Some Heroes Want to Get Real

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Myrna Sislen, the owner of Middle C Music in Tenleytown, figures Guitar Hero is here to stay.

So next month, the music store is hosting a tournament centered around the phenomenally popular video game. The grand prize: a real guitar.

"We can't fight this technology," she said. "We want to join this technology."

Sislen, a classical guitar teacher and recording artist, thought up the contest after fielding a few phone calls from kids who had played the game and suddenly discovered a burning urge to learn how to play the real thing.

Though real musicians often regard rhythm video games like Guitar Hero with a dose of suspicion, if not contempt, it's tough to ignore a phenomenon that has created $1 billion in sales while getting young people excited about the thrill of hammering out rock-and-roll chords -- even if it's only on a guitar-shaped game controller.

The folks at Middle C aren't the only ones trying to lure video-game fans over the gap between the game and real musical instruments. Earlier this year, the International Music Products Association, a trade group, announced that it was partnering with Guitar Hero's publisher, Activision, in a marketing campaign to promote music lessons. Music instruction company Hal Leonard Publishing even offers a Guitar Hero book featuring transcriptions of the same David Bowie, Aerosmith and Nirvana songs featured in the games.

And some entrepreneurial tinkerers are trying to come up with ways to lighten some of the tedium involved in learning to play an instrument, plugging real guitars into computer games that are similar in spirit to Guitar Hero.

"We thought it was our idea," said Sislen of trying to bring the two sides together. "But it turned out everybody had it at the same time."

If you reach the upper levels of video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the screen sometimes flashes jokey messages to the effect that the player should "get a real guitar." At least some fans of the game have already followed that suggestion.

Will Rossi, a 12-year-old who lives in Georgetown, recently started taking guitar lessons after playing the game for a couple of years at both his house and his friend Matt's. Now, both boys are taking lessons.

"Your fingers hurt a lot more, pressing your fingers into strings," said Will, "[but] I would say that playing a real guitar has a little more satisfaction."

He has an acoustic guitar now, but he's hoping to put aside enough cash to buy a second instrument. Will recently ran a lemonade stand for the day; the money he earned is going toward an electric guitar.

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