The "Guitar Hero" Answers Your Questions

Last month we solicited your questions for Alex Rigopulos, co-founder of Harmonix, the video-game development company best known for its Guitar Hero and Rock Band games.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONAlex Rigopulos

One of the most-asked questions was whether his games discourage players from learning to play real music.

Rigopulos doesn’t think so; the games, he says, give people “a taste of what lies on the other side.” Guitar instructors tell him they’ve gotten more new students in the past few years because they were motivated by his video games.

The question remains: how many of those students stick with it once they discover they can’t become a rock star in a few hours?

Thanks to Rigopulos for his answers and all of you for your good questions.

Question

How difficult is it to arrange for the legal rights to use the music?

Answer

For the vast majority of music we attempt to license for Rock Band, it’s not difficult at all. In fact, at this point there’s so much interest from so many artists, the challenge is more deciding what material to work with first.

That said, of course there are some exceptions. For example, as you might imagine, licensing the Beatles’s music was no small undertaking. And there are a few artists who decline for various reasons. Usually it’s just that they’re not (yet) sufficiently comfortable with the idea of their music in video games (which they might have some negative perception of), or with the idea of their music being released in interactive form. In none of these cases have I found the answer to be “No, never.” Usually it’s just a matter of time and of helping these artists (particularly older ones who didn’t grow up with video games) see that music games aren’t some gimmick, and that they’re a way for the artists’ fans to experience their music in a powerful new way. Eventually we win them over.

Question

For Rock Band, did you get the original master recordings to create separate drums, guitar, bass, and vocal tracks? If so, were there any strange things found when transforming any of the older tracks into the game?

Answer

The short answer is that yes, because of the audio interactivity per instrument, we need the original multi-track recordings for Rock Band.

Listening to the original studio multi-tracks is often full of fun surprises, many of which relate to the human elements of the recording process being exposed. For example, you’ll sometimes hear back-up singers chatting with each other between their sections, or you’ll hear one of the players screw something up (but the screw-up gets left in, because it’s sufficiently hidden in the final mix), or you’ll hear laughter or banter among the musicians before or after the take. There’s something very cool about hearing these people being actual people.

Question

What is your favorite song to play on Rock Band?

Answer

Ah, no one song holds that title for long because we’re releasing more songs every week.

I generally most enjoy playing new songs, where the difficulty on a particular instrument is right on the edge of what I’m capable of playing — not prohibitively difficult (I’m looking at you, Yngwie!), but challenging enough that playing near 100 percent requires focus and practice. When I finally manage to nail it, it feels great.

Consequently, my favorite at any particular time is probably a recent DLC (downloadable content) release that I’ve gotten into. The latest one of these was last week, the James Gang’s “Funk #49” on expert drums, which is super fun. Another recent fave was Soundgarden’s “Pretty Noose.” (Soundgarden’s drum parts are awesome.)

Question

Freakonomics questioned whether your games might have actually helped to revive the music industry. At the same time, do you think they’re discouraging kids from picking up real instruments? If you really wanted to encode the essence of music into software, shouldn’t this be done in a way that people can actually learn a viable skill that will help them produce music?

Answer

First of all, in Rock Band the singing gameplay is really singing, and the game feedback on the singer’s pitch really does help people become better singers. And while the drumming gameplay isn’t an exact replication of real drumming, it’s certainly a sufficiently close simulation that players develop skills which they can directly apply to real drumming. I am continually seeing people migrate from Rock Band onto real drums naturally.

The guitar controller and gameplay are, of course, a far more abstracted version of the real thing. There are some rudimentary musical skills you’re learning through the gameplay, such as a better sense of rhythm, and you’re learning the basic dexterity of rhythmic input through one hand and pitch selection with the other. But it’s not like an expert Rock Band guitarist can just pick up a guitar and start playing.

That said, there’s still value. We don’t see Rock Band as an educational tool for guitar so much as an inspirational tool. Most people who try to learn guitar quit soon after, because their initial experience is just frustratingly difficult. By giving people a taste of what lies on the other side, we’re inspiring them to invest themselves in learning the instrument for real. The game isn’t a substitute, it’s a stimulus. I’ve had many guitar instructors now tell me that their business has heated up over the past couple of years, and most of their new students got motivated by their experience playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero.

Question

In your early days studying for your B.S. and M.S., did you have to lie about being an avid gamer to get girls to go out with you? Do you still have to lie now?

Answer

Hah, in my early days studying for my B.S. and M.S., I had already had my first kid, so persuading girls to go out with me wasn’t exactly on the top of my list of priorities at that point. (And in any case, hiding your real interests in order to get a girl to go out with you generally doesn’t end well.)

But maybe what you’re asking is, was a guy’s gaming habit more likely to turn off a prospective girlfriend 20 years ago than it is today? To that I’d have to say yes. Twenty years ago, video games were mostly the province of nerdy boys.

That has gradually changed a lot over the past two decades. We’re making really good progress toward a time when the word “gamer” doesn’t have any gender baggage. I can’t wait, because when we finally get there, it will mean that the industry has started making some new kinds of games that we’re not making yet.

(By the way, in Harmonix’s testing department — home of our most bad-a** Rock Band players — last I checked the reigning champ was a woman. If you want to get her to go out with you, pretending you don’t like video games probably isn’t your best strategy.)

Question

Have you met any real-life rock stars, and if so, what do they think about your games?

Answer

Yes, meeting rock stars comes with the territory. What they think about our games is all over the map. Sometimes they’re already enthusiastic fans of Harmonix’s games — which is disorienting, and I have to say, “No, wait, sorry, I’m the one who’s attending this meeting in the role of fan boy.” At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes they barely know what we do, or they even have a negative impression of video games in general, and we have to start from square one. Either way, it’s always a trip to engage directly with artists and hear how they think about music games.

Question

How important is it to make the instruments closer to the real thing, and how do you prevent the complexities of realism from getting in the way of fun?

Answer

Authenticity of the musical experience was one of the key design goals in Rock Band, and I do think that during the coming years we will continue to try to bridge the gap between simulated musicianship and real musicianship. That said, the path there is not obvious: As the interactivity moves closer to real instrumental performance, the complexity/difficulty explodes rapidly. The challenge is to move along this axis in sufficiently tiny increments, so that the experience remains accessible and compelling for many millions of people. It’s a hard, hard problem. But that’s part of what makes it fun to work on.


James A

Since playing Rock Band, I have picked up playing accoustic guitar. And while I'm no master, after practicing for several weeks, I feel like I'm making pretty good progress and will keep it up. When I get discouraged though, I just pick up my Rock Band guitar and start wailing away...

Nate

Really good Q&A with some refreshingly candid answers. Thank you, Alex.

Mayumi

I'm gamer girl and I love Rock Band. I'm the singer of our band, of course - but I started out with the drums (which I still play now and again.)

I'm also a mother and I think Rock Band is an awesome tool to get motivated into playing real instruments. My daughter, who is 2, loves it when we play because she has her own mini-drum set and rocks out with us. And when when the mikes free - she picks it up and goes at it.

She is now obsessed with playing her drums - and I have been thinking about sending her to an instructor. (And I'm thinking of joining her.. )

Chris

As a guitar teacher, I have say that a lot of students come to me as a result of rock band. And the game does give a lot of instruction on rhythm without the players realizing it. Most people have a pretty good innate sense of rhythm, then rock back gets them tapping their foot which is a great start to read notation, etc--have the concept of a beat is a powerful thing.

I will say though that guitar hero creates awful, flat-fingered guitar technique. The problems only start when a student practices guitar hero more than real guitar. Most pursue both equally, and make a lot of progress on real guitar pretty quickly. They're highly motivated to really play the songs they've been hearing and playing on guitar hero.

-CD

Pierce Randall

I hate both games, but not for any moral or social consciousness reasons. I just don't like playing them.

I think the question, Does Rock Band discourage real musicians is, on one hand, absurd -- did that electronic Simon game discourage people from playing music? They're basically the same game, with a different conceit.

On the other hand, perhaps playing guitar and starting a rock band will lose it's rebelliousness -- its allure. To that, I would say, if you wanted to start a band, say, like the Rolling Stones, or AC/DC to be rebellious, the rampant commodification of their music, or the fact that they're playing arena shows as old geezers should dispel you of any notion that this is rebellious. If that didn't stop you, you were probably picking up music for the wrong reasons.

And, of course, the rebellious, cerebral, or in-the-moment stuff will be what people don't play at their Rock Band partiies. Rock Band will just help at what VH1 and MTV pretty much succeeded at already, in stopping any sort of seditious rock youth movement that's widespread enough to be culturally challenging. (Hip hop, on the other hand, seems resilient in this regard, even with probably games made out of it.) No more Woodstock, kids, sorry. Nowadays everyone's getting high in their basement playing Playstation.

Who cares? We don't live in that kind of world anymore.

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J

I am by no means a musician, but I absolutely love playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero. I can "practice" at my house, and then when I get together with my friends, we have a jam session, order up some Chinese and drink a few beers.

It's also great that the games allow people of differing talent levels to play together and have a good time. Previously, game sessions left the person who wasn't as good as their compatriots in last place. Rock Band and Guitar Hero put everyone on the same team and let everyone achieve what games should do -- have a good time!

Great interview, though.

J

Pierce --

There's still plenty of exciting music out there. It's actually more exciting now than I remember it growing up, since it's so much easier to seek out bands that I want to hear from -- I can find free MP3's, listen to streaming radio stations, have access to reviews, critiques, message boards and so on. Compare that to anytime prior to the first Napster and the invention of the ripped MP3 and the "scene" was more defined by poorly made dub tapes, small release LP's and so on. Living in a big metro area there may have been more exposure to indie rock, but fora kid in the South or the Midwest, new and interesting music was something you only heard about, not actually heard.

FM radio absolutely sucked and played the top 40, although acts like Metallica got huge with no airplay (and how ironic that they attacked the MP3 revolution when the way they gained fans was through dub tapes). Sure you had acts like the Ramones and Misfits, as well as many punk bands, in addition to the dawning of rap with bands like NWA, Public Enemy and others -- but the exposure was pretty limited and controlled by the labels.

I would say that youth movements have moved onto places like myspace, facebook, twitter, youtube and other social networking sites. The Internet has made all forms of media fair game for youth rebellion.

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Charles King

I think Rock Band is great. My family loves to play when we are together for the holidays, it's just fun, even if you're not so good at it. It's a fun time for the whole family. And with Rock Band 2, we can now play online when we are apart!

As for it sparking an interest in playing real instruments; even though I always play lead guitar in game, I have now taken up playing the Bass Guitar in real life. Something I thought I would never do because I never had a good sense of rythym, now I do, thanks to the game.

Thanks Harmonix for good family fun.

Laura

I just want to say, I had a cello student whose sight-reading skills increased measurably when he started playing Guitar Hero. However, his technique suffered when the game started cutting into his practice time..... :-D

Todd

The idea that Rock Band is a negative influence that may deflect attention from real instruments comes up predictably in these discussions. Alex was gracious to answer it again with such patience.

I could be attributing it wrong, but I believe it was Daniel Levitin's book I read that pointed out that in most cultures, playing music is not relegated to specialists. Almost everyone participates, and it's more about the communal experience than the technical achievement of the few who have the time and money to invest. (I'd love to buy drums and take lessons, but I didn't know I was interested until Rock Band came along, which was after I had a daughter and a mortgage and other such demands.)

Now, in that light, if you were a musician you could look at this new mode of musicianship as a positive thing, and welcome the inclusion of many others.

Or, you could choose to be offended or threatened that new people are starting to develop interest and talent but not nearly as legitimately as you did, and without paying the same price of ten thousand hours and who knows how many thousands of dollars for equipment and lessons.

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tr

I wonder if the movie School of Rock is what inspired the Guitar Hero franchise. I know a lot of kids became interested in playing in a band when that movie came out. Wonder if somehow that sparked this creation.

Alex B

Pierce-

Rebelliousness is certainly an important Romantic function of social growth. Unfortunately by adhering too rigidly to your model of cultural advancement, you are missing out on the immense creativity and diversity in music today that is made possible by benefited from that nostalgic period that you prefer. I would even go so far as to say that we are in the midst of a cultural boom in the myriad explorations of forms, execution of theatric live shows, and exploration personal projects and aesthetic experiences.

Consider that the punks were not like the hippies, and todays youth are not like either. Don't miss out!

C.

I am a self taught drummer, my mother a self taught pianist, and my brother is a more or less self taught guitar player, being that he only had a few lessons and took it from there.
Anyways through out my youth and now in my early adulthood i have been and am (and hopefully will be) surrounded by musicians..and funny thing about guitar hero is that (in my experience) the better a person is on an actual guitar-the worse they are on a guiter hero controller.
I was avidly against guitar hero for years and refused to touch one but with enough peer pressure i did finally try it out.
I failed within seconds..on Easy.

isaac

For a beginning drummer, I think Rock Band is a great supplement to one's practice routine. I think it's main value is a) in reducing the frustration level ( it maps out the drum parts for you, allows you to work up in difficulty ), and b) increasing the motivation ( who can resist playing karaoke to their favorite songs? ), both critical assets to a begining musician of any type. To get the most out of it, you can order a custom third-party adaptor that will allow you to use a "real" electronic drum kit ( with real kick pedal, better snare , hi-hat pedal ) as your controller. At that point, you are learning basic drums. If you are starting off with Rock Band and have become intrigued by drums, I highly recommend a few private lessons early on---bad habits are easy to ingrain, hard to erase! I went from a drums idiot to being able to hold down a decent beat with good groove, in about a year of mostly Rock Band, plus 6 privates and occasional time on a real analog kit. Summary: Rock Band + electronic kit + privates + supplementary practice material ( rudiments + technique ) will get you off to a decent start on becoming a real drummer.

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Justin

@14:
Doubtful. Though School of Rock was released in 2003 and the original Guitar Hero in 2005, the guitar-based rhythm game has been around since 1998, when Konami released GuitarFreaks in Japanese arcades. Alex likely can give you specifics, but it's my inclination that both School of Rock and the Guitar Hero franchise were inspired by one and the same: rock and roll music.

Daniel

Well, until there's a study by some hack sociologist, I won't believe that Rock Band is increasing the number of musicians out there.

ChrisD

Thanks Alex - appreciate you answering my questions. Very candid answers.

Andrew M

Sometimes, I actually find it more difficult to play songs on Rock Band or Guitar Hero than on an actual guitar. That is,
I want to play all the hooks and flourishes in a part but the game does not match them 1-to-1, even on expert level.

That said, these games are great except for one thing---- no improvisation on the guitars!! Playing music is much more than repetition by rote, and once one is able to play a song all the way through, it can get dull the second (or 200th) time. I hope that future versions will provide gamers the pleasure of adding one's own little something to a song.

Chris W

As a "older" guitarist, I found that I couldn't play the games worth a crap. Most of the songs I knew well and can play pretty well on a real guitar. What I don't understand is why these guys haven't done the next logical thing - which is to build an interface for actual real instruments. I guess you could consider the microphone an actual instrument, hmm...

Anyway, it seems like a no-brainer to me, but what do I know - I'm just and old rock 'n roller with limited button pushing skills.

markx

To me, the problem of real guitar vs guitar hero, is not Guitar Hero not liking real guitar enough, but rather real guitar being stuck in the pre-transistor age. You know, we don't use film to take photograph, or Moores Code to transimit text, or pen and paper to do calculation. So why are we plucking strings to make music? Someone need to make a real guitar based on Guitar Hero controller, not the other way around! The technique of playing an instrument is about as useful as the ability to type for a writer. It's about time that we separate the skill of controlling an intrument from the intrinsic talent of rhythm and creativity. Digital cameras has allowed a lot of people to explore photography in a creative way. Eventually, Guitar Hero will hopefully achieve the same, where musicical expression is not the previlege of the few who have the resources to master instruments.