10 Bands You Probably Discovered by Playing Guitar Hero

The classic video game series did as much for musical discovery as competitive gaming

Guitar Hero Slash
Slash on Guitar Hero

Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums or bands that all music fans should know about. As classic gaming series Guitar Hero turns 15 this week, we look at 10 bands a generation of fans likely learned about through gaming rather than crate digging.

In the mid-to-late 2000s, the Guitar Hero series was the party game to own. Initially a partnership between publisher/hardware manufacturer RedOctane and developer Harmonix, the brand built upon the latter’s prior music-based projects — such as Frequency, Karaoke Revolution, and Amplitude — and other genre titans like Dance Dance Revolution, GuitarFreaks, Gitaroo Man, and PaRappa the Rapper. Essentially, players had to match button combinations and rhythmic cues to the arrangements of dozens of popular songs (all of which were presented via colorfully cartoonish depictions of virtual bands playing the tunes). Although the quick succession of mainline titles, spin-offs, and rival offshoots — namely, Rock Band — led to commercial disappointments, critical disinterest, and a general oversaturation of the market over the last decade, there’s no denying how much Guitar Hero dominated the zeitgeist during its prime.

In fact, you could argue that Guitar Hero picked up right where the Tony Hawk games — which peaked between 1999 and 2004 or so — left off, not only because of how synonymous they were with multi-hour competitive play sessions among friends, but also because of how they encouraged their fanbases to actually try the activities they embodied. Just as innumerable Tony Hawk devotees were motivated to try skateboarding, so too were Guitar Hero enthusiasts encouraged to start playing music for real. Hence, the series undoubtedly sparked a newfound interest in the artform for practically all of its players.

Of course, both titles were also revered for their soundtracks, with the Guitar Hero line emphasizing its mix of covers and master recordings above all else. Really, the releases encompassed pretty much every subsection of rock, metal, and punk as they shuffled between several decades of material both instantly recognizable and incredibly under the radar. That vast assortment of music, coupled with stand-alone entries and DLC packs dedicated to individual bands like Van Halen, Metallica, and Aerosmith, spawned an entirely new method of musical discovery for an entirely new generation of music aficionados.

It’s with those feats in mind that we submit the following list of 10 bands that a generation likely discovered through Guitar Hero. Be they chart-topping heavyweights or relatively underknown greats, these groups (and their highlighted songs) were some of the chief standouts of their respective titles; as such, they may’ve been introduced to you as you played alongside them with plastic peripherals.

(Note: we’re only counting the console releases here. Also, we’re not saying that these artists weren’t already popular, but rather that they were likely first found by kids and teens at the time through Guitar Hero.)

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Guitar Hero, 2005)

Like all the earliest Guitar Hero tracks, this classic rocker (originally done by Arrows in 1975 but made famous by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on their 1981 album of the same name) was rerecorded by music production studio WaveGroup Sound. It’s easily Jett’s biggest hit, and fortunately, this version does a fine job capturing the spirit and technique of her rendition. Granted, it’s an extremely simple song in all ways — it’s housed within the game’s introductory setlist, “Opening Licks” — but that’s exactly why it’s such a superb introduction to both Guitar Hero and Jett’s catalog. The unassuming button combinations let you simultaneously mimic and accentuate to the arrangement, and the interspersed moments of holding down notes for sustained effect give you the feeling of being a featured player without much difficulty. The continual cheers from the crowd only amplify that fantasy.

Most Heroic Moment: Climbing the chromatic scale during the solo about two minutes in. It’s a laidback and awesome way to gain “Star Power” (an extended period of multiplier for your score) and get used to the feeling of moving your fingers along the fretboard.

Kansas – “Carry on Wayward Son” (Guitar Hero II, 2006)

Although progressive rock was largely associated with European ensembles in the 1970s (and rightly so), Kansas spent their first few LPs proving that American acts could do it just as well. Specifically, this tune — from their fourth record, 1976’s Leftoverture — is a superlative example of melding the subgenre’s sophistication with radio-friendly hookiness. Thus, it’s indubitably one of the most celebrated parts of the superior sequel, Guitar Hero II, from the subsequent year. It was Harmonix’s swan song with the series, too, so they put maximum effort into replicating it in a fun yet technical way. For instance, the game’s emphasis on acoustic guitar arpeggios during the verses are just as engaging as the legendary lead riffs. To that end, the track’s ability to provide you with something to do no matter which timbres are stressed in the composition itself shows players how much flexibility guitarists can have within a band.

Most Heroic Moment: Pulling off the feisty blend of individual tones and sharp intervals before and after the keyboard solo. It doesn’t last long, but its speed and precision make you feel cool and confident at once.

Rush – “YYZ” (Guitar Hero II, 2006)

For roughly 45 years, Rush have ranked alongside the most adored prog-rock troupes this side of the Atlantic, and this instrumental behemoth is a major reason why. With its intense vibe, irregular start/stop syncopation, and repetitive patterns, it exemplifies the age-old adage of “easy to learn, tough to master.” Guitarist Alex Lifeson’s sleek strums, piercing solos, and bizarre harmonic flicks are all represented here, seamlessly putting you in his shoes as Geddy Lee and Neil Peart back you up with hyperactive rhythms and dreamy keyboard coatings. Taking part in the performance is hypnotic and fulfilling, leading many Rush newcomers to seek out 1981’s seminal Moving Pictures — and the rest of their catalog — ASAP. Sure, they appeared several more times across the series (such as with “The Spirit of Radio (Live)” from 2009’s Guitar Hero 5 and “2112” from 2010’s Warriors of Rock), but “YYZ” remains their top appearance.

Most Heroic Moment: The sheer trickiness of the initial segments. There are many tempo and time signature changes to keep track of, so getting it 100% right is immensely gratifying. Plus, it demonstrates the liberating and lively nature of Rush’s aesthetic.

Heart – “Crazy on You” (Guitar Hero II, 2006)

Heart’s 1975 full-length, Dreamboat Annie, is among the best rock debuts of the decade, and “Crazy on You” is perhaps its strongest selection. Stylistically, the track goes toe-to-toe with anything else from the time in terms of stellar musicianship and infectious melodies. While the Guitar Hero II version falls a tad short in imitating Ann Wilson’s powerful singing, it excels at making you feel like you’re possessed by the six-string prowess of sister Nancy, Roger Fisher, and Howard Leese. The chord progressions aren’t simulated wonderfully, but the rest of the flamboyant composition definitely is. Like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — but to a greater extent — players get a feel for how easy yet empowering it can be to perform balls-to-the-wall rock music in front of a [digitized] crowd. (The addition of “Barracuda” to 2007’s Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock heightened Heart’s impact even further.)

Most Heroic Moment: The one-two punch of the mellow solo and back-and-forth hammering prior to the final chorus. It veers into country rock territory before a last shot of adrenaline brings back the ferocity, illustrating the dynamic range Heart’s guitarists mustered whenever possible.

DragonForce – “Through the Fire and Flames” (Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, 2007)

Whereas the previous artists were renowned prior to Guitar Hero (just not necessarily to players), British power metal quintet DragonForce became overnight sensations with the inclusion of this cut from their third LP, Inhuman Rampage. It’s no wonder why considering how comically challenging and theatrical it is (in fact, Guinness World Records named it the most difficult song in the game). It can even be played during the end credits, so it seems like new developer Neversoft wanted to ensure that gamers were well acquainted with DragonForce’s blisteringly fast instrumentation — including plenty of dual guitar wizardry — and soaring vocals. Legends of Rock improved upon its predecessors’ mock red-and-black Gibson SG with a sturdy black Les Paul peripheral that earned a lot of praise upon release, too; no other song in the set allows users to test it out as triumphantly or thoroughly as this one.

Most Heroic Moment: The whole damn thing is absurdly grandiose and tough, so every moment makes you feel like a badass if you do it right. That said, the sheer wackiness of the second half takes the cake since you’re literally trying to play hundreds of notes as quickly as possible, with the only relief coming during the milliseconds when you use the whammy bar to extend a guitar lick.

Pat Benatar – “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” (Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, 2007)

At the other end of the spectrum comes this anthemic gem from Pat Benatar’s sophomore sequence, Crimes of Passion. Its inviting yet antagonistic tone and hodgepodge of power pop and proto-punk are immediately enticing, and it personifies the traditionally accessible counterculture vibe of Guitar Hero’s sights and sounds. It’s one of the most faithful emulations on this list as well since it effortlessly mirrors every guitar strum and pluck with a corresponding two-button command. Hence, it’s an excellent way for beginning musicians to learn the imperativeness of timing and dexterity — in addition to study pattern recognition — under the guise of letting loose. (Subsequent series entries like “Heartbreaker” and “You Better Run” presented similarly enjoyable and useful training sessions in the midst of deepening Benatar’s place in the Guitar Hero legacy.)

Most Heroic Moment: The alluring progression from left to right — or green to orange — that comes just after the solo starts. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s very graceful since it lets you perfect your ability to move your fingers separately from pointer to pinky.

Living Colour – “Cult of Personality” (Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, 2007)

2015’s Guitar Hero Live brought us “Love Rears Its Ugly Head” and “Type”, but it was Legends of Rock that introduced gamers to funk metal titan Living Colour’s signature song, “Cult of Personality”, from debut record Vivid. Obviously, its principal riff is iconic, with a cyclical design that’s straightforward, yes, but also undeniably cool. In-between, users tap away at complementary tones and seal the deal with sleek strums as singer Corey Glover belts out his hip melodies. There’s also a towering solo about halfway through that’s economical but satisfying, as well another one later that’s pure shred heaven. The recurrent modulations of the central hook increase the piece’s mesmerizing hold on you, too, ensuring that you keep coming back for more and check out what else Living Colour have to offer.

Most Heroic Moment: There are many to choose from, but the final segment — a panicked climb along the fretboard as drummer Will Calhoun drives it home — appeals because of how it appears after a few seconds of silence. It’s like a coda that screams, “Wait, we aren’t done yet!” to keep you on your toes until the very end.

An Endless Sporadic – “Anything” (Guitar Hero: World Tour, 2008)

Easily the least known act on this list (which is a real shame), jazz fusion/progressive metal troupe An Endless Sporadic gained a fair amount of their fanbase from video games in general, with a handful of stints in the Guitar Hero franchise having a significant impact. It’s World Tour’s use of “Anything” — from the Ameliorate EP — that rises to the top, though. Like a fusion of Dream Theater and Mahavishnu Orchestra instrumentals, it’s a ceaseless barrage of time signature changes and fretboard frenzy that forces gamers to master hyperactive picking, individual digit movement, and block chord rotations simultaneously. Thus, it’s quite an endurance test by the end, but its relentless momentum and playful celestial exploration prevent you from getting exasperated. Plus, the Between the Buried and Me-esque acoustic respite in the middle is a great display of An Endless Sporadic’s variety that also gives your hands a much-needed rest.

Most Heroic Moment: Like “Through the Fire and Flames”, it’s a torrent of manic difficulty from start to finish; still, it’s the solo about 95 seconds in that truly tests your swiftness and meticulousness. By comparison, everything else is child’s play.

King Crimson – “21st Century Schizoid Man” (Guitar Hero 5, 2009)

Widely considered the song that launched a style, King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” — from their first sequence, 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King — pretty much invented progressive rock. Interestingly, the main part isn’t too sophisticated or demanding, yet it gets the job done in terms of invigorating the player before the legendary instrumental break kicks off. Once it does, players experience one of the best sections in the entire genre, and Guitar Hero 5 manages to replicate mastermind Robert Fripp’s idiosyncratic methods in an approachable but accurate way. Sure, it’s downright labyrinthine overall, but there’s a nice balance of ridiculously intricate action and calming interims that encourage perpetual growth over repeated attempts. The game even includes something for the noisy, avant-garde devolution at the end, which is a nice touch.

Most Heroic Moment: Without a doubt, the asymmetrical breakdown roughly four-and-a-half minutes in, wherein multiple timbres align for precise patterns. It’s an exquisite test of precision and timing that, when pulled off perfectly, makes you feel like a guitar god who’s ready to take on anything else Guitar Hero throws at you.

Jethro Tull – “Aqualung” (Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, 2010)

This three-part masterpiece from folk/prog rock pioneer Jethro Tull has been beloved since it first kicked off their fourth album, Aqualung, in 1971. It’s been a staple of classic rock radio for years, too, so its place within Warriors of Rock is absolutely earned. Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more famous main riff from the era — so “Aqualung” is an instant Guitar Hero standard — yet it’s its placement around the other two sections (an acoustic dirge and exuberant aside) that gives users both a sundry gameplay workout and an essential education on what made Jethro Tull so one-of-a-kind. In particular, it highlights how vital Martin Barre was to their formula — after all, he infuses the already incredible arrangement with a top-tier solo — so it’s likely that newcomers will agree with the common opinion that he’s an insultingly underappreciated guitarist within the larger scope of rock music.

Most Heroic Moment: Bar none, it’s that guitar solo. Recorded in the same studio (and at the same time) as Led Zeppelin IV, it was fueled by the unexpected observation of Jimmy Page. That heightened the pressure Barre was feeling even more, so he knew he had to nail it. Luckily, he did, and players get to benefit (get it?) with a one-to-one duplication that can’t help but inspire one to figure out the actual notation for themselves.