Why I Chart for Guitar Hero

14 March, 2024

Disclaimer: I am, by no means, an expert at charting for rhythm games, and I am extremely bad at actually playing rhythm games. I simply know a bit too much about Guitar Hero, as well as its siblings and friends.

I make custom 5-fret charts for Guitar Hero. In the world of rhythm gaming, there's a few terms for that act, and those terms have evolved over the years, but generally speaking, we would call that charting. To explain this in the simplest way possible: .ogg file goes in, (insert many hours of space bar clacking and head-scratching here), chart file goes out.

Charting for Guitar Hero essentially means that the person (the charter) is also charting for other similar 5-fret rhythm games, such as Rock Band, or any of their fan-made variants or spinoffs. Examples of such variants may include Clone Hero, Fast GH3, GH2DX, GHWTDE, YARG, or Fret Smasher. I'm sure there are countless other fan projects out there, as well as countless bootlegs of the original games (shoutout to Guitar Hero Live for PS2, as well as Guitar Star), but as of now, these are the fan-made games or mods that hold some level of respect and notoriety in the community.

*older spinoff games like Rock Revolution and Guitar Praise need not apply. Also, who the hell is still playing Frets on Fire in 2024???

Anyways: I was talking about cross-compatibility between rhythm games. If you are charting 5-fret lead guitar for one of these games, then there is some conversion tool or another that will allow your chart to be read and played in any of those other games. Some games, such as YARG, may not even require a conversion tool, as they are able to read multiple types of chart files right out of the gate. There may be some issues that arise, such as tap chords not being implemented in older games, or the lack of vocal charts, or incompatibility issues if you're using fancy tricks in Moonscraper to mimic harmonic events, but otherwise, the chart itself should be perfectly playable across platforms. And yes, that means that you can theoretically port them onto a modded console, and play them on original hardware, within the engine of an original game. It's extremely cool that people can enjoy custom charts in whatever engine they see fit to enjoy them in; whether they prefer the ease of the "whale-pussy engine" known as Clone Hero, the customization options offered by YARG, the tighter engine and humor factor of GHWTDE (aka, who Fortnite Festival copied their homework from /j), or on the challenging and limiting engines of the original games, on their original hardware. There's something for everyone here.

(See: this video from 2007, in which someone has taped over the lid sensor of their PS2 Slim. They have done this in order to keep the lid open while the console is reading their Guitar Hero II disc. Once the laser moves to a certain point during console bootup, they quickly reach inside the PS2, yank the disc out mid-read, and shove their custom disc inside to finish booting up the game, but now it will contain their custom songs, as well as the base game. If this sounds like an extremely strange process, rest assured: it is. We modders have an extremely easy experience nowadays, compared to the early days of Guitar Hero's existence.)

I'm using this partially as a way to expound on why I enjoy charting for Clone Hero (my beloved), and partially to infodump about Guitar Hero & Rock Band as a whole.

Admittedly, I don't chart very often these days. A combination of stress, time, and burnout with everything in general has left me without much motivation to do anything. However, when I do have the energy to sit down and finish a chart, I genuinely enjoy the process of seeing it to its completion. There is a certain process of elimination when it comes to deciding what musical notes should correspond to what frets; of assigning chords based on what you can hear, the limitations presented by having only 5 linear notes, and a set of modernized community guidelines for charting chords. There is a sense of satisfaction in going back through a first-pass charting job, and scrutinizing your work for consistency. There is a sense of satisfaction in sitting down to make the tempo chart to begin with (NEVER set down notes before finishing the tempo chart! Do NOT do this!), especially if it involves "unusual" time signatures, or the song fluctuates in tempo and/or changes time signatures a lot. If there is no publicly available guide on how to count the song, or if nobody can quite agree on how to do so, then even if you do know everything about music theory, you're going to sit there scratching your head, wondering how you even ended up where you're at right now. However, if you're anything like me, then you're probably going to have that moment and enjoy yourself in that moment.

Again, there's a sense of satisfaction in banging my head against this proverbial wall over and over again; throwing BPM markers and time signature markers at the bricks until something sticks to them.

I had been charting for a year or two prior to this project, so I already had some foundation from which to work off of, but my experience in charting the entirety of the album De-Loused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta* has taught me a lot about the charting process. It taught me about time signatures (or more accurately, about how to guess at time signatures, and at least identify when something is not in a "common" time signature). It taught me about strange tempo changes, and how to deal with them effectively, in a format that does not always play well with large tempo swings. It taught me that, sometimes, the chaos simply has to be embraced in the charting process, and while the goal is generally to pursue accuracy in a chart, at the end of the day, it has to be a playable item. If you have to sacrifice some accuracy for playability, well, that's a sacrifice that you will need to make.

It also taught me a lot about an album that was already one of my personal favorites. In the process of charting these songs; of playing sections of them over and over again, of searching the Web for covers, higher quality versions, stems, tabs, and really any reference material that I could get my hands on; of digging into the tragic story behind the album and really coming to understand how each song connected to the words within...I gained an even deeper appreciation for that hour-long work of art.

(CW: drug use, suicide) De-Loused in the Comatorium short story

Generally speaking, this happens with any song that I chart, but none have been more pronounced than this behemoth of a project that I managed to complete and release before the album's 10th anniversary.

As I am sitting here, writing this up, I am coming to realize the three major reasons why I love charting for Clone Hero, though one of those reasons has only been indirectly mentioned thus far.

  1. I love the ability to engage with a musical work and turn it into a playable experience. For me, anyways, a willingness to learn the process and carry it through to completion is a testament to your love for the music. You care about it enough to pour hours, days, weeks, even months or years into a project - to go down that rabbit hole of deconstructing a song (or songs) and turning it into something that other people can actively play and engage with in a rhythm game, regardless of whatever corporations may say about your (almost definitely unauthorized) use of the music for this purpose. I don't know why, but being able to do that scratches a combination of areas in my brain: the anti-capitalist tendencies, the neurodivergent tendencies, and the "I just like music and making things" tendencies.
    (Side note: you would be surprised about how many musical artists are okay with people using their music for innocuous things like this. It's record labels that tend to present the problem, but I digress.)
  2. I like the fact that people can take a chart that I made, and port it into whatever engine that they see fit. Most people would choose to play my charts in Clone Hero, seeing as that is the engine they were intended for, but there is theoretically nothing stopping people from playing my charts on YARG, or GHWTDE, or Fret Smasher, or any of the various other engines out there. If they want to try playing Looping Steps on GH2DX, then I guess they can try playing Looping Steps on GH2DX. I swear, though, if I see anyone using my charts as customs in Rock Revolution, I will personally put the Rock Band fog juice inside of your vape while you aren't looking. (/j)
  3. I like that this process teaches me more about the music that I like. There isn't much to say about this that I haven't already said above, so I'll just throw some information at you about the charting process of one song, instead. Did you know that there is no agreed-upon way to count the breakdown in Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt (labelled in my chart as "Chaos Solo")? Many people say it's 11/8 + 4/4 repeating (it makes sense for the quiet guitar part), then some people say it's 4/4 throughout the section (what I ended up going with for continuity of star power), some people say there's possibly polymeters or polyrhythms at play, and one person even suggests counting the four-bar groove as 19, 18, 14, and 13.
    All of this information led me to chart the "Chaos Solo," as I had named it, as a consistent 4/4, and to manually change the tempo as necessary. This would keep any star power used in this section from draining at an inconsistent rate...which is good, because this section is almost definitely a huge failure point for anyone playing with No-Fail turned off. You need all the star power you can get here. However, when I casually listen to it, outside of the context of Clone Hero, I like to think of it as two time signatures overlapping, resolving at the same time, signifying being between two realities. In the context of the story, this makes the most sense to me.

That was a lot of information to throw at you. Rest assured, I would probably not have sought this information out if I did not slam my face against that behemoth of a project for the better part of a year. I know the album a lot better now. I know the story a lot better now. I understand why I feel a connection to the album a lot better now. If I hadn't started charting for Clone Hero, I likely would not have discovered that deeper information about the music; the album that I had clearly attached myself to a couple of years prior to this project.

It feels nice, to take someone's creative vision and build upon it, learning more about it in the process. It feels nice, knowing that people can enjoy what I build in a variety of ways, be they easily-accessible or otherwise.

And, of course, I like when colored circles get turned into tiny balls of fire. That's nice, too. Sorry, Rock Band, but Guitar Hero's funny fireballs are too fun to pass up in favor of your little rectangular notes.

On a note that is only slightly related: remember, dear reader. If Lou comes to your door asking you to sign a contract, tell him to buzz off. If you're lucky, he'll get run over by the 'Tallica Jr. van, and you'll get to hear some sick tunes in the process.