The Low Cost Of (Guitar) Heroism

Legend has it that the iconic blues guitarist Robert Johnson was granted his otherworldly chops by Satan himself, at a deal forged at a Mississippi crossroads. The price was his soul. In 2007, one does not have to cut such a hard bargain to get the unique rush of being a guitar god. You don't even have to sit in your room and practice for months on end. All you need is a PlayStation 2, a special game controller that looks like a tiny Gibson model SG and software called Guitar Hero 2. Within 10 minutes, you will be shredding heavy metal. As you get more adept at the game you will be ecstatically channeling Eddie Van Halen. All this with no strings attached.

By allowing more than 2 million gamers to become ax slingers without the years of practice involved, Guitar Hero has become a cultural phenomenon. Technically, you are not creating music by pushing buttons on the fret board of the game controller (which button to push is dictated by similarly colored dots that scroll on your screen at higher and higher speeds). Hitting the right button at the right time simply unlocks music that real guitarists created using real guitars. Yet the illusion is given that you are actually making the sounds yourself. "It's cracked the code of music playing, giving you the rhythmic, emotional feel you get from playing guitar," says Van Toffler, president of MTV's music group. (MTV liked the game so much that it bought Harmonix, the software company that developed it.) One Guitar Hero junkie, Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, spent so many hours playing the game that the resulting wrist inflammation kept him out of three postseason games. And surprisingly, some of the most avid fans of this faux musician exercise are actual musicians; the game is a fixture on tour buses. Ed Robertson, lead guitarist of Barenaked Ladies, recently told The New York Times that he was so engrossed in a Guitar Hero solo of "Free Bird" that he barely made it onstage for a real concert.

Clearly, Guitar Hero is fun. But by bestowing the rewards of virtuosity to those who haven't spent years to earn it, is it dumbing down musicianship? If a teenager can easily become a make-believe guitar hero, does that mean he won't ever bother to master the real thing?

Alex Rigopulos, CEO of Harmonix, says that the intent of Guitar Hero is to provide the thrills of real musicianship to those who would not otherwise have the opportunity. "Almost everyone who takes up guitar quits after a few months," he says. "For me, learning to play the guitar solo to 'Bark at the Moon' would take five years, and even then I couldn't do it right. But spending two or three weeks learning to do it on Guitar Hero is not too much time--and I'll really be able to feel like I'm playing it." In that sense it's no different from other experiences made virtually accessible by the computer, from being a World War II sniper to playing golf like Tiger Woods.

What's more, as digital technology becomes deeply integrated into "real" instruments, we can expect the shortcuts to virtuosity that we see in Guitar Hero to become commonplace in music. "One of the issues that musical instruments have is that they're difficult to learn," says Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of Gibson Guitar, which is aggressively integrating computer technology into new product lines. "Building calluses and pains-takingly learning all the musical fingering is not creative, but is the discipline to get the creative rewards ... In the future we want to reduce the crap you have to deal with to allow people access to that creativity." It sounds great--just as the Devil's offer must have struck Robert Johnson at the crossroads.