#6) “Mommy, what’s a guitar?”

It’s only 2:12 pm, and today already has presented to me a sad piece of symmetry.  Earlier, while running errands, I was listening to KUSC, L.A.’s premier classical music station.  They were playing a performance by Andres Segovia, whom as the radio announcer pointed out, helped the guitar get taken more seriously.  For a long time, it was considered little more than a novelty, but in the 20th century, the six-string’s celebrity was powered by many great musicians in just as many genres: Segovia, Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Edward Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name but a few.  However, when I arrived home and saw the news online that Activision is planning on cancelling Guitar Hero, I had to wonder – is the instrument that gave so many their voice going to return to marginality?

Everyone interprets the Guitar Hero story differently.  Mine stems from the belief that the guitar is an instrument of very under-appreciated difficulty.  Even playing simple chords and riffs can be hard for a beginner; unlike an electric keyboard, which works from the moment one takes it out of the box, guitars can require additional set-up procedures, and even tuning it can be a challenge for a novice.   Guitar Hero allowed people to interact with their favorite instrument and play their favorite songs vicariously, not unlike karaoke.  I acknowledge that saying that the game’s pending cancellation might mean the end of the guitar is a stretch, but it does beg the question, does instant gratification really do take too long?

Neil Peart, of Rush fame, once speculated that rock history can be traced to people wanting music that is simple enough to play without a lot of training or practice.  In the 1970s, when progressive rock started to become big, many found their voice in the minimalism of the punk movement; later, in the wake of big 1980s studio productions, grunge was born.  One could argue that Guitar Hero is an extension of this trend–and if you buy that idea, it would follow that a new form of rock music is on its way.  The question is, what?  I don’t mean to speak disparagingly of Guitar Hero or imply that it doesn’t take a certain kind of skill – especially since the one time I tried the game I butchered it – but most would agree that it’s easier than actually playing a real guitar.  So if not playing the guitar is now too difficult, is anything going to be easy enough?  Or will people just write off the guitar as a waste of time, not worth the effort it requires?

I hope I am wrong and paranoid.  I hope that even without Guitar Hero, today’s youngsters want to learn how to play, or at least listen to, the classic rock that the game popularized.  I hope that the guitar doesn’t go the way of the serpent, the viola da gamba, the oboe da caccia, the hurdy-gurdy and other obsolete instruments.  But it’s hard not to see this is a nail in the coffin.  When I was a freshman in high school, one of my friends was a crazy French kid with wild red hair that looked a little like the Sideshow Bob character from “The Simpsons.”  He was outraged that Metallica had just released a video (“One”–yes, I know I’m dating myself); they had sold out they were doomed to commercial mediocrity.  We laughed at him – but in the opinion of many, time has proven him right.

If there’s anything to be learned from the rise and fall of Guitar Hero – which seems to parallel the arcs of the careers of many rock musicians – it’s that music can’t be taken for granted.  Like other traditions, the guitar will die unless people keep it alive.  With Youtube, iTunes and more, the channels are there – with or without Guitar Hero.  Even the guy massacring “Eruption” at Guitar Center is doing his part.

While no empire lasts forever, some have left enduring influences.   However long the guitar lasts, it has certainly made the world a better place, and will hopefully will continue to do far into the future.


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