On The Line with Marcus Henderson

As a guitarist, Marcus Henderson’s shredding has been heard by many, many people. That is because he was a huge part of Guitar Hero. He recorded a majority of the guitar parts for the first wave of Guitar Hero including the first title, Guitar Hero II, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s and downloadable content for Guitar Hero III. And he also worked on level design, song selection, helped shape the Gibson Explorer controller for Guitar Hero II and proudly took on the role of “rocksultant” on the team. Present day, he is recording original music with a solo album release on the way. I had a great opportunity to speak with Marcus about the importance of Guitar Hero, what made the first two games great, how he got on the team, recording the covers, what happened to Drist, his future in music and much more.

Alex Obert: How did you become a part of Guitar Hero and what did you do behind the scenes?

Marcus Henderson: It initially started with a friendship between a drummer and a buddy of mine, who would jam at his Palo Alto house. They’d just go into his basement and annoy the shit out of the neighbors for a while. His name was Aaron and he kept telling me that his buddy, Bill, worked at a studio in Fremont and he mentioned something about getting me over to the studio to maybe try out for some commercial work or whatever. But I didn’t think anything of it. I was at a San Francisco beach party one night and that guy Bill was there, we got to meet for the first time. I had brought the acoustic guitar, it was one of those scenarios where you sit around the campfire and everybody’s like, “Play this! Play that!” So I reeled off like ninety different riffs of various bands and stuff. I wasn’t even playing full songs, just the choruses and main riffs of everything. At the end of the night, Bill from WaveGroup gave me his card and said, “Dude, do you mind if I call you ever at any point to maybe come down and do music for video games or anything?” And I said, “Yeah, I love video games and I’ve never really done covers. I’ve never been in a cover band ever.” So I took his card, we all went home, and I kind of forgot about it.

Then one day, totally out of the blue, I got a call from him. He was like, “Hey dude, remember me from that beach party? We’re doing a video game that needs somebody to do a spot-on cover of Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth and I thought of you. Would you be interested in coming down and recording the track?” And I’m like, “Sure, tell me more.” So then he goes on and tells me that the song has to be an absolutely dead-on perfect cover of the original song from tone to technique to everything. And then I started freaking out because it’s Marty Friedman. Every guitar player in the world knows that Marty is one of those individuals whose touch and technique and bravado are completely unique to himself. The physiology of his approach to guitar is completely whack, the way he holds the pick, he’s just so unique and amazing. I got intimidated. I was like, “Holy shit, maybe I can’t do this!” I was driven and told myself I’m gonna do this. I’ve learned a million riffs, but I never really worked on any Megadeth song from start to finish. I never really had the impudency to do something like this, but they were gonna pay me. I had that on top of the challenge as motivation. So I went after it. The riff itself wasn’t difficult and the solo wasn’t super hard at the time.

I went in there and they scheduled me for a Tuesday morning at 10 AM. I walked in there with all my gear. I showed up on time with a great attitude, ready to do whatever you need, totally stoked. We laid it down and fucking crushed it, it sounded ridiculous. That was a part of the initial E3 build, the very, very first demos of Guitar Hero. They went to the E3 2005 convention, everybody knows it’s a big video game convention. It was shown to media in closed doors, very, very private meetings. And Guitar Hero ended up winning several awards at E3 including Best Rhythm Game and Best Puzzle Game. The buzz started growing. WaveGroup just kept me on. They thought I sounded great and asked me if I would like another tune. I said yeah and I believe the next tune was Thunder Kiss ’65 by White Zombie. I practiced the hell out of that. I nailed the tone and everything. From there, they were like, “Alright, this guy’s gonna be doing the heavy lifting.” They gave me most of the songs to record for the video game. It was an incredible experience and I’m still incredibly grateful for it. At the same time I was recording for Guitar Hero, I was also in a band called Drist. We were recording the album, Orchids and Ammunition, then. I was literally recording the video game songs in the morning and early afternoon and then head to another studio till five in the morning. And I’d just repeat this ridiculous cycle of intense recording for basically an entire summer.

So at the end of 2005, I was approached by the brand manager for RedOctane, the company that was the publisher and owners of Guitar Hero. He said, “Wow man, we saw your making of the video game, the Guitar Hero bonus video. Would you like to come to Vegas with us to do some guitar solos and maybe talk about music and guitar?” They had nobody on staff that was really a pro guitarist. It wasn’t populated with heavy musicians or anything, it was just a game publishing company. And of course, I told him I’d love to. So they paid me to go to Vegas and shred it up in this little booth. It was awesome. They offered me a job from there. I was a consultant, I came in to consult with Guitar Hero. I went to work for them in September of 2005 and we launched in late November. My first couple of jobs for Guitar Hero when I first got there was to start bringing street cred in some brand awareness to it. So I hooked up with Thrasher Magazine and we put together this giant party for pro skaters in San Diego at the ASR Convention. We had all these pro skaters coming and had everybody playing Guitar Hero. Thrasher wrote an article on it. It all just instantly gave the game this killer acceptance from pro skaters. I’ve always been into skating. I’ve always been into video games and I’ve always been into guitar. It all just made sense. So on top of doing the basic promotional stuff, I was also doing some interviews for the game, some promotional stuff for the game, some appearances, and it all just started to grow. I had more of a responsibility on Guitar Hero II, they wanted my input on what I thought the setlist should be. That’s when I sat in on the the music committee for Guitar Hero II while I was also recording music over at WaveGroup. I was doing more interviews, more appearances, and it just got so big so fast. It was ridiculous. “Rocksultant” was this nebulous term for somebody who would do literally anything for a game that I, and a lot of people put their blood, sweat and tears into. The first couple of versions of all the great games is the best.

Alex Obert: Since you helped pick out the songs, what influenced your decision to pick those particular ones?

Marcus Henderson: I think I am quoted as saying on the Wikipedia page that heavy metal is going to get its due in Guitar Hero II. They’d basically given me the key and asked me what I think would be really fun. Undoubtedly, we got people to experience Guitar Hero from all generations, that was in the first Guitar Hero. But now people are really good at this game and they want a challenge. The only way we can give people a challenge is by giving them highly technical music. I’m a lifetime metalhead and I said that heavy metal is going to get its due. I put my flag in the ground by saying that my influence on the music selection committee will skew towards heavy metal. That influence was very strong on Guitar Hero II with a lot of the heavy stuff such as Lamb of God. And it’s not just a really cool song to experience in the game, but we really understood how exactly a song would translate into mapping out fretboards and colored gems and stuff. It helped make it a ridiculously fun experience. One of the songs that I put on my list that we actually got was YYZ by Rush. They were skeptical because it was just an instrumental. But if you wanted to sell this to the music selection committee at the meetings, you had to bring a little plastic controller and jam along. They would see not just the rhythmic function of the strum bar, but how varied and compelling you can make five levels of gameplay based on the mapping of buttons. Certain songs just sounded really, really fun to play and YYZ was one of them. After I demonstrated it, it was a no-brainer. The song was perfect for Guitar Hero. As we went on, people started gravitating towards metal. Not only did we get a lot of good metal on the main setlist, but we also really got to populate the bonus setlist with bands like Shadows Fall and Buckethead. We had a lot of really cool stuff on there. And I think that it ultimately helped the game’s score, it has the highest Metacritic score out of all the games. I know it’s because of the setlist, for sure.

Alex Obert: How were you approached to get the guitar brands for the second game?

Marcus Henderson: Well that was a no-brainer. I sat in with the marketing committee and I talked about the idea of instead of giving people cash, give them an endorsement. We can actually talk to these brands and use their marketing services to help spread the word about Guitar Hero. Everybody wanted to be involved with Guitar Hero at that point. Companies would send amps and guitars, all over the place. For every musician that has lived this dream, this game is about telling the dream. One way or the other, this is as close to rock stardom as anybody’s ever fuckin’ get. So let’s let them enjoy this and say in the game, “Hey, you just got an endorsement from Marshall. Here’s five hundred bucks.” I wanted to take it one step further and put it on Playstation Network and Xbox Live and have it link to Marshall’s website, but it was literally five years ahead of its time. But shit man, what a game.

Alex Obert: What’s your honest opinion on the setlist for the first game?

Marcus Henderson: I thought it was brilliant. I heard Take Me Out on the radio the other day and I instantly thought of Guitar Hero. I had nothing to do with the first setlist because it had already been completely chosen, but there’s a reason why Harmonix had a good hand in selection for the first one. It had to be really, really interesting enough from a gameplay perspective and the gameplay is your finger movement. They picked songs that had really compelling and interesting patterns on the strum bar and songs that would easily translate from one button to another. Hard and Expert were there for the serious gamers. If you made it too easy, people blow through the game and think it’s crap. If you make it too hard, people will get stuck.

Alex Obert: After the second game, the series evolved with Guitar Hero III and Harmonix was no longer involved. What were your thoughts on that?

Marcus Henderson: It’s just the way things are. It’s the way things always will be. Once a game becomes too popular or anything becomes too popular, it just collapses under its own weight at some point. Activision acquired the company for the sole purpose of extracting as much equity out of the franchise as possible. It shouldn’t surprise anybody, this is what they do with quite literally every property they own. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, from my perspective. Can anything stay super small forever while being well-received and that adored? No man, it took Activision to make it a worldwide success. But it also lost its boutique feeling and the small crew, the original team that put it together. After that, nobody was really left from the original team. RedOctane wasn’t working with Harmonix. Harmonix was off doing Rock Band with a completely different publisher, a rival publisher. And they have their own methodologies of doing business. It’s just the way corporations work, dude. They take shit, they ring all the bucks out of it, and when it’s done, they just move onto the next thing. What am I gonna say? “Activision, you fucked up a great game”? Fuck that, they helped make it a worldwide success.

Alex Obert: I feel as though there was a certain charm in the first two games that couldn’t be replicated.

Marcus Henderson: There was a lot of love into this game. From the way the game ended to the various messages to the UFO. I remember the first time I saw the UFO across the sky at the very, very end of Free Bird and it said “LIVE AND LET ROCK”, and it was just a magical fucking moment for the team. At the time, a rock war was raging on. Rock music was on life support. It took The Darkness’s Permission to Land to jumpstart rock n’ roll again, the classic style. When Guitar Hero came in and put Boston and Van Halen in there, it made people feel a certain way about how they were able to connect with their kids. There’s almost a bridge to another generation of kids that weren’t able to enjoy this music. We take it for granted because we’ve heard it on the same radio stations forever. But a thirteen year old kid who’s never heard Skynyrd and experiences it the first time in Guitar Hero, it’s incredible. That’s the magic of music. That’s why we do what we do, from a musician’s perspective, game developer’s, whatever, it’s that confluence of emotion that we’re able to help alchemically conjure together because we all very deeply care about the art we’re involved in.

I’ve had literally, literally hundreds of dads and moms come up to me and look me in the eye and they are sincerely thankful. “I cannot thank you enough. My kid didn’t give a shit about Cream or Jimi Hendrix. But all of a sudden, it’s in Guitar Hero and it’s cool. And now we connect. We listen to music.” I’ve had moms tell me, “I bought my son a guitar because of this game. He was going in some pretty dark places, but now I buy him strings and we connect.” But I told them that’s the power of rock n’ roll. We were thankful and grateful enough to have made this game. I’m just lucky enough to be able to fuckin’ say that I was even a part of something like that, keeping the heartbeat alive along with some other amazing players. I don’t deserve any more recognition than Lyle Workman or Lance Taber, all of those fucking guys. It’s the love of the craft, man.

Alex Obert: Who was your favorite character in the game?

Marcus Henderson: I thought Lars Ümlaüt was pretty fun to play. But for Guitar Hero II, I straight up went to the Grim Ripper every time. To me it’s special moves when you hit the star power were probably the most entertaining.

Alex Obert: What was your favorite venue?

Marcus Henderson: I thought The Rat Cellar was really cool from the first Guitar Hero. But my favorite would have to be Stonehenge, it was such a natural environment to end Guitar Hero II. Such a perfect thing. You get picked up by the UFO and you get launched into guitar immortality. What better way to end this experience? What better way to finish Guitar Hero II? The cultural significance of Stonehenge all the way.

Alex Obert: You told me previously that Jordan by Buckethead blew you away. What was it like when you first heard that song?

Marcus Henderson: It was sent over by Buckethead’s engineer and the first time I heard it, I got fucking chills. I still get chills thinking about it because not only is it a ridiculous fucking solo, but it was going to be so fucking fun to play. I get chills because I remember the first time I ever listened to it, just like everybody else at RedOctane. We all thought it was the raddest fucking thing and knew people were gonna go crazy over it. It was a golden spike for the game.

Alex Obert: I’d love to get your thoughts on how songs from the first couple of games were a part of Guitar Hero Smash Hits as masters.

Marcus Henderson: I don’t really care, and apparently nobody else did either. (laughs) The consumers didn’t care either because they didn’t buy the game. That game was the last drop of blood out of that property that they were trying to squeeze out of it. Is it disgraceful to the work of WaveGroup and all of the work that people put into it? Nah, but it’s slightly offensive that they would take what people loved out of the game to begin with. Everybody knew that these weren’t originals in the first couple of games. That’s because when you’re playing Guitar Hero, you’re assuming the role of somebody who’s basically in a cover band. If you put the originals in there, you kind of just remind people that the shell of what they loved is no longer what it is. It’s turned in the middle of the night. It’s the zombie that has come back to life. It’s the fucking Pet Sematary. Sure, it’s Guitar Hero, but it doesn’t fuckin’ feel like Guitar Hero. It doesn’t sound like it either.

Alex Obert: How did your involvement with Drist continue once you fully joined the Guitar Hero team?

Marcus Henderson: I actually ended up leaving Drist in 2006 because I just had too much going on. We released the album and I split from the band. I was burnt out from being in the band and recording. I just wanted to take a year off to relax. We wrote some really fun songs for the game. The first Guitar Hero had Decontrol and Guitar Hero II had Arterial Black. Those are fun songs, man. In fact, I still hear Arterial Black on The Jim Rome Show as bumper music on occasion. That’s cool. They put out another album without me and they now changed their band, now they’re doing something else entirely. All of the apples had been picked from that tree, everybody had to move on.

Alex Obert: What do you envision for the future of guitar-based video games?

Marcus Henderson: I have no idea, man. I just worked for a game called Bandfuse: Rock Legends. You plugged your guitar or your bass or your microphone into your console and you sing karaoke style or you play guitar or bass with all these songs. We wanted to teach people scrolling tablature. We spent three years working on this crazy game. We put it out there and it didn’t work, nobody really bought it. Like anything else out there, you can put a lot of effort into something and it doesn’t matter what you put out, you’ve gotta strike that nerve with people. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. You can’t win the Super Bowl every fucking year, you can’t always get everything you want. It’s not necessarily a lesson in humility, I’m a musician, I’m used to failure. Just like baseball, if you’re doing well thirty percent of the time, then you’re considered outstanding. You have to be able to accept that not everything you do, no matter how much fun or how brilliant you think it may be, there’s a very realistic possibility that you may not be seeing it the way other people do. I have no regrets. I got to meet some amazing people. But right now, there is no music game market. I think people are waiting for a Renaissance. Next year will be the tenth anniversary of Guitar Hero, so maybe Activision will do something to commemorate this wonderful video game.

Alex Obert: Do you keep in touch with anybody that you worked on Guitar Hero with?

Marcus Henderson: All the time. It was such a great experience for everybody. I made lifetime friends. I’m still very close with a lot of the guys that I worked with.

Alex Obert: I can sense that vibe in the bonus videos of the first couple of games.

Marcus Henderson: What I remember about that is I’d be sitting there playing and all of a sudden the door would open, then somebody would come in holding a camera. And they’d be like, “Yeah, we’re shooting B-roll.” But I never knew what they were gonna use. They just kept filming.

Alex Obert: But it came out great and it’s something special to cherish and watch at anytime.

Marcus Henderson: I totally agree.

Alex Obert: What are a couple of songs from the games that impacted you the most?

Marcus Henderson: I remember when they asked me to do Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies. I was a little floored because as a young punk skate rat, I listened to Institutionalized a hundred fifty million times. And it was one of those songs where the guitarist was so fucking good, Grant Estes was the guitar player at the time, it’s just a nonstop solo. All the verses and just this speed metal chorus. I’d already loved the song so much that I never thought that I’d ever wanna learn it because it was just such a high bar even for a young skate kid. When I actually examined it and had to learn it and re-record it, it was one of the most difficult things that I’d ever had to do for the series. I couldn’t just play the way I play guitar, I had to play the way they played guitar. Everything from the subtleties and their approach and their dynamics, there’s a fucking huge science to this and doing it right. The original solo for the song, it’s buried in the mix, it took repeated listenings to just isolate bits so I could figure out what I was trying to learn. It was a pain in the ass, but it was super rewarding. It took me a long time to do it, so you’re gonna get that level of quality. But that was difficult.

Another one was Hangar 18. Note for note, that was probably the hardest one I had to do for the series. It was just a marathon of learning and re-recording and fucking up in the studio and then re-recording. It was a nightmare. I finally got it together and it was awesome. But I’ve gotta say overall, my favorite song by far was Cowboys From Hell. I thought I was actually done with the recording of the first Guitar Hero, I thought it was over. Then I got one more song and it was Cowboys From Hell. Dime had just been shot not even several months prior and it was devastating for me. I was like, “Holy shit, man. I’ve gotta honor him. I’ve gotta do this right for every Pantera fan that’s out there, all of us that love and respect this guy’s legacy. I’ve gotta put every fucking ounce of energy and everything I can into making this right. One of my guitar heroes died. I’ve gotta make this right.” I had his phone number in my phone, I actually called his number and he had already passed, but his girlfriend, Rita, had left his phone on so people could leave messages for him. So I left him a message saying, “Listen Dime, I’m going in and I’m gonna record this song. The whole fuckin’ world’s gonna hear this song and kids are gonna be rocking your shit forever, man. I just need you to give me that bolt of energy, give me that lightning bolt here. Shine your awesomeness down on me so I can get through the session.” After that, I just relaxed and I just went in and we fucking destroyed it. We just had an amazing session. In the “Making Of” bonus video, you see me attacking the song because I felt like I was empowered by the spirit of Dime to honor his music. I was lucky enough to be able to do that.

Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, do you have any plugs for readers?

Marcus Henderson: Yeah, I just finished my first single for my album coming out in the spring. I’m releasing a new song every eight weeks, so I just released my first single called Embers. It’s available on iTunes, Amazon, all the other good places. You can find it on YouTube. There’s a great story behind working on Embers. The game that I told you about, Bandfuse, had come to a sudden halt. Everybody in the company got laid off. We were all just like, “What the fuck are we gonna do?” So I put all of my frustration and all of my passion for doing something original into Embers. A lot of emotion was put into it. If people were to check it out, I would deeply appreciate it. I’m excited for moving forward, as we.

Alex Obert: I would love to thank you so much for your time and for the great insight into everything.

Marcus Henderson: Alex, thank you man! I really appreciate you reaching out, dude!

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