The Guitar Hero franchise, as a whole, is one of the most difficult video game series of all time. I know very few people who can play at the expert level, and of those I know, few do well at it. This might just mean that I know very few people, and nothing more. However, most of those people are of the opinion that I'm better at expert than they are, and I disagree. Thus, based on these two observations, I think it's a safe assumption that the series as a whole is one of the most difficult games ever made. Luckily, there are four difficulty levels one can select from, and a fifth was added with Guitar Hero: World Tour. What this hub will discuss is the progression of difficulty over the entire series, game by game, and each of the various quirks and tricks unique to each game.
Guitar Hero 1
The first game in the series pretty much invented a new genre of video games: skill-based. I have found skill-based games to be VERY addicting, to the extreme that upon immediate addiction, one's mind is focused only on the next time one might be able to play the addicting game. In fact when I first got addicted to guitar hero, I was playing so much of it that when I closed my eyes, I would see scrolling notes!
Now, being the first game in the series, as you might imagine, it's also the easiest game in the series. However, don't be fooled. There is still difficulty involved in beating the hardest, final few songs in the last tier. But I'll get to those in a moment. All of the techniques in this game were new since the game was new. I will now discuss basically every advanced technique required to beat the game on expert, and why they make this first game difficult. As new games are introduced later, they will only discuss techniques introduced in that game, and assume you have already read about the earlier, simpler techniques or notes.
First, there are basic notes. You strum as it goes by, holding down the same-colored fret button the whole time. Pretty easy. This is the most common type of note.
Secondly, there are chords. There is only one type of chord at this point, the basic chord. You hold two or more of the fret buttons simultaneously and strum as the chord hits the strike line. Depending on which buttons, and how many of them, are involved in the chord, some can be more difficult than others. Here is a brief overview of basically every chord combination of the 5 buttons, arranged in order of difficulty:
Two-Note Chords - this chord only has two notes, which are right next to each other. All possibilities are green-red, red-yellow, yellow-blue, and blue-orange.
Two-Note Gapped Chords - these chords have two notes which are spaced out from each other, anywhere from one to three spaces. The only two-note gapped chord with three spaces is the green-orange, and is one of the hardest chords because of the long reach between the fret buttons. I consider it the second-hardest chord in the game, though they are few and far between. Next hardest would have to be the red-orange and blue-green chords, the only two with two spaces. There are three one-space chords, green-yellow, red-blue, and yellow-orange. To new players, the hardest is the red-blue chord because of the odd positioning of the two fingers used to hit it. It's just not a shape those fingers make very often and it takes some getting used to. Also it is a fairly commonly used chord, which adds to its difficulty some.
Three-Note Chords - these chords are just about as easy as the two-note chords, only you must use another finger. There are only three of these chords: green-red-yellow, red-yellow-blue, and yellow-blue-orange.
Three-Note Gapped Chords - here's where things get interesting. Like two-note gapped chords, there are three subtypes here: chords with a gap of one space, chords with a gap of two spaces, and instead of the green-orange chord with a gap of three spaces, the third type is in fact the hardest chord in the game: a chord with two gaps of one space each. The green-yellow-orange chord does in fact exist in a few songs and is by far the hardest chord to achieve in the game. It cannot be easily transitioned to from either a high-4 or low-4 position, and is an extremely difficult chord to get used to and pull off. It combines the difficult position of the yellow-orange chord with the difficult reach of the green-orange. The triple chords with two space gaps are also very rare and difficult but they do exist. The only two of these are green-red-orange and green-blue-orange. The only remaining three-note chords are those with single space gaps, and there are four of them: green-red-blue, green-yellow-blue, red-yellow-orange, and red-blue-orange.
Four-Note Chords - these are so rare that they may as well not exist. I have only seen them used in custom songs, and rarely at that. There are only five possibilities here. The most interesting one is debatably as hard as the green-yellow-orange chord, and this is the green-red-blue-orange chord, with only the yellow fret not held down. The rest should be easy enough to figure out on your own.
The Five-Note Chord - though I've never seen it, I thought it worth mentioning if only for the laughable fact that, without the use of one's thumb, this chord would require holding down multiple fret buttons with each finger in order to play (at least one finger would have to hold down more than one button).
Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs
These are what give guitar hero 1 most of its difficulty. They are actually supposed to make hard solos and crazy sections easier to play, but they were programmed a little strict for the first go-around. In guitar hero 1 you will notice that the "timing window" of hammer-ons and pull-offs is much, much smaller than in later versions, meaning you have less slack when it comes to getting the timing right on pressing the buttons down.
For those unfamiliar with hammer-ons and pull-offs, they are also very hard to see in the first guitar hero game, adding somewhat to their difficulty, even if unintentionally. Their only noticeable characteristic (and not very noticeable, at that) is the white band around the white circle on top of the note (rather than being a black band, it's white). This white band indicates that, if certain conditions are met, a strum is not required for the note to be played correctly. Instead, all that is required is that the previous note was hit correctly according to whatever type of note it was, and that the correct fret button is pressed at precisely the time the current note hits the strike line. For instance, if you have three notes coming up, the second two being hammer-ons, you strum once for the first note and then the two after it need not be strummed. However, if you hit the first note but miss the second one by not timing it right, you must now strum the third one to hit it, even though it is a hammer-on.
What is the difference between a hammer-on and a pull-off? Only the direction you are going. They are essentially the same thing except for a subtle difference which you will see in the next section. A hammer-on is when you are going from the neck of the guitar down to its body, and a pull-off is going in the opposite direction.
This comes from the idea that the game developers who made this series wanted to give it a realistic feel and have a lot of similarities with real guitar playing. The higher-fret discrepancy is one of those features.
When you play a note on a low fret, such as red or green, you can screw it up if you're accidentally holding a higher fret. However, the reverse is not true. Holding the red fret, for instance, will not screw you up if you are playing a series of yellow, orange, or blue notes (and neither will the green fret). This works for every single fret and all the frets that follow it. For instance, a series of green notes require that no other fret buttons besides green are being held down, because there are no other fret buttons higher up on the neck of the guitar than the green one. The orange button has no such requirement. You can, in fact, play a series of orange notes while holding down ALL of the other fret buttons because they do not affect frets higher than them.
If you still don't get it, there's no easy way to explain it except for you to experiment yourself with it. Once you get the idea it's really rather simple. It helps you do some interesting things that make playing some sections very, very easy. If you've played real guitar, this should make sense.
Overall Guitar Hero 1 Difficulty
This game is definitely ONE OF the easiest in the series. It's hard to say that this IS the easiest, however, because of the difficult timing window of the hammer-ons and pull-offs compared to other guitar hero games. In terms of that alone, this is the hardest game, but luckily, it's the easiest according to everything else, like song difficulty, chart difficulty, and amount of notes per song.
Guitar Hero 2
Okay, with the second game in the series came, most importantly of all, a new set of songs to play. There were absolutely no new mechanics or techniques introduced in this game, and understandably, all of the previous ones carried over to this game as well. There were only two major additions/changes.
The first main difference between is that the length of the timing window was increased slightly for hammer-ons and pull-offs, and they were made just a little bit brighter and easier to see. This decreased the difficulty, although the chart difficulty went up quite a bit as well as the overall song difficulty.
The second new feature was that in order to beat a tier of songs, a fifth and final song called the encore must be beaten in order to progress to the next tier. The encore could not be chosen from a list like the other songs (the tier itself), it was just a certain single song that had to be beaten once you had beaten enough of the tier songs. This also slightly upped the difficulty, especially since the encore songs were a bit harder than the rest of the songs in their tier.
Overall Guitar Hero 2 Difficulty
The game itself is far more difficult to beat on expert than guitar hero one. This is one of the two games I have beaten on expert, and it was definitely the more difficult of the two. You'll get some good finger-aching, guitar-shredding difficulty out of this game, for sure. But if you think this game is the hardest, think again.
Guitar Hero 3
There were a few new mechanics introduced here, and I'll go over those briefly. They are not new mechanics per se, but there were a few things that were done differently and some that hadn't been seen before. There were also a lot of minor changes.
One new quirk in guitar hero 3 is that you'll see hammer-ons directly after chords. This is just a minor thing, but there definitely weren't any hammer-ons or pull-offs directly after a chord (as in, you have to hit the chord correctly and then push the right button for the hammer-on, or let off of the rest of the chord if the hammer-on was part of the chord). These aren't all that difficult in themselves, but when combined with the other things, it just added a general layer of difficulty to the game.
Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs
Since hammer-ons saw the most changes in this game, this subsection will describe in detail each change that was implemented in guitar hero 3.
The timing window was, once again, changed. For the better? It's debatable. Personally I prefer the timing window in #3 to others, but a lot of the people I know who play guitar hero better than me say that in #3 the hammer-ons are too easy, that the timing window is too big. Again, I think this is debatable, and I actually would rather them be too easy than too hard. There's no arguing that they are definitely easier to hit than in #2.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs in #3 were made a lot easier to see. They were given a sort of glow effect, and made a much brighter white than the other notes. Now if you can't tell the difference, you're probably colorblind.
Inconsistent Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs
In previous games, if you saw a pattern in a song over and over again (like the main melody or just parts of the melody that were repetitive) and it had hammer-ons in it, those hammer-ons would always be in the same spots every time the pattern was repeated. In guitar hero 3, this is not the case. Patterns with hammer-ons and pull-offs will not be consistent throughout the song; that is, the order and number of the hammer-ons in the repeated section will probably change at some point, and may even change back later. Again, not a major issue, but a tiny thing that is not easy to notice but does contribute to the difficulty somewhat.
The only true major change from guitar hero 2 was the addition of guitar duels with major characters from the game, that were required to be beaten before you could move on in the single player mode. They also added the battle mode for multiplayer, which operates the same way as the guitar duels, but with another actual player instead of against a character in the game (essentially, the computer). Instead of star power, playing sections of notes correctly gives you various attacks that you can hit your opponent with to hinder how well they are playing. Once enough attacks are used the opponent eventually fails, thus you win the duel.
Overall Guitar Hero 3 Difficulty
The duels were fairly hard and contributed a large portion of the additional difficulty in this game. The rest came from the more difficult songs and charts, as well as the subtle changes I mentioned earlier.
Guitar Hero 4: World Tour
The second-most-recent addition to the Guitar Hero franchise is Guitar Hero 4: World Tour. Not surprisingly, it contained quite a few new additions, revamps, and add ons.
Drums & Vocals
The biggest addition by far is the drums and vocals. Soon after guitar hero 2 came out, Activision released Rock Band which included a microphone and a drum set for a more band-oriented experience. This pulled in consumers that hadn't gotten into the core music-gaming market yet, and appealed to a much wider variety of people than the mainstream guitar hero did. In order to compete with rock band (and now rock band 2), Red Octane had to step it up a notch by adding drums and vocals. Bass guitar has been available in previous guitar hero games, but never as a solo instrument; now the single player campaign can be played on bass alone, if the player wishes. For the most part, the drums and vocals operate much the same way as in rock band. For instance, the bass drum is operated by a kick pedal, which is represented in both games by a long flat line instead of a note.
Custom Songs & Song Creation Software
The next major addition was that of the custom song creator and downloadable content. Players can create their own songs in guitar hero 4 and can even post them online so other players can download and play them.
Bass: Open Strum
Another addition was that of the open strum for bass guitar only. When playing the bass part, you'll encounter the same long flat lines that the drummer sees for the bass drum pedal. However, when seen in a bass guitar chart it represents an open strum, which is done by strumming without holding down any frets. If any frets are being held when it is strummed, it counts as a missed note. This adds considerably to the difficulty of the bass guitar part, thereby shortening the too-wide difficulty gap between the simple, repetitive bass parts and the more-complex guitar parts.
Chords in guitar hero 4 are often changed as they are being played. For instance, you might have a red-yellow chord, and then a few seconds later, the blue fret will be added to the chord. I refer to this new technique as altered chords. There are two types.
Re-Strum: If the new note is not a hammer-on, the chord must be strummed as the new fret is added to it; otherwise it counts as a missed chord.
Altered Chord: If the new note is a hammer-on, you can just press down the new fret as it comes up, adding it to the chord without strumming.
Another new mechanic is that of the dual chord-notes. That is, they are both a note and a chord. As you are playing a chord, another note or series of notes may come up, and they must all be played while still holding the chord down. You can basically just continue holding down the chord and strum the notes normally as if there was no chord. The chord will not be messed up even if you miss the other notes. It's the strangest of the new mechanics and takes some getting used to.
If you see a note that looks like a hammer-on but is glowing purple instead of white, that is a slider note. They are usually grouped together in a certain section of the song, and it usually coincides with an instrument change. The purple notes were made exclusively for the new guitar, which has a touch-pad on the neck right below the fret buttons. You can use this touch pad to strum by tapping it, which was intended for the bass part, but can be used with any guitar part. To play slider notes, you must simply slide your finger along the touch pad to match the slider notes. To make things easier to see there is a purple line connecting all such notes. If you do not have a new guitar, the slider notes are essentially hammer-ons and pull-offs but no strumming at all is required! You can simply ignore the strum bar altogether and push down the correct frets at the correct time. Be ready to start strumming when the slider notes end, however!
Overall Guitar Hero 4 Difficulty
I'm certain that guitar hero 4 is as difficult as guitar hero 3, and possibly more. Based on the new techniques alone, it certainly is. However, I have played number 4 the least of all the guitar hero games and thus, I cannot say for sure whether it is harder than number three. One thing that I do know is that it's the most fun of all the games so far, if only because of the sheer number of songs on the disk: 85! This is not even counting downloadable content or custom songs.
Guitar Hero 5
The newest addition to the guitar hero series, Guitar Hero 5 feels very similar to 4, although the charts are slightly harder overall, and there is one new mechanic that was added. There may be more than this, as I haven't played 5 very much, but there is definitely one new technique I have noticed. Also, the graphical display is much more slick and cleaned up.
Chordal Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs
In previous games, hammer-ons and pull-offs only occurred before, after, or otherwise around chords, but the chords themselves were never hammer-ons or pull-offs. This game has no such limitations. For instance, you might see a red-blue chord, followed by a yellow-orange hammer-on chord. Basically you switch the chords fast enough and no strum is needed if you get the timing right, and if you hit the red-blue chord correctly.
Now, the rock meter (red/yellow/green) has been moved to the left side of the note reel. It is now parallel to the note reel, and there is a tiny mark that moves up and down, as well as a small colored section that the mark is in which will be lit up (either red, yellow, or green). Basically the rock meter works the same way, it's just a little harder to see at a glance. Personally, I think it looks much better, as you can see more of the background and there are less huge clunky things hanging around the screen taking up space. Like in World Tour, the note streak indicator and the multiplier are on the right side of the note reel; another change is that the star power meter is also on the right side of the note reel, underneath the note streak indicator. It looks like a small tube full of blue liquid, and if you've filled the meter halfway, it begins to glow slightly. Again, the new look is much more sleek and refined than the old, blocky version with huge gadgets scattered all over the screen, getting in your way of seeing the other stuff in the background.
Overall Guitar Hero 5 Difficulty
From what little I know about it, the difficulty of Guitar Hero 5 is about the same as that of number 4.
Other Guitar Hero Games
There are three other guitar hero games of note; their difficulty is on the whole, easier than the other games. I'll list them in order of release, and, ironically, also the order of increasing difficulty.
Guitar Hero: Rocks the 80's
This is the easiest of all the guitar hero games. First of all, it has easier songs than guitar hero 2, and an easier timing window than guitar hero 1 (it very closely resembles guitar hero 2 in most respects except for the song list). It also only has 30 tier songs and no bonus songs, thus it only has 6 tiers and is much easier to beat than guitar hero 2.
Guitar Hero: Aerosmith
Higher up on the difficulty scale, though not by much, is Aerosmith. There are quite a few bonus songs on this one, and the mechanics and look/feel more closely match guitar hero 3, unlike rocks the 80's. Its difficulty is very close to that of guitar hero 2, though it is tough to say which one is harder.
Guitar Hero: Metallica
Now, this is where the difficulty really goes up. This may just be the hardest game. The main difference between this game and Aerosmith is that Metallica includes the full band setup, whereas Aerosmith is guitar-only. Metallica's songs are very crazy and difficult, therefore their game rightly reflects this in its difficulty. Even some of the songs that are in other guitar hero games were made more difficult by giving them harder charts in this game. Also, the drums for this game include a new special difficulty called "Expert Plus" which is only for this game, and involves two bass pedals instead of just one. Good luck if you decide to pursue this difficulty level! If you want some killer charts, try this game out.
Guitar Hero: On Tour (Nintendo DS)
There are now no less than three games in the On Tour series for DS. I'm going to discuss them as a whole, since I have only played the first one and from what I've heard, they are very similar except for the songs included on them. In terms of song choice, On Tour for the DS is the easiest. However, the different format is very hard to get used to. The difficulty is mainly in the strumming, which is done on the DS touch screen with a stylus shaped like a guitar pick. Once a player figures out how to consistently strum well, it shouldn't be too difficult, but for me this posed enough of a problem that I was no longer interested in playing it. I've heard that buying a better guitar in-game that has a larger strumming area on the stylus makes it easier, but I didn't make it far enough to find out whether it helps or not. Given the nature of this odd-series-out, it's hard to classify which games its difficulty is similar to.