Guitar Hero vs. Real Guitar

Two guys sitting in gaming chairs playing Guitar Hero
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The plastic instrument band game genre was down for a while, but with the recent release of both Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live, Guitar Hero is back! The argument against these games still remains, however, and that is that they aren't "real" and learning real guitar is more worthwhile. We take a look at both and come to our own conclusions (spoiler -- they're both fun in their own ways). You could also always play RockSmith or BandFuse instead and learn to play real guitar while playing a video game, too.

The Cost

Buying a game/guitar bundle for $80 or so to play on the game system you already own is a lot cheaper than buying a real guitar. Tips On Buying A New Guitar. Real guitars are expensive, plus you need to buy an amplifier. And effects pedals. And strings, straps, cables, cases, tools, etc. And $500 or so dollars later once you have all of that for your "beginner" kit, more than likely you're going to want to buy something else. Real guitar players know what we're talking about, but buying guitars is sort of addictive. Every guitar feels a little different, and sounds a little different, and as soon as you finally get a new one you probably already have your eyes on something else. And, more than likely, the prices keep going up with each new guitar you buy because you want better stuff. And then you realize the solid state amp you bought is sort of a hunk of junk (yes, a several hundred dollar hunks of junk) so you start looking at tube amplifiers and choke at the $1500 price tags. But you start saving up anyway.

It is a process you have to do when you start playing real guitar, though, because it isn't really worth it to spend the cash on decent equipment if you aren't even sure when you first start out if you really like it / can do it or not. Starting out with beginner equipment is a good way to get your foot in the door, but you will outgrow it (tonally, not physically) sooner or later (likely sooner) and have to spend a bunch more money. It is a vicious, but fun, cycle.

See, Guitar Hero and Rock Band don't have that problem. The plastic guitars are relatively cheap and even if you have to buy a new one, replacements are $50 once a year or so. You don't outgrow the tonal capabilities of a plastic instrument because they are all the same. You could drop a few hundred dollars on buying song DLC for Rock Band, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to buying a new real guitar every 6 months.

The Tone

Sometimes you want to pick up a guitar and get a specific tone and play a specific song. Unless you have a digital modeling amplifier, that means spending a lot of time adjusting amp and pedal settings to try and make it sound like you want. With Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you just pick the song you want and away you go. Yes, laziness is definitely a factor here. Also, the games give you consistent sound each and every time. Real guitars need to be tuned, the electronics can go bad, the strings go dead or break, your cables can go bad, your amp can go bad, and even the weather can affect your tone. It can be frustrating chasing tones on a real guitar when there are so many elements that can go bad and mess everything up.

Guitar Hero Isn't as Unrealistic as You Might Think

Something that will surprise you if you learn to play the real guitar after playing Guitar Hero, is that a lot of it feels very similar to playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero. The most obvious similarity is in the chords. Two-button power chords are exactly like power chords on a real guitar. Three-button chords are also remarkably similar to full chords on real guitar as well, particularly in the transitions between them. Now, there is obviously a big difference between them when you are playing six strings versus just playing five buttons, but the basics are all the same. You develop muscle memory for movements and transitions between chords and they really do feel the same on both plastic and real guitars.

The way the notes are laid out on the buttons is also similar to how you would move up and down the neck on a real guitar. You know that higher notes are always going to be on the Blue / Orange frets and lower notes always use Green as the home location, so as long as you are paying attention to the song you can move your hand before a gem even comes up. This is exactly like playing real guitar by ear where you can listen to a song and figure out the general location of the next notes. Harmonix didn't design this system without thinking. It is all based on realism, even if it is greatly simplified.


Learning to play real guitar takes a long time and many people get frustrated and quit early on. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Music is one of those funny things, though, that everyone wants to be part of, and can be part of if you throw your pride out the window and just focus on having fun. Why do you think karaoke is so popular? Rock Band and Guitar Hero are the exact same way. They let you participate in the creation of music, even if only on a basic level, and can be incredibly fun no matter your skill level. Unless you have a ton of awesome, super talented friends and family you probably aren't going to all get together and play real music. But you can get together and easily play Rock Band with everyone.


Playing real guitar is fun as hell. When you start out, it is overwhelming and intimidating, but then you learn more little tricks and shortcuts that make all of that complicated stuff easier and, all of the sudden, you can actually play a few songs. Pretty much every time you pick up a guitar you can learn something new, whether it is a new song or a new technique to make the songs you already know sound better or make them easier to play. You are always learning, and it is extremely satisfying. Guitar Hero, on the other hand, won't teach you much. You just sort of follow along and there is no real reward for actually memorizing anything. You can play tons of real guitar songs from memory and make up decent tunes on the spot or you can play zero Guitar Hero / Rock Band songs from memory. Guess which one is more satisfying?

Guitar Hero & Rock Band Teach You Bad Habits

There is a whole generation of kids that are going to try to activate star power with their real guitar and who think you have to use the whammy bar on every sustained note. Pro Tip, kids: Bending every note sounds TERRIBLE out in the real world. Kids will probably also be shocked to find most guitars don't have whammy bars at all. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are also pretty terrible about negative reinforcement. Screwing up one note in Rock Band tends to screw you up for at least a few more, plus your multiplier disappears, and the crowd boos, and it isn't fun. Messing something up on a real guitar barely registers -- no one ever plays a whole song completely perfectly live, it just doesn't happen. You just keep on trucking and no one really notices.

Guitar Hero & Rock Band Tracks Can Be Harder Than Playing the Real Songs

Perhaps the biggest problem overall with Rock Band and Guitar Hero is that a lot of the time they are actually more difficult than playing the same songs on a real guitar. The games make you play a mix of both rhythm and lead guitars, usually with other instruments shoehorned in (saxophone, keyboard, trumpet, piano, etc.) which means you end up playing twice as many notes as you really would be on a real guitar. Why is Dragonforce's "Through the Fire and Flames" so difficult in these games? Because you're playing two guitars plus a keyboard all playing 100 MPH, all jammed into one track. We're not saying it is easy to play on a real guitar (no, it is pretty damn difficult still), but it isn't the note-vomity mess it is in the games, either. When the real song is easier than the song in the game, that is a problem, but that is the case with almost every Guitar Hero and Rock Band song ever.

The reasoning is that they think playing just rhythm or lead would be too boring, but they should give gamers some credit. Our attention spans aren't that short, right? At the very least, give us the option of choosing one or the other instead of both mashed together.

Being a Guitar Hero, Err ... Isn't Sexy

The cold hard fact about plastic instruments is that the greatest Guitar Hero player in the world is going to look like a complete tool if you stand them next to even a mediocre beginner real guitar player. Plastic instruments just aren't sexy. Making your "O" face while you tap out an overcomplicated solo in Rock Band isn't anywhere near as cool looking as effortlessly playing even simple power chords on a real guitar.

Unsightly Plastic Instruments

We've tested every new plastic instrument game since the whole fad started, which means we've tried a ton of guitars and drum sets. They look awful (save for a couple) and they take up tons of space. And the worst part is that now there are so many of them out on the market that no one else wants them anymore. You can't sell or trade them in anywhere, at least not for any real money, so a lot of people end up just tossing them in the junk pile. There isn't really anything else you can do with them, especially now when the genre is pretty much dead. Also, and this kind of goes along with the reason above -- having a closet full of fake guitars isn't nearly as cool as a closet full of real ones.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, we're still a fan of both Guitar Hero as well as real guitar. They both are fun in their own ways, and they both have definite pros and cons. You don't have to choose one or the other, though, as so many vocal "Buy a real guitar!" jerks like to proclaim at every opportunity. As long as you are playing music and having fun, that's what really matters.