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Guitar hero This undated image from the video game "Guitar Hero" was provided by publisher RedOctane. The game's creators, Harmonix, won't be working on future games in the series, thanks to a shift in development houses. (RedOctane/Associated Press)

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Technology

The newest trend in nightclubs: guitaraoke

Last Updated August 30, 2007

Martin Geiger looks like a cross between Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC guitarist Angus Young as he shreds his way through the solo of Sweet Child 'O Mine. With his wild afro hairstyle and marching-on-the-spot playing style, he could easily be a modern day blending of the two legendary guitarists.

Appearances aside, his skill with the guitar is of similar pedigree as his fingers furiously finish off the last notes of the Guns 'n Roses classic. The small crowd at the Tiger Bar in downtown Toronto approves, cheering loudly during the culmination of Geiger's virtuoso performance. A star is born.

The only thing is, Geiger isn't really a guitarist, and he isn't in a band. He's a 34-year-old children's animator, and his guitar isn't really a guitar. It's a plastic replica controller, connected to what is perhaps this year's hottest video game, Guitar Hero 2.

Geiger has been playing the game, projected onto a 10-foot screen and blasted over the tiny basement bar's sound system, while the small audience of about 15 young people watch and wait their turn. Geiger and a friend who had been backing him up on bass guitar, smilingly hand over their plastic axes to the next duo, who dive into playing the Rolling Stones' Can't You Hear Me Knockin'. Their performance is a little less rollicking, but the crowd eats it up anyway.

Guitar Hero 2, released by Activision for the PlayStation 2 in late 2006 and for the Xbox 360 in March, has proven so popular with wannabe rock-star guitarists that it is starting to bring people out of their homes and into bars to socially enjoy the game. It's like karaoke, only with guitars. Call it the "guitaraoke" revolution.

The Tiger Bar, for one, is eager to accommodate by devoting its slow Wednesday nights to some guitar-based video game fun.

Guitary Hero Freddie Wong, 21, of Seattle, Wash., plays Guitar Hero II on stage at the World Series of Video Games, Saturday, July 7, 2007, in Grapevine, Texas. (D.J. Peters/Associated Press)

"They come out to see how good other people are," explains Lauren, the bartender, who didn't want her surname used. "I go up myself, but I suck. Drinks help, though."

The bar introduced Guitar Hero 2 about three months ago. It normally has bands � real bands � playing most other nights, but Wednesdays were quiet. As it turned out, the booker's girlfriend was addicted to the game and convinced him to try it out in the bar. The small crowd has been growing steadily since, the bartender says, and things should really start rolling once universities are back in full swing.

It's from similar humble beginnings that karaoke became such a huge phenomenon in Canadian and U.S. bars. What started as a desperate attempt to fill dead nights is now a major weekend draw for many bars. The Guitar Hero concept, which will see two new iterations by the end of the year, may just be sparking a new, similar phenomenon.

The initial Guitar Hero game was developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based Harmonix Music Systems Inc. The company was one of the first to achieve success with music-based titles such as Amplitude and Dance Dance Revolution, helping to create the "rhythm" game genre.

The premise of many of these games is simple � a series of colour-coded notes scroll down the screen and the player must hit corresponding buttons on the controller in time with them. The games stress timing and getting in touch with the beat of the music, as opposed to the frantic button mashing and hand-eye co-ordination required by most sports and shoot-em-up titles.

Guitar Hero, released in 2005, took the rhythm idea a step further by replacing the standard controller with a guitar replica. The guitar had five coloured buttons on the neck, a strum bar on its body and a fully functional whammy bar, which let players spice things up by bending and distorting notes.

The game included cover songs from a diverse group of artists, including Boston, Pantera and Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as a number of original songs by independent bands. Guitar Hero 2 was also developed by Harmonix, but was published by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Activision subsidiary RedOctane. The sequel also featured diverse acts, from Megadeth to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Heart, and introduced multiplayer capability where the screen was split with one player on lead guitar and the other on rhythm or bass guitar.

The game has proven to be a smash hit, selling more than 3.2 million copies so far, and will be followed by Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock at the end of October, which will feature more of the same and introduce "boss battles," where players have showdowns with guitar legends such as Slash from Guns 'n Roses.

Harmonix, which was bought by MTV in 2006, is going a different route. While Guitar Hero III is being developed by RedOctane and Neversoft Entertainment, also an Activision subsidiary, Harmonix has been working on further expanding the rhythm idea to include a full complement of instruments. Rock Band, expected to be released Nov. 20, will incorporate not only guitar and bass but also a drum kit and microphone for vocals as well, allowing players to put together a full four-piece group. While Guitar Hero III is hotly anticipated, it's Rock Band's progression that really excites fans.

Greg LoPiccolo, vice-president of product development for Harmonix, says the company had no idea the Guitar Hero concept would become such a phenomenon. The company has received reports that Guitar Hero nights at bars have sprung up all over the United States and Canada, as well as overseas.

"It totally took us by surprise, it wasn't our intention," he says. "But now that we've seen what happened with Guitar Hero, I think Rock Band could be much bigger in the same way. It could well become this public performance phenomenon where people get together a band and dress up."

LoPiccolo is at a loss to explain the emerging trend, but likens it to the reasons people get up to do karaoke in front of a large audience.

"It's the same impulse. People really like public performance," he says. "A lot of it is how much fun it is to make music. With Guitar Hero, there's this weird emotional power when you hit the little strum bar and this giant guitar sound comes out. I don't even know how to analyze that but it's clearly true."

Geiger, the Tiger Bar's resident virtuoso, is attracted to the social aspect of the game. While it's fun to play at home or even online, which the two new games will allow, there's nothing that can match the thrill of playing in front of an audience with friends.

"I like the co-operative mode and you can't do that yourself," he says. "It's a social type of game because there's showmanship involved, and you can't have any showmanship when you play it online because you don't even know where the other guy is."

The success of Guitar Hero 2 has changed attitudes in the recording industry, as well. While songs in the first two games were mostly covers, record labels and bands are now scrambling to get their songs included. Most of the tracks in both Guitar Hero III and Rock Band will be originals, and both titles will regularly offer new downloadable songs.

Harmonix will be offering new tracks on a weekly basis, LoPiccolo says, including full albums, starting with Who's Next by The Who.

It's this downloadable content that will determine whether or not the guitaraoke revolution has any legs, says Lauren at the Tiger Bar. The crowds will only continue to grow if there are new and fresh songs to play.

"It does have the potential, but it's not up to the venue, it's up to the game."

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