Why Are Guitarists So Bad at Guitar Hero/Rock Band?

Like many experienced guitarists that I’ve spoken to, I’m “digitally deadlocked” when it comes to playing guitar (and scoring well) on the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games. I just can’t seem get my fingers to work right and my rhythm is constantly off. It’s as if I’m right back at the start again!

And in a way I am

Whenever I hear the sound of the song quickly becoming derailed by my finger fumbling, I find myself asking, “why can’t I do better than this, I have years of experience?” First of all, it should be noted that Guitar Hero and Rock Band (like any other video game) are constructed based on a simulated environment given by:

Visual feedback via a video screen and user interface + manual response via an input device (such as a controller mimicking a guitar in our case).

As we interact using our input device we are actually only providing data to a computer program which reads it in and passes it through programmed code to create an on-screen response. Not too surprising…This interaction is much like what we would expect to be occurring with a guitar fed into an amp through an effects pedal. The difference lies in the limitations, however great or small, specific to the video game program. Software applications are only programmed to respond to a “finite” or fixed amount of input triggers. Us humans are little more complex.

To explain a bit further, imagine a robot. Robots are run by a computer program which can sometimes be programmed to mimic behaviors and mannerisms of a human. Thousands upon thousands of subtle human qualities and tendencies can be reproduced by the robot. In a way, it would seem that we are interacting with a real human being, but it’s the subtleties that humans can pick up on that tells us that it’s not actually “alive”.

Just the same, this very mechanical man-to-machine extertion produces motions that are very automated and more cause-and-effect rather than more fluid and improvisational which we are used to when playing an actual instrument. And that’s not all, many musicians find that they are constrained by the choice of only five frets on the screen and that their brains don’t seem to give orders to their hands to carry through properly — Just like when a guitarist is picking up the new instrument for the first time!

But Why?

All of this is true because experienced guitarists have wired their brains to subconsciously feel out their musical surroundings “in real-time” and adjust tempo, pitch and even musical progressions accordingly. With a touch-and-go type of routine, musicians find it hard to re-train their brains to perceive music in a strictly methodical manner (and thus tell their hands to act accordingly). We feel the urge to pop out a solo, or break the chain of commands with a subtle tempo change.

So What Can All of This Teach Us?

The secret to understanding the language of music and mastering an instrument lies in the subconscious brain. We can study theory all we want, but it’s the technique that you must ingrain into your mind that allows you to channel music through the mixture of sonic vibrations provided by the instrument out from your fingertips.

Proper technique is essential, especially very early on, and having a good and legitimate grasp on it is invaluable to your development on the instrument (as it becomes second nature). You will build upon the foundation that you create early on, and you’ll find that breaking out of a bad habit is in opposition to everything you know up to that point. Make it a point to take the time to learn to do it the right way.

One final note, some have the argument of, “why would you want to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band if you’re a serious musician?” The answer is simple — they’re actually pretty fun to play and (as obviously discussed above) a challenge for anyone! I don’t believe that they’re really meant to be a guide or lesson on playing the actual instrument. If nothing else, they can help with finger dexterity and rhythm!

So what do you think — Can musicians really learn anything from Guitar Hero/Rock Band?

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