If you’re a fan of six-string wizards like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, you’ve probably imagined yourself wailing away on a guitar, sending a stadium into ecstasy with a screaming solo. In 2005, the Guitar Hero video game arrived to help bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. Featuring a controller shaped like a guitar, only about one-third the size, the game lets players rock along to classics by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hit the button on the guitar neck that corresponds to the note flashing by on the screen and the song continues to play perfectly; hit the wrong one, and you hear a flub. The game is both devilishly addictive and wildly successful, with 2006′s Guitar Hero 2 selling more than a million copies and competitive Guitar Hero nights popping up in bars all over the country. Two new versions of the game (Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the ’80s and Guitar Hero 3) are set for release in the coming months.
Salon reached the man in charge of picking Guitar Hero’s songs, Ted Lange, an associate producer at game publisher Red Octane, by phone at his office in Sunnyvale, Calif.
How do you determine which songs are right for Guitar Hero?
We come up with a gigantic master list of over a hundred songs. Then we grade every song to make sure it has a guitar solo and enough different sections and changes to be fun to play. We also take popularity into consideration; you can’t put an unknown song title on the back of the box. But you’d be surprised how many songs have a 30-second gap where there’s no guitar. There are tons of songs that will just never work. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song that gets a lot of requests from fans but it isn’t right for Guitar Hero — the verse is basically just two notes, it would be boring to play along with. And when we were picking music for the ’80s game, it was surprising how many songs there are where you’re listening and then there’s a sax solo and the guitar completely drops out. But once we start listening for those kinds of things, we can narrow the songs down pretty quickly. Then we give our list to the licensing team and they start working their contacts in the music industry. Only about half the songs on our list come back approved.
What were your initial expectations for the game?
When we got the first prototype — which was like an Atari 2600 game, just lines and circles — we knew it was fun. We all stayed late the first night playing the one song in the demo over and over again. So we had an idea the game would be big if we could just get it into people’s hands. You can’t sell this game on paper. Explaining to someone that you hold a little toy guitar and push buttons isn’t a great sales pitch; it’s easier if you can say you’re running around and shooting aliens. So we went to conventions and set up at stores and let people try the game for themselves. That was the key. Once people played it and told their friends, it started to take off.
How do you feel about the fact that Rock Band, the first competitor to Guitar Hero, is coming out later this year?
When we did our initial research we were comparing Guitar Hero to Karaoke Revolution and other rhythm-based games, but they weren’t really that close to what we were trying to do. So I’m curious to see how Guitar Hero compares to a similar game. But I think Guitar 3 is more fun than the first two — we’ve added an online gaming component and different play modes — so I feel great about where we are. That’s not to say Rock Band won’t be good, but I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t buy both or just buy Guitar Hero. There are so many first-person shooter games out there that have been able to survive competition; I don’t think our situation is any different.
– David Marchese