How Guitar Hero Works

Guitar Pictures Guitar Hero players shred on a plastic guitar-shaped controller modeled after Gibson brand guitars. See pictures of guitars.

In homes, dorm rooms and bars across the world, young and old are picking up toy guitars and shredding as though a musical doomsday approaches. Devil horns fly up from audiences planted on couches and recliners, cheering on faux rocker gods who wail on their artificial axes with enough rhythm-driven precision to slay the nerve-wracking notes of Guitar Hero.

For about $100, you can bypass the blood, sweat and tears and climb that stairway to rocker heaven in the comfort of your own home. Challenging people to play their way through well-known rock songs, the Guitar Hero video game series has become a pop culture icon during its brief existence. Testifying to its sometimes maniacal following, Guitar Hero sales topped $1 billion worldwide in early 2008 [source: Brandweek]. And although Guitar Hero co-founder Charles Huang describes his vision for it as a "casual game for the masses [source: Kohler]," diehards consider it nothing less than a serious pursuit of musical mastery. What else could explain the millions of YouTube hits Guitar Hero stars have racked up?

­­­Perhaps more telling is the broad span of groupies the game has attracted. ­­­Along with the hardcore gamers, Guitar Hero players come from the every other stereotypical group as well: preps, hipsters, punks, squares, nerds, both male and female.­­ ­Although the video game's guitar-shaped controller resembles a Fisher Price plaything more than an instrument of mind-blowing musical mayhem, fans don't care. The classic Gibson brand style, color-coded fret buttons and tone-twisting whammy bar suffice to send Guitar Hero players into the celestial heights of rockerdom.

But while it may sound like Guitar Hero has brought society together in some kind of digital Woodstock, the game's popularity has turned some people off. And, like most rock 'n' roll bands that have made it to the top, the Guitar Hero franchise history is not without its own share of sour notes.

In this article, we'll go behind the music and learn the ins and outs of Guitar Hero as a game, electronic device and a business to find out what's made it a multiplatinum success. We'll also examine how the gaming trend has spread among people and other markets.


Getting Started with Guitar Hero

Play simultaneously with a friend in co-op mode to become rock stars together.
Play simultaneously with a friend in co-op mode to become rock stars together.

Before you start playing Guitar Hero, you must decide whether you want an open mic night or sold-out arena level of intensity. In the latest Guitar Hero release, "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock," you have five game mode options. Each offers different opportunities and environments to allow you to build your skills, show off against friends or climb your way to the top.

  • Tutorial: Use this space to hone your skills and get you ready for the big time. You can slow songs down or play them at the normal pace without the pressure of being booed offstage.
  • Career: Play your best to unlock songs and venues and earn cash as you go. This mode separates the game into levels made of song sets that increase in difficulty. Guitar Hero recommends starting off in career mode to unlock hidden contents such as new characters and songs and experience the thrill of success.
  • Co-op: Get high scores with a little help from a friend. Two people play different guitar parts of the same songs (for example, base or lead guitar) to try to get the highest scores possible on "Guitar Hero II" and "Guitar Hero III".
  • Quick Play: Select a song and play without having to move through the levels.
  • Multiplayer: Challenge a friend to a face-off by playing different guitar parts of the same song. Or, unlock the pro face-off mode to compete on the same notes of a song. [source: Activision]

Next, it's time to determine how close you'll stand to the rock 'n' roll fire. The four difficulty levels are separated by the speed and number of notes thrown at you during a song. If you're just starting out, don't even think about trying anything but the easy level to get the hang of it.

  • Easy: only use green, red and yellow fret buttons.
  • Medium: use green, red, yellow and blue fret buttons.
  • Hard: play with all five fret buttons.
  • Expert: use five fret buttons at a faster pace. [source: Activision]


Whether it's Mick Jagger's snarl or Gene Simmons' blood-spitting, onstage persona is everything. For that reason, Guitar Hero has a variety of characters, or avatars, to choose from. Match your riffing style with Johnny Napalm's mohawk, Judy Nails' vixen vibe or one of the other seven "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" characters (not including the one you can unlock). Also, if you dig Izzy Sparks' mullet, but not his pants, don't fret. As you progress in career mode, you can buy your avatars new clothing and instruments.

Now that you've established your virtual set list and band, it's time to play. Read on to learn Guitar Hero's essential rules for scoring.

Playing Guitar Hero

Guitar Hero note chart: Notice the target line at the bottom and HOPOs with the bright, white centers.
Guitar Hero note chart: Notice the target line at the bottom and HOPOs with the bright, white centers.

Standing in front a television screen with your plastic axe strapped across your chest, you assume your best rocker stance. Your fingers twitch slightly on the fret buttons in anticipation as the camera zooms down to your on-screen avatar and you hear the first beats of the song start up. It's time to play Guitar Hero.

Once the music kicks in, the screen display changes to a note chart that resembles an unfurling guitar neck. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see the target line with the five color-coded discs that correspond to the top-down order of fret buttons on the controller.

When your guitar part begins, color coded gems slide your way along the fret lines toward the target line. The point of Guitar Hero is to hit the matching fret buttons and the strum bar on your controller at the same time the gems hit the target line onscreen. If you succeed, a small flame bursts above the gem on the screen. For every correct note you hit, you score points. If you hit more than 10 notes in a row, those point values may be multiplied up to four times.

The key to scoring is timing, so it helps to know the song. Depending on the mode and difficulty, you'll follow the lead, bass or rhythm guitar. During faster melodies, keep an eye out for hammer-on and pull-off notes -- known as HOPOs in the Guitar Hero lexicon. These notes don't require the strum bar. Instead, if you push the correct fret button once the gem hits the target line, you're fine. In Guitar Hero versions before "Guitar Hero III," you must hold down the fret button of the previous note in order to properly hammer-on. You can spot HOPOs because their centers are completely white, while regular notes have a black band around the white center. (Real guitarists play HOPOs by hitting or releasing a string on a fret hard enough that it makes a sound without having to strum.)

Sustained notes that are held out for a number of beats are also important to catch. On the screen, these notes have long, bright lines trailing behind. To prepare, you can press down the appropriate fret button on your axe early if you have time, then hit the strum bar once the note reaches the target line. Since you only have to hit the strum bar once on sustained notes, use that hand to rotate the whammy bar and listen to the notes bend.

Hitting the whammy bar will also boost your star power, which we'll talk about next.

Guitar Hero Tips and Tricks

The star power meter on the left and the rock meter on the right.
The star power meter on the left and the rock meter on the right.

Scoring isn't the only component of Guitar Hero success. The rock meter on the bottom right side of the screen also measures your performance. Depending on your accuracy, the needle points to green, yellow or red. If you see red, you'd better get those fingers on track because your character's in danger of being booed off stage.

To maximize your score, you need star power in addition to good licks. The star power meter on the bottom left of the screen displays your score up top, the number of consecutive notes hit on the bottom and a large single-digit number in the center. That number is your score multiplier that pumps up the value of every note you hit. The blue star-shaped gems build your star power, and once your meter flashes, tilt your controller vertically up to activate it and double your score multiplier. Plus, the controller tilt looks supremely rocktastic.

One aspect of the career mode in "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" is the boss battle. To move through the career mode, you must outplay three bosses: Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, Slash from Velvet Revolver and Lou the Devil. In multiplayer mode, you can also battle a friend to judge whose skills reign supreme.

Along with the more challenging note tracks, the boss battles also include battle power. In battle mode, whenever you hit the star-shaped notes, they load up your battle power. Once you collect enough, you can tilt your controller up to unleash an offensive move on the other player. Get to know these note-knocking maneuvers to learn what you're dishing out and know how to take it:

  • Broken string -- just what it says. Opponents can't use the string again until they've tapped the corresponding fret button enough times.
  • Difficulty up -- increases the difficulty of the note spread.
  • Amp overload -- makes the opponent's scrolling screen hard to see.
  • Whammy bar -- opponents' guitars cease until they move their whammy bars quickly.
  • Power-up steal -- snatch an opponent's power.
  • Double notes -- make those fingers burn with twice the notes to play.
  • Lefty/righty flip -- switch your opponent's fret setup to the opposite hand.
  • Death drain -- as bad as it sounds. If you're in sudden death mode, this will drain the opponent's rock meter. [source: Activision]

As you move through the career and co-op modes, you also unlock hidden items. These include bonus tracks, additional characters and new guitars and basses. Gamers have also posted Guitar Hero cheats online for all versions and platforms that allow you to quickly find items buried in the software.

While scoring is important, you should also know how your axe works. Next up, we'll take a closer look at the mechanics of the game and your Gibson guitar-shaped controller.

The Creation of Guitar Hero and its Unique Controllers

Essential parts of the Guitar Hero controller.
Essential parts of the Guitar Hero controller.
2008 HowStuffWorks

To create a music-based video game with mass appeal, you need a variety of songs from multiple eras. For that reason, the Guitar Hero set list is loaded with older tracks, such as "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses and more recent hits including "When You Were Young" by the Killers.

According to Jeff Matsushita, the executive producer of RedOctane, the songs for "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" had to fulfill the criteria of being legendary and enjoyable to play [source: McBride]. After nailing down the desired set list, California sound company WaveGroup rerecorded some tracks if Guitar Hero didn't purchase a music license to use a master version. By combing through artist interviews and learning how the originals were produced, WaveGroup strived to make the covers authentic and fun for the players.

Next, the Neversoft development group's note tracking team translated the songs into digital maps. The team extracted the specific guitar or bass notes that the players must hit and plotted where those notes go on the actual game screen. Note trackers also cue animations and light shows to correspond with notes. That's what makes Lars Umlaut raise his guitar during a particularly awesome solo, for instance.

These notes are coded to interact with the Gibson guitar-shaped controller and score your performance. This coding reacts to the combination of the fret button and the strum bar. The fret buttons and strum bar electronically trigger the appropriate animation and sound effects when correctly activated. For instance, if you press down the green fret button and hit the strum bar as a green gem hits the target line, the gem bursts into a flame, and you hear the right note in the song.

While the fret button makes the note selection, the strum bar regulates the timing that the sound effects and animations register on the display screen. That's why hitting the correct fret button but strumming at the wrong time means a missed note.To make that happen, the strum bar is spring loaded so that when you hit it, a lever inside the strum bar strikes an electric switch. That switch sends an electrical message to the game's software that the strum bar has been activated. At the same time, the fret buttons also communicate with the software when you press them down, much like a button on a regular video game controller.

Remember how you can tilt your controller up to activate star power? Your controller contains sensors that react to the accelerated motion and change in gravity when you raise the controller vertically from its horizontal resting position.

The whammy bar, according to a patent from Harmonix, which was the original Guitar Hero developer, operates similarly to a joystick. Physical movement stimulates an electronic switch that signals the software and results in the reverb, if your timing is correct [source: Schmidt et al]. For more specific information on joystick technology, read How Joysticks Work.

As you see, it's taken a lot of work to go from a number of song selections to a video game. Read on to learn the history behind these Guitar Hero innovations.

Evolution of Guitar Hero: From Guitar Hero to Guitar Hero III

Slash from Velvet Revolver stars in "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock," developed by Neversoft and published by Activision.
Slash from Velvet Revolver stars in "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock," developed by Neversoft and published by Activision.

The Guitar Hero franchise has accomplished much in a short time. With the first version dropping in November 2005, the franchise is set to release the fifth installation, "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith," in June 2008 [source: Activision].

Although most attribute the idea for Guitar Hero to the brothers Kai and Charles Huang, founders of the video game company RedOctane, its concept traces back a few years earlier to another gaming company called Konami. Konami has developed popular games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Frogger. In 2002, it filed a patent that outlined games called GuitarFreaks and DrumMania that follow the same premise as Guitar Hero, including a similar guitar-shaped controller [source: Yoshitomi et al]. Now the patents listed on the "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" packaging indicate that Activision and RedOctane have licensed at least two of those earlier Konami patents [source: Gamesutra].

RedOctane first partnered with development company Harmonix that specializes in music-based video games. This collaboration produced and distributed the first three Guitar Hero games: "Guitar Hero," "Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s" and "Guitar Hero II."

For anyone who has played the first Guitar Hero, the game has come a long a way. "Guitar Hero I" is limited to the PlayStation 2 platform and only offers 30 songs, all of which are covers because of the high price of licensing original masters. In contrast, "Guitar Hero II" contains a 70-song catalogue with PlayStation 2 and Xbox compatibility. But once the franchise took off and profits skyrocketed, the Harmonix and RedOctane marriage split.

In May 2006, video game publishing giant Activision purchased RedOctane for $100 million. A few months later in September, MTV paid $175 million for Harmonix. Since RedOctane took the Guitar Hero publishing rights with it to Activision, many Guitar Hero purists were upset to learn that development company Neversoft, not Harmonix, would create "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock." Fans flooded online message boards with angry emoticons, bemoaning the Neversoft move in the same way that people react to big box retail stores closing out mom-and-pop businesses. Neversoft is owned by Activision and worked on high-profile games, such as the Tony Hawk skateboarding series. Harmonix, on the other hand, was a smaller operation that focused on music and rhythm-related games.


Nevertheless, Activision released "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" for all major gaming platforms (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox, Wii) on Oct. 28, 2007. Despite some complaints about its more corporate feel and added difficulty, the game sold like hot cakes. In fewer than three months, "Legends of Rock" became the top-selling video game of 2007, with 5.9 million units gobbled up [source: Caulfield].

And has this evolution taken Guitar Hero from ape to man? Let's just say you'd better have your opposable thumbs primed to hang on to your axe while your fingers fly across more responsive fret buttons to faster solos. Aside from the facelift and amped set list, other notable "Legends of Rock" features include:

  • wireless controllers, using the wireless technology of each specific platform
  • boss battles where you battle digital "villains," including Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Slash of Velvet Revolver
  • new downloadable tracks and hidden content
  • online play (except for PlayStation 2)
  • PC and Mac versions developed by Aspyr

Up next, we'll take a closer look at where the Guitar Hero franchise stands today as a business and how its effect has spread to other markets like a song in the wind.


The Business of Guitar Hero

Notice the Pontiac logo behind Izzy Sparks' head. "Guitar Hero III" contains more product placement than the earlier versions.
Notice the Pontiac logo behind Izzy Sparks' head. "Guitar Hero III" contains more product placement than the earlier versions.

The Guitar Hero franchise is big business, raking in $1 billion in global sales since its first release in 2005 [source: Brandweek]. In 2007, "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" and "Guitar Hero II" claimed the first and sixth slot on the top-10 best-selling video games of the year, respectively [source: Caulfield]. And with "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" slated for a June 2008 release, the franchise will likely keep riding high.

But the money doesn't stop flowing once people have dropped $100 for the game and controller. Fans can buy interchangeable faceplates, storage bags and straps for their controllers from RedOctane's online store. Not to mention the swarm of third-party Guitar Hero accessory manufacturers pumping out t-shirts, miniature controllers and amplifiers.

When "Legends of Rock" masters yearn for new challenges, PlayStation and Xbox owners can also purchase downloadable track packs of three songs for about $6. Likewise, Guitar Hero has lent welcome relief to the music industry, herding in new and younger fans to guitar-based music. According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), 40 percent of core gamers between 13 and 32 years old learn about new music from video game tracks [source: ASCAP Playback]. Of that group, a third bought the artist's tunes as a result. In addition, the flat rate for licensing master tracks runs anywhere from $2,500 to more than $20,000 [source: ASCAP]. Even Slash of Velvet Revolver has jumped on the marketing train, starring in the game for an undisclosed sum, along with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Bret Michaels of Poison.

A study performed by ArsTechnica found songs on the "Legends of Rock" track list experienced as much as 140 percent sales bump following the game's release [source: Kuchera]. New bands also benefit from the widespread exposure. British metal group DragonForce, for instance, has enjoyed a tripling of album sales, thanks to their finger-numbing "Through the Fire and Flames," which has become the arch nemesis of many a "Legend of Rock" aficionado [source: Browne].

­On the corporate side, in-game product placement has also spread around the wealth. The Gibson guitar brand had always been plastered throughout the game, but "Guitar Hero III" took the cross-marketing to new heights. Some performances take place in the Pontiac Garage venue where Red Bull cans litter some stages and billboards advertise Axe Body Spray behind the rocking avatars. Indeed, the sponsors for Legends of Rock include 18 companies listed in the credits section of the instruction manual. Fans can likely expect a boost in this not-so-subtle advertising since Activision inked a deal in early 2008 with Microsoft's video game advertising company, Massive.

But amid the marketing and profit margins, the beat goes on for Guitar Hero fans. Up next, meet the players who rock the hardest and the culture their feats have helped spawn.

Guitar Hero Culture

Heromania: Guitar Hero's popularity extends beyond the traditional gamer group to more general audiences.
Heromania: Guitar Hero's popularity extends beyond the traditional gamer group to more general audiences.
Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

On March 14, 2008, Chris Chike was transformed from mere mortal to a rock god. The 16-year-old from Rochester, Minn., snatched the "Guitar Hero III" world record for the highest score on a single song with 840,647 points earned on the track "Through Fire and Flames." During the performance, Chike stared intently at the screen, as though possessed by the spirit of rock 'n' roll while fans and media crowded around him. His fingers whizzed across the fret buttons as his thumb gyrated up and down on the strum bar. At the end of the song, the Guitar Hero replied succinctly, "You Rock."

Interestingly, the half a million YouTube hits of Chike's accomplishment pales in comparison to the 7.4 million views of "Conrad the Great" and the 4 million of 9-year-old Ben Eberle battling the same song. Indeed, the prevalence of Guitar Hero-related videos on YouTube -- and the astounding number of people who have watched them -- perhaps represents the most solid proof of the cultural obsession with this game. Bars now host Guitar Hero nights, and many a partygoer has joined a hypnotized throng of Guitar Hero addicts. The message board on the official Web site recorded more than 111,000 comments about the release of "Guitar Hero III." now allows players to publish their own scores to see how they match up to the rest of the world.

Then, there are the tournaments. If you live in a large metropolitan area, chances are, there's a Guitar Hero tournament scheduled nearby. RedOctane, the Guitar Hero creators, sponsors a number of tournaments through Some tournies are for pure competition, while others may have charity tie-ins. If anything, these events take the winners beyond virtual victory and put them in front of real people. In this sense, tournaments may be the closest Guitar Hero prodigies get to true rock 'n' roll fame.

With the success of Guitar Hero and its rival Rock Band, rhythm-based video games have set a new standard for entertainment. Rockers of the world, rejoice.

For more information about Guitar Hero, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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