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10 Bands You Probably Discovered by Playing Guitar Hero

The classic video game series did as much for musical discovery as competitive gaming

Guitar Hero Slash
Slash on Guitar Hero
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    Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums or bands that all music fans should know about. As classic gaming series Guitar Hero turns 15 this week, we look at 10 bands a generation of fans likely learned about through gaming rather than crate digging.

    In the mid-to-late 2000s, the Guitar Hero series was the party game to own. Initially a partnership between publisher/hardware manufacturer RedOctane and developer Harmonix, the brand built upon the latter’s prior music-based projects — such as Frequency, Karaoke Revolution, and Amplitude — and other genre titans like Dance Dance Revolution, GuitarFreaks, Gitaroo Man, and PaRappa the Rapper. Essentially, players had to match button combinations and rhythmic cues to the arrangements of dozens of popular songs (all of which were presented via colorfully cartoonish depictions of virtual bands playing the tunes). Although the quick succession of mainline titles, spin-offs, and rival offshoots — namely, Rock Band — led to commercial disappointments, critical disinterest, and a general oversaturation of the market over the last decade, there’s no denying how much Guitar Hero dominated the zeitgeist during its prime.

    In fact, you could argue that Guitar Hero picked up right where the Tony Hawk games — which peaked between 1999 and 2004 or so — left off, not only because of how synonymous they were with multi-hour competitive play sessions among friends, but also because of how they encouraged their fanbases to actually try the activities they embodied. Just as innumerable Tony Hawk devotees were motivated to try skateboarding, so too were Guitar Hero enthusiasts encouraged to start playing music for real. Hence, the series undoubtedly sparked a newfound interest in the artform for practically all of its players.

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    Of course, both titles were also revered for their soundtracks, with the Guitar Hero line emphasizing its mix of covers and master recordings above all else. Really, the releases encompassed pretty much every subsection of rock, metal, and punk as they shuffled between several decades of material both instantly recognizable and incredibly under the radar. That vast assortment of music, coupled with stand-alone entries and DLC packs dedicated to individual bands like Van Halen, Metallica, and Aerosmith, spawned an entirely new method of musical discovery for an entirely new generation of music aficionados.

    It’s with those feats in mind that we submit the following list of 10 bands that a generation likely discovered through Guitar Hero. Be they chart-topping heavyweights or relatively underknown greats, these groups (and their highlighted songs) were some of the chief standouts of their respective titles; as such, they may’ve been introduced to you as you played alongside them with plastic peripherals.

    (Note: we’re only counting the console releases here. Also, we’re not saying that these artists weren’t already popular, but rather that they were likely first found by kids and teens at the time through Guitar Hero.)


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    Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Guitar Hero, 2005)

    Like all the earliest Guitar Hero tracks, this classic rocker (originally done by Arrows in 1975 but made famous by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on their 1981 album of the same name) was rerecorded by music production studio WaveGroup Sound. It’s easily Jett’s biggest hit, and fortunately, this version does a fine job capturing the spirit and technique of her rendition. Granted, it’s an extremely simple song in all ways — it’s housed within the game’s introductory setlist, “Opening Licks” — but that’s exactly why it’s such a superb introduction to both Guitar Hero and Jett’s catalog. The unassuming button combinations let you simultaneously mimic and accentuate to the arrangement, and the interspersed moments of holding down notes for sustained effect give you the feeling of being a featured player without much difficulty. The continual cheers from the crowd only amplify that fantasy.

    Most Heroic Moment: Climbing the chromatic scale during the solo about two minutes in. It’s a laidback and awesome way to gain “Star Power” (an extended period of multiplier for your score) and get used to the feeling of moving your fingers along the fretboard.


    Kansas – “Carry on Wayward Son” (Guitar Hero II, 2006)

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    Although progressive rock was largely associated with European ensembles in the 1970s (and rightly so), Kansas spent their first few LPs proving that American acts could do it just as well. Specifically, this tune — from their fourth record, 1976’s Leftoverture — is a superlative example of melding the subgenre’s sophistication with radio-friendly hookiness. Thus, it’s indubitably one of the most celebrated parts of the superior sequel, Guitar Hero II, from the subsequent year. It was Harmonix’s swan song with the series, too, so they put maximum effort into replicating it in a fun yet technical way. For instance, the game’s emphasis on acoustic guitar arpeggios during the verses are just as engaging as the legendary lead riffs. To that end, the track’s ability to provide you with something to do no matter which timbres are stressed in the composition itself shows players how much flexibility guitarists can have within a band.

    Most Heroic Moment: Pulling off the feisty blend of individual tones and sharp intervals before and after the keyboard solo. It doesn’t last long, but its speed and precision make you feel cool and confident at once.


    Rush – “YYZ” (Guitar Hero II, 2006)

    For roughly 45 years, Rush have ranked alongside the most adored prog-rock troupes this side of the Atlantic, and this instrumental behemoth is a major reason why. With its intense vibe, irregular start/stop syncopation, and repetitive patterns, it exemplifies the age-old adage of “easy to learn, tough to master.” Guitarist Alex Lifeson’s sleek strums, piercing solos, and bizarre harmonic flicks are all represented here, seamlessly putting you in his shoes as Geddy Lee and Neil Peart back you up with hyperactive rhythms and dreamy keyboard coatings. Taking part in the performance is hypnotic and fulfilling, leading many Rush newcomers to seek out 1981’s seminal Moving Pictures — and the rest of their catalog — ASAP. Sure, they appeared several more times across the series (such as with “The Spirit of Radio (Live)” from 2009’s Guitar Hero 5 and “2112” from 2010’s Warriors of Rock), but “YYZ” remains their top appearance.

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    Most Heroic Moment: The sheer trickiness of the initial segments. There are many tempo and time signature changes to keep track of, so getting it 100% right is immensely gratifying. Plus, it demonstrates the liberating and lively nature of Rush’s aesthetic.


    Heart – “Crazy on You” (Guitar Hero II, 2006)

    Heart’s 1975 full-length, Dreamboat Annie, is among the best rock debuts of the decade, and “Crazy on You” is perhaps its strongest selection. Stylistically, the track goes toe-to-toe with anything else from the time in terms of stellar musicianship and infectious melodies. While the Guitar Hero II version falls a tad short in imitating Ann Wilson’s powerful singing, it excels at making you feel like you’re possessed by the six-string prowess of sister Nancy, Roger Fisher, and Howard Leese. The chord progressions aren’t simulated wonderfully, but the rest of the flamboyant composition definitely is. Like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — but to a greater extent — players get a feel for how easy yet empowering it can be to perform balls-to-the-wall rock music in front of a [digitized] crowd. (The addition of “Barracuda” to 2007’s Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock heightened Heart’s impact even further.)

    Most Heroic Moment: The one-two punch of the mellow solo and back-and-forth hammering prior to the final chorus. It veers into country rock territory before a last shot of adrenaline brings back the ferocity, illustrating the dynamic range Heart’s guitarists mustered whenever possible.


    DragonForce – “Through the Fire and Flames” (Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, 2007)

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    Whereas the previous artists were renowned prior to Guitar Hero (just not necessarily to players), British power metal quintet DragonForce became overnight sensations with the inclusion of this cut from their third LP, Inhuman Rampage. It’s no wonder why considering how comically challenging and theatrical it is (in fact, Guinness World Records named it the most difficult song in the game). It can even be played during the end credits, so it seems like new developer Neversoft wanted to ensure that gamers were well acquainted with DragonForce’s blisteringly fast instrumentation — including plenty of dual guitar wizardry — and soaring vocals. Legends of Rock improved upon its predecessors’ mock red-and-black Gibson SG with a sturdy black Les Paul peripheral that earned a lot of praise upon release, too; no other song in the set allows users to test it out as triumphantly or thoroughly as this one.

    Most Heroic Moment: The whole damn thing is absurdly grandiose and tough, so every moment makes you feel like a badass if you do it right. That said, the sheer wackiness of the second half takes the cake since you’re literally trying to play hundreds of notes as quickly as possible, with the only relief coming during the milliseconds when you use the whammy bar to extend a guitar lick.


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