From Five Buttons to Six Strings: How Guitar Hero and Rock Band Affected Music

by Dylan Looney

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Recently, Harmonix, the maker of the music video game Rock Band, announced a fourth installment of the once massively popular series five years after the release of Rock Band 3. Like many in my generation, I have fond memories of playing the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games. I remember them being the must-have video games every holiday season for a few years. I never actually owned either game, but as a music nerd, I played them every opportunity I got. However, as my skill on an actual wood-and-metal guitar began to flourish, I found its plastic counterpart much less fulfilling. Strangely enough, it seems that many others began to lose interest as well, and the games began to fade from the limelight and eventually disappeared by the beginning of the 2010s.

While many musicians dismissed the games for being unlike playing a real instrument, the popularity of the games exposed gamers to new artists, as well as creating a new audience for older bands. Let’s be honest, many fewer people would have heard of DragonForce if “Through the Fire and Flames” weren’t featured in Guitar Hero III as the game’s over-the-top, finger-twisting finisher. For a brief time in the 2000s, the British power metal band was in the consciousness of countless kids all over Middle America.

Likewise, many classic rock and metal artists with a guitar-heavy sound seemed to get a second wind from the games. AC/DC, Motley Crue, KISS, Metallica and other rockers released albums during the games’ heyday of 2006-2009. After a thirteen-year wait, Guns N’ Roses released their album Chinese Democracy around this time as well. Newer rock bands also made waves on the pop charts with what can best be described as 21st century equivalents of 80s power ballads. Three Days Grace, Hinder, Buckcherry and even everybody’s favorite musical punching bag, Nickelback, all crossed over to Top 40 radio with softer numbers, while rock radio often handled the groups’ heavier tracks.

Speaking of groups such as Buckcherry and Hinder, the Rock Band/Guitar Hero era also coincided with the rise of many “throwback” bands. Some, including the aforementioned Buckcherry and Hinder, utilized an aesthetic that brought to mind the sleaze and decadence of 1980s glam metal. At the same time, Wolfmother (whose song “Woman” was featured in ads for Guitar Hero II) and Priestess (who contributed the excellent track “Lay Down” to Guitar Hero III) went for a more 70s vibe. While I’m not suggesting these groups were playing electronic dance music before these video games surfaced, they certainly were able to benefit from the sudden demand for guitar rock.

Looking back, it seems that the mid-to-late 2000s were a pretty great time to be a rock fan. While many, including myself, complained at the dominance of pop acts, it appears that the presence of hard rock has all but disappeared from the mainstream today. As indie and alternative began to infiltrate pop radio, it began to phase out harder rocking acts, much in the same way grunge overtook the likes of Ratt and Warrant about twenty-five years ago. Will the release of Rock Band 4 later this year reverse this trend? I have no idea, but it will be interesting to see what happens if the game is successful.


Next week, I will be interviewing T-Pain, who will be performing for the SGA Spring Concert on March 28. I will be asking him questions gathered from ETSU students, so feel free to post a question below in the comments.


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