April 29, 2008 — -- Guitar Hero is turning some gamers into actual guitar players.
With more than 14 million units sold in North America since the videogame's release in 2005, the incredibly popular franchise is giving an entire generation of potential guitarists just enough of a taste for them to consider experimenting with the real thing.
"I'd always had an interest in playing guitar, and you kind of get more of an inkling to do it when you're playing the videogame," said Louis Grondah, who snapped up an acoustic guitar at Guitar Center and started learning chords after playing Guitar Hero.
Grondah, a fan of Metallica, Pantera and Deftones who is currently in training as a police officer in San Jose, California, said he still plays the game, but now spends more time reading books about guitar.
"It's difficult -- I'm not going to lie," he said about learning to play the six-string. "But it's really fun."
The wildfire success of music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band is causing a subtle revolution in popular music -- maybe not on the level of the British Invasion of the '60s, but noticeable nonetheless. The games are bringing about renewed interest in the guitar, a music-making machine that's been losing traction lately to turntables and laptops. Guitar Hero is like a gateway drug that's getting a new wave of players hooked on guitar.
"It's been phenomenal, frankly, to watch millions of people embrace the idea of air guitar," said Tim Huffman, the CEO of guitar-teaching site iVideosongs. "And not just guys. I mean teenage girls and adults. Every tour bus with a touring band has Guitar Hero in it."
In an informal poll, readers of Wired.com's music blog Listening Post agreed that the Guitar Hero phenomenon will cause a resurgence in guitar rock. Just don't expect to read too many stories about videogames leading to outbreaks of music-making (violence makes for better headlines).
Aaron Starke, a 20-year-old gamer from Sugar Land, Texas, was turned on to the guitar about three months ago after a job at Fry's Electronics got him playing his fair share of Guitar Hero.
"I play expert mode on pretty much everything," Starke said about his guitar-gaming prowess. Like Grondah, he found that learning to play a real guitar requires more patience than toying with a plastic, guitar-shaped game controller.
A self-described classic-rock fan, Starke said he first set his sights on learning to play the Guns N' Roses hit "Sweet Child of Mine" on guitar, then began dabbling in keyboards and drums after encountering those instruments in Rock Band. He said he plans to form a band (tentative name: Two and a Half Man Quintet) with four other guys from his LAN gaming group. Only the prospective keyboardist has significant experience with his instrument outside of Guitar Hero or Rock Band.
The games are bringing a new generation of players to the instrument, said Jeff Schroedl, vice president of Pop & Standard Publications for old-school music book publisher Hal Leonard, which runs GuitarInstructor.com.
"We actually publish songbooks in hard-book form in conjunction with Guitar Hero and Rock Band," he said. "They're the only sanctioned songbooks that work with the game, and those books are flying off the shelves."
Sales of fretted instruments increased nearly $30 million in the last year, said Paul Majeski, publisher of The Music Trades. "The consumer appeal of the instrument is huge," Majeski said.
Guitar Center, which set up virtual shop in Guitar Hero and has offered deep discounts to gamers who buy real instruments, thinks "interactive videogames such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band are minting more guitar players," according a representative of the store.
A new crop of online teaching services has appeared to help this wave of new musicians learn guitar in a familiar way: through video.
"[We] see a strong future in selling guitar lessons online, partly because of the accessibility of it and the convenience of it," Schroedl said, "but also because of the visual nature of learning to play music -- being able to see a real professional teacher's fingers on the fretboard and seeing it up close, along with onscreen [tablature sheets]."
There's even a videogame coming that promises to bridge the gap between game guitar and music lesson: Guitar Rising will purportedly let users play a Guitar Hero-type game using an actual guitar instead of a plastic controller.
Grondah, the metal fan who's on his way to becoming a cop, said he likes the idea of a game that teaches him something.
"Forget this pushing buttons crap," he said. "You're actually strumming and playing strings.... That sounds like a cool premise."