In the world of music, everything old is eventually new again. Case in point: This fall, two of my all-time favorite retired videogames, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, get a reboot. Activision is releasing Guitar Hero Live in time for the holidays, and Harmonix has pegged October 6 as the release date for Rock Band 4.
As a long-time Rock Band fan who continues clinging to the game long past its expiration date, I couldn’t be more tickled by this news. But, as excited as I am for the release of the new games, I’m still baffled by a decision both franchises have made: They continue to use guitars as their signature instrument.
This tells me that the game developers at Activision and Harmonix are either excessively focused on the past or not paying attention to the present. Because the sad truth is, in the world of pop music, the guitar is yesterday’s news.
It only takes a quick glance at the charts to verify this. Over the first six months of 2015, 39 songs entered the Billboard Top 20. Only seven of those songs had a guitar part at all—and of those, only three (Maroon 5’s Sugar, the Rihanna/Kanye/McCartney song FourFiveSeconds, and Shut Up And Dance by WALK THE MOON) featured guitar as the lead instrument. It’s also worth noting that the number of guitar solos in those 39 songs was exactly zero.
The takeaway for budding young musicians is clear: If you want pop stardom, ditch the guitar. This approach has obvious appeal for a lot of people. After all, why spend thousands of practice hours splitting your fingertips open on guitar strings when you can launch a less painful pop career with a digital workstation, a drum machine and a pair of turntables? (All of which, ironically enough, you can buy at Guitar Center.)
As irrelevant as the guitar has become in pop music, there’s still a certain logic in making it the centerpiece of the new videogames. For one thing, many of the in-game songs are classic relics from the stadium-rock era, when guitar virtuosity was a given for successful bands. For another, keyboards and turntables have both been tried in rhythm-based games, and both were dismal flops. (Remember DJ Hero, anyone?)
Still, the games leave today’s wannabe stars in a quandary. Teaching them guitar skills in 2015 is about as useful as teaching them how to repair rotary phones. As for the rest of us RB and GH players, we can either soak in the nostalgia of the past, or we can look forward to a future where the overload of rhythm and electronic-based music kick-starts a guitar revival. (Hello, Grunge Phase 2.)
Either way, I’ll be there in October, mashing the colored buttons on the neck of my Rock Band 4 guitar and telling my son to turn down that junk on the radio.