Rock of an Age

“You know, I think Tool’s cover of No Quarter is actually better than the original.”

I almost fell over. My friend and I hailed from opposite ends of the rock spectrum. He wouldn’t consider anything written after 1979 as music. I thought anything that wasn’t alt-2000’s rock was boring. An admission of guilt on his part, that a band from the 90s would usurp the holy grail that is the progenitor of all rock music – Led Zepplin? It was a staggering, blasphemous remark.

The evolution wasn’t out of the blue. It was just another cataclysmic shift in the way he and I began to see music beginning in the winter of 2005.

You Really Got Me

In the age before streaming music dominated our mobile devices, before vinyl made a comeback and the 12″ records were still packed away in my parent’s attic, when CD’s were it, my exposure to any kind of new (or old) music was limited. If it wasn’t on our one local alternative radio station, I wouldn’t know about it. Aside from the occasional exchange of iconic pale faced burned CD’s between cousins at Christmas parties, or a copy of a ripped Limewire download given to me by friends over school lunch tables, it was outside my purview.

Enter Guitar Hero.

It’s 2005, and up to this point, the only rhythm based game in anyone’s household that used third party peripherals was Dance Dance Revolution. A new wave of plastic peripherals was about to unleash itself on unsuspecting living rooms across the globe.

I was immediately drawn to Guitar Hero. When I was growing up, my father played guitar in a disco cover band (with a bear as the lead singer). The instrument was always around, and I’d tried to learn how to play on and off throughout the years. There was something so immediate about Guitar Hero. You’re telling me that I can put in a disc, plug in a controller, and play “Hangar 18” without the years of practice and tore up finger calluses? And it’s a game?

Still can’t pull off the around-the-neck swing.

The hard part was convincing my parents that investing in more plastic shit to lie around the house was worthwhile. I tried one evening, in the halcyon days of YouTube, showing my father a video of two dudes jamming along to “Iron Man.” They were decked out in goofy capes and plastic top hats, plastic strum bars all aflutter, clearly having a good time with their rock personas, hamming up for the camera.

It looks kind of goofy.

My father, circa 2005

Nevertheless, one Christmas or birthday later, there was a plastic-guitar-shaped package wrapped for me and away we went. The tiny speakers on my CRT TV (no calibrating!) were abuzz with the sound of tube amps warming up and jokes about turning it up to 11. I thankfully understood these references, since my parents made me watch Spinal Tap when I was about thirteen.

The setlist boots ups and the first batch of songs are displayed, as if scrawled on a piece of loose leaf paper:

Pretty straightforward, and nothing that wouldn’t be on a list of songs for real beginner guitar players to learn first. But deeper in, the likes of “Cochise” by Audioslave, “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age, “Ace of Spades” from Motorhead, then culminating in “Bark at the Moon” by Ozzie, kept me coming back and testing my chops. There were songs here I knew, songs that I had heard but never really listened to, and songs totally outside my realm of limited musical knowledge.

Guitar Hero III’s setlist

Guitar Hero II expanded upon this setlist, even using a handful of master recordings instead of covers. I get chills looking back at the track list now. “Killing in the Name Of,” “Hangar 18,” hell, “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” by Spinal Tap made it on there. Even my father, ever the Aerosmith aficionado, was impressed with the inclusion of “Last Child.”

“They could have gone the easy route with “Dream On,” he insisted. “They chose a deeper cut that’s fun play on guitar, that’s awesome.”

The investment of more plastic shit to lie around the house was justified, as far as I was concerned.

Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock introduced the concept of bringing in real life “rock legends” for you to go full on Crossroads against. I could duel it out against my guitar idol, Tom Morello (I was a big Audioslave fan at the time, Rage came later for this young good non-communist teen), then Slash, then the Devil himself. The setlists were getting bigger and better, the scale of the games rapidly unfolding.

Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll

Indeed, Guitar Hero seemed to permeate my room, the house, and the whole neighborhood. I think it inspired a nostalgic trip down memory lane for my parents, who were more familiar with the setlist than I was. I raised my eyebrows whenever I overhead my mother singing “Surrender” around the house.

It seemed everyone was being influenced by Guitar Hero. Another friend of mine, socially withdrawn and without an ounce of rhythm in his bones, picked up the game because of his obsessive nature with video games, not music. Six months later he was going to a Big Four concert to see Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica at Yankee Stadium. It was his first concert.

It also inspired me to pick up the real guitar again. It began by trying an experiment where I attempted to play along to the colored tracks on a single string to see how well they matched up (not at all, it was a terrible experiment). Nevertheless, the Fender had been dusted off and I had half a mind to change the strings. I started looking up tabs to learn how to play the songs for real.

Remember playing for hours, then closing your eyes and feeling like the world was moving towards you on a conveyer belt?

What’s more, my neighbor (the aforementioned Led Zepplin worshipper) another Guitar Hero and Rock Band obsessed teen whose high scores surely put mine to shame, decided to pick up the drums. We started to jam. I learned the intro to “YYZ,” he suffered my obsession with Coheed and Cambria and learned “Welcome Home,” and we also tried a few creations of our own. One day, he suggested we try and learn “Unsung” by Helmet. Here we were, thrashing in his bedroom with real instruments to a song neither of us knew existed before Guitar Hero came onto the scene.

Them Bones

It’s an evening a few days before Christmas, 2008, and the phone rings. There was a heavy silence in the house for two seconds, and then the sounds of my mother sobbing from the other room. Her friend had succumbed to cancer after a long, valiant fight. She was 41.

This was my first wake and funeral. Someone once told me it’s good for your first one to be someone you didn’t really know that well, someone who wasn’t family. I still don’t know if that’s true, especially if it’s someone who passed too soon. I remember a lot of pain, from my mother, her friends, and the church community at large. There was a pall over our house the entire holiday season, and it lingered through those dark, short, northeastern December days.

We were cleaning up after dinner one night when my mother called me into the dining room.

“We don’t have plans for New Year’s Eve,” she said. “Do you want to invite some friends over?” We needed a bit of fun to take our minds off things, something to look forward to.

I immediately called a few friends. Guitar Hero: World Tour had just come out and we had a full suite of new plastic instruments to strum, bang on, and sing into. We could distract ourselves, if only for an evening.

I set everything up downstairs. My mother sang along to “Spiderwebs,” I fumbled with the opening drum beat to “Hot For Teacher,” my dad confusedly tapped along to “Mr. Crowley,” and then mostly watch me and my friends from the sidelines as we indulged in a set of just Tool songs. Most importantly, as the night wore on, we felt our spirits lift.

Music heals, and as any musician will tell you, playing music heals. Guitar Hero was able to extend that ability to those who don’t have the time or skill to devote to learning a real instrument. It provided a space for players at any skill level (and varying interests, with later iterations) to tap into that power, for however briefly.

Cult of Personality

I’m not sure what happened to Guitar Hero or Rock Band. The latest iteration, 2015’s Guitar Hero Live, attempted to integrate a rotating suite of songs that came and went with the fickleness of licensing deals. Dubbed Guitar Hero TV, the game mode was a fun idea that felt like an evolution of the bygone MTV music video era. Alas, once the licensing deals expired in December 2018, the games 400+ songs were reduced to the 42 that game with the disc, less than three years after the game’s release.

Maybe that was the final nail in the coffin for the franchise – a sour reminder of real music industry licensing woes creeping into our living room rock band fantasy. Maybe people got tired of wondering if the song list from last year’s game would move onto the next and decided to give up the ghost. Maybe everyone who grew up in that brief ephemeral age moved onto real instruments.

In any case, the proverbial damage had been done. My stubborn friend started listening to Tool and even more modern, weirder math rock. I would occasionally flip over to the classic rock station and went through a late-blooming Led Zepplin phase. My parents would eventually go back into their attic and bring down the long-dormant vinyl records. Musical generations had cross pollinated under a single influential roof in a way I’d be surprised to see happen again.

The Guitar Hero phenomenon was transformative. It expanded musical palettes, taught new skills, and let me form new connections with my parents and friends. Few games have the power to do all of that, and I wonder what my life would be like without it. Would I rely on picking up the guitar to blow off some steam after work? Would I have been at the barricade of an Iron Maiden show with my father? Would I still look back with nostalgia at our garage band rehearsals of original material for the one show we made billing for?

When I finally moved out of my parent’s house, I climbed up into the attic to collect twenty-six years worth of crap. I came across the old peripherals, dusty and with battery compartments foaming with acid. They may be dead conduits to another time, curious artifacts that have now been replaced by sleeker music making games like Dropmix or Rocksmith 2014, but I’ll never get rid of them. They represent a brief, important part of my life, and if Guitar Hero Live is any indication, a testament to retaining as much of that physical connection as possible.

You never know when the world will need the kind of widespread inspiration they can conjure again.

One response to “Rock of an Age”

  1. The Tool version is definitely better. I’ve played real guitar for years, but I totally sucked at Guitar Hero when I played it.

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