Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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25 Aug 2008

‘Guitar Hero’ and Why It Should Be Burnt in the Streets

Stopping work and going away has similarities with being hit repeatedly over the head with a plank of wood. In the same way that it is only when the beating stops that you realise how much it hurts, it is only when you actually stop work, turn off mobile phone and email contact, that you realise how utterly exhausted you are. That’s how it was for me anyway. So on our first day away, we ended up in London, and went to Hamley’s toy shop. While the rest of the family wandered around, I sat with our bags and promptly fell asleep in the middle of the shop. When I woke up again, I found I was sitting just by a big XBox thing which was demonstrating the latest version of the game ‘Guitar Hero 3’. While I sat waiting for the return of my family, I had no alternative than to observe this dreadful thing for about half an hour, which prompts the following…

For those of you unfamiliar with this highly popular new computer game, the manufacturers describe it thus;

Crank Up the Volume and prepare to rock with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Battle against some of the greatest guitar legends to ever shred on a guitar and become one yourself. Take your shredding skills online against other Guitar Hero players from around the world. Grab your Guitar Hero Controller and unleash your inner rock legend. Guitar Hero 3 is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PC & Mac.

The third game from the Guitar Hero series is going to rock your face off. Channel your inner guitar god as you thrash your way through all sorts of venues. In addition to standard Guitar Hero features you know and adore, this game has all kinds of killer new options such as the new multiplayer battle mode, grueling boss battles, a bevy of exclusive unlockable content, and authentic rock venues. The expanded online multiplayer game modes will also allow guitar heroes worldwide to compete head-to-head for true legendary rock status.

What this game does is turn the guitar solo into a competitive sport. You get points for each correct note you hit on your pretend plastic guitar as your ridiculously proportioned character pouts and struts about in front of a highly overexcited and sheep-like virtual audience. ‘Guitar Hero’ reduces music to a turgid backing track overladen with overblown and extended guitar solos. Guitar solos have long been a form of musical masturbation, now they have been imaginatively repackaged as competitive musical masturbation.

This is a reflection of our ghastly Pop Idol culture which has reduced music to a fast ticket to getting rich and being on telly. The idea that you can become an instant ‘star’, that people can be plucked from obscurity just for being able to sing other peoples’ songs in an engaging fashion, and become an overnight pop sensation, is appalling but deeply pervasive. It is the Great American Dream applied to music… anyone can be famous and rich, you just need the lucky break.

No rehearsing in sweaty basements, no dreadful early gigs, no inspired moments when you write your first really good song, no scrimping together the money to do first recordings, no effort. It is style over substance, and it is shallow beyond reason. Yet this culture can be extremely damaging. In his excellent book ‘Growth Fetish‘, Clive Hamilton writes;

For many people, living in the hope of a chance external intervention deprives them of the motivation to change their personal or community circumstances”.

He also notes, that;

“20th century consumer capitalism has seen a progressive substitution of activities and desires that result in immediate stimulation for the more challenging and potentially more fulfilling demands of realising one’s potential.”

In other words, games like this take us further from reality, further from each other, and further from being an active participant in the extraordinary transition we are starting to go through.

‘Guitar Hero’ values and reveres musicianship but can’t be bothered to acquire any of it itself. Solo your way through ‘Walk This Way’ without actually needing to spend the time learning to play the guitar. Become an ‘instant’ guitar hero! Just like that!

My first musical love was punk, which was at least honest when it came to musicianship. With the Ramones, you could learn to play enough to play their songs in about 10 minutes, and then you could form your own band. In the seminal fanzine ‘Sniffing Glue’, they once had a page which showed the reader how to play 3 chords, with the heading “here are three chords, now form a band”. I guess my version of this is “here are twelve steps, now form a Transition Initiative”. No respecter of this however, ‘Guitar Hero’, reduces a classic from that time like ‘Anarchy in the UK’, to this…

One of the most glorious gigs I ever saw was the Shop Assistants, at the Granary in Bristol. Singer, novice bass player, fuzzy guitar and two stand-up drummers, each song was a thrill to see if they would make it to end of the song without it all falling apart, or whether it would all dissolve into chaos. I have always had great admiration for things done not necessarily very well but with great spirit, and there is a magic in people making music because they are driven to, whether or not they have actually mastered the technical ability to carry it off. Imagine the Shop Assistants on ‘Pop Idol’, they’d have been gonged off sharpish about three seconds in.

In the film ‘Garbage Warrior’, Michael Reynolds laments half way through that the restrictive building regulations that stop him from building Earthships have “taken away my right to fail”. ‘Guitar Hero’ likewise takes away people’s right to fail, in that you have no scope to invent, to create, to be spontaneous. Creativity is impossible; in spite of the wonderful potential that new technologies give us for remixing tracks, creating innovative soundscapes and so on, all you can do here is try and keep up with some predetermined guitar solo. I have to say that it struck me as I sat there, bleary-eyed in Hamleys, that in ‘Guitar Hero’ we have plumbed a new cultural low, a landmark in the ongoing devaluing of creativity.

In contrast to the karaoke riff-fest of overlong songs that typifies ‘Guitar Hero’, I remember someone asking Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream in their early days why their song ‘Velocity Girl‘ was only 1 minute 27 seconds long. His reply was “because it had finished”, or words to that effect. ‘Guitar Hero’ doesn’t value succinctness, coming to the point, it is all bombast and not realising when you have overstayed your welcome. Almost certainly the virtual crowd is not programmed to boo you off when your self-indulgence becomes toe-curling…

There is something especially sad about thousands of people tucked away in their homes, with a couple of friends, a tube of Pringles and their plastic guitars, “channelling their inner guitar gods as they thrash their way through all sorts of venues”… strikes me as being especially lonely. Music should be joyous, occasionally shambolic, a seat-of-your-pants, shared cultural experience, a passionate voicing of shared stories, an unleashing of music’s power to move, inspire or to break your heart. Anything that drives us further apart should be shunned, discarded, repelled, spurned, scorned and spat on. Take an axe to any manifestions of this abomination that cross your path. “Rock your face off” indeed.

Categories: Culture, Technology

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Stephen Watson
25 Aug 10:43am

Excellent article Rob – I’ve never seen the game but it’s sounds all too familiar. I sing in an LGBT choir in Brighton and one of our other two all-male gay choirs recently made it to “Last Choir Standing” (I think – I don’t have a TV). When a previous flatmate had a TV I saw about 5 minutes of it and it was horrendous – instead of people singing for the joy of it and the pleasure of an audience it became a cut-throat battle with the judges scathing remarks and the presenter’s confrontational presentation.

Finally, I think you’re being a bit unfair when you say that “Guitar solos have long been a form of musical masturbation”. That’s a bit like saying that “Violin solos have long been a form of musical masturbation” (The Lark Ascending, anyone?). But obviously we’ve all heard guitar/drum solos that should have been 10% of their length …

Bishop Alan Wilson
25 Aug 11:55am

I think I’m essentially with you, Rob, on this. As the proud father of two 13’s who do this on the Wii, it could be easier to learn the guitar, actually. And think of what you could then do, even without a Wii? I suppose it does stimulate a bit of interest in the real thing, but I’m really ambivalent about it…

Gordon Hodgson
25 Aug 1:21pm

And Simcity has reduced the joy of being an executive mayor to a trivial pastime.

I think you’re going a bit over the top here, Guitar Hero is basically a ‘play at home’ version of Dance Dance Revolution (which hasn’t yet killed dancing).

The game isn’t about music per se. It’s about pretending to be in an overblown heavy metal band. (compare football manager with laying football).

Nice indiepop references, there, though. I think (funnily enough there are a couple of indiepop tracks hidden in the game…)

Steve Hall
25 Aug 4:44pm

I understand the intellectual argument but what, pray is wrong with a few bored students playing plastic guitars. To me entertaining yourself in a transition type mannert should be more about ensuring people can enjoy themselves without wrecking the biosphere and crippling the economy.

As a proud member of the playstation generation I use a games console as an escape from reality. I know I am not making music playing guitar hero. In fact I was bored with it fairly quick but that is what I expected. When I am done with the game it will get freecycled. Since the playstation doubles up as a DVD player and CD player it is a reasonably efficient purchase.

When we have friends over we sometimes play board games, just chat or watch films. Sometimes we might put a multiplayer video game on. Since we are with good energy I see little problem. I own a bass that I am slowly learning and I

Steve Hall
25 Aug 4:46pm

Woops got off on a long one there it was to culminate in saying there is nothing wrong with a little inane, brain mushing self indulgence at times. So long as thats not all you do.

Let’s not get too high and principled eh, even captain picard played video games!

25 Aug 5:39pm

Hi Rob,

I really loved your article. While I respect that each person can have their own opinion about things, I find it immensely reassuring that someone else has a similar reaction to some of these overmarketed products out there.


Graham Burnett
25 Aug 7:42pm

Talking of masturbation…

I went to see my doctor the other day.
He said, “You’ll have to stop masturbating”
I said, “Whys that then?”
He said, “Because I’m trying to examine you…”

…. I’ll get my coat…

Eoin O'Callaghan
25 Aug 8:05pm

South Park did a really good episode about Guitar Hero. It’s available on YouTube. Good for a laugh.

andrew ramponi
25 Aug 9:46pm

I remember miking up my record player as a 14/15yr old to an external amp and speaker and miming along with a friend( with real electric guitars in hand)to various punk and heavy metal tunes. The window was wide open for all to hear and see. The guitar solo in Deep Purple Child in Time was a favourite. We thought it pretty cool and were always desperate for the local girls to come by….isn’t that what teenage music was – and is – all about anyway?

James Samuel
26 Aug 9:55am

Thank you for the insight Rob – having never sat in Hamleys I can only imagine the revelation thrust upon you. On the total other side of this experience here is one that can lift you to new heights. Here is 20 minutes worth of cut-to-the-core inspiration.

Finn Jackson
26 Aug 9:56am

Excellent. Thank you.

Timothy Dube
29 Aug 4:25am

I understand the sentiment – but who is to say that your version of what music should be is any better or truer than that of those who value guitar hero?

gerald lindner
29 Aug 9:16am

I actually found watching the Guitar Hero clip you posted quite intriguing and great to see accords set out in such an interesting graphical manner showing the spatial relationships. I’m sure this is going to inspire many people in different and new ways parallel to the “real” thing. What is wrong with this richness in choice and realities? It’s a bit like a classic flamenco guitar player telling Jimi Hendrix that electronic guitars suck. He/she may be right but only if seen from a very limited perspective.

Jean Erasmus
29 Aug 2:34pm

I couldn’t agree more. It is sad to see how shallow life has become, dominated by the zeitgeist of ‘more’ and ‘never enough’; this in turn, preyed upon by clever capitalist masters, trapping most of us with glossy TV and magazine ads: BE that celebrity/ rockstar NOW!

How I wish that we could just wake up to this insanity called ‘want’; but, I suppose it will happen soon enough: as cheap energy runs out and the conventional western economy collapses, people will be forced to rely on each other again, making us human once again…

Fred Hopwood
29 Aug 9:20pm

Dear Rob,

Right on Dude!

Question How do you get a rock guitarist to stop playing incessantly?

Answer. Put some music in front of him.

Regards Fred (Drummer) i.e. friend of a musician

13 Feb 4:32am

It’s actually “how do you confuse a guitarist? Put some sheet music in front of him” ie. the implication that most amateur guitarists can’t read standard music notation.