Your first time at a Guitar Zeros concert can be a confusing experience. Initially, everything is fine. There’s a band on the stage. They’re doing their thing. They’re rocking out. It’s all good.
Then you notice it: the two guitarists are not actually holding guitars. The things in their hands are guitar-shaped, but they are most certainly not real guitars.
The Zeros, true to their name, are using controllers from the video game Guitar Hero, but they’re not playing a video game. They’re playing their own songs. The controller substitutes an actual guitar’s range of frets and strings with just five “fret buttons” and a “strum bar.” In the game, the player uses the controller to “play” a variety of hard rock covers.
The Zeros play it for real.
Zeros founder Owen Grace decided that using the controller to create original material was the inspiration he and his would-be bandmates had been waiting for. Grace and the other three members, Ryan Yount, Christian Marenbach, and Alex Oliver, had wanted to start a band together. With the exception of Yount, they were all experienced musicians; this time, they wanted to experiment.
Though they played their first gig together about three weeks after Grace presented the idea, getting the controllers to do as they asked wasn’t easy. Ditching Guitar Hero the game meant that there was no software to turn their button-mashing on the controller into actual sounds. In grad school, Grace had learned to use a musical programming environment called Max/MSP. With Max/MSP as their audio synthesizer, he developed the software that would drive the Guitar Hero controllers.
“It took two months for the initial round of development, followed by six months of refinement to get what we use now. Honestly, if I hadn’t already known how to use Max/MSP, we may not have done this,” admits Grace.
Watching the Zeros practice is almost like watching any other band: they play their songs, then everyone tells the bassist what he’s doing wrong. That’s where the similarity ends, though.
The high degree of control they have over the software running their instruments allows for some interesting sonic opportunities. “In our early practices, Christian or I would say, ‘It’d be cool if you could do this.’ Owen would show up to the next practice with whatever we were talking about already implemented,” recalls Oliver.
“I think we take ourselves less seriously than most bands, and yet manage to be more focused at the same time,” says Yount, the Zeros’ lead singer. This may be because of the group’s DIY origins, or it could be a natural result of the personalities involved. Either way, their garage-geek vibe is a large part of what makes the band unique.
The Guitar Zeros released their first EP, Hotbird, in November 2007. In the spirit of “making a great tool, but wanting to focus on making good music through that,” Grace is giving away the software that powers the controllers, which he named Fretbuzz, on the band’s website, and directions on how to convert your Guitar Hero controller can be found on the next page.