The Tragic Death of the Guitar Hero

“Guitar Hero” and masturbation: what do these two things have in common? The answer is simple: they aren’t as good as the real thing—and no one likes getting carpal-tunnel syndrome.

You’re sitting there right now, and you’re probably thinking, “No, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. ‘Guitar Hero’ is the best thing since Sparknotes started doing Shakespeare.” I don’t hate “Guitar Hero”; in fact, the following thoughts emerged after a few hand-crippling hours of playing the game.

“Guitar Hero” has become a national sensation, and everyone from first graders to grandparents seem to be crowding into living rooms and showing off their hand-eye coordination on plastic guitars. No longer “just a game,” many “Guitar Hero” players take pride in being better than their friends and make many attempts to add their own flair to their “performance.”

When I recently did a YouTube search of “Guitar Hero expert,” I was surprised to find approximately 41,000 video results. Flipping through them, they were all pretty much the same: either a group of frat brothers or one fat kid would be standing in front of the TV with fingers moving ridiculously fast. From what I could tell, it looked like a new video was being added about every two hours.

Though the game is fun and quite addictive­—the number of “experts” is ever-growing—I wonder what would happen if these YouTubers were handed actual guitars. The reality is that the majority wouldn’t know the first thing about notes, strings, frets, or even how to hold a pick. With public funding for music education always decreasing, maybe people have just forgotten that the idea of being a “guitar hero” has been around for ages—you know, in the sense of mastering the actual instrument.

The guitar has been around for thousands of years in one form or another. For many of these years—specifically that era in which The Beatles were bigger than God—guitar-playing was in, and it was producing memorable songs. Nowadays we have canned bands like Nickelback and a slew of others who can’t even write their own music.

Meanwhile, actual guitar gods are on the decline. In January of this year, Activision, Inc. announced that the “Guitar Hero” franchise had earned over a billion dollars in revenue in just 26 months. In 2007, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, one of the largest guitar manufacturers in the world, produced a revenue of only 196.3 million dollars.

What the “Guitar Hero” explosion indicates is a larger American trend that seems perfectly summed up by Staples’ “Easy Button” commercials. More and more, we relax and rely on the technology around us to perform tasks that used to be an integral part of getting out and being human.

During the 2006 holiday season media blitz, I remember one network’s coverage of the Nintendo Wii. The anchors were testing the product and going nuts over it: “Look! When you swing the Wii remote, the tennis racket actually swings! And there’s a ‘swoosh’ sound!” People were raving about the novel idea that video games didn’t need to be completely sedentary activities. The network then cut to an interview with an overweight kid, who says, “I’ve figured out that if you just jerk the Wii remote slightly, it still works the same,” as he sat and barely wiggled his chubby wrists. All I could think about was the empty tennis court in my neighborhood where nobody ever played actual tennis and where bands of overweight kids rode scooters.

Nowadays, instead of swinging a real tennis racket, you play Wii. Instead of getting together with friends, you can play Scrabble online. Instead of holding a new record in your hand, you steal the MP3s. Instead of getting sunburns and grass stains, you get Wiijuries and you smash your plasma TV when the Wiimote slips off your hand. We’ve all lost sight of the real thing.

“The magic of instant photos is going digital,” read the opening line of a February 18, 2008 Polaroid press release. The epitaph declared that Polaroid would cease production on their line of instant film and cameras by the end of 2008.

The thought of not being able to purchase film for my Polaroid camera in 2009 frightens me, and makes me wonder if anything is sacred. Must I now be nostalgic of not only sandlot baseball games, but also “old” technologies made irrelevant by the ruthless advance of digital innovation? Maybe Polaroid figures you can’t “shake it like a Polaroid picture” because of your carpal-tunnel from “Guitar Hero.” The magic is gone—at least for our generation.

We shouldn’t stay true to the real thing, in the arts and otherwise, simply because of nostalgia, but because there is something intrinsically and objectively important in experiencing something in its original form. Actually playing the guitar involves much more practice and skill than “Guitar Hero,” and it allows for artistic imagination and creativity.

Any art made by hand and seen firsthand requires effort on the part of both the artist and the observer. Often, it’s only without manipulation by technology that some real meaning can emerge.

The real thing feels better. It might require more work, but there’s always more reward. I’m just glad Kurt Cobain isn’t around to play “Guitar Hero” with you, because he would have beaten you and your roommates, then destroyed your entire living room.

—Columnist Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at nunnelly@fas.harvard.edu.

Recommended Articles