I suck at Guitar Hero. It’s OK; I’ve come to peace with it. I suck at video games in general. There’s a difference, though. Most video games rely on video game logic; you have to look for the hidden door or the boss’s weak spot or whatever, and if you didn’t play countless hours of video games growing up (like, say, if your parents quite understandably thought you’d get sucked in completely and thus banned Genesis from the house), you’ll either have to endure about a million maddeningly repetitive repeat-attempts or you’ll ask a friend who’s good at them to get past certain parts for you. The Guitar Hero games, on the other hand, rely on musical logic, on melody and rhythm. There have been music-based video-games like Dance Dance Revolution in the past, but I haven’t really fucked with them. Guitar Hero is impossible not to fuck with. Rob Harvilla, my editor, once called it one of the greatest consumer-electronics breakthroughs of the last few years, right up there with the iPod. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I definitely bought Guitar Hero III the day it came out, so maybe that makes it my iPhone. Because of some video-game-industry mergers that I don’t quite understand, Guitar Hero III was made by a different set of developers than the previous games, but I wasn’t able to detect much of a difference. Maybe that’s because I haven’t bothered with most of the game’s new features. I’m not on Xbox Live because I don’t need any more wires in my apartment, so I haven’t played online or bought extra songs from the website. And I didn’t buy the new guitar-controller because it sort of sucked when I tried it in GameStop. So other than slighly niftier graphics and a few new features (fucking impossible guitar-duels being first among them), Guitar Hero III is basically just Guitar Hero 2 with a bunch of new songs, which means it’s exactly what I wanted.
For music-obsessed nonmusicians like me, the appeal of the Guitar Hero games isn’t the chance to act out rockstar fantasies (though that part is fun); it’s the chance to figure out in really immediate ways how certain songs work. You develop a certain new respect for, say, Mountain when you can see up close how the riffs in “Mississippi Queen” keep restlessly shifting and coming back in altered forms. My brother, who plays guitar, insists that actual guitar experience isn’t much of an advantage in playing Guitar Hero, though he’s a whole lot better at the fucking game than I am. And I’d certainly like to believe that my overall suckiness at the game has more to do with my inability to push buttons really quickly than my inability to grasp musical logic. Still, playing a song on Guitar Hero is a whole lot different from passively listening to it. Listening to a song, you can get carried away by all sorts of distractions: lyrics, the musicians’ personas, whatever you might be doing while you’re listening to the song. Playing Guitar Hero, those distractions are pretty much entirely removed. A song becomes a series of dots, and you aren’t judging it; it’s judging you. About half the songs in the game come from the original master-recordings or from brand-new replayed versions that the musicians have done specifically for the game. The others come from session-musician cover-bands, and that’s the sort of thing that would drive me nuts if I was passively listening to the music. Playing the game, though, I barely ever notice.
The songs I enjoy playing the most on the Guitar Hero games are the ones I can do intuitively, mostly through repeated and prolonged middle- and high-school exposure: “Bulls on Parade,” “Kool Thing,” “My Name is Jonas,” “Cherub Rock.” Prolonged exposure, however, did not turn out to be a whole lot of help with Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” That song is fucking fast. That so is so fast, in fact, that its groove basically becomes a blur and, for the purposes of the game, loses its status as groove. Kerry King’s guitar solo, awesome though it may be, is more an empty display of technical skill than a melodic statement. In Guitar Hero 2, the most recent songs came mostly from stoner-metal bands like Wolfmother and the Sword, presumably because those are the only guitar-based bands currently working that incorporate a whole lot of rhythmic logic into their songs. On the new game, though, we get recent fare from bigger-selling bands like Slipknot and Disturbed and Muse, and they’re a whole lot harder and less fun to play because they’re so much less interested in groove. It’s possible, in fact, to concoct a sort of alternate musical history playing the new game, as the songs that groove the hardest are almost invariably the oldest ones: “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Paranoid,” “Black Magic Woman,” “La Grange.” And that stomp is all but missing in songs from, say, Dragonforce or Killswitch Engage. The new metal and nu-metal in Guitar Hero III have very little of the blues influence that animated and drove a lot of the older songs; they’re way more Slayer than Sabbath, and they groove a lot less as a result. Given that playing Guitar Hero III actively reshapes the way the player listens to guitar-based music, it’s fun to think about the ways that the game’s success might actively affect rock music, at least somewhere down the line. When I ducked into Best Buy the other day to buy the new Project Pat album (which is awesome), I walked past a mob of kids playing the game. In a few years, maybe some of those kids will have bands of their own.