Taking Air Guitar One Step Further

Guitar Hero allows players to make like rock stars minus the vocals, using a plastic guitar that plugs into Sony's PlayStation 2.
Guitar Hero allows players to make like rock stars minus the vocals, using a plastic guitar that plugs into Sony's PlayStation 2. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, April 27, 2006

Life doesn't often present the opportunity to tell Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist that you could kick his butt at playing "Iron Man," the classic Black Sabbath tune. Brothers and sisters, I have just lived that little rock 'n' roll fantasy.

I just hope it never comes to an actual showdown because Zakk Wylde, considered to be one of the world's more skilled players, would probably want to reach for a "real" guitar, the kind with all the strings. My ax, on the other hand, is a plastic toy that has five colored buttons on the neck and plugs into the PlayStation 2, for jamming out with the video game Guitar Hero.

The game -- a sleeper from this winter that seems to be turning into a bona fide hit -- is like karaoke for people who don't care to sing. Alternately, it's like Dance Dance Revolution for those who wanna rawk, air-guitar-style, on riff-soaked tunes such as Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

Players get to choose from a handful of game personas: the mullet-headed metal guy, the punk rock guy, the "riot grrrl" and so on. From there, it's as easy as punching the corresponding colored "notes" on the game controller as they sail down a fretboard on the TV screen -- easy, that is, until the screaming guitar solos start flying down the screen.

Players start with simple three-chord classics from bands such as the Ramones and jam their way up to Jimi Hendrix level. The $70 game also features a selection of recent hits from bands including Franz Ferdinand and the Donnas.

As you improve your chops, you get a chance to play ever more difficult songs, in ever larger venues -- from basement to nightclub to summer festival arena. Do well and the crowd cheers; miss too many notes and your toy guitar makes evil squawks until you're booed off the stage. Beat the hardest set of songs, and your character glows and ascends to the heavens. The songs are all covers, but they are remarkably true to the original songs.

The enthusiasm for this game, which is more fun played with a group of friends, seems to be spreading -- like the fever for more cowbell. Looking for a chuckle? Search YouTube.com on the term "guitar hero," and you'll turn up some hilarious videos of people goofing around on the game with their friends or jumping around in ecstasy after beating a challenging song. I've heard of rival bloggers jokingly holding "rock-offs" for ownership of their respective audiences.

Publisher RedOctane Inc. recently announced an encore in the works, scheduled for release in November. The company hasn't named the songs that version will feature but said players with more than one of the game's guitar controllers will be able to rock out with friends, who will be able to choose lead, rhythm or bass guitar roles.

Wylde's band, Black Label Society, has a song featured in the game -- as well as his trademark Gibson guitar.

Wylde said in a phone interview that he finds the game "hysterical." But, alas, the skills required to be a real guitar hero don't immediately translate to success as a toy-guitar hero. The Wyldes gave a copy of the game to Zakk's brother-in-law for Christmas. Wylde had a tough time playing his own song with the game's guitar-shaped controller, but his son and his son's friends have become obsessed.

Ozzy's guitar man has a joke about the game, but he's only three-quarters joking. What if the next real-world Jimi Hendrix is some 13-year-old kid who picks this game up and is subsequently inspired to pick up a real guitar? "That would be pretty classic," he said. "You never know."

Gibson Guitar Corp. is evidently banking on the possibility. In a world where video games are littered with gratuitous product placements, Guitar Hero features only one: Gibson guitars, featured throughout the game. Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and chief executive of Gibson Guitar, said in an e-mail that the game has "probably caused a few" purchases of his company's guitars.

Sounds crazy, but it seems to be true. On Guitar Hero's online forums, a handful of fans say they've actually gone on to pick up real guitars after working their way through the game's advanced levels. Learning real guitar is "about 8,000 times more difficult," in one new guitar student's estimation.

For those who don't plan to run out to pick up their first real six-string after playing this game, here's a tip: Be wary of playing this thing around actual musicians. They can be a drag.

My friend Andy Sullivan dropped by the new rock room at The Post a few days ago and was annoyed that the game's paint-by-numbers approach wouldn't let him improvise on top of ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man."

"I want to throw in these tasty licks, but I can't," said Sullivan, shortly before giving up on the game. "It's sort of the opposite of rock."

Oh, whatever, man. Catch Sullivan's tasty licks when he hits the Velvet Lounge next week -- but don't bring the toy guitar.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company