Real guitars are for old people

Here’s one of my favorite bits of South Park.


The title of this post comes from Cartman’s reaction when Stan’s dad pulls out his real guitar and plays “Carry On My Wayward Son.”

I’m a big fan of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. I play the actual guitar, and have done it in several real bands. The video game experience isn’t exactly the same as playing real guitar, but it conveys a lot of the flavor. Music games are first and foremost about close listening, and so is playing music on instruments. The stuff you’re doing from the wrists down is automatic. Learning how to listen to other people while you play is the hardest and most important part of mastery of any instrument. Even if you’re performing solo, you need to learn to listen to yourself.

If you really want to listen intently, it helps to be on your feet dancing. If you can’t dance on your feet, you can still do it in your imagination. Guitar Hero and Rock Band aren’t as dance-oriented as some of the other music games, but getting your boogie on is still their basic point. Most of the fun of music is what’s happening in the room around it. Chords and scales are interesting, deeply interesting if you like math, but they’re just a means to an end, helping people have a good time.

I haven’t played it yet, but I imagine that Beatles Rock Band is like being in a very tight Beatles tribute band.

I’ve never been in a Beatles tribute band, but I try to get every band I play in to do some Beatles song. Playing their music is like a well thought-out series of challenging puzzles. The songs have beautiful internal logic, and they feel good under the fingers and in the voice. They’re more technically demanding than most rock songs, but they’re still accessible if you’re willing to put in the practice time. They promote flow.

The New York Times Magazine has a long article about Beatles Rock Band by Daniel Radosh called “While My Guitar Gently Beeps.” The designers of Beatles Rock Band are very concerned about the authenticity of the experience:

Between songs, players will hear the group warming up and bantering in the studio. Martin combed through hundreds of hours of tape to find these clips, but the chatter, recorded directly into microphones, lacked the subtle echo and ambient noise you would have heard if you were actually in the studio at the time. So after laying down a sound bed of background noise, Martin played the original clips through a set of speakers on the studio floor and rerecorded them through his mikes, this time with all the ringing acoustics of the room. Through the control-room window, Martin stared into the empty studio as if his mind’s eye could put physical form to the disembodied sounds. Across the decades a guitar was tuned, a snare drum rattled and John Lennon warmed up his voice for a new song called “Come Together:” He got teenage lyrics, he got hot rod baldy.

The concern is admirable, but also kind of goofy. How authentic can it be? It’s a video game. The whole point of a simulation is that it’s fake. And the game designers know that all the authenticity lies within certain prescribed limits. You don’t enter into virtual bickering during the recording of the last few albums. You don’t get to play drums as Paul on the songs from the White Album recorded while Ringo had temporarily quit the band.

Authentic or not, the game is doing the music world a big service. Beatles music rewards all of the attention you give it many times over. I’m glad that so-called non-musicians have an incentive to geek out over it. Daniel Radosh is right:

Playing music games requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a song, which leads to a greater intuitive knowledge of musical composition. When you need to move your body in synchrony with the music in specific ways, it connects you with the music in a deeper way than when you are just listening to it.

Paul McCartney says he’s on board with the game enthusiastically: “You want people to get engaged.”

McCartney sees the game as “a natural, modern extension” of what the Beatles did in the 60s, only now people can feel as if “they possess or own the song, that they’ve been in it.”

Yeah. You know what really makes me feel like I possess a song? If you let me remix it. But so, until then, this game is a good step.

Not everybody likes music-based video games. South Park’s parody of Guitar Hero gives voice to the widespread hostility that the rock world has towards anything virtual or electronic seeming. There’s the idea that because it’s not “real” music, Guitar Hero takes away from actual musical skill.

Gamers in turn are baffled by the criticism of what is, after all, “just a game.” People who play Halo or Gran Turismo are rarely asked why they don’t pick up a real gun or race real cars. You rarely hear that Monopoly is a waste of time because it doesn’t actually teach anything about buying hotels.

The Beatles are natural candidates for virtual treatment. From Revolver onwards, they were purely a studio band. Most of those later songs are difficult to play live, and some of them are impossible. In the later years there are the futuristic experiments with analog synths and sampling and tape editing. The Beatles at times resembled an electronica band more than a rock band. Paul McCartney even produced some experimental ambient techno with Delia Derbyshire, back when that meant vacuum-tube oscillators and reel-to-reel tape. He recognizes that the tools are less important than the art behind it.

The teacup clattered quietly on its saucer, and McCartney thought about the changes he’d seen in the music world. “There were no cassette recorders” when he and Lennon first started writing songs, he noted. “We just had to remember it. Then suddenly there were cassettes, then we were working on four track instead of two track, then you got off tape, then you’ve got stereo — which we thought just made it twice as loud. We thought that was a really brilliant move.” After the Beatles came CDs, digital downloads and now video games. “I don’t really think there’s any difference. At the base of it all, there’s the song. At the base of it, there’s the music.”

So if this is all about people enjoying music, why is there so much resistance from musicians? Why are real guitarists so threatened? I get the sense that videogame “rock drag” is offensive to people who don’t like any kind of drag. This is a tension that goes way back before video games. From Little Richard to Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson, a lot of popular music is made by people who challenge our gender signifiers. Rock is a hypermasculine, ultraheterosexual form, but a lot of those dudes sing and dress and dance like chicks, and vice versa. Rock stars have a lot of leeway with gender roles that sports stars and politicians don’t. Rock is also pretty anxious about all of the crossdressing, an anxiety usually comes out disguised as a concern about authenticity.

The anxiety about music games also reminds me of rock’s ambivalence about synthesizers, especially among hard rock fans. Hard rock is supposed to be raw and authentic. Synthesizers are not considered by the hard rock audience to be raw or authentic. Metal fans never forgave Van Halen for the synth intro in “Jump.” They love to chuckle at the video of the band flailing to play along with the digital tape at the wrong speed and pitch. But even if they don’t like the idea of synths, rock fans find it hard to resist the sound. Rock is a sonically sophisticated art form, and if you really want to push the envelope, fattening up your guitar sounds with epically huge synthesizer waveforms can sound awesome. Warrant used to tour with a keyboard player who played from offstage and who they never mentioned.

I’ve made a commitment to let go of authenticity. I’ve had a lot more fun both listening to and playing music since I made that decision. Digital fakery feels more real to me than playing acoustic instruments half the time anyway. What matters to me is that everybody’s having a good time. Beatles drag has reliably been fun in other media, I see no reason why it won’t make a great video game.

Update: I finally did get to play Beatles Rock Band and it’s every bit as awesome as advertised. Also, here’s a good quote from a blog post by Jeff Vogel arguing that Rock Band is really a tool to facilitate deep listening:

I don’t want to make music. There are not enough hours in the day. I need a new creative outlet sucking up my time like I need a hole in my head. But I absolutely love to listen to music. And, when I play Rock Band, I play the songs I want to listen to, and I noodle along with them in a rhythmic, physical way that adds to my enjoyment of the song.

I still think this is pretty close to the experience of playing in a cover band, that it’s more a matter of studying existing music more closely than it is about expressing yourself. Playing is mostly about listening.

Update: see a post about using Rock Band in music education.

3 thoughts on “Real guitars are for old people

  1. “I’ve made a commitment to let go of authenticity.” Tom de Zengotita in his book Mediated talks about the modern idea of authenticity as the absence of optionality, not of fakery. We live in a world where synthetic is ubiquitous (and therefore real). What a stripped-down guitar-bass-and-drums trio offers is a lack of optionality. For the same reason (or one reason, anyway) that composers leave the infinite orchestra aside for a string quartet or forgo the big band for the quartet we take pleasure in necessity’s insistence in finding power and individuality with the minimal tools available.

    I have been listening to the Heads lately: Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Portishead’s Third. They are both amazing albums. Totally amazing. But I love the soundworld of the Portishead so much more. Why? Analog. A limited set of tools used to incredible effect.

    In Rainbows is compositionally gorgeous and rich, but it SOUNDS like a Pro-Tools album. Every notion that went through Jonny Greenwood’s head is flattered and digitally massaged. That’s cool, I guess…

  2. Pingback: » Re-Meet the Beatles, *Really* This Time

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