When kindergartners play Foghat

When it first arrived on Christmas Day, I looked at it skeptically and sat back to watch as the two teenage boys started “playing” songs on it. The idea behind Guitar Hero III – a game available for things like Playstation and X-Box – is simple: It’s karaoke for guitar, where each song comes out you like a road, with the notes being color-coded mileposts you have to hit as you go.

Never mind the fact that suddenly my wife and I were hearing our house filled with dinosaurs-of-rock songs like Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” The even odder thing was that those who would normally disdain such antediluvian fare were embracing it as something new, cool and exciting.

About a week into the era of Guitar Hero III in our living room, I finally said, “Give me that thing!” I strapped on the tiny red guitar and took a crack (on “Easy”) at Heart’s bitchy anthem “Barracuda.”

What I love about the game is the environment built around it. The creators have taken every rock stereotype imaginable (minus, thankfully, drinking and drugging) and rolled it into the characters and sets. My favorite guitar hero is a guy in a leopard-skin one-piece with high boots, a shaggy blond mane, headband and animal tooth around his neck. In between songs, helpful “tips” come up, like “Yes, the stage monitors are, in fact, diving boards.” I also appreciate how some of the classic rock songs are presented as precious relics to be cherished, relived, trotted out anew to be enjoyed by a new generation.

But — and this is a big “but” — I can’t help but wonder as I watch the kids play whether I’m witnessing the demise of the real guitar hero. If today’s teenagers are spending hours mastering old rock songs on this game, who’s out in the garage learning on an actual guitar? Our oldest son at least plays piano, but now he seems to spend more time on Guitar Hero. We must now distinguish between “real” instruments and the fake instruments of the Wii and X-Box world. What, we may well ask, is the world coming to?

Since Guitar Hero came into our home, I’ve asked around and found that almost everyone I know either has one, has played one or has heard of it and wants to try it. This is not just our kids. I find it’s a great stress-reliever, and when I get 92 percent playing Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” on “medium,” I get a charge out of it (although the only ones applauding are the fake audience members inside the game). The other thing that’s cool about it is that now, everyone in the family except Mom plays it. We found a “cheat” for the 6-year-old so that he can play without getting failed if he only hits 1 percent of the notes. What kills me is how quickly he’s picked up the guitar-hero moves: twisting his body, bending his knees, hopping around and even raising the guitar over his head á la Jimi Hendrix. And yes, his favorite is “Slow Ride” by Foghat – one of those songs I thought I’d go the rest of my life without ever hearing again.

I’d be curious to hear from more real musicians what they think of this trend, since Guitar Hero most certainly won’t be the last of the fake instrument game (there’s another called “Rock Band” already, where singing and drumming are also part of the mix). Does the future look like one where people playing real instruments are replaced by those only playing fake versions of songs written and performed in the past? Or does something like Guitar Hero inspire kids to pick up the real thing?

Time will tell. But for now, I’m going to go try “Welcome to the Jungle” on “hard.” It’ll help me forget about the status of the family checkbook.

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