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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.

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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