COLUMBIA — The lights at the Blue Note are dimmed, and Zach Whitsell’s fingers strum furiously, hitting chord after chord at a speed that is mind-boggling.
The crowd cheers as he hits the final notes of “Through the Fire and Flames,” a song by Dragonforce, a British power metal band.
Fifteen-year-old Zach of Jefferson City is a rock star.
Well, sort of.
Zach pulls the strap of the wireless video game controller, a sleek black guitar-shaped plastic contraption, over his head and shakes his opponent’s hand. The two have completed the final round of his age bracket, 15 and younger, at Saturday’s Guitar Hero tournament.
Zach won a red electric guitar, a month’s worth of lessons at Palen Music, a gift certificate to Game City and four VIP tickets to a Blue Note show for his mastery of the widely popular video game.
Guitar Hero, originally released in fall 2005, is a video game that gives players the chance to rock out to hits from a number of decades. Two players can compete against each other in the game, or one can play in career mode. Speed, as well as the number and combinations of buttons used, increases as a player progresses from easy to expert.
The original version featured songs such as “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple and “Fat Lip” by Sum 41. Currently in its fourth installment, the game is made for four different gaming consoles, PCs and Macs.
To say the game is a cultural phenomenon is putting it lightly: It recently exceeded $1 billion in sales, and its impact doesn’t end there. Guitar Hero has boosted online downloads of the featured songs, there have been tournaments around the nation, and the game has been featured in music videos and TV shows.
But for Zach, it has had a more personal impact.
“My friends said (I should learn to play guitar) because I’m so good at the game,” Zach said.
Jim Whitsell, Zach’s father, calls his son a natural at the guitar. Although Zach started out by playing the game, he said he now likes the instrument better.
To Dan Bugbee, manager at Palen Music, Zach’s story is no surprise. Bugbee said he’s seen a number of students begin lessons after playing Guitar Hero at home.
“What I love about the game is that it instills the ‘I-wanna-be-a-rock-star’ passion,” Bugbee said. “It makes kids more likely to pick up an actual guitar.”
Tom Williams, a guitar teacher, said the opposite leap — between playing guitar and the game — is not an easy one to make.
“You have to forget everything you know about guitar and focus on pressing the buttons,” Williams said. He explained that between strings, frets and standard harmonics, a guitar can produce 186 different sounds.
Compare that to the Guitar Hero controller, where players are required to press, at most, three of five colored buttons at a time, which results in 25 possible sound combinations. A good player can coordinate strumming the plastic bar meant to stimulate a guitar’s strings with accurately pressing the buttons at a break-neck pace.
Still, Williams says the game has strong points.
“A lot of the (music) I grew up with and was really into, this generation hasn’t heard,” Williams said. “It’s really exposing them to classic, timeless stuff.”
Chase Zelinga, a 17-year-old guitar player who has played the game a handful of times, agreed with Williams’ point.
“I’ve met a lot of people who listen to modern music. They play the game and then they start to like classic rock,” Zelinga said.
Zach Bloomfield, 17, also plays guitar and competed in the most recent Guitar Hero tournament in Columbia, his second.
He said a guitar player can transfer techniques to the video game.
“I’m used to having the coordination to time my hands and strum at the same time,” Bloomfield said.
On the whole, a musical background seems to help Guitar Hero players. Zach Whitsell’s mother, Betty Whitsell, said her son has played violin, cello and saxophone in the past.
Ming Cheng, a 17-year cello player, said he was able to play the game on the medium level in the store before purchasing the game. He placed fourth in the 16-and-up age bracket on Saturday.
Cello players might have an advantage in the game, Cheng said. He explained that the spacing between the buttons on the controller is almost identical to the spacing between fingers on the strings of a cello.
“It keeps my fingers in shape for cello,” Cheng said. “I don’t have to practice as much.”
Cheng frequently plays the game with Bloomfield and said that Bloomfield, coming from a guitar background, has advantages over him. Bloomfield is able to strum the notes up and down, which helps boost speed, Cheng said.
“I normally only strum down,” he said. “It’s more accurate, but I get tired faster.”
The game aside — and its fun aside — most agreed nothing compared to playing the real thing.
Zach Whitsell wasn’t running home to play the video game, after all. His shiny new electric guitar was singing his name.