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December 15, 2005

RedOctane's Guitar Hero: An Interview with Marcus Henderson

by Brian D. Holland.

Guitar Hero from RedOctane is a fun video game. Though it'll never be a prerequisite for learning the instrument, it contains interesting qualities besides that of being enjoyable. If you've ever been a novice guitar player onstage in a band you'll know what I mean. Throughout those first few songs you may find yourself struggling to get the notes right in an effort to avoid embarrassment. It's kind of like that. The object of the game is to pick out the ever-changing notes on the quickly moving fretboard. If you can accomplish this you'll hear the sweet sounding guitar notes of a popular rock song, played in synch with your fretting; if you don't, then you'll hear those awful sounds and out of tune dings. The game isn't accomplished with real finger positions upon the neck of a guitar; instead, a fast-moving fretboard of note 'pots' come at you. The notes must be caught and played at a precise moment, or else. The game comes with a controller shaped like an SG guitar, in which colored fretboard buttons are pushed and a string lever plucked. Bend the whammy bar for personalized accents as well. If you wish, especially those desiring not to adapt to something different, the usual Sony game controllers can be utilized instead of the guitar.

First of all, there are 8 animated rock stars to choose from, depending on your desired style of play and personality. Then you get to choose your axe: a Gibson Les Paul, SG, or Flying V. You can play at four different levels of difficulty as well, prompting a simplified onslaught of notes all the way up to extreme bombardment. Venues can be changed, from cellar dweller settings to huge auditoriums and stadiums. Two players can play simultaneously. There are incentives also, assorted game unlocks and downloads that happen when levels are completed. So just when you think you're done, there's always more to do.

Before you're onstage and under the lights you choose a song to play along with. The list is comprehensive:

Ace of Spades
Bark at the Moon
Cowboys From Hell
Fat Lip
Heart Full of Black
Hey You
Higher Ground
I Love Rock and Roll
I Wanna Be Sedated
Iron Man
Killer Queen
More Than A Feeling
No One Knows
Sharp Dressed Man
Smoke on the Water
Spanish Castle Magic
Symphony of Destruction
Take It Off
Take Me Out
Texas Flood
Thunderkiss 65
You Got Another Thing Comin
Ziggy Stardust

These songs are excellent covers of the real thing. The man behind the licks, riffs, and chordal arrangements of at least two thirds of the songs is a fine player from San Francisco by the name of Marcus Henderson. Marcus is the guitarist for Drist, and has toured all about the US and Europe as a special guest with different bands. I recently spoke with him and learned about his involvement with RedOctane and their game, Guitar Hero. Of course, we talked a lot about guitar as well.

So tell me, Marcus. What led to becoming the guitar hero behind 'Guitar Hero'?

Marcus Henderson: I wish I could pinpoint it exactly, Brian, but it's probably the Led Zeppelin concert my mom attended while I was still in the womb! (Laughing) I can't stand working for the man so I do some session work instead. One time I had to learn three bands worth of reggae material in roughly six hours. Before the session got underway I thought, six hours of reggae, I'll just vamp my way through it. I've listened to enough reggae to think I could pick it up. It was harder than I had expected! I came out with a completely different appreciation of reggae guitar.

You have to play behind the beat, double pick bass lines in unison-behind the beat, and you have to be aware of the calls from the leader. I came into it green, and came out with what was a whole new appreciation for the style. It's one thing to impersonate certain qualities that makes different guitar playing unique, and another to really listen and learn how to analyze music and reproduce it convincingly. Challenging situations make you a much better player. It's those situations that prepared me for Guitar Hero, because you never know what you'll be playing, and the level of accuracy has to be so high that you really have to be on top of your stuff to do it well.

I understand you've got a band together called Drist.

Marcus: Hell yeah, Drist!! We just started mixing our record last night. We're almost done! It's really been an awesome year for the band! David Bendeth has one of the songs. It's sounds epic. He's with Breaking Benjamin and Hawthorne Heights, and had done a bunch of good stuff. He's mixing it out, so things are moving along well.

Talk about Guitar Hero.

Marcus: Well, people are taking to it pretty quickly. I did the guitar parts for twenty of the thirty licensed songs, including an original Drist tune called Decontrol. It can be purchased in the unlock shop.

The unlocks are pretty cool.

Marcus: Here's a cool story. John Tam, the game's producer, told us that Zakk Wylde had heard about the game. He called up Harmonix in Massachusetts, our developer, and asked them why we had put out a guitar-oriented music video game without him being a part of it. It was a stroke of genius, man. He's now on the box! Zakk rocks, and to have him involved is great. He gave us the rights to use his concentric circle bull's-eye Les Paul. It really makes the game; it legitimizes it. Zakk is such a bad ass on guitar. I mean, who's going to go up to him and say, "Why are you playing with a plastic toy guitar, Zakk?" [Laughing]

Kids won't learn to play the guitar from it. It's just a fun game.

Marcus: Right. It's a video game, first and foremost. But it gives you enough of that sensation of holding a guitar and playing a rhythm. Something between the brain and the fingers, people just let themselves go on it. It's like air guitar with a broom, but instead of the broom you actually approximate chords and whatnot and get a reaction out of it. You have to get the notes right. It awards you for scoring well and it punishes you for sucking. Your rock meter will go down if you screw up. If you screw up enough times it'll boo you off the stage. And nobody wants that to happen. [Laughs]

The game progresses, too. You start off in a little practice room and eventually find yourself onstage in a huge concert hall.

Marcus: Right. And the setlist is designed so that the very first song you get into is 'I Love Rock and Roll'. It's a pretty basic song as far as form. All of the songs are rock standards basically. I'd heard a lot of these songs so many times growing up that it wasn't too difficult for me to pick them apart and get them going. I mean, some of the idiosyncrasies of a solo and figuring out how to play, or attack, each song are what made the sessions so unique. But as I was saying, it's 'I Love Rock and Roll' first, a fairly basic yet classic rock tune, and then it ends with 'Bark At The Moon'. That's a huge leap in a career. By the time you hear 'Bark At The Moon' you're confident, and you deserve to be up in that highest venue. If you can pull of 'Bark At The Moon' in the game, man, then you're rockin' pretty hard.

Brian, we had so much fun recording the music, and there was so much magic involved, that I can't tell you how much fun I had over the summer doing this. I almost had the perfect wish list of songs to record. There were a couple of other guys who worked on the songs, too, but I had the majority of the work. The only song I actually turned down, because I didn't have enough time to achieve the tone on it, was 'Texas Flood'. I wasn't confident that I could get that accurate of a Stevie Ray Vaughan tone within the time allotted, so I worked on a different couple of songs while Lance Taber worked on that one. I think it took him three days to get that sound. He did a couple of the classic rock tunes. I'm more of the heavy metal rock specialist, so my workload suited my generation more.

Since we're heading that way, Marcus, and because it was of such tedious importance to the recordings, talk about the gear used in achieving the required tones for each song.

Marcus: Okay. First of all, the sessions were done in Fremont, California, at WaveGroup Sound Studios. It's an absolute world-class facility. I'm actually endorsed by Morley, VHT, Graph Tech, and a few other awesome companies. I gathered pretty much every toy out of the toy box for this. We used a variety of different amplifiers. I brought them all in myself. I was in charge of getting basic tones up and running.

I knew what I had to do when I entered the studio basically. Certain songs would be more suited to an EL34 kind of grid, while others required a Mesa. I used a VHT, a Marshall, a Triple Rectifier, a Line 6 HD, and pretty much every effect pedal under the sun. I broke out some special ones, too. I used a couple of rare Boss pedals. One of my favorites is the Maxon overdrive pedal, the OD-808. It's like a Tubescreamer, but it adds this really special attack to your picking. It gives it a kick ass bite. Guitar-wise, I used a couple of different SGs and a couple of different Strats. The Strats were set up differently, with different pickups. Basically, for the really heavier stuff, I used a Strat loaded with EMGs. For some of the bulkier rock stuff I grabbed an SG or an LP with 500T, 490T, and a burst bucker respectively. I also used an Explorer and an LP Studio.

Talk about guitar playing, and your experience and inspirations. Relate it to you, as being the guitarist in Guitar Hero.

Marcus: By and large, my favorite music growing up was punk and heavy metal. Some things never die. My favorite bands are still Sabbath, and also a bunch of punk bands nobody would even care to talk about. A bunch of obscure, great bands. I try to appreciate bands that never really did too much. At least they've got one fan out there. [Laughs] I'm also into blues and jazz, and I love the playing of Robben Ford, Shawn Lane, Jeff Beck, Lindsey Buckingham, and more. I'm coming up on twenty years as a guitarist, and that's way more than half my life.

Basically, in short, if you asked me what makes a certain player good, in a couple of sentences I'd say, 'this is what makes him who he is'. Like so and so gravitates toward this melodic motif most of the time. Good is a different story altogether. You can play slow or fast, and you can gather all of the tools in the world. Once you have the tools, it's what you do with them. It's how you put them in a musical context for people to enjoy that makes a difference. I knew early on, mainly because I failed a few auditions when I was younger, that if I'm going to satisfy this drive in me to become the very best guitar player I can, then I have to learn, even painstakingly, as much as I can about every facet of music. That's what I think prepared me for 'Guitar Hero'. I have relative pitch and can hear stuff. I can tell you where on the neck it's being played, what position it's being played in, what key it's in, and sometimes what amp and guitar are being used as well. With those details, it helps me get into it. I'll hear a song and start analyzing the form. There are only twelve notes you can deal with, so you're going to be able to find it on the neck, even if your ear isn't well developed. You should be able to find the note sequence. After that it's kind of like analyzing the form, putting it together, and then attacking the trouble spots. In Guitar Hero, a lot of it was the solos.

Yeah. That would take some time, I would think.

Marcus: And I didn't have much time.

Most of what I had a chance to listen to sounded pretty good. I didn't immediately realize that they weren't the originals until the vocals came in.

Marcus: Then we did our job! We just won a Spike TV video game award for best soundtrack in a video game. We're pretty stoked about it! I was in L.A. last week at Vin Diesel's after [the awards] party. Nice buffet and all. Triple X knows how to throw a good party! [Laughs]

When doing the songs, I obsessed over the tones of things. I'd get the tone as close as possible, and then Will and Scott over at the WaveGroup took the tracks and tweaked them. These guys are geniuses; I can't say enough about them. They could make a Tele sound like an EDS-175. They're that good.

Did you play along with a band, a bass player and a drummer?

Marcus: Not often enough. In some cases, because of the workload, the composer at WaveGroup would do the drums and the bass and then kick over the mix to me. I'd then fill it up with guitar. Luckily, Scott Dugdale at WaveGroup would have everything prepared for me as much as humanly possible. In certain cases I got to do a bit more. I played bass on 'Cowboys From Hell'. In fact I produced that entire session because they were away when the song went down.

Here's a quick story about 'CFH'. I love metal. Dimebag [Darrell Abbott], who was like a luminary in the metal community, just passed away a few months beforehand. Here I was, the only player in the world responsible for honoring the memory of Dimebag by playing this song. If anything, I over analyzed 'Cowboys From Hell' to the point of madness. I wanted it to be so perfect, and such a service to the Abbott family, and I wanted the metal community to know that I really worked my ass off to get that down, to show respect for the spirit of Dime. I think we pulled it off; I think it sounds amazing, to tell you the truth.

There's a music store in the game, in which you can utilize the game's unlock feature. You can take the money you earned from playing gigs, go in and unlock new Gibson guitars, new skins, and new songs to play. One of the things you can buy is the unlock video. The screen says, 'If you think the solo in 'Bark At The Moon' is hard, wait until you see someone rip it in real life'. How cool is that? It shows me playing the solos in the video. I'm not going to kid you, Brian; some of these songs were real hard guitar parts. There's a reason why these guys are the best of the best. They don't call the game Guitar Hero for nothing. The setlist is like a who's who of Rock and Metal guitar legends. It was no easy task going into the studio and recreating some of the finest masterpieces in rock history. I had such great help around me, too. And because of my experience, and because I really wanted it to be that good, you can tell that the level of detail and attention is pretty high. I came out of this even stronger. I'm ready for Guitar Hero II.

It sounds like a good gig, Marcus.

Marcus: It's great! I have a really unique situation here. It allows me to be in my original band and write original music, and then I get paid to play guitar for one of the most popular video games in history. I did 30 years worth of guitar, everything from The Donnas to 'Iron Man', and everything in between. The game rocks!

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