Rock Band

My History With Rock Band And The Future Of A “Dead” Genre

Harmonix's biggest franchise is starting a new chapter

There are two things I love in this world: video games and rock and roll. I want to think I’m a halfway decent drummer, but I’m probably only halfway towards that dubious distinction. I also sang in an all-male Madonna cover band, but that’s a story for another day. Playing music is more of a hobby than a professional endeavour, but I still love it with a burning passion!

So, that’s me, but what’s the point? Who cares about Lil’ Baby Zaky? The point is, I love the Rock Band video game. From the revolutionary 2007 original to the “impossible dream” of The Beatles starring in their version of Rock Band to the significantly more plausible dream of Green Day starring in their own Rock Band, I’ve been a fan since the beginning. I still play to this day, rocking out on my plastic guitars or my Nitro Alesis E-Kit on the latest title, Rock Band 4, as well the assorted Guitar Hero games.

Rock Band is dead. Long live Rock Band!

With the recent announcement that the final songs have been released for Rock Band 4’s online store, meaning no new content will be added to the game after a nearly decade-long run, it’s easy to call this the end of an era. However, rock and roll never dies; with the advent of the Fortnite Festival and the announcement of new guitar peripherals for the first time since 2016, one thing is clear: Rock Band will not go quietly into that good night. Never quietly.

Rock Band is dead. Long live Rock Band! To commemorate this new era for Harmonix and the uncertain but optimistic future of Rock Band, let’s take a look back at the history of the franchise, how it grew from a gimmick to a juggernaut, and how its audience, myself included, grew along with it.

Before Rock Band

Rock Band may have revolutionized the rhythm game genre, but it wasn’t the first. Developer Harmonix started with cult rhythm games like Frequency and Amplitude on the PS2 before striking gold with 2005’s Guitar Hero. Though playable with a regular controller, the real hook was that the game came bundled with a unique guitar peripheral. By holding down fret buttons and hitting a “strum bar” in time with onscreen falling notes, you play along with 47 different songs, most of which are covers by WaveGroup Sound. The covers are of varying quality, and some of them add extraneous solos for the sake of gameplay. However, seventeen of the songs are original master tracks from bands mostly comprised of members of the Harmonix team. Guitar Hero introduced players to Freezepop, Anarchy Club, The Acro-Brats, and Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives, all of whom would go on to have additional songs appear in various Rock Band titles. 

The game was a smash hit, spawning a direct sequel, Guitar Hero II, and a spin-off, Guitar Hero Rocks The 80s. Even though I was a PS2 kid, I have to concede that I didn’t play Guitar Hero back in the day, so I don’t have much to say about them. I know people talk about the infamously broken Hammer-On/Pull-Off windows from GH1, or how GH2’s timing windows are way more complex than those of Guitar Hero 3, but I don’t have any firsthand experience with that. I considered making this as comprehensive a retrospective as possible, but that wouldn’t be genuine based on my honest experience with these games.

I thought Guitar Hero looked terrific, but I didn’t like knowing I had to spend $70 of my parent’s money on a single game, and I thought the guitar controller looked a little goofy. As a result, the series was only tangentially on my radar. However, when Rock Band was announced, with support for drums and vocals in addition to guitar and bass, I became enamoured. I began watching YouTube videos of the early Guitar Hero games and was quickly fascinated with the visualization of the music. To this day, watching a Guitar Hero or Rock Band chart is nothing short of hypnotic. Whether in person or on YouTube or Twitch, these music games are as fun to watch as they are to play. In any case, my mind was made up: I wanted Rock Band.

Rock Band

Released on November 20, 2007, Rock Band brought rhythm gaming to the next level. Due to the business shenanigans of companies buying each other and IPs getting mixed up in the shuffle, Harmonix no longer had the rights to the Guitar Hero name, so Rock Band was the start of a brand new era for the company, with Electronic Arts handling the publishing duties. Meanwhile, Guitar Hero fell under the purview of Activision, with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater developer Neversoft taking charge on Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, released just a month earlier, on October 28. I didn’t play Guitar Hero III at launch, because I was most interested in playing Rock Band as a drummer. Thus, when Christmas 2007 rolled around, my younger brother and I manned our stations, him on guitar and me on drums, and we tried a song. I don’t remember exactly which one it was, probably “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer or maybe, “I Think I’m Paranoid” by Garbage. Needless to say, we failed almost immediately. After learning what it meant to calibrate for audio/visual lag, we hit up that menu and then tried again. We barely made it through, but it was enough of a taste for us to know, “the magic is real.”

By this point in my life, I was already a drummer. I was sixteen when Rock Band came out, and drums were my weapon of choice. I wasn’t perfect, but I could play along with my much more experienced friends, who grew up to become far more accomplished musicians than I ever did. Perhaps my experience behind a real kit was enough to help me gain an edge on Rock Band drums, and within a few days, I was playing on Expert. Still, it would be many months before I became skilled enough to complete the game’s most challenging drum song, “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden.

“Run to the Hills” is a pure test of wrist discipline due to its brutal tempo. While Rock Band drums aren’t entirely analogous to the real thing, some real-life skills carry over, and the game is a great way to build stamina. At first, I struggled to maintain the blistering eighth notes on “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones, but eventually, that song became easy, at which point I set my sights on “Run to the Hills” and was eventually able to conquer that one, too. For the most part, it’s not a particularly difficult song. It’s just fast. Really Fast. Friggin’ fast.

While I was slowly building my skills on drums, my brother was quickly becoming a guitar hero in his own right. He holds the Rock Band guitar upside down as left-handed but doesn’t enable the “Lefty Flip” mode. It may seem counter-intuitive to some, but his Gold Star count is enough to dissuade any naysayers. For what it’s worth, when it comes to a real guitar, he plays a left-handed instrument. 

Rock Band’s main mode is called “World Tour” and takes the form of a nigh-endless series of gigs around the world, slowly earning fans to unlock new gigs and money to earn cosmetic items like clothes, hairstyles, and instruments for player-created avatars. For solo players, each instrument (except bass, for some reason) has its career mode, based on the progression of the original Guitar Hero titles. There’s not much to it, with players taking on groups of songs in order of difficulty until they’re all done or they get stuck and have to lower the difficulty.

That’s Rock Band. It’s like Guitar Hero but with drums and vocals. But the launch of the game was only the start of the story. Where Rock Band truly distinguished itself was with its ambitious post-launch DLC. While Guitar Hero II had a couple of dozen DLC songs released in waves throughout 2007, that was nothing compared to what Rock Band promised and ultimately accomplished. On day one, fifteen songs were available for purchase, and more would be added every week for years to come, in those early days. Rock Band launched with 58 songs, but that library would soon increase by dozens, then hundreds, and ultimately thousands of songs for the next seventeen years.

Guitar Hero 3

Early in my Rock Band career, I gave up on guitar. While I could eventually score Gold Stars on “Highway Star” by Deep Purple, I couldn’t raise the difficulty above Medium on guitar. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Then, one day, my brother came home from school with a bag. Inside the bag was a Guitar Hero III guitar controller and a copy of the PlayStation 2 version of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. He borrowed it from a friend who told him that the guitar charts were nuts compared to Rock Band. He was right.

I tried it out, playing through the Medium campaign and then on Hard. I was immediately sucked into the game and could genuinely feel my skills improving as I moved from one song to the next. I couldn’t conquer the career mode on Expert, but I managed to clear most of the songs, if only barely. Still, it was enough for me to return to Rock Band with a newfound ability to play on Expert. To this day, I’m not a particularly high-tier Rock Band guitarist, but I’m good enough to survive most songs on Expert, and it’s all thanks to getting a kick in the pants from Guitar Hero III.

As for the songs included in the game, one weakness of Guitar Hero III is the prevalence of “As Made Famous By” selections or sound-alike covers. Rock Band features seven covers among its 58 on-disk songs, but Guitar Hero III has 20 covers out of 73 total tunes. However, an added wrinkle to this formula can be seen with Rock Band’s early DLC offerings, which featured numerous “As Made Famous By” covers of varying quality. Regarding the quality of these covers, some are better than others, while some are bizarre in their own particular way. “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath is a shockingly perfect cover, while Heroes by David Bowie sounds nothing like the original but is still really fun to play, particularly on guitar. Over the years, some of these covers would become obsolete due to the addition of the original versions as DLC, such as “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden and Tom Sawyer by Rush.

An early conspiracy theory in the community suggested that songs like “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex, “Fortunate Son” by CCR, “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner, and “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways were held back from the main game and reserved for DLC so that there would be fewer covers on the main setlist. I don’t know if that’s true, but it made Rock Band 1 feel more “premium” than Guitar Hero III, even with fewer songs on disk. Fewer songs weren’t considered a big deal since the game supported drums and vocals. Then again, GH3 also had guest appearances from real-life “Legends of Rock,” Tom Morello and Slash, so I guess the production values evened out in that respect—oh, and Bret Michaels, who can always be counted on to bring the penicillin. 

Before Rock Band 2

Late 2007 to late 2008 belonged to Rock Band, but how long would the magic last? Could Harmonix do it again and rock the world with a sequel? Both games would see expansions before the debut of a proper successor to Rock Band and Guitar Hero III. In July 2008, Harmonix and EA released Rock Band Track Pack Vol. 1, a budget-priced release with 20 songs. They could be played directly from the disk, like a mini-Rock Band title, or the pack could be imported to the main Rock Band game, where the songs would be treated like any other DLC. This Track Pack (the first of seven such packs released between 2008 and 2011) was intended for players who didn’t care to buy songs individually or for PlayStation 2 players who lacked access to the online stores on other consoles.

Mostly, these packs were DLC codes with an extra game disk attached, but they did include Achievements and Trophies for Gamerscore enthusiasts and Trophy Hunters. I bought the two Country Packs on a lark, since I didn’t have many country songs. Still, I was quickly won over by tunes like Reba McKintyre’s cover of “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia,” “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard, and “Cry Lonely,” by a band I had never even heard of up to that point, Cross Canadian Ragweed.

On the other side of the aisle, Guitar Hero released their first game focused on a single band, Guitar Hero Aerosmith. GHA is simply a re-skin of GH3 at its core, but that’s hardly bad. The difficulty is somewhat toned down, with fewer instances of GH3’s infamous manic ‘overcharting’ with extra notes for no reason other than added difficulty. Oddly, the game contains 12 songs that aren’t by Aerosmith (or guitarist Joe Perry’s solo career), dubbed “opening acts.” With only 41 songs in the game, it pulls focus away from the title’s namesake, especially since four songs are sound-alike covers. Nevertheless, GHA was a lot of fun for players who couldn’t get enough of that classic guitar gameplay, and it remains a fun way to experience a “greatest hits” history lesson on Aerosmith.

Rock Band 2 vs Guitar Hero World Tour

Rock Band 2 would launch opposite Guitar Hero: World Tour, which added drums and vocals to the mix to reach parity with its competition. Despite my fun with Guitar Hero III, my loyalty was to Rock Band, and I had no trouble skipping World Tour in favour of Rock Band 2. Another factor in buying Rock Band 2 was the quality and durability of the instruments. By November of 2008, my Rock Band 1 drum kit was on its last legs. The foot petal on the drum kit was on the verge of snapping in half, and the snare drum’s rubber skin had peeled off entirely. It was time for a refresh.

In the Wojnar house, Christmas of 2008 was a repeat of 2007, with my brother and I getting a Rock Band “band in a box” bundle, but for the sequel, Rock Band 2. This time, we were able to start on Expert mode and hit the ground running, quickly plowing through the World Tour mode, which is only slightly changed from its predecessor.

I’m not hardcore enough to get into the minutia of the gameplay changes between Rock Band and its sequel (I leave that to YouTube personalities like the hosts of the Lore Hero podcast). Still, Rock Band 2 feels slightly more accessible to play, like the windows for hitting notes are a tiny bit wider than in the original. In addition, the score requirements for hitting the Gold Stars are slightly easier to achieve.

Rock Band 2 is remembered by the community as a high point in the series, likely due to its release at the height of the genre’s popularity. The DLC store was on fire, with late 2008 releases from heavy-hitting bands like Foo Fighters, Dead Kennedys, The Killers, and No Doubt. Players committed to the game had hundreds of songs in their catalogue by this point, aided by the fact that nearly every song from Rock Band could be imported into the sequel, or at least it could, back in the day.

Meanwhile, on Activision’s side of the aisle, they really pulled out all the stops for Guitar Hero World Tour. The game screams BIG BUDGET. This time, The special guests include Ozzy Osbourne, Sting, Hayley Williams from Paramore, Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins, and the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. Oh, and Ted Nugent, who I’m sure was a pleasant presence on the mo-cap set.

World Tour added vocals and drums to the mix with a new drum set that featured a snare drum, two tom pads, two cymbals, and a bass pedal. Unfortunately, I’ve never played on a Guitar Hero drum set since I always played these games with my Rock Band drums. Still, they automatically remap the charts to accommodate the differing inputs on the Rock Band kit, and it works just fine. World Tour attempted to spice up the drums by adding “armoured” notes, which must be hit a little harder for maximum points. While a good idea on paper, it doesn’t work well since Rock Band drums don’t factor in dynamics at all. Plus, flam hits, which require two hits in real life, are labelled as single armoured notes in Guitar Hero, which feels less natural than in Rock Band, where they are played as simultaneous hits on the red and yellow pads. Rock Band’s interpretation feels more accurate than how one would play them on a real kit.

Regardless of how one prefers their flams, both games were successful, and music gaming was allowed to enter 2009, its biggest year ever, for better or worse.

2009: The Biggest Year Ever For Music Gaming

Indeed, 2009 was huge for Rock Band and Guitar Hero, with two Rock Band releases (plus three Track Packs) and a shocking five different full-priced Guitar Hero titles released over the calendar year. On the one hand, music gaming enthusiasts ate well that year. On the other hand, what happens after a monster binge? A brutal purge.

For the Rock Band releases, I bought them both on day one. September 9, 2009, or 9/9/9, is fondly remembered as the day The Beatles’ entire studio catalogue was remastered and repackaged in both mono and stereo CD boxed sets, as well as the release day of The Beatles: Rock Band. Unlike previous Rock Band bundles, my family didn’t have to wait for Christmas for this one. My late father, rest his soul, was a huge Beatles fan, but who isn’t? He wasn’t much of a video game player, save for his surprising aptitude at Centipede, a skill he gained in his barhopping days, but he was aware of Rock Band and offered to buy us the bundle on release day. My brother and I were shocked but knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth.

So, we took a trip to Best Buy and came home with two CD boxed sets, The Beatles: Rock Band bundle, and an additional guitar based on John Lennon’s Rickenbacker (but we decided it would have been overkill to buy George Harrison’s Gretsch replica, a decision I’ve come to lament all these years later). 

The Beatles: Rock Band is a unique game that holds its place within the greater pantheon of music games. Most of the songs aren’t too challenging, but there are still some tricky parts here and there, especially on drums. I’m not getting too deep into it here, but Ringo Starr is one of the most underrated drummers ever because he valued the songs more than the idea of showing off. Even so, “What Goes On” is such a dynamic groove to which a Rock Band chart can’t entirely do justice, “Boys” is a rollicking exercise in old-fashioned 1950s-style rock and roll, and “I Feel Fine” is deceptively complex and fun if your wrists are up to the challenge.

Where The Beatles: Rock Band truly innovates is with the introduction of three-part harmonies. Rock Band was always a great party game, but if you’ve got some real singers on hand, the party turns into a full-on talent show. Some songs, like “Nowhere Man” and “Day Tripper,” are pretty tricky due to just how richly layered some of the harmonies are, while other songs, which utilize more of a “call and response” vocal style, are more manageable for groups to sing, like “Twist and Shout” and “I Got A Feeling.”

Hardcore Rock Band players more interested in the guitar-smashing gameplay than the actual music (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, mind you) were finished with The Beatles pretty quickly with only 45 songs, not including DLC, that filled out the missing songs from Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road, some players felt The Beatles: Rock Band was more of a one-off special event than the next true Rock Band game. For those players, Harmonix had a surprising answer: LEGO.

Lego Rock Band

Just two months after The Beatles: Rock Band, we got another title, and let’s get this out of the way right away: LEGO Rock Band is not what you might think. From a gameplay perspective, this is nothing less than a Rock Band game. The gameplay is unchanged from Rock Band 2, and some songs are quite challenging. While ostensibly a “family-friendly” alternative to the slightly edgier content of the mainline titles, nothing here feels watered down or “made for kids.” Songs like The Final Countdown by Europe are absolutely brutal on guitar, while drummers will get a real workout from tunes like “Monster” by The Automatic and “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix. I’m not the world’s biggest Hendrix fan, but Mitch Michell is one of my favourite drummers of all time, and “Fire” is easily one of my favourite Rock Band charts. Unfortunately, the game has no harmonies, but that’s because the game seems to be built on the Rock Band 2 engine and not the updated version used for The Beatles: Rock Band.


The World Tour mode returns, but this time, it has a bunch of animated cutscenes that follow the career of your created characters and the misadventures of their band. These scenes are hilarious and evoke the humour of the early LEGO video games, such as LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Indiana Jones. Some songs play out like full-on music videos that move the story forward, like “Breakout” by Foo Fighters and “Aliens Exist” by Blink-182.

While LEGO Rock Band isn’t a full generational leap, it still feels like a genuine step forward for the Rock Band saga. The only thing that holds it back is that many songs can’t be played in LEGO Rock Band because they are not classified as family-friendly, like “Walk This Way,” “Creep,” and many others. If this stifling had been limited to an option in the menu and not a permanent fixture, LEGO Rock Band could be seen as “the next Rock Band” instead of a wacky spin-off.

The Great 2009 Guitar Hero Deluge

The death of the rhythm game genre can be attributed to several factors, like the weak economy following the 2008 recession. Activision flooded the market with games to the point of oversaturation. While Harmonix and EA released two Rock Band titles in 2009, publisher Activision churned out five full Guitar Hero games, not including Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits on Nintendo DS or DJ Hero. These spin-offs are beyond the scope of this story, partly because I never bothered to play them.

It’s also worth noting that I didn’t play these games at launch, unlike all the Rock Band games. Instead, I soaked them up over several years. I can trace the days I played these games thanks to my PlayStation trophy list. First up: Guitar Hero Metallica.

I was never a Metallica guy or much of a heavy metal guy in general, to be honest. Hardcore metal always felt too mathematical for me, if that’s the right word. Metal guitarists going up and down the scales sounds more baroque than rock and roll, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Still, I had a good time with Guitar Hero Metallica, which I played in September of 2009, six months after its initial release. This was another game my brother borrowed from a friend. It’s probably the same friend from whom he borrowed Guitar Hero III a year prior. Lots of the songs were new to me, and since Lars Ulrich isn’t exactly the flashiest of drummers, the game rarely feels too complicated. For guitar players, though, Guitar Hero Metallica is delightfully punishing from start to finish, with endless chunky riffs and solos that will make casual players weep. Or lower the difficulty settings. Oh, and if I was being too hard on Lars, I take it all back thanks to the inclusion of Expert+ difficulty on drums, which allows you to plug in a second bass drum pedal to try double bass drums. Some people quickly take to double bass. I do not.


So, I stuck to regular Expert difficulty. Unfortunately, Metallica suffers from the same flaw as Aerosmith, which is the inclusion of opening acts that dilute the game’s core theme. While it’s incredible to see Lemmy and King Diamond make fully mo-capped guest appearances, it’s annoying that the 49-song setlist for Guitar Hero Metallica only features 28 Metallica songs. I understand why they include “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy since Metallica recorded a cover of their take on the classic Irish song “Whiskey in the Jar.” So, why not just include that instead? Likewise, the game includes Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” which Metallica famously covered in the 90s. So why not just include that instead?

Just three months after the release of Guitar Hero Metallica came Guitar Hero: Smash Hits. I played it in January of 2010. Of all the Guitar Hero 2009 releases, this one feels like a cheap cash grab. There are no new songs here; as the name indicates, the selection is curated from the original Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, the obscure spin-off Guitar Hero Rocks The 80s, Guitar Hero III, and a single tune from Guitar Hero Aerosmith. Of course, the songs are now playable with a full band, which is excellent news for players who play mainly on drums, like me! I think many people who complain about Smash Hits are people whose primary instrument is Guitar. For drummers like me, Smash Hits feels much more like “new stuff.” Even so, it still feels like an expansion pack. No special guests are present here, so players can’t rock out alongside virtual avatars of real rockers. They could have gotten Pat Benatar to show up for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot!” Or imagine if they somehow could wrangle Ritchie Blackmore to play on “Smoke on the Water?” That would have been sick. Not that it’s a huge deal. The guests are excellent, but they’re not the main draw. We’re here for the songs.

Smash Hits features 48 songs, and they’re primarily bangers. it’s nice to hear master recordings of songs that were previously only playable as covers of dubious quality. To this day, songs like “Mother” by Danzig and “Shout at the Devil” by Motley Crue can only be played in Smash Hits, and they never popped up as DLC in Rock Band. They also can’t be exported to other Guitar Hero games. If you’ll indulge a quick aside on DLC and exports, while Guitar Hero had its own DLC selection, it paled in comparison to the selection available in Rock Band. Likewise, while you could export songs from Guitar Hero game disks, it was never as comprehensive as the Rock Band exports; for example, out of the 48 songs in Smash Hits, only 21 can be exported to other titles. As such, the best way to play Guitar Hero was one disk at a time, treating each game as a fleeting experience, while Rock Band was built to last as a platform for music gaming for years. 

The third Guitar Hero release of 2009, Guitar Hero 5, was released in September, three months after Smash Hits. I wouldn’t play it until April of 2010. As its title suggests, Guitar Hero 5 isn’t a mere spin-off but the proper next entry in the series. To its credit, it mixes things up with meta challenges that vary per song and encourages replaying tunes with different goals in mind. This encourages players to step outside their comfort zone and play with different instruments to conquer each song fully.

The setlist includes 85 songs, with some great picks like “Two Minutes to Midnight” by Iron Maiden nearly ruined by the inexplicable censoring of “kill” in every chorus. They’ve also got “Sympathy For the Devil” by The Rolling Stones and “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits! For some reason, they picked “All Along the Watchtower” but not the Hendrix cover; instead, they went with the Bob Dylan original, which is great but pretty boring to play in the video game. There are a ton of Bob Dylan songs that would be awesome in Guitar Hero/Rock Band, but all we ever got were this, “Tangled Up In Blue” in Rock Band 2 and “Thunder on the Mountain” (yay!) in Guitar Hero Live (boo).

The guest avatars are also pretty impressive, with late legends Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain popping up for beyond-the-grave renditions of “Ring of Fire” for Johnny and “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for Kurt. Of course, you can choose to ruin their appearance by making them play any instrument on any song, which feels like a programming oversight that was left in as a gag of exceedingly poor taste; poor enough that Cobain’s estate sued Activision for the way Kurt was used in the game. No Doubt would also sue for similar reasons based on their appearance in Band Hero.

Band Hero came out just two months after Guitar Hero 5, and it’s functionally identical to its predecessor. It runs on the same engine and features the same challenges and revamped career mode. Still, its song selection is sorely lacking, especially compared to LEGO Rock Band, which also touted a more ‘family-friendly’ vibe. While there are some bangers here, like “ABC” by The Jackson 5 and “Just a Girl” by No Doubt, Band Hero is often boring for guitar players, and the amount of vocal censorship is outrageous. Why include songs like “Honky Tonk Woman” by The Rolling Stones and “American Pie” by Don McLean if you’re going to mute so many of the lyrics? In “American Pie,” in particular, every single chorus has the word “whiskey” muted. Add in the fact that the setlist mostly leans on forgettable contemporary pop songs, and Band Hero is something of a dud, but for music game fanatics, it’s still 65 more songs we get to play, and that’s enough for us. Plus, it’s got Taylor Swift as a guest star and a trio of her songs: “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” and “Picture to Burn.” Still, it’s a pretty forgettable entry.

Just a month and a half after the release of Band Hero, the fifth and final Guitar Hero of 2009 was released. Guitar Hero Van Halen is a spiritual sequel to Guitar Hero Metallica, but with those metal heads replaced by the rock-and-roll party stylings of Van Halen, And we’re talking about the REAL Van Halen; there’s no Sammy Hagar or Gary Cherone here, only the true blue electric frontman himself, Diamond David Lee Roth, a man I admire but honestly would probably never want to meet in real life. He seems like he’s… A lot. But he’s also a friggin’ magnetic stage presence, so it evens out.

Anyway, Guitar Hero Van Halen feels like a step back in certain ways, most notably in that, despite coming out after Guitar Hero 5 and Band Hero, it uses the same engine as World Tour, Metallica, and Smash Hits, so the revamped career mode is missing here, unfortunately. However, all the bells and whistles in the world don’t amount to much if the core gameplay isn’t there, and this is where Guitar Hero Van Halen manages to cling to life. Van Halen isn’t my favourite band in the world or anything, but whether you’re on guitar, drums, or bass (or even vocals, despite the Guitar Hero engine never picking up vocal harmonies like Rock Band), these songs are simply a ton of fun to play. While Eddie’s infamous tapping solos can be seen as corny or juvenile, they translate beautifully into Guitar Hero. Alex Van Halen has always been an outrageously sick top-tier drummer, whether he’s keeping time in rockers like “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” jolly pop tunes like “Dance the Night Away,” or effortlessly filling the space with jazzy beats in “Hot for Teacher” and “I’m The One.”

While the game is undeniably lazy, being produced on an older engine and lacking in content compared to Guitar Hero Metallica, to say nothing of the controversial erasure of Michael Anthony in favour of Wolfgang Van Halen on bass, what matters most is the experience from song to song. From that perspective, it’s hard for me to hate on Guitar Hero Van Halen, especially when you’re never more than 40 seconds away from a David Lee Roth flying split kick! That is unless you’re playing one of the guest acts. I don’t know why Activision was so scared of letting a single band fill out an entire game, but Guitar Hero Van Halen features 25 songs by the eponymous band and 19 songs chosen for inclusion by Wolfgang Van Halen. They’re fun songs that mix well with Van Halen’s “non-stop party” sensibilities, but I’d rather have more Van Halen. and no Van Hagar, though.

Green Day Rock Band

In 2010, the writing was on the wall, but still, we didn’t believe this would be the last hurrah of the music-gaming genre for a full half-decade. Still, for both Guitar Hero and Rock Band, they made sure to go out with one heck of a bang. For the year’s first release, Green Day Rock Band, your enjoyment will depend on one’s opinion of Green Day and whether or not they play drums.

The song selection is interesting; like The Beatles: Rock Band with all of its DLC, the setlist here consists of three complete albums and a handful of additional songs from across the band’s career. The complete albums are Dookie, American Idiot, and 21st Century Breakdown. On drums, Green Day: Rock Band is a veritable playground of rapid-fire eighth notes, dense fills, and exotic beats that define Tre Cool as one of punk’s most beloved drummers. Things aren’t quite as tricky on guitar, but Dookie is still a kinetic set of songs that can push your rhythm skills pretty hard. Fortunately, the harmonies from The Beatles: Rock Band return, and they’re considerably more straightforward this time, thanks to Green Day’s more basic – but still effective – harmonies.


Plus, songs like Homecoming from American Idiot and American Eulogy from 21st Century Breakdown have parts for all three band members, which adds a fun dynamic for rooms with multiple singers. Green Day’s music isn’t for everyone. Still, I’m a fan, particularly of 21st Century Breakdown (yeah, I’m one of those weirdos who prefers that record to American Idiot), and since drums are my main instrument in these games, I got a lot of mileage out of Green Day: Rock Band. As a bonus, like with all previous Rock Band titles, the songs can be exported to Rock Band 2 and, later in 2010, Rock Band 3. No, it’s not a true successor to The Beatles: Rock Band, but nothing could live up to that, except for maybe a Led Zeppelin game, but we all knew that would never happen.

Rock Band 3

Simply put, Rock Band 3 is the biggest music game ever. In addition to the existing play modes, Rock Band 3 adds Keys and Pro Modes for every instrument (except vocals). The build quality of the instruments included in The Beatles: Rock Band was good enough that I didn’t need to invest in new instruments. Instead, I bought the Keyboard bundle and a set of Pro Cymbals for my existing drums.

The keyboard is a new way to play Rock Band, allowing songs with keyboard parts to be played with an actual, two-octave keyboard peripheral. While there’s a typical five-button setup, the real joy of Rock Band keys is with Pro Mode, which opens up all of the keys for use, allowing players to copy songs like Walk of Life by The Dire Straits and Roundabout by Yes, virtually note-for-note. Interestingly, the dynamic between keys and guitar means that some of the songs are underwhelming on guitar since the fun lead parts are given to the keyboard. Traditionally, Rock Band and Guitar Hero get to blur the lines for the sake of fun, charting non-guitar parts to the guitar in service of the player experience, but that’s somewhat diminished here. To be remotely viable on Pro Keys, you’ll need to genuinely invest in learning the songs and playing the extensive tutorial modes that teach scales and actual keyboard techniques. I never got very good at Pro Keys, but they were fun to mess around with, and I always feel like I’ll return to it someday, hunker down, and learn how to play keys.

Guitar and bass got their pro modes, which required a whole new guitar peripheral. Unfortunately, I have zero experience with this mode. I never had a guitar with hundreds of fret buttons, and I don’t know anybody who did. I don’t know if anyone out there learned how to play guitar through Pro Mode, but I understand that Rocksmith, first released in 2011, took over teaching video game players how to play guitar, perhaps eating Harmonix’s lunch in that regard.

The final Pro mode, Pro Drums, is more straightforward. This requires a trio of cymbal add-ons that attach to the existing drum kit and enable three additional inputs for drummers. Before, a kick pedal and four drum pads served as drums and cymbals depending on the song’s needs. Now, there are eight inputs, and it can get tricky to keep everything straight during a sightread of a new song. It’s the closest to “real” drums as Rock Band can get without considering how hard or soft you’re hitting the pads, and once you get good at it, it’s hard to go back to the original four-pad setup.

At the height of my Rock Band 3 playing, I’d play Pro Drums on Expert, but I’d also play regular drums with Lefty Mode on to train my left hand and try to force myself into ambidexterity. I felt myself getting better as I played. Over the years, my skills have diminished due to lack of practice, but I’d like to get back to that level again, especially now that I have an Alesis Nitro E-Kit… But more on that later.

In service of the new keyboard, the on-disk soundtrack has a lot more New Wave and Indie/Alternative songs, which shift the attention away from guitar, though it still has plenty of straight-up guitar bangers, like “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, “Been Caught Stealing” by Jane’s Addiction, and “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, making its triumphant return from Guitar Hero II (and Smash Hits). Plus, the ongoing DLC released songs that would please everyone. For instance, in December 2010, keyboard enthusiasts were treated to a bunch of songs by the Piano Man, Billy Joel. Just a few months later, in March 2011, a pair of songs by Dragonforce were released, including the iconic “Through the Fire and Flames,” which is pretty much the unofficial theme song of Guitar Hero by this point.

Overall, Rock Band 3 feels like it was prepared to be the last Rock Band game, at least for a long while. Likewise, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, released a month earlier, also felt like the culmination of everything that had come before, but with some new ideas to mix things up.

The main course of Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is the new “Quest” mode, a revamped career that sees players recruit Guitar Hero characters in a mission to destroy “The Beast,” a fight that takes place by playing “Sudden Death,” a brand new Megadeth song written and recorded specifically for the game. Along the way, there’s a segment where you play through a new mix of Rush’s “2112,” complete with interludes narrated by band members. Players can earn up to 21 stars per song thanks to new challenges and meta mechanics. Whether this new career is better or worse than that of Guitar Hero 5 (and Band Hero) is debatable, but it’s still a lot of fun any way you cut it. It feels like a different way to play Guitar Hero, and that’s not an easy task for a game with such rigidly baked-in gameplay. The song selection is also stellar, focusing more on hard rock, which is a nice change of pace from Guitar Hero 5 and Band Hero chasing more eclectic and scattershot sensibilities. I never thought we’d get Neil Young in a Guitar Hero game, but “Rockin’ in the Free World” is here and it kicks butt. There’s also the entirety of Rush’s 2112, which plays during a critical moment in the story, as well as other bangers like “Love Gun” by KISS, “Burn” by Deep Purple, and “Stray Cat Blues” by The Rolling Stones. Warriors of Rock is a kick-ass game and a rockin’ comeback story for the series.

Unfortunately, the damage was already done by the great flood of 2009, and none of 2010’s titles sold to expectations. All of a sudden, music gaming was dead. Or at least, there weren’t new games being made, save for 2012’s Rock Band Blitz, an absolute banger of a game that combined the Rock Band platform of music with gameplay inspired by Frequency and Amplitude, Harmonix’s earliest games. It’s a hypnotic and fast-paced game that uses your existing library of Rock Band music, allowing you to play every song you own in a brand new way using a traditional gamepad instead of a plastic peripheral, and it’s a quiet masterpiece that deserves a modern remake or sequel using the expanded Rock Band 4 library. Let’s do it, Harmonix!

The end of Rock Band DLC

Since the launch of Rock Band in 2007, Harmonix has released new DLC content every week. Through ups and downs, rain or shine, good times and bad, they released new songs every week. Over the years, starting in July of 2008, Harmonix and EA would release “Track Packs” with 20 or so songs, which we mentioned before.

Eventually, all of the songs on these packs would be released as DLC within the game… With one exception. AC/DC Live: Rock Band Track Pack. While it doesn’t contain any AC/DC aesthetics or unique visuals, it is, if you’d like, the first “solo band game” in the Rock Band franchise. This pack contains 18 songs, the entirety of AC/DC’s Live at Donington album recorded in 1991, and it’s AC/DC at their finest, with extended guitar solos, gruelling (in a good way) drum parts, and vocals that defy all rules of singing but rock nonetheless. While the songs can be exported into the main Rock Band titles, the pack was never available in the DLC store. The official line is that the band only wanted to sell the songs as a single mega pack and not as individual songs, but if that’s the price of getting to play AC/DC in Rock Band, it’s a price I’m happy to pay.

Meanwhile, as for the weekly DLC releases, Rock Band released new songs every week until April 2, 2013. American Pie by Don McLean was released as the final song, and the development of Rock Band 3 officially ended. The final Guitar Hero DLC came out in April 2011. There weren’t nearly as many songs released for Guitar Hero as for Rock Band. Still, they did get some unique tunes that would never come out in Rock Band, like “Hot Patootie” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, some live Rolling Stones songs, and even Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, an artist who, for some reason, never made his way to Rock Band.

Rock Band 4

The time between 2013 and 2015 was a dark time for Guitar Hero and Rock Band players. There were no new games and no new songs for existing games. On April 1, 2014, all Guitar Hero DLC was delisted, including disk exports. Hundreds of songs are delisted forever. At least the Rock Band store remained open, allowing players to continue buying and downloading songs, even if no new tunes were hitting the store.

However, in January 2015, a tiny spark of life emerged when a trio of DLC songs suddenly dropped. “Something from Nothing” by Foo Fighters, “R U Mine?” by Arctic Monkeys, and “Shepherd of Fire” by Avenged Sevenfold, a band which, to this day, I still don’t know whether they’re intentionally or unintentionally a parody band. A month later, “Rize of the Fenix” by Tenacious D and “Back to the Shack” by Weezer also dropped. Something was happening. On March 5, 2015, Harmonix released an additional song, Frank Turner’s “I Still Believe,” for free, alongside an official announcement: Rock Band 4 was on the way.

On October 6, 2015, Rock Band 4 launched on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and… well, it wasn’t an entirely smooth launch. The initial promise was, “If you bought it at any point in the past, you can play it in Rock Band 4.” While this eventually proved true, getting there took quite a while. For players who stuck with the franchise through thick and thin, the ability to use Rock Band 4 as a platform to play nearly every single song from Rock Band 1 onward was a dream come true, even if there were some bumps in the road along the way.

Year one was loaded with updates. While they added features like Breakneck Speed, the main focus during this period was to add compatibility with as many songs as possible, a task they ultimately succeeded with in time for Rock Band Rivals. Released just over a year after Rock Band 4, on October 18, 2016,  Rivals was the turning point that turned Rock Band 4 from a ragtag project held together by duct tape into a bona fide successor to the Rock Band legacy. Today, anyone playing Rock Band 4 is playing the Rivals version. 

As per tradition, I bought the big ol’ Band in a Box bundle for Rock Band 4. The new Fender Stratocaster guitar may not look much different from its predecessors, but it feels great, even if you can no longer activate Overdrive with the Select button. An update eventually mapped the Overdrive to left on the d-pad, which works well enough but isn’t optimal. At least the tilt Overdrive function works perfectly, which is more than I can say of some of the guitars I’ve owned over the years. The release of Rock Band Rivals also marked the release of a new guitar controller based on a Fender Jaguar. Unfortunately, I never bought this particular guitar controller since I was more than happy with the Rock Band 4 Stratocaster. Of course, if you want to use your older instruments, those still work, which is an outstanding drum feature. In my opinion, Rock Band 4’s drum kit sucks. It drops notes all the time. I remember playing it after a long absence and having an existential crisis: did I suddenly lose my ability to keep time? Why can’t I FC some of the easiest songs in the game? Do I have, like, an inner ear thing or something? But nope. A quick perusal of Reddit showed dozens of posts and comments about the same issue. Even with the ability to update the firmware of the drums, they didn’t work correctly. However, returning to my Beatles: Rock Band kit remedied all my issues. I’m still a pretty good video game drummer, after all!

The most hardcore among you may be scoffing at the idea of my using a Beatles: Rock Band kit since the absolute best way to play Rock Band drums is with a real electronic drum kit. Today, that’s easier than ever, thanks to the Roll Limitless adapter, which only costs $100. I’m the proud owner of an Alesis Nitro e-kit, and after fiddling with the sensitivity settings (particularly on the bass drum and cymbals), it works pretty well! I’m not a fan of how e-cymbals feel to hit, be they the Rock Band Pro Cymbals or the Alesis Nitro cymbals. I’ve considered buying additional drum pads and having them designated cymbals, but I’m unsure where I would mount them on the drum frame or if it would even work. Plus, I live in a cozy little beach bungalow in Far Rockaway, New York. I don’t have space for my Alesis Nitro kit, so it’s currently at my mother’s place, 30 miles away. Instead, I use a Beatles: Rock Band drum set with Pro Cymbals. It’s much easier to stuff that in the closet when not in use. It takes up literally my whole closet, but still, every New Yorker knows the value of preserving the square footage of one’s living space. Maybe one day I’ll completely rejigger the layout of my house and make enough new space to bring my drums back home triumphantly, or maybe I’ll find a compatible e-kit with a tiny form factor, but for now, my Beatles kit will suffice.

Rock Band 4 is the final game for now, but thanks to all the updates and the Rivals expansion, it’s a great way to play Rock Band… Unless you’re a Keyboard main. Unfortunately for gaming pianists, to make Rock Band 4 a more focused “back to basics” title, they dropped several features from Rock Band 3, including all keyboard parts and Pro Guitar mode. The only Pro mode that made the jump to RB4 is Pro Drums. Also, they retroactively added harmony vocals to all applicable songs that could support them, returning to Rock Band 1. They used some fanmade data to facilitate the harmony charts, but they did it; it’s a real game-changer for vocalists.

Rock Band 4 features the standard Quickplay mode and a variation of the World Tour mode from previous titles, but it also adds a new mode called “Play a Show.” In this mode, after picking an initial song, the show goes on and on as players vote on such options as “a song from the 70s,” or “something punk rock. It’s a great way to explore the nooks and crannies of your song library. As of this writing, my Rock Band 4 library sits at around 1350 songs, so Play a Show mode is a perfect way to jump in and play a few, or a few dozen, songs. The Rivals expansion added a new mode called Rockudrama, a hilarious new career mode that takes the form of a TV special documenting your band’s rise. In between sets, live-action interviews with various musicians from Harmonix’s Boston stomping grounds chronicle your band’s career, with their commentary changing depending on how well your band plays. It’s a unique premise, full of inside jokes for Rock Band players, and a great way to play with a particularly close-knit group of friends, going through a story while playing many songs. I’d say it’s the best Rock Band “career” since LEGO Rock Band.

The final new mode in Rivals is the eponymous Rivals mode, which was added in a patch shortly after the expansion’s release. This mode allows players to form teams and play weekly challenges in seasonal campaigns for exclusive rewards like clothing, instruments, and track skins. The weekly challenges offer three “spotlight” songs that can be played on every instrument to rank up and a selection of weekly tracks pulled from the entire library of available songs. Playing these songs will boost your team’s rank from bronze to gold to the ultimate tier, “bloodstone.” It’s a fun meta-game that can be entirely ignored if you want, or it can be a great way to keep coming back, week after week.

Oh, and going back to 2015, Activision released a new Guitar Hero, but nobody gave a damn. Between the horrific monetization, new six-button fretboard in a 2×3 layout, and cheesy live-action visuals, Guitar Hero Live felt like nothing more than a cheap cash-grab to undermine Harmonix’s revival of the Rock Band franchise. I didn’t play it, as I had absolutely zero interest. And neither did anyone else since the game’s sales were abysmal and its online services were shut down in 2018. Okay, that’s enough about GH: Live. Live was just a weird spin-off, and the final chapter of the Guitar Hero Saga remains Warriors of Rock.

As the years wore on, Rock Band 4 kept dutifully marching forward, but it never again received an update as substantial as the Rivals expansion. Updates like a Sterling Archer skin and Mass Effect-themed cosmetics were amusing but hardly game-changers. Eventually, the weekly song output dropped from three tracks a week down to two, many of them being “Rock Band Rewind” songs or tunes from previously released Rock Band games that could no longer be exported into Rock Band 4. It was great for players who missed the exports, but the writing was on the wall: Rock Band 4 was winding down.

In January 2024, Harmonix released the final Rock Band songs. The penultimate week saw the release of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John and “Our Love Will Still Be There” by The Troggs. In contrast, the final release, on January 25, consisted of “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root, “Thank You” by Dido,” and “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling. And with that, the eight-year streak of weekly Rock Band DLC ended.

But you know the adage, “The beat goes on.” In 2021, Harmonix was purchased by Epic Games, the juggernaut behind the massively popular Fortnite. December 2023 saw the launch of Fortnite Festival and LEGO Fortnite and Rocket Racing. I’d never played Fortnite before. I’m not a massive Battle Royale guy (Every match consists of ten minutes of finding guns and gear only to be sniped by a guy half a mile away? No thanks!), but adding these new modes was enough for me to take the plunge. I was surprisingly taken with Rocket Racing and LEGO Fortnite, but Festival was always the main draw.


As of this writing, the Fortnite Festival isn’t quite there yet, but I’m confident it will become the Rock Band 5 fans have wanted for years. Fortnite Festival only allows for gamepad controls (or keyboard, if you’re on PC), which feels like Rock Band Unplugged but without the ability to switch instruments mid-song. It’s a fun way to play but hardly a replacement for the classic plastic instruments. Harmonix has promised that instrument support will be available “soon.” Alongside that announcement, they also teamed up with PDP to produce a new guitar controller called the Riffmaster, which will be playable on both Fortnite Festival and Rock Band 4. This is the first plastic guitar controller since the Fender Jaguar, released alongside Rock Band Rivals in 2016. It remains to be seen whether they’ll produce an electronic drum kit, but one can only hope.

Once instruments are fully supported, Fortnite Festival will function like any other Rock Band game but with a few new twists. Festival has note judgments, which is to say you get extra points for hitting a note with perfect timing, allowing for more hardcore competition when it comes to high-score leaderboards: sure, you can hit every note in a blistering solo, but can you hit them with perfect timing for maximum points?

The Festival’s biggest potential revolution is how it doles out songs. Songs can be purchased for a premium, but they also rotate in and out daily. While some complain about the relative lack of songs in the game, that’s just growing pains. I am confident that Fortnite Festival will become the heir apparent to Rock Band 4 as the months go by. Of course, there’s still a sub-group of Gamers-with-a-capital-G who refuse to play Fortnite simply because it is Fortnite. I don’t know what their issue is. They’re mad because it’s popular or because you can make Solid Snake, Captain America, and Han Solo do funny dances, and that’s sacrilegious or something. Hey, at least it’s not Kurt Cobain doing the YMCA, right?

“And in the end…”

If you don’t want to play Fortnite Festival or want to wait a few more months before you take the plunge, that’s fine. If you want to wait until the Riffmaster comes out so you can play the songs the old-fashioned way, that’s great! If you refuse to play Fortnite under any circumstances, then that’s too bad, but you do you. Play what you want to play. Rock Band 4 isn’t going anywhere. You can play it forever. As of this writing, you can still buy songs on the online store. There’s a whole economy of after-market guitars and mods (but that’s a story for another day if Console Creatures wants me back!). Rock Band and Guitar Hero certainly aren’t the Grand Poobahs they once were. However, there is still a community that loves and plays these games at all skill levels, and that’s not even getting into online fan games of dubious legality, such as Clone Hero, YARG, and the so-called “Special Edition” mod of Guitar Hero World Tour. I’ve never played any of those, but they are vital in keeping the community alive and thirsty for the next “true” Rock Band or Guitar Hero experience.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the original Guitar Hero. Likewise, 2007 will see the 20th anniversary of Rock Band. It’s hard to imagine Fortnite Festival is the end of the line. Music gaming died when Rock Band 3 ended its DLC run in 2013 and again when the Guitar Hero store was permanently disconnected in 2014. It died when Guitar Hero Live crashed and burned, and just this year, Rock Band 4 released its final DLC. And yet, despite these deaths, rhythm video games continue to rise from the ashes and rock. Fortnite Festival is on the rise, and the PDP Riffmaster guitar aims to bring a lot of lapsed players back into the fold. The story of Harmonix, Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and rhythm video games isn’t over; it’s just starting a new chapter.

-Zak Wojnar