Guitar Hero II

On PlayStation 2.

You can’t learn a difficult piece of music simply by playing it repeatedly from beginning to end. You have to isolate the problem passages, work out the fingerings and phrasings, and then drill them, slowly at first, until you teach your fingers exactly how they should move and your eyes exactly what they should see and your ears exactly what they should hear. As a music major, I spent hours alone in practice rooms, painstakingly working through a few sticky measures. It sounds tedious, and it often was, but when I finally could nail those tricky passages, the sense of accomplishment made me giddy. It was worth it.

Still, drilling fingerings and rhythms is hardly exciting, which is why Guitar Hero II amuses me so much: Underneath all the bells and whistles, it re-creates that experience.

To play the game, you use a special controller to simulate playing a guitar (hitting buttons down the “fret board” with your left hand and “strumming” with your right). A modified staff scrolls over the screen to show you the notes to songs of progressing difficulty, and you play along, scored by how many of those notes you hit.

The gameplay is a lot of fun. You see your avatar bouncing around the stage with his or her band, and many of the song selections are familiar favorites—everything from Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” to the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” (ha!).

But to beat the game, to get the full five stars at a high level of difficulty, you can’t just sail through. You have to practice, and the game accommodates that need beautifully, helping you pinpoint your problem spots and then letting you to drill those tricky passages at slow speeds with just the steady beat of a metronomic drum kit to set the tempo.

You have to practice. That’s what cracks me up. To beat this ridiculously addictive game, you have to experience something of the tedium of a real musician’s rehearsals: working out fingerings, internalizing rhythms, and drilling them until you know them cold. Musicality doesn’t play into the game (you have no control over rubato or dynamics—the game supplies that kind of nuance when you hit the notes correctly). But the demands the game places on finger dexterity and independence, fluency with complex rhythms, and strong sight-reading skills are deeply familiar to me.

Mastering those problem spots can be frustrating (especially since I can’t shake the feeling that doing so is a waste of time), and yet Guitar Hero II is wonderfully entertaining. The studio musicians who covered the tracks for the game are quite good, and it’s fun to feel as though I’m part of that, even if it is just a skillfully created illusion.

But when I set down the silly fake guitar, I feel weirdly nostalgic for all those hours in practice rooms spent pulling my hair out over Bach and Chopin and Prokofiev. Sean and I share a surprisingly spacious apartment, considering what we pay and where we live, but we don’t have room for a piano, even if we could afford one right now, and we really can’t. Someday, I tell myself wistfully after banging through Dick Dale’s arrangement of “Misirlou.Maybe in a couple of years you’ll be working your way through sonatas and etudes again. Surely that will come sooner than you think.