The Real Heroes of Guitar Hero III

The video-game industry has become a monster player in the new-media economy. Just ask the record and movie companies desperately trying to compete for your entertainment dollar. For a while, it even appeared that PlayStation, XBox, and Wii were supplanting Fender, Gibson, and PRS as objects of desire for young and old alike. But, ironically, it may turn out to be a video game that helps shift the balance back.

Guitar Hero is a game in which players simulate the ax heroics of their favorite, well, guitar heroes, using a guitar-shaped peripheral. Rather than actually playing guitar, contestants play the music by pressing colored fret buttons on the controller. These buttons coordinate with on-screen notes. The would-be lead guitarist’s job is to hit the button as the same-colored icons light up on the screen, while strumming a “strum-bar” to match the rhythm. The closer the playing mimics the music, the higher the score.

Developed by Harmonix Music Systems in 2005, Guitar Hero spawned Guitar Hero II. In 2006, development passed over to Neversoft who began working on Guitar Hero III. For each version, there has been a need for re-recorded versions of famous, guitar-oriented tunes such as “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “War Pigs,” and “Black Magic Woman” that contestants can “play.” These cover versions are cut with the guitar parts and solos separated out into music stems that sound properly only if the game player hits the right colored button at the right time. We collared some of the producers and guitarists responsible for creating the cover versions on the Guitar Hero series to find out how they got the gig, and what it was like cloning some of the greatest guitar work of all time.

Original Guitar Hero producer Will Littlejohn from Wavegroup Sound reached out to some of the top guitarists he knew, choosing them for their ability to nail the particular styles individual tunes required. One of his choices, guitarist/clinician Doug Doppler, enumerates some of the additional requirements: “Getting the gig was as much about my ability to keep my mouth shut about the songs and potential titles I was working on as my ability to play the parts. Having a functional ability in the Pro Tools environment was also essential.”

All of the guitarists needed to be Pro Tools proficient as the tracks and overdubs were often recorded in their own homes, and then assembled at the Wavegroup studios. Exactitude is a recurring theme in everyone’s description of working on the project. Getting the notes right was a given, but the participants went way beyond that to precisely match tones and fine points of expression.

“The directive was to be exact, or as close as possible,” says session ace Lyle Workman (Beck, Sting, Frank Black), an old friend of Littlejohn’s. “I’d make an educated guess as to what created the original guitar sounds, and then choose the gear accordingly. Going after the tone and trying to nail the feel were the most challenging aspects—more so than playing the parts.”

 “You learn really quickly that playing the right notes doesn’t mean the guitar part is going to sound like the original guitarist’s performance,” adds guitarist Lance Taber. “I found that touch and tone were the most crucial aspects of any guitar part I was learning. Once I found the tone, I found it much easier to learn the actual part.”

 “Feel” and “tone” were words invoked often by all the guitarists involved on Guitar Hero. Working on Reb Beach’s guitar parts for Winger’s “Seventeen,” Doug Doppler found he had to match the “bounce” of the guitar tracks in order to accurately replay the performance.

“I pulled out an old Yamaha D1500 to capture the sound of the delay he used, and I printed the effect to Pro Tools just as if I had plugged into a stompbox onstage,” explains Doppler. “Generally, it is frowned upon to cut a track without the ability to separate the delay from the main signal as it makes it really hard to punch in, but I’ll share one of my little studio tricks. I ran my Marshall output to a Palmer Speaker Simulator, and then routed one output directly into Pro Tools, and another into the D1500, which was also routed to a separate track. Now, I had two tracks—one Marshall sound without delay, and another with delay. So as long as I don’t cut off the delay trail by hitting Stop too soon, I can punch in anywhere on the track, and use crossfades to fix any glitches in the direct and delay tracks.”

Although some of the game guitarists used modeling units—such as the Boss GT-8 or Line 6 POD XT Live—to quietly track parts at home, as much as possible, the players tried to match the gear that was used for the original recordings.

“I have a stack of Guitar Player magazines from 1980 on, so old interviews would sometimes have great information,” says producer/guitarist Steve Ouimette, who has been involved with Guitar Hero III.

“For instance, Leslie West played a mid ’50s Les Paul Jr. on ‘Mississippi Queen,’ so I borrowed one from my buddy. I’m pretty sure West used Sunn amps for that recording, but the closest I could get was my ’67 Marshall plexi P.A. head into a ’68 Marshall basketweave cab. For the mic preamps, I used Ampex 350s, and the mics were a Beyer M160 close up, and a Neumann U47 FET as a room mic. As I was overdubbing the solos, I put a snare drum in the room, and left the snares open so the rattle was picked up on the guitar track. This helped glue the track together. Back in the day, many tracks were recorded live, and signal bleed between instruments was a major component of the sound.”

Ouimette recorded his parts into Pro Tools at 24-bit/48kHz, and mixed through an SSL J-series board. However, they didn’t have SSLs back in the early days of Mountain, so he relied on vintage outboard gear to get the appropriate old-school sound.

“I used my old Echoplex as a delay on the vocals, as well as spring reverbs, vintage Pultec EQs, and so on,” he says. “I didn’t use a lot of plug-ins.”

“I was around in the ’80s, so I have a pretty good idea of who was using what gear,” adds Doppler. “Extreme’s ‘Play with Me’ was the hardest for me to play. Nuno Bettencourt has a lot of ‘Eddie’ in his sound, and that translated to the CryBaby wah, MXR Phase 90, and MXR Flanger. I picked my most ’80s-sounding Ibanez and Marshall to try and duplicate his sound as best I could. Nuno has great feel, tone, and technique, and it takes time to climb into someone’s universe and capture their feel—which is really what this gig is about.”

All of the musicians had to learn the tunes the old fashioned way by listening to the original stereo recordings over and over.

“I would pan my guitar part to the left channel, and pan the original recording to the right channel, and then play them simultaneously,” says Taber. “Then, if something wasn’t right, it was easy for me to hear, and I could correct it. Some songs required research to determine what equipment was being used—if there were alternate tunings, certain stompboxes, and so on. YouTube became a very handy research tool for me. Not only could I see what neck positions the guitar players were using in their respective songs, but quite often you could also see the guitars and amplifiers they were using.”

Guitar Hero III is the first edition to use a large portion of the original songs by the original artists, although Ouimette was still commissioned to do several recreations, as well as a remake of the Charlie Daniels tune “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

“It was like going to guitar lessons with the masters every day for several months,” Ouimette says. “Not only did it make me a better player, it made me aware of the intricacies of the style that each player has. Buck Dharma’s solo on ‘Cities on Flame’ completely floored me. He has a very crafty way of digging into those blues scales, and he tends to throw bends right in the middle of a line. Just when you would think he was going somewhere, he went the opposite direction.”

Of course, the game’s title refers to the virtual world it creates, where participants are offered the chance to feel like spandexed, groupie-laden, ax-wielding gods or goddesses. But it is turning out that the game itself is a bit of a hero, as it leads generations of game-console fiends to consider the joys of actually playing the real thing.

“The fact that we are inspiring people to play the real guitar from playing Guitar Hero is the greatest feeling ever,” says guitarist Marcus Henderson. “More people have discovered guitar as a lifestyle—and as a tool for expression—since Guitar Hero came out in 2005, than I can remember since I was a kid in the ’80s. Call me a sucker, but I actually believe in the notion that one well-timed riff can rattle a mountain to dust and ash in an instant. We’re also making sure the little grommets out there recognize the intrinsic awesomeness of ZZ Top as soon as possible.”