little dots on the screen, to produce the chords for a not-inconsiderable catalogue of classic rock tunes, from AC/DC to ZZ Top.

The history of gaming begins with the solitary pleasures of Pac Man and Donkey Kong. Multiplayer games, and later the internet, allowed for a shared experience of sorts. But only now, with the advent of consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, and titles like Guitar Hero, has gaming truly become a social activity – much like gathering round the old Joanna for a rendition of "Roll Out the Barrel", or sitting the family down for the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special.

Guitar Hero is tailor-made for a world in which everyone is hungry for new ways to consume culture, to interact with it, and to experience the pleasure of participating themselves. So familiar has that fretboard become that an entire episode of South Park was devoted to the game – entitled, naturally, "Guitar Queer-o". The makers of The Simpsons mocked up a poster for the fictional Sitar Hero (featuring the Bengali shopkeeper Apu) to go with their own videogame.

And of course, that bottomless pit of user-generated popular culture, YouTube, features innumerable clips of users playing the game. A video of nine-year-old Ben Eberle strumming along expertly to "Through the Fire and Flames", by little-known metallers Dragonforce, has been viewed more than 11-and-a-half million times. The original music video for the same song has been viewed well short of 1 million – and might hardly have been seen at all, were it not for its privileged position as the most complicated track on Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

Along with rival music games such as Rock Band and SingStar, Guitar Hero is – ahem – rocking the record industry. In 2007, for the first time, Guitar Hero and Rock Band made more profit between them – £100m more, to be precise – than all digital music sales from iTunes and its ilk. Last year, music games collected $1.9bn overall, accounting for 16 per cent of all software sales, and becoming by far the bestselling genre in a market that's thriving despite the recession.

Meanwhile, in the week after Guitar Hero III's release in late 2007, CD sales of Dragonforce's back catalogue increased 126 per cent. Last summer, when Aerosmith released Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, a package of 41 of their songs for the game, it sold three times as many copies in a week as the band's latest album. Motley Crüe's singles now sell five times more as Rock Band downloads than they do on iTunes.

Even the most traditionally technophobic acts have climbed aboard the bandwagon. Metallica, who famously sued the music file-sharing site Napster and eventually saw it shut down, recently released their own Guitar Hero edition. Abba and Queen have both produced their own versions of the SingStar karaoke game. And, after years of resisting the pressure to put their songs on iTunes, the remaining Beatles rights-holders have announced their intention to release The Beatles: Rock Band for Xbox, PlayStation and Wii in September. While record labels were busy trying to satisfactorily monetise the MP3, videogames created an entirely new way to consume music, which allows fans not merely to listen to their favourite tracks, but to play along.

Guitar Hero has its origins, like many a hi-tech innovation, in Japan. In 1998 the Tokyo games publisher Konami released Dance Dance Revolution X, a console version of a popular arcade game, which requires players to follow a dance routine by hitting the right spots on a dedicated "dance platform" with their feet. Dance Dance Revolution pioneered the idea of the rhythm-based videogame, and the following year Konami released its first guitar game, GuitarFreaks, featuring a plastic faux-guitar with three coloured buttons on its neck.

While it enjoyed only limited success outside Japan, GuitarFreaks got its US distributors RedOctane thinking. The company approached Harmonix, the Bostonian developers of a number of successful karaoke console titles, about producing its own version of the game. Guitar Hero, first released for PlayStation 2 in November 2005, was enough of a hit to spawn a sequel.

When the new, improved Guitar Hero II was released in 2006, it became one of the year's bestselling games. Soon, RedOctane and Harmonix were snapped up by Activision and MTV Games respectively. RedOctane and Activision retained the rights to the Guitar Hero name, which in 2007 made $830m – record profits for a games franchise.

Harmonix and MTV, however, still had the patents on their groundbreaking gameplay design. In 2007 they released their own title, Rock Band, which allowed up to four players to play along on fake plastic guitar, fake plastic bass, fake plastic drums and vocals. Rock Band and its 2008 sequel have now shifted more than 10 million copies, and Guitar Hero's titles (including the recent Guitar Hero: World Tour) almost 25 million.

While the rest of their industry collapsed around them, those in the licensing departments of the major record labels had been spending their days flogging annoying ringtones. So when they heard Guitar Hero approaching, they pricked up their ears. "Videogames had been using music for a long time," says Rafael McDonnell, EMI's head of brand partnerships, licensing and synch for Europe. "Fifa Football 2000, for instance, used Robbie [Williams] as an integral part of the experience. But this was an entirely new sort of innovation, and the music industry really embraced it."

Adrian Pope is digital director of the music distributor Vital PIAS. "Five years ago our job was relatively simple," he says. "We represent about 150 of the leading independent repertoire owners and we'd get them to make some CDs, which we sold to HMV and made sure they were in the front window. Now we're a 'label services organisation'; we put our label's catalogues on iTunes, on mobile phones, on advertisements or TV programmes or, in this instance, on to games."

To start with, the vast majority of Guitar Hero tracks were recorded not by the original artists, but by a group of small session musicians at a single California studio. By the time of Guitar Hero III, however, many bands had chosen either to re-record their own material, or to allow the games developers unprecedented access to their original masters. The game's guitars might be plastic, but they imitate the real things: Guitar Hero's instrument mimics the Gibson Les Paul, while Rock Band's looks like a Fender.

As the quality and authenticity of the games has increased, so has the catalogue. Guitar Hero has more than 500 songs listed on its website. Rock Band, thanks in part to the industry clout of its new owners MTV, now offers more than 600 tracks via game discs or downloads. These days, whole albums are offered as download packages. In January, for example, Oasis released a "track pack" for Rock Band that included playable versions not only of their greatest hits, but of their newest album, Dig Out Your Soul, in its entirety.

Slowly, over the past few years, the balance of power has shifted. Where once games developers had to convince labels to allow them the use of their artists' songs, now both the artists and their managements are clamouring to be included on each new game. Tim Riley has seen the shift from both sides. A former A&R man for Warner Brothers, he's now Activision's vice president for music affairs.

"When I started the department we were doing things like putting music into Tony Hawk's skateboarding games, which back in 1999 had just 12 songs," he recalls. "The record labels used to have a film and TV department, but now they've got film and TV, and a dedicated videogame liaison. We have contacts at every label and every music publisher.

"It was when we started using original master tracks from the artists that the labels really entered the picture. We began dealing with them, the artists themselves and the managers on a daily basis, explaining what, exactly, the game was. Nowadays we're in the studio, we're at live shows, we know all their release dates, we know when their tours are happening and we try and time our downloads and game launches accordingly. We work with them as closely as possible."

It's a measure of the games' power that they've persuaded the biggest band in history to go digital. For years, the Beatles' rights-holders avoided turning over their catalogue to iTunes, or any other online MP3 store, due to a fear of piracy and the long-running trademark dispute between Apple Inc (the computer guys) and Apple Corps (the Fab Four's multimedia corporation). But on 9 September, The Beatles: Rock Band will finally appear featuring, according to George Harrison's son Dhani, both familiar tunes and previously unreleased material.

When Metallica's last album, Death Magnetic, was released in September 2008, it was made simultaneously available as a download package for Guitar Hero III. This, remember, is the band that took legal action against Napster, the original illegal downloads site, and its users in in 2000 – becoming, in the process, de facto representatives for an industry trying to defy the digital future. Last month, however, a newly tech-friendly Metallica played an uncharacteristically small (but characteristically raucous) gig at the South By South-West music festival in Texas to promote their new game, Guitar Hero: Metallica, which will be released in the UK next month.

The music downloads for Guitar Hero or Rock Band are far harder to share illegally as pirated files than MP3s. Bands and their labels know, for now, that videogames provide a rare watertight revenue stream. They're also becoming respectable. Guitarist Slash, formerly of Guns 'n' Roses and now appearing as one of the many digitally animated character-avatars available to Guitar Hero players, told Rolling Stone magazine that the release of Aerosmith and Metallica's dedicated titles cemented the game's "credibility".

Labels and developers are both keen for music games to act not simply as repositories for the back catalogues of established acts, but as shop windows for new artists, too. At Midem, the annual music industry conference in Cannes, Tim Riley now conducts listening sessions, during which record labels present new acts in the hope that one of their tracks will make it onto the game. When "I'm So Sick", a song by the unknown Texas rockers Flyleaf, appeared on Rock Band, their debut album went platinum.

In January, the young Welsh band Attack! Attack! were chosen by Riley's Midem panel; their song "You and Me" will be added to Guitar Hero later this year. Neil Starr, Attack! Attack!'s singer and guitarist, was already a fan of the game (his goal is to complete the Foo Fighters' epic "Everlong" on its expert level). When they heard they were to be featured alongside so many of their rock influences, says Starr, he and his bandmates were "over the moon. Guitar Hero really wants to get involved with pushing us as a band. The band that won last year, The Answer, is on tour with AC/DC now. We're crossing our fingers that we'll get similar exposure."

According to a recent survey by NPD market research, 22 per cent of US music buyers – and 35 per cent of those aged 35 and under – had played a music game in the previous three months. For many of them the experience "[created] music discovery or [triggered] a digital-music or CD purchase."

This comes as no surprise to Tim Riley. "Guitar Hero III was such a huge success that, almost overnight, record labels started seeing overnight sales increases in catalogue songs by the likes of Pat Benatar, even crazy stuff like Billy Idol or Spinal Tap, things which had basically sat stagnant and only sold 25 to 100 copies a week. Next thing you know, they're selling thousands. That was the 'oh, wow' moment, when labels could instantly see some sort of reaction from fans – and specifically from a younger demographic, people who didn't even know who Pat Benatar was."

But, Riley continues, "Our best partners are the managers and the artists themselves. We are the one game that's almost guaranteed to be in the back of every tour bus." Little wonder: according to Motley Crüe manager Allen Kovac, the artists' split from a Guitar Hero or Rock Band download is considerably larger than from an iTunes sale. And, so far, fans have downloaded around 50 million songs from the two games combined.

"It's funny," says Riley. "We'll get calls from a manager, a label or an artist and they'll say 'Look, we've got this song that's going to be great for Guitar Hero, because it's got these ripping guitar solos or this great melody'! It's a big change from a couple of years ago when we had to explain why a certain song wouldn't work in a game. Now everyone has played it enough themselves to understand the game, and they talk to us as if they're one of the developers."

So why is thrashing a plastic guitar such a popular, even addictive pastime? "Playing music is one of the most blissful feelings life has to offer," Alex Riguopulos, CEO of Harmonix, told Wired magazine before the release of the original Rock Band game. "But it's too fucking hard to learn how. Almost everyone quits after six months."

Riguopulos's creations, however, are almost as intuitive as air guitar – at least on their simplest settings. They amplify the instant gratification of singing in the shower. And, unlike many videogames, they're a social activity, crossing both gender and age divides. Is it a coincidence that many music industry workers have children of gaming age?

"It's weird to watch my 10-year-old playing 'The Joker' by Steve Miller," says EMI's McDonnell. "He's playing songs he would never otherwise have experienced. It's quite scary how good my kids are at Guitar Hero, too. They don't want me to play it anymore, because I ruin their scores."

Adrian Pope echoes the sentiment: "There is absolutely no way, unless they were really paying attention, that my kids would've been exposed to Creedence Clearwater Revival before, and yet here's my eight-year-old son and his five-year-old brother, trying to sing along to Creedence, or Hendrix!"

Across the Atlantic in Denver, nine-year-old Ben Eberle is racking up near-perfect scores for some of the hardest songs on each game, earning him millions of YouTube fans. He's now learning to play a real electric guitar. And he's not a bad drummer, either. The official Guitar Hero world record-holder, however, is 17-year-old Chris Chike from Minnesota, whose perfect rendition of "Through the Fire and Flames" – seven-and-a-half minutes, and 3,722 notes tapped out on those coloured keys – has even earned him an endorsement deal from a games hardware manufacturer, whose chief operating officer calls the mixed-race Chike "our Tiger Woods".

Some critics have expressed concern that music games give the appearance of virtuosity without teaching their young players any true musical skills. "It doesn't bear much relation to playing for real," agrees Jim Clark, a tutor at the Guitar-X school in London. "The physical aspects of playing guitar are difficult. It's not like a piano where you push a note down and you get a sound; there's an initial hurdle to overcome before you can even get a note, so Guitar Hero's instant gratification isn't transferable.

"That said, you do have to have an element of rhythm to play the game; if you find anyone who's crap at Guitar Hero, they are generally the person in the room who can't clap in time. And when I play it, I read the coloured dots as if I'm reading a piece of music. You can see how you might transpose that into a sort of musical understanding."

More important than any physical correlation between the games and actual guitar playing, perhaps, is its motivational effect on those who want to try it for real. Not only have videogames generated a new audience for classic rock, they've produced a new generation of children eager to learn a musical instrument.

A study by Youth Music, the UK's largest music charity, recently found that of the approximately six million three- to 18-year-olds in Britain who regularly play music games on consoles, around 2.5 million have been inspired to learn real musical instruments. One of them is Rafael McDonnell's son, who has now asked his father for a real Gibson Les Paul.

In bars and clubs across the US, Guitar Hero has become the new, less embarrassing alternative to karaoke. Here in Britain, it's a part of the country's biggest indie music club night, Propaganda, which attracts weekly crowds of 10,000 to venues around England. The game gets its own room at each club, for idle strummers looking for a break from the dance floor. It being an indie night, says promoter and DJ Dan Ickowitz-Seidler, many of the Guitar Hero users choose to play The Strokes, "But we did notice that when Guitar Hero: Legends of Rock came out, the DJs suddenly got asked for a lot of strange songs on the dancefloor. We'd certainly never had a request for Cream until then."

Music games are hugely popular with online gamers, too. In November, 1.5 million people across Europe logged on to Xtival, an online festival held on the Xbox Live platform. Guitar Hero, says Robin Burrowes, Xbox Live's marketing manager, was one of the most popular games of a weekend that helped to launch new material for its "headliners", Oasis, Franz Ferdinand and The Prodigy.

What developers have finally achieved is the goal of social gaming – not only in the virtual world, but in the real world, too. With the success of the Wii, or of Guitar Hero, Rock Band and SingStar, videogames can finally, truthfully be called fun for the whole family.

Not everyone loves Guitar Hero, though you'd be forgiven for thinking as much. Gibson guitars has tried unsuccessfully to sue Activision for patent infringement on their celebrated design. Led Zeppelin still refuse to allow games developers (or anyone else, for that matter) near their master tapes. And last August, Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman complained publicly that "The amount being paid to the music industry, even though [the] games are entirely dependent on the content we own and control, is far too small."

Warner was also the first record company to grumble about lack of remuneration for the appearance of its music videos on YouTube; YouTube promptly pulled all the label's videos from the site, much to the chagrin of many artists. But Bronfman's argument isn't without merit: the deals that games developers sign with the record industry are based on the traditional use of music in games, as an incidental soundtrack rather than an integral component. It has been reported that game publishers pay the labels about $10,000 for the rights to re-record a song, and up to about $25,000 for master recordings or new releases.

By contrast, the NFL collects around 30 per cent of the profits from the biggest American football videogame, Madden NFL. The music industry is looking for a similar deal – or at least one that would see them get a decent slice of the profits from the games' stellar sales. Activision CEO Robert Kotick, however, has wondered out loud whether the record companies should get any money at all, and whether, because of the games' impact, it should instead be the labels who pay the developers for their artists' inclusion.

But has Guitar Hero really saved guitar music, as is sometimes suggested? Charlie Shawcross, 23, is one of Jim Clark's students and a fan of the game but, he argues, "All the songs on it are down-the-line rock, and the guitar music is far wider than that. If anything, it narrows guitar playing down into a cliché."

The brand has designs on other genres. A "DJ Hero" game is in the works for budding vinyl scratchers. And as Kotick himself has suggested, the game has the potential to rival iTunes, should it choose to launch a similar online music store. Bronfman, meanwhile, might like to consider the fact that a whole new, post-Napster generation of young people is learning to pay for music and appreciate its intrinsic value, thanks to videogames.

The traditional music industry now has its hand stuck fast in the post-Guitar Hero pot. Vivendi, parent company of Universal Music Group, bought Activision (and thus Guitar Hero) in 2007; and MTV owns Rock Band. Is the music videogame a watershed moment to compare with the rise of music television? "I've heard that several times and I think it's a safe comparison," says Riley. "We're taking music to fans in a new way, much like videos did back when MTV started; it's a new way to experience music, and fans are really enjoying it."

But music is a tumultuous market, where new ways to consume come along every day, and where everyone wants to believe they've found the answer to the industry's woes.

Sales of music games – perhaps due to the crunch-unfriendly cost of those plastic instruments – have slumped in the first few months of 2009: Guitar Hero sales in January were down 22 per cent year-on-year, Rock Band by 52 per cent. Could Eminem's Guitar Hero reference prove to be as dated as the Sarah Palin gags?

Evan Wilson, a senior research analyst at Pacific Crest Securities, recently told the Los Angeles Times that music games were "losing steam": "This year will establish the direction that this genre will go. Maybe it continues to take off. Maybe it tops out at 15 per cent of the software market. Or it could just turn out to be a fad."

Even if, in the end, Guitar Hero and its imitators remain merely another videogame genre, it's nonetheless a healthy addition to the canon – or so, at least, thinks guitar teacher Jim Clark: "It's refreshing, when you think of all those videogames that supposedly make kids want to go out and shoot people. What's the worst that could happen with Guitar Hero? That you go out and form a band?"

Judas Priest, Painkiller (RB)

One of the most difficult tracks in the Rock Band catalogue – and not just for the guitarist – this is very much one for the headbangers. Whoever's singing might want to have some Strepsils handy for afterwards.

Blue Oyster Cult, Godzilla (GH)

The second-most famous track by a band famous as a one-hit wonder. To be fair, this is no "(Don't Fear) The Reaper", but it does contain some sweet licks and the classic chorus "Oh, no!/ There goes Tokyo/ Go-Go-Godzilla!"

Dead Kennedys, California Uber Alles (RB)

Released in 1979, this debut single by the pioneering Californian punks might be familiar to a younger, game-savvy generation already: it was featured on the soundtrack for popular skateboarding game Tony Hawk's American Wasteland.

Stone Temple Pilots, Interstate Love Song (Rock Band)

An uncharacteristically wholesome hit from these recently-reformed 90s' rockers, with enough crunching chord changes in the simple guitar part to keep you interested. Fun to try matching Scott Weiland's craggy vocal, too.

Rick Springfield, Jesse's Girl (Guitar Hero)

This Grammy-winning pop-rock classic from 1980 is as accurate a description as you could hope for of the pains of fancying your mate's girlfriend. The guitar solo follows a cool keyboard break, and begins deceptively simply...

Pat Benatar, Heartbreaker (GH/RB)

Despite her induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, Benatar remains unknown to many of today's aspiring young rock chicks. This chugging track has some finger-jabbing breaks and a deeply satisfying "slow" chorus.

DragonForce, Through the Fire and Flames (GH)

The hardest track to play on Guitar Hero, this is seven-and-a-half minutes (that's 3,722 notes) of hair-metal madness. You might imagine, listening to it, that DragonForce were a forgotten early-80s act. But "Through the Fire and Flames" is, in fact, from their 2006 album, Inhuman Rampage.

Weezer, My Name is Jonas (GH)

Not, perhaps, so fondly recalled as "Buddy Holly" or "Undone: The Sweater Song", this track from Weezer's self-titled debut is nonetheless a perfect air-guitar primer, crunching away pleasurably for two minutes, before speeding up to the climax.

Mission of Burma, That's When I Reach for my Revolver (RB)

Until post-punk gets its own dedicated Rock Band title, there are a few hidden classics in the game's catalogue to keep fans of the era happy. This dynamic, tempo-shifting curio is an unexpectedly upmarket addition.

Boston, Rock And Roll Band (RB/GH)

A perfect distillation of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle by the band who brought us "More Than A Feeling". The drumming is as awesome as the guitar here, so try it on Rock Band.

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