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Some Heroes Want to Get Real

Instruments with built-in instructional tools for students existed long before rock-and-roll-oriented video games came along. One line of guitars that has existed for years, for example, is designed to help would-be musicians learn with the help of tiny lights on the instrument's neck that show players where to put their fingers while playing a scale or a song.

Rusty Shaffer, president and chief executive of the company that makes those "Fretlight" guitars, says the best-selling game has been good for his business.

"We have absolutely seen an increase in sales due to the Guitar Hero phenomenon," he said.

Even so, he's a little leery.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. A lot of the video game's fans pick up the real instrument hoping to be able to crank out blistering solos in short order, he said.

But since basically none of the skills developed by rapidly mashing a game controller's buttons transfer to playing a real six-string instrument, many young guitar heroes grow rapidly discouraged.

I've spent a little time with his company's Fretlight guitar lately, learned a few chords, and can now play along with a couple of oldies -- "Wild Thing" and "What I Like About You." I'm not sure that any complicated Metallica licks are in my future.

Other music instruction companies are hoping to jump on the bandwagon too, by offering new ways to learn how to play. A start-up called iVideosongs is selling video clips online that, in many instances, feature the artists themselves talking about a song and demonstrating how to play it. Students can learn how to play "Tom Sawyer" in a specially recorded presentation from one of the members of the band Rush, for example.

IVideosongs founder and chief executive Tim Huffman said the plummet in CD sales is motivating artists to participate in such projects in order to connect with fans. Funniest experience yet: "There's been a number of times when we're shooting and the artist will ask me, 'What is the name of this chord?' "

Though Shaffer doesn't think of his Fretlight guitars as turning music instruction into a game, another start-up company is taking exactly that approach with its upcoming system, called Guitar Wizard.

With a device that connects to a player's guitar, the system's software is able to hear whether a student is hitting the right notes or not.

As students play their instruments accurately, they'll rack up points -- pretty much like a video game.

"I think of this as turning your guitar into a game controller," said Chris Salter, chief executive of Music Wizard Group, which is developing the product. "And you might even get a real girlfriend after playing this game."

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