Monday, July 27, 2009

Prince, Guitar Hero, and learning guitar

While I'm a few months behind on this 'breaking news' that was reported by several gaming news sites, it deserves a fair amount of discussion: According to an interview with Travis Smiley, Prince won't be offering content for the Guitar Hero series.

Travis: Thank you. What do you make of this Guitar Hero?

Prince: Oh. (Laughs.) Well, I ain't mad at them. I hear it made, like, $2 billion and they came to us and offered us a very small portion of that. But I just think it's more important that kids learn how to actually play the guitar. It's a tough instrument -- it's not easy. It took me a long time, and it was frustrating at first. And you just have to stick with it, and it's cool for people who don't have time to learn the chords or ain't interested in it, but to play music is one of the greatest things.

The full text (and audio) of this interview can be found at: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200904/20090428_prince.html

If you're unfamiliar with Prince, it's probably because you're my age or younger. Dave Chappelle as Prince (prince.org)Most of the older crowd will remember the various controversial things Prince has done through the long span of his career, if they don't remember his catchy pop-rock sound. Most of my generation will only recall him by the image of purple-clad Jack Nicholson throwing money to the tune of "Trust" on the 1989 Batman soundtrack (and if you haven't seen that film, you're truly missing out), or played as Dave Chappelle serving pancakes on Chappelle's Show.

While I can't comment too much on Prince's talent, such a question is outside the scope of this piece anyway (though I'm admittedly curious what Activision was looking to license from him). What I will comment on is his opinion of Guitar Hero.

Since the inception of Guitar Hero, 'Go buy a real guitar' has been a common derisive comment made toward players of the game. From an outsider perspective, what Prince says makes absolute sense. If you're like me playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band on Expert, you probably invested hundreds of hours into learning to play that good ole' one-string plastic guitar. If that time were invested in a real guitar, surely we'd all be writing music for our own four-piece bands by now, right?

How easy it is as musicians to forget what it was like to pick up an instrument for the first time. Music is another language, and to most, it's a foreign one. It's a language like Spanish, German or French, where you can probably understand the gist when you hear it, but without lessons you couldn't begin to speak it if you tried. For most of us, our first day with an instrument is a messy array of sounds that'd make Trent Reznor cringe. Many a blistered finger comes of trying to only hold down one string on the guitar, many a strained wrist over stretching fingers far beyond their normal usage for those difficult chords.

But the actual mechanics are only a part of playing music; that all means nothing without a basic sense of rhythm and acoustics. Most of us take advantage of the fact that we were taught such things in school and can thus pick up instruments a little easier, but with schools decreasing funding for music programs, or eliminating them altogether, we're facing the possibility of a generation with a musical background limited to listening to music, not participating in it.

Guitar Hero provides just that: participation. Through playing along to their favorite songs, players first learn to maintain a rhythm, hand placement, and to coordinate fingering and strumming simultaneously. As a player becomes more advanced, they learn position changes, upstrumming, hammer-ons and pull-offs, and the basic idea of power chords. Eventually, a player will note the complexity of good songwriting in a myriad of styles, how all four instruments weave together to create a cohesive sound, and even the art of soloing, all without ever realizing they're doing something as 'unfun' as learning. Sure, it isn't the same thing as playing a real guitar any more than any other game can be compared to doing the same in real life (if only stealing a car were as easy as GTA makes it...), but it's certainly a way to make playing the guitar a less daunting prospect.

It's worth pointing out that almost every game in the series will push you to go buy a guitar in one way or another (how I miss those loading screens). According to at least one source (and many more with a quick Google search), the Guitar Hero phenomenon has increased the sales of real guitars, especially among younger kids. While that doesn't necessarily mean they're learning to play, at least the initial step of putting a guitar in that kid's hands has been made. A lot of players are still old dogs like me, though, and like the pick up and play aspect of Guitar Hero over the time-consuming process of learning on an actual guitar (much less trying to find someone to play with you), but at least we're supporting the music industry at the same time. Those kids learning to play guitar now may rely on people like me to buy their songs and support their talent in the future, or even write music for them (as not all composers have to play the instruments they write for, if Richard Wagner taught us anything).

Prince and I both fundamentally believe we should encourage more kids to pick up real instruments, as music and the creation of it is a powerful force that can easily outweigh any spoken word. We merely disagree on the effect Guitar Hero has on that goal. As a player, I can see the advantages Guitar Hero has to a budding musician. If guitar sales say anything, it would seem most players can see it, too. But I can also see how the game might make one too lazy to go pick up a real guitar when they can sight-read Hangar 18 on a plastic one. But would such a person be any more inclined to learn Hangar 18 on a real guitar without Guitar Hero's influence? More than likely, no. So why condemn the game for giving those who want to learn an inspiration to do so, and those who won't learn the next best thing?