Guitar Zero

It was around 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday when the kid strolled into Java D'Lites, a Coral Springs Coffee Shop. With the shop buzzing over the night's event — South Florida's first legit Guitar Hero competition — the kid's entrance didn't get much attention.

Matt Lozano was just one of a dozen gamers, musicians, and gamer-musician hybrids who had flocked in for a chance to show how hard they could rock out on a mini plastic guitar control. The champion would receive a real guitar — a $600 Brownsville Les Paul.

The Guitar Hero tournament concept has swept across America in the past year. The website of Guitar Hero Organized Underground League (GHOUL), www.beaguitarhero.com, lists competitions from New York City to Dickson City, Pennsylvania, to Santa Rosa, California. Orlando gaming conventions have hosted multiple GH events, but only in the past two months have these competitive pseudo­concerts sprung up in coffee shops in South Florida.

Lozano, is pretty happy about this.

At 16, he's the shy, bangs-in-the-eyes type. He wears a loose, striped polo shirt over his bear-like build, and there's a deceptive self-confidence in that slow strut of his. He doesn't say much. Only the careful observer would notice his braces, and, in truth, probably nobody would pick up on his deeply competitive spirit.

But when his name is called, Lozano takes the mini plastic guitar in a deft hand, and begins the game. The other gamers' eyes open wider. This is no quiet wannabe. This is a pushbutton virtuoso.

Lozano's eyes fixed in deep concentration and his fingertips dancing like a concert pianist's over the red, blue, yellow, orange, and green plastic buttons, he has the coffeehouse stirring. "Damn," says Marc Brooks, another contestant who plays videogames for about eight hours a day. "Fast fingers."

Performing "My Curse" by Killswitch Engage — on the "expert" level — Lozano doesn't miss a note.

"I thought I was fast," says 27-year-old guitarist and tournament organizer Arthur Granquist. "But this kid is fast."

Oh, the excitement of being in the presence of a real Guitar Hero hero. Lozano brings a kind of star quality to the table.

You can see it in the involuntary outbursts from the crowd when Lozano completes a perfect solo. You can see it in the way heads shake in disbelief when people talk about his skills. Is this what it was like when people listened to, say, the guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix?

Let's be clear about this. When Lozano plays the plastic, he's not playing a real guitar. He does not make actual music. He shadows popular rock recordings, trying to match the guitar solos stroke by stroke, run by run, by following a video program of flowing lights coordinated with pushbuttons. The result is like — well, almost like — playing in a real band.

As Guitar Hero and other highly accessible music videogames have exploded in American culture, so has the acceptance, and perhaps even the worship, of the gaming lifestyle. High schools and colleges are trying to catch the wave by instituting and accrediting videogame design programs, and many parents, desperate for a way to convert the passions of their young gaming prodigies into lucrative careers, have chipped in with their own tentative approbation.

Whether or not giving make-believe performances a real legitimacy is possible, gamers have found themselves skyrocketed from bottom-dwelling geekdom to the upper echelon of the social totem poll.

"I wish I was in school now," says Village Voice videogame writer Chris Ward, who takes a jaundiced view of the Guitar Hero phenomenon. "Maybe I would get a date for my Super Mario prowess."

No lie. Just ask Matt Lozano how many cute girls dropped by his house the other night.

Not everybody loves them some Guitar Hero. In fact, plenty of musicians have turned their noses up at the game that gives every average kid with no talent and no dedication a chance to feel like a rock star.

Some real musicians disparage it as an advanced form of "air guitar" or Simon Says.

"I refuse to ever play it," says guitarist Jeff Nordstedt of the Milwaukees. In November, the New Jersey rock band launched a "living room tour," playing home gigs across the Northeast. At almost every show, he says, fans were asking to "jam" with the band. On plastic.

"We were in people's living rooms, and all they wanted to know was, 'Did we play Guitar Hero?' " Nordstedt says. So the band made a "no Guitar Hero allowed" announcement before each gig.

At one show in Rhode Island, there was an afterparty at a hotel where a locally renowned Guitar Hero wizard showed up. Nordstedt wasn't impressed, saying the dude just sat in the corner, twiddling his thumbs. Nordstedt says he's begun to feel that an important barrier has been broken down. "The gamists feel they've leveled the playing field when it comes to shredding the guitar," he says bitterly. "They're still far behind."

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell