Millions of Plastic Guitars Can't Be Wrong

By David Battino
January 7, 2010 | Comments: 13

If you make a process easy enough, you can change the world. MP3 made it easy to share sounds. The Web made it easy to self-publish. And in 1995, two MIT graduates set out to make music-making easy enough for everyone, launching Harmonix.

Harmonix's Guitar Hero and Rock Band games succeeded wildly. Millions of people now flail happily on plastic guitar and drum controllers, and I'll bet many of them advance to more complex and expressive instruments. The latest version of Rock Band includes a drum trainer mode to help you build transportable music skills.

Rock Band Hofner Bass

Rock Band's Beatles-inspired bass controller features five color-coded buttons mapped to the cascading notes on the game screen.

In the games, you play along with familiar songs, but in a clever nod to self-publishing, Harmonix is now opening song-creation to everyone by releasing its developer tools. Interestingly, the centerpiece is the shareware Reaper DAW, equipped with some custom plugins. More interestingly, as I discovered when I interviewed Harmonix for the MIDI Manufacturers Association site ("The Rock Band Network and MIDI: Get Your Music In The Game"), plain ol' MIDI is what synchronizes the music and animations.

Here's a video that shows how the publishing process works. (I focus more on the authoring side in my article.) If you look past the hype, you'll see several modern ideas in digital distribution:

  1. The process is based on commonly available tools.
  2. Products (songs) are vetted through peer review.
  3. The publisher acts as a distributor rather than an editor or gatekeeper.
  4. The song price is low enough ($1–3) to make it an impulse buy.
  5. The artist keeps an unusually large percentage of the profits (30%).

It will be fascinating to see where this leads. The authoring process is actually quite complex, but already dozens of companies have sprung up to make it easier for artists — a sign of a promising ecosystem.


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13 Comments

"Millions of people now flail happily on plastic guitar and drum controllers, and I'll bet many of them advance to more complex and expressive instruments."
This remark makes me suspect you've never played a guitar. Having played both plastic and wood, I can't think of a single thing that carries across the two unless you're counting the need to beat time with the toggle bar. Fun, yes. Musicians in training, not even close.

Heh! As fate would have it, I just bought my first electric guitar as a family Christmas present. As Cardin notes below, it cost less than a game console and the plastic version, and I thought it would be a more creative influence on my kids.

My nascent guitar skills aren't the point, though. (As a lifelong musician, primarily on keyboard, I expect I'll pick up guitar faster than normal.) The point I was making was that a musical toy can be a gateway to real instruments, mainly by showing that music-making can be fun. The note- and rhythm-matching skills Rock Band teaches should extend to any number of playing situations.

Pro drummers can beat the fake Rock Band ones like if they were real, so there might be some training value here. But, I don't think plastic guit's have any value at all - they're just oversimplified models of the wooden ones. I even suspect that the less you know about music, the better it is for scoring high at these music games.

I disagree ... I've played guitar for over 20 years and I would say the synchronization of right and left hand is definitely helpful for someone who does not currently play guitar.

Not to mention most early guitar players are not very adept at using their pinky finger (always the last to develop) and if you play the game on hard or expert, it requires all 4 finger to work hard.

There is no correlation to finger positions, strings or even picking individual strings, but the green/yellow split is very similar to most 5th/power chords that most rock music users.

I agree with Nate's comment. Although it is totally different than playing a real guitar, it can help with dexterity and strumming.
As a guitar player for many years, I tried to teach my son to play and he just couldn't do it in the beginning. After getting guitar hero for my son he became very good at the game. So after 6 to 8 months of playing the plastic guitar, I told him let's try the real guitar and he picked it up much easier and can play very well now.

The assumption is that video game players will WANT to learn real musical instruments. But I don't think so. Video games are about instant gratification, obvious scaled difficulty levels, and simplicity (not to be confused with easiness). Musical instruments have none of these things. It takes years to get good at an instrument. Without a teacher, you don't know where to begin or how to progress, nor is there anyone to correct your bad habits. And musical instruments take effort to LEARN initially, let alone to master them.

In short, there may be a few kids who will take up an instrument because of the games and who have the drive and discipline to stick with it. But it seems, based on the comments here, that most of the ones who have REAL musical influences in their lives (e.g., parents) probably would have eventually picked up an instrument anyway.

Good point, Scott. I remember how frustrating it was to begin playing French horn, and what got me hooked on piano was improvising and composing. Sight-reading was always tough.

But again, I'm not assuming people pick up a plastic guitar hoping to progress one day to "real" instruments. I think that will happen naturally — and the instruments may not resemble the plastic ones. The biggest challenge to playing music is giving yourself permission to do it. Once you enter that needlessly exclusive club, practice will take you pretty dang far.

For one thing, these plastic guitars do a really good job of getting as close to playing a rock guitar as it is.

I usually try to play rock songs by using a tablature program like Guitarpro, and playing the song on my computer. It's surprisingly similar to Guitar Hero haha, in the sense that I'll have to strum the chords or pluck the notes in beat with the song. Except that I'm free to perform any rhythm pattern or slides unlike the plastic guitar. So Guitar Hero pretty much emulates what most people would love to do, strum along to the beat with their favourite artists.

But sometimes, you wonder, the cost of the Xbox game [and console] could very well buy you into an entry level Electric and Amp, or a mid-level Acoustic. o-o

Only 30% of the sales price for the artist is not good. It may be good compared to the traditional music industry, but what isn't?

Drugs are *very* bad - no-one should touch them, particularly not children. They are vulnerable, and any game which incites drug use and addiction should be BANNED by the LAW.

I think that the guys (Larry and all) are right. The Guitar Hero / Rock Band games don't teach you how to play guitar. Just may teach you a small bit if rythm and thats it.

You need to play a real guitar or real drums to learn an instrument.

Cheers,
Steve
at
http://www.playingrockguitar.com/

@Steve: Probably true, but again, not my point. Playing with Hot Wheels doesn't teach you how to drive, but might foster an interest in cars. Playing with musical toys might foster an interest in making music.

I agree, Guitar Hero and Rock Band has nothing to do with playing or learning the guitar, but people might get an interest in actually learning the real instrument afterwards.
I'd be interested in seeing some kind of statistic on real guitar sales before and after the rise of GUitar Hero, I'm pretty sure there will be some correlation.
Tom @ http://www.theguitarlesson.com

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