For 21-year-old Kelly Law-Yone, a.k.a. "the Tipper Queen," years of preparation had gone into this show, the biggest night of her life. You could say she had been practicing for this gig ever since her first music instruction — piano lessons, beginning around the time she started grade school, followed by years in middle and high school bands.
After getting to college, she had worked toward this big show almost every day, honing her strumming rhythm to a titanium razor's edge, her frenzied fretwork now so intricate it looked like nothing so much as a spider scuttling to wrap up some juicy morsel of prey.
Big sponsors had flown her from her home in Texas to Vegas, where they had put her up in one of the best hotels in town. Here, she would duet on "Welcome to the Jungle" with none other than Slash, the very same iconic guitarist whose apocalyptic six-string mayhem helped change the course of rock and roll history.
She stroked the neck of her guitar for luck as she waited in the wings, and as no less a luminary than Bill Gates looked on from stage right, the emcee's spiel seemed to drag on and on. At last, her time had come to shine. "Ladies and gentleman, the Tipper Queen!" he said, and she strode out on the stage.
"I'm gonna show you people that girls really know how to rock!" She couldn't see the crowd past the first row because of the lights. She just tried to focus. Good thing she doesn't get stage fright.
Law-Yone never broke a sweat as she nailed every note, every hammer-on and pull-off and whammy-bar wobble and growled sustain. The crowd went wild, and they went still wilder when Slash himself joined her on the stage.
Except only Slash played a real guitar. Law-Yone's ax was a $35 plastic controller, the kind that comes in a bundle with the game Guitar Hero III.
And this wasn't a concert, but a skit during the keynote address of this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
All over Houston, America and the world, in living rooms and dorm rooms and, increasingly, in public, there are hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, male and female, whaling away on tiny plastic guitars and stripped-down little drum kits.
Video gamers, one and all, dreaming that they are rock stars.
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Lucky's Pub is a sports bar in Old Chinatown, a new Houston watering hole for the young denizens of the condos and lofts that have lately sprung up on downtown's eastern fringe.
Most nights, after the buzzer has sounded on the Rockets game, the bar's 21-foot video screen is beaming reruns of SportsCenter to the patrons. Not on Wednesdays.
On those nights, you're more likely to see and hear a scene like this: As the bass notes from "Creep," Radiohead's iconic '90s jam, rumble past in 4/4 time, a twentysomething guy in a white ball cap shakily croons Thom Yorke's words into a plastic microphone:
"You float like a feath-eeeeerrrr, in a beautiful world, I wish I was special, you're so fucking specialllll..."
The guitarist springs into life with Jonny Greenwood's famous growling little four-note "duh-duh: duh-duh" figure.
The drummer wails away at the three plastic drum heads on his kit like they owe him money.
As the music reaches its grunge-opera crescendo, the bassist and guitarist swing their guitar necks in unison, and the foursome attains blissed-out, though counterfeit, Radiohead nirvana.
No, Bill Gates isn't gazing down on this scene, and Thom Yorke isn't about to walk from the wings and harmonize with the recently graduated frat boy on vocals. And Lucky's Pub is a long way from Vegas, the gentrification of Old Chinatown notwithstanding.
But in a way, you could liken this scene to the middling ranks of the real-life rock scene. If Kelly Law-Yone is the Jimi Hendrix of fake-guitar games, these people are your local bar band — good enough to play in public, but nowhere near ready for the big time.
Let's back up and explain these games a little better. In the Guitar Hero series, players re-create classic and contemporary rock songs by "strumming" a thumb-wheel and pressing colored buttons on the fretboard in time with the music. Players can play solo, compete head to head, or collaborate, either with players trading off guitar leads or with one player taking lead and the other bass.
Rock Band, which superseded Guitar Hero at Lucky's music gaming night earlier this year, takes Guitar Hero to the proverbial next level. It uses very similar guitar gameplay but supplements that with a pitch-detecting microphone for vocals and a stripped-down electronic drum set, complete with kick drum. (Of the instruments in the game, the drum set is the most similar to its real-life counterpart.) As many as four players can play simultaneously on different instruments.
These games trade on a common and powerful fantasy. Who, other than Kurt Cobain, wouldn't like to be a rock star?
But becoming a real rock star takes time, money, talent and desire. These games are relatively cheap, and since each game has multiple levels of difficulty ranging from easy to expert, like Texas hold'em poker, they take a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.
At least in terms of public play, Guitar Hero seems already like yesterday's news. Rock Band's ability to accommodate four players easily trumps the two of Guitar Hero, and with Rock Band, karaoke is rolled into the package as well. (Rock Band and its sequels may eventually spell doom for stand-alone karaoke nights.)
Anthony Wegmann, one of Lucky's owners, says that his club has seen an upswing in business on Rock Band night. "The last couple of weeks we have started getting phone calls from people wanting to know what time we start playing," he says.
"It's almost like getting a live band in here. A lot of times people will leave right after whatever game they were watching ends, but now people will hang back and watch the Rock Band players, and then some of them will start playing, too. It's not quite as good as a live band, but it is at least some form of entertainment, whereas we would just be having reruns of SportsCenter on ESPN otherwise."
What's not to love about a game that has the power to knock yet another episode of SportsCenter off the box?
Plenty, say some Houston musicians and music teachers. But even most of them reluctantly agree that the games are fun.
Former Chango Jackson and current Yoko Mono guitarist/singer Moises Alaniz found Guitar Hero to be a humbling experience. At a party over the holidays, he delivered a trainwreck of a performance, but he has an excuse.
"I'm colorblind, so I had to memorize the position where the colors were supposed to be," he says. "I didn't like it, in the sense that there's no realism to it. If there were strings or something...Basically, it's just like tapping on a computer keyboard. As far as entertainment, yeah, I could see where it would be fun, but I think it takes too much away from it, the digital area going in a completely wrong direction into art."
Rock Band offered Alaniz redemption. "I sang on Rock Band, and the microphone checks your pitch, and I did really well. That felt really good."
Allen Hill, the antic front man for the Allen Oldies Band who also teaches guitar and plays guitar and bass in several other cover bands, is also in the anti-camp. He believes that any time spent playing the game could be better spent learning to play the guitar for real.
"Video games didn't create the need to play guitar or make a band," he says. "All this stuff can be done; you've just got to apply yourself and really want to do it. It's like running a marathon. Most people say they can't do it, but if you train for it, you probably can. The mental challenges of learning guitar are far greater than the physical ones."
Local guitarist/singer Jaime Marroquin, who as "Jaime Hellcat" leads the "vato-billy" band Flamin' Hellcats, has played the game and says that he is "terrible" at it. Even so, he enjoys the game and says it is not without its benefits.
"I think it does give nonmusicians a sense of what it feels like to be onstage in a band, especially a terrible band," he says.
In the game, when you hit too many duff notes in a row, the song ends abruptly, the crowd boos unmercifully and silence, interrupted only by the crackling hum of an amp, descends, as your character hangs his head in shame.
"I have been in some terrible bands in my time, and it feels a lot like that," Marroquin says. "Now people know what it feels like to suck in a band."
And he also feels the converse is true. "Or when you are kicking ass, that high you get. There's nothing like it."
That may be so, Hill believes, but he thinks that Guitar Hero devotees are cheating themselves out of some of the best parts of life as a musician. "A big part of playing music is that you are in an ensemble and you are playing with humans," he says. "Nothing against technology, but in some ways I feel these games cheapen the experience a little bit."
No matter what you think about the game's ability to re-create life as a musician, few people will argue that Rock Band and the Guitar Hero series are masterpieces as pure video games. Both of them demolish all the rules of gaming.
For starters, these games are social rather than solitary. People actually enjoy watching people play these games.
Chad Edwards, one of the Rock Band-loving patrons at Lucky's, says that Rock Band is one game that gets you out of the house. "I don't know this guy or that guy" — he points to two of his virtual bandmates — "but we've all played Guitar Hero and we've all played Rock Band, and this is just another way for us to get together and do something that we would otherwise do at home. The fact that I can do it here and maybe meet some good people is pretty cool."
Think "hard-core gamer" and chances are you picture a geeky male, ranging in age from 12 to 35, and there is a lot of truth to that pigeonholing. Other than Tetris and the Sims series, most women have never cared much for video games. Music games explode that stereotype. Many women who are bored by sports games and the über-violent likes of the Halo series find Guitar Hero and Rock Band utterly engrossing.
Law-Yone has another theory. "I know a lot of my female friends don't like holding a regular controller," she says. "But since this is shaped like a guitar, it doesn't feel so intense, and they can relax and lean back. When I play a game like Halo, I'm like leaning forward, and it's a lot more intense. With Guitar Hero, I can lean back, talk to my friends while I'm playing. It seems more like a party-type game."
Another female Guitar Hero fan is Magda Sayeg, the owner of Montrose boutique Raye, a co-owner of coffeeshop Brasil and Domy gifts, and the founder of the street stitchwear clique the Knittas. After playing it at a party, she bought a copy of Guitar Hero III earlier this month. "I haven't played any games since I was a little kid," she says. "Now I hear a piece of music and I see it in terms of blue, red and green dots, like in the game."
Video games, especially violent ones, are often a point of contention between parents and children, especially mothers and sons. The music games are both nonviolent and easy for the whole family to enjoy — better yet, enjoy together. Sayeg and her fifth-grade son Isaac play Guitar Hero together all the time. "He was so excited when I told him I was going to buy Guitar Hero and play it with him," she says. "He reminded me about it every day for a week until I went and got it. In a weird way, it has bonded us closer together."
Not only do these games shatter the idea of gaming today, they also challenge preconceived notions of today's society.
In a time when all of the news from the music industry seems to be bad, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have spurred interest in old bands and songs, revitalized the careers of some musicians and refocused a generation of kids on rock and roll. In an era when people seem more and more isolated, alone in front of their screens and walled off from the world by the sounds blasting from their ear buds, these games have brought men and women and young and old together around the gaming console.
But are these games breeding a generation of young musicians? Is there any educational value to these games at all?
Not much, says Ken Arnold, an employee at Houston guitar shop Rockin' Robin. "It's basically a glorified game of Simon," he says, referring to the primitive handheld pattern-matching electronic game from the 1980s. "Everybody that I've talked to that has played has said that it has nothing to do with playing real guitar. It might help you hear different pitches, but it has nothing to do with playing guitar at all."
Evans Music City guitar salesman (and cover band guitarist) Michael J. Juarez, who unlike Arnold had played Rock Band, gives the games a bit more credit. "I think it will teach people to learn rhythm, to be able to coordinate their left and right hands," he says. "A lot of times people will play and just watch either their picking hand or their fretting hand. They can't do both without looking down. But once you play the game enough, it becomes an automatic motion."
As for the more lifelike drums on Rock Band, Alex Rigopulos, a co-founder of game studio Harmonix, contends that his game's version of drumming qualifies as actual musical instruction. "After you've been playing the game for a while, working your way up to the highest difficulty, you're playing the actual drum patterns," he told the New York Daily News. "We've had 30 or so people playing the game in our testing department for a matter of months, and now they're all drummers. You can sit these people down in front of real drum sets, and they can play drums."
Though Brian Bell, an instructor at Houston drum shop Percussion Center, hasn't played Rock Band, he disagrees with Rigopulos. "I can tell from my students that that's not true," he says. "They tell me that the foot pedal is different, and that three-pad setup doesn't sound like a real drum set to me. Also, the mother of one of my students tells me that her son plays wild and out of control on Rock Band, so I think it could be teaching some bad habits."
For Law-Yone, a pianist in real life, the process has worked in reverse. She cross-trains, using her real music piano background to enhance her virtual guitar playing. "If I have a hard time picking up the rhythm of a song on Guitar Hero, I'll go over to the piano and try to figure it on the keyboard," she says. "Of course, you have to hit a piano harder than a controller, so I know if I can do it on the piano, it will be easier on the game."
"Real guitars are for old people."
— Eric Cartman of South Park
Or are they?
Rockin' Robin's Arnold is not as opposed to these games as he might sound. Guitar Hero specifically has sparked a sales boom at his shop. "They wanna graduate out of the game and get a real guitar, so it is kind of helpful for us. We get kids in here all the time wanting Gibson Les Paul Sunbursts, because that's the guitar in the game." (Actually, there are numerous Gibson models in the game, thanks to their canny endorsement deal. Wisely, Gibson's rival guitar-maker Fender inked a similar deal with Rock Band.) "I also had some of the [Guitar Hero] songbooks in here, and they flew out of here."
Arnold also says the kids are savvier about music than they were pre-Guitar Hero. "First of all, these kids have a knowledge of classic rock, like they've been digging through their dad's records, plus they know what a Les Paul Sunburst is," he says.
People are forming Rock Band combos that regularly meet for pseudo-gigs. Fans of bands with songs on the games now bring their controllers to shows for the guitarists to autograph. Subtly, it changes the way its players experience music in their lives. "I'm gonna see the Foo Fighters next week, and I always liked listening to the CDs, but now I am really gonna watch Dave Grohl play the guitar," says Edwards, one of the Rock Band players at Lucky's.
Few people under 25 bother with the radio, so for many, video game soundtracks have filled the vacuum. What's more, there's a difference in intensity between hearing a song through your computer, iPod speakers, or on the radio and experiencing it in an interactive music game. Pretending to play a song, especially along with or in front of your friends, is a much more visceral experience.
Record companies have taken notice. Labels love the fact that these games have a limited number of songs on the soundtracks and that players will hear each one many times over the duration of their interest in the game.
And so now there is a bit of a scramble to land songs on these soundtracks. It wasn't always such: On Guitar Hero I, the soundtrack was almost entirely composed of sound-alike recordings of famous (and many not-so-famous) songs, with a few utterly obscure bonus tracks coming from the bands of the game's programmers and their friends.
Since that game was such a success, the labels have been much keener to allow the use of master recordings. On Guitar Hero III, more than 50 of the 71 songs on the game are the originals, and even the notoriously protective and expensive Rolling Stones licensed a master to Rock Band.
Music retail is likewise getting aboard. iTunes has cobbled together 75 of the songs from each of the games in one of its "Essentials" playlists, so fans can find and download most of the songs with ease. Playable versions of songs are also available — for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 users, Rock Band offers new music for download every week.
And many of them have. In eight weeks, more than two-and-a-half-million songs were sold for use on Rock Band, and some of the charts have been host to a surreal invasion of old guitar rock.
Unless they have been specifically re-released to radio, as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was in the wake of Wayne's World in 1992, Billboard doesn't allow old songs to recur on their "bricks and mortar" sales chart.
Billboard has no such restriction on digital sales, and, especially right after Christmas, when both Guitar Hero III and Rock Band were top sellers, that chart displayed a definite Guitar Hero effect. The lower end of the top 200 singles was littered with songs from the games — everything from hoary classic rock chestnuts like the spooky 41-year-old Stones dirge "Paint It Black" and Foghat's riff-a-riffic cock rocker "Slow Ride" to Metallica's "One" and "Enter Sandman" and Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" and "Welcome to the Jungle."
Even the two most overplayed songs in American radio history enjoyed a sales bump: Apparently, there were 23,000 Americans who both did not already own and were not sick to painful death of "Free Bird" and "Stairway to Heaven," a fact that says as much about the death of rock radio as it does the power of Guitar Hero.
The Sex Pistols reunited just to re-record their old classic "Anarchy in the U.K." just for inclusion on the Guitar Hero III soundtrack. ZZ Top, with "Sharp Dressed Man" on Guitar Hero I and "La Grange" on III, are the only Houstonians to have benefited so far. At the Orange Bowl halftime show earlier this year, the trio performed "Sharp Dressed Man." Would the band even have been invited to play pre-Guitar Hero? Would they have chosen that song if they had?
Less geriatric bands have also benefited. DragonForce, youthful purveyors of hilariously operatic and over-the-top metal, have become nearly legendary, due in no small part to their laughably hard-to-master Guitar Hero III song "Through the Fire and Flames." (Law-Yone calls it "the hardest song to do well on.")
Since the release of Guitar Hero III in November of last year, the song has sold 145,000 downloads, beating out all the more famed older bands.
Before the game's release, DragonForce was something of an underground phenomenon, albeit a successful one. Now, a few savvy rock stations are adding "Through the Fire and Flames" to their playlists.
If you apprise Allen Hill of stats and figures like that, he'll laugh and say something like this: "Yeah, but can you break a string in the middle of a song in Guitar Hero?"
"The old man in me gets more and more pronounced every year," adds the thirtysomething. "Part of the point of playing music is getting there, the journey, and toiling away and then finally getting to the point where you say, 'Wow, cool, I can do that.' And learning things like how to tune an instrument."
Hill maintains that these games are at best, akin to karaoke. "Yeah, you can just get up there and go, but there's so much more to music than the karaoke version," he says. "And I guess the thing about karaoke is that it is an acceptable format to suck. That's practically the expectation."
Hill says the games lack randomness, improvisation, happy accidents, the insanity of real life, and he can't believe that so many people would rather play music vicariously than actually play music. "For me, playing music provides so much joy, and this seems to me more like reality television," he says, especially the star search shows like American Idol and Rockstar Supernova, which he believes nurture a false ideal of what performing is and/or should be.
What's more, Hill says that the interaction between a person and an instrument is the very process that makes one musician sound different from another, even if both of them have perfect pitch and play the same song on the same instruments.
"You lose the interaction with the instrument in producing the note," he says of these games' tone-neutral, pitch-perfect controllers. "Music in its simplest form is singing — that's why so many people do it, but if you are doing it right, you actually use your whole body to produce the note. Your vocal chords are just the reed. You're breathing, and it shows if you smoke or if you run. The physical element is part and parcel of creating music that is meaningful."
Hill sounds a lot like San Francisco Chronicle games reviewer Peter Hartlaub, who granted that the games were a ton of fun. In fact, that is the problem with them.
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"Every once in a while I'll speak at a junior high school about my job, and as part of my spiel (don't do drugs!), I always try to explain the difference between fun and happiness," Hartlaub wrote in November of last year. "Fun is staying up with your friends on a school night and playing Halo 3. Happiness is getting into a good college, working hard in your twenties and later settling into a profession where someone will pay you to play Halo 3.
"Getting three friends together to play a nearly perfect version of Blue Öyster Cult's 'Don't Fear the Reaper' in the game Rock Band is a lot of fun. Getting the same friends together, buying some instruments, practicing really hard and playing a really shaky version of 'Don't Fear the Reaper' is a lot more likely to make you happy."
"Yeah, I concur with that thought, even if I might use different words," Hill says. "My high school band did do a cover of 'Don't Fear the Reaper,' and it was fun, and it made us happy."