Guitar Hero vs. Real Guitar

How does playing Guitar Hero compare to the real thing?

Two guys sitting in gaming chairs playing Guitar Hero

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The musical rhythm game genre remains popular thanks to titles like Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live. While non-gamers may argue that learning real guitar is more worthwhile, playing with plastic instruments is its own art form. We've compiled an in-depth analysis of how playing the Guitar Hero games compares to playing an actual guitar.

If you're a gamer who is genuinely interested in learning how to play guitar, try RockSmith or BandFuse for a more authentic experience.

Overall Findings

Playing Guitar Hero

  • Requires a lot of practice and coordination.

  • Low costs with limited rewards.

  • Can be enjoyed by anyone.

Playing Real Guitar

  • Requires even more practice and coordination.

  • High costs with high rewards.

  • Not everyone has the time and money to invest.

If you learn how to play the real guitar after playing Guitar Hero, you may be surprised by how similar it feels to the game. 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 a real guitar as well, particularly in the transitions between them. There is obviously a big difference when you are playing six strings rather than five buttons, but the basics are all the same, and you'll develop muscle memory for movements and transitions between chords.

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 and Orange frets while lower notes are Red or Green, 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 a real guitar: You must listen carefully to a song and figure out the general location of the next notes.

The Cost: Real Instruments Are Expensive

Playing Guitar Hero

  • Used games and controllers are dirt cheap.

  • Some games and controllers work on multiple consoles.

  • DLC purchases can add up if you're not careful.

Playing Real Guitar

  • Requires a seemingly endless list of peripherals and accessories.

  • Lots of upkeep and repair costs.

  • Potential returns on your investment.

Buying a game/guitar bundle to play on the game system you already own is a lot cheaper than buying a real guitar. Real guitars are expensive, as are amplifiers, effects pedals, strings, straps, cables, and cases. After spending $500 or so on your "beginners" kit, you're more than likely going to want something else because buying guitars is addictive. Every guitar feels and sounds a little different, so as soon as you finally get a new one, you probably already have your eyes on something else.

In contrast, the plastic guitar-controllers used in Guitar Hero games retailed for about $50 by themselves, and you can buy them bundled with a game for around $80 total. The individual games retailed for $60 when first released, but you can find the old Guitar Hero or Rock Band games for much cheaper. You could easily drop a few hundred dollars on buying song DLC for Rock Band or Guitar Hero, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to buying a new real guitar. That said, you can actually make money playing a real guitar, which can't be said for the plastic version.

Difficulty: Guitar Hero Isn't So Easy

Playing Guitar Hero

  • Punishes players for minor mistakes.

  • Relies heavily on the whammy bar, which most guitars don't have.

Playing Real Guitar

  • Real audiences are more forgiving than Guitar Hero audiences.

  • Some songs are easier to play on a real guitar.

That said, Guitar Hero and Rock Band can teach you some bad habits. For example, the games encourage players to bend notes to rack up points. 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. As a result, your multiplier disappears, the crowd boos, and it stops being fun.

In reality, messing something up on a real guitar barely registers to most listeners. No one ever plays a whole song perfectly live; you just keep on trucking and hope no one notices.

Some Rock Band and Guitar Hero songs 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? It's because you're technically playing two guitars plus a keyboard all jammed into one track.

Accessibility: Anyone Can Play Guitar Hero

Playing Guitar Hero

  • Easy to learn but difficult to master.

  • Can still be fun to play with friends even if you're not good at it.

  • No music lessons required.

Playing Real Guitar

  • Requires years of patience and practice.

  • More challenging for people with physical limitations.

  • Expensive barriers to entry.

Learning to play real guitar takes a long time, so many people get frustrated and quit early on. Like karaoke, Rock Band and Guitar Hero are popular because they allow anyone to participate in the creation of music regardless of their skill level.

Unless you have a ton of super talented friends and family, you probably aren't going to all get together and play real music. Anyone can pick up and play Guitar Hero, even people who don't play video games, so it's a great go-to group activity.

The Rewards: Learning an Instrument Is More Rewarding

Playing Guitar Hero

  • Once you beat the games, there's little reason to keep playing.

  • You can't make money playing plastic guitar.

  • A closet full of fake guitars isn't as cool as a closet full of real ones.

Playing Real Guitar

  • There's always more to learn and room for improvement.

  • Make money from performances.

  • Impress others with your artistic talents.

Any 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. You are always learning, and it is extremely rewarding.

Guitar Hero, on the other hand, won't teach you anything valuable. You just sort of follow along, and there is no reward beyond the enjoyment you get out of playing the game.

Final Verdict

Playing Guitar Hero and playing a real guitar can both be a lot of fun. While gaming is a less expensive hobby than making real music, learning an instrument can eventually pay off if you become a successful musician. Just don't expect your expertise in Guitar Hero to be an asset in that regard.