Guitars and Heros

Matthew Bietz —  July 27, 2010 — 1 Comment

Over at /dev/culture, my friend Nat posted about Guitar Hero and learning the ukulele:

It was pointed out to me by my brother that playing the guitar is a lot like playing a video game: There are certain things you need to do with your fingers at certain times, and you need to memorize the moves (either specifically or generally) before you try it so it works out better. He’s right. Having played electronic games for over two and a half decades, and finally poking about working on the ukulele, it’s entirely true.

I was a little surprised at how vehemently and viscerally I reacted. I’m sure my fellow Starbucks patrons were wondering why I suddenly burst out with an emphatic, “No it’s not!”

I’ve had (pretty much) the opposite experience from Nat’s. I’ve spent the past two and a half decades playing cello, and have never really gotten into video games. For a brief period of my youth, I was dedicated to Munch Man, but since then, it’s been less video game and more computer-mediated game play (solitaire, scrabble, boggle, etc.). Occasionally I’ve had the chance to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band when visiting friends. And I always come away from the experience frustrated because it doesn’t feel like playing a real instrument.

In one sense, I think Nat’s right: with video games, “your fingers have to be in the right place at the right time, just like fingering for chords on a guitar or other stringed instrument.” But with Guitar Hero, hitting the right button at the right time is the end of the story. If you do it right enough times, you win the game. On a real guitar (or other musical instrument), learning to put your fingers in the right place at the right time means that you are finally ready to begin making music. Playing the correct notes is more of a prerequisite than the goal.

This video of Max Roach is a perfect example that making music isn’t about how many buttons you have:

Like Nat, I’d be happy if playing Guitar Hero encourages more people to get into making music. But I think that it’s just as likely that kids who might have asked for a real guitar for their birthday will now be begging their parents for a cheap five-button fake, and that makes me a little sad.

Matthew Bietz

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One response to Guitars and Heros

  1. Ah I didn’t even take the next step and think about production versus consumption! I was just emailing a soc grad student who does that kind of work too. Good thinking, Dr. Bietz! My brother’s point was that the basic skill set, where/finger/when, is the same, and I think what I didn’t mention was that his next point was, so we should get kinds on musical instruments and not playing video games.

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