The music-game genre used to be all the rage. And Rock Band and Guitar Hero used to be the dueling juggernauts. But when sales sagged, both franchises took some time off. Now they’re back and, thankfully, they’re more different than ever. Got a kid who loves jamming on plastic instruments? Thinking about getting your family band back together? Here’s a look at how Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live compare, with some insight on which might be a better fit for your home.

Rock Band 4: A Familiar Tune

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The gameplay in Rock Band 4 hasn’t changed much.

Have you played one of the previous Rock Band games? Good. Then you know exactly what to expect here. While Rock Band 4 moves the series onto the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it’s very much the same core experience that we’ve seen in the past. It’s played with plastic guitars, a drum set with a foot pedal, and a microphone, letting potentially several players join together and play along. (The keyboard from Rock Band 3 didn’t make the cut this time around.)

The fundamentals are the same. The guitar still has the five colored fret buttons and a strum bar on the body. You’ll hold the correct note and strum when it reaches the bottom of the screen. It’s very much the same for drums. You’ll hit the correct drum as indicated or tap the foot pedal as shown. With vocals, you’ll try to both sing the words and match the pitch, both of which are scrolling onto the screen. And for songs with vocal harmonies, multiple microphones can be plugged in for each person to sing a different part.

Small enhancements have been made—such as the freestyle guitar solos, which let you put a personal stamp on each performance—but it’s mostly a familiar experience. That’s great if the sensation of playing as a band never got tired for you. But anyone expecting something fresher might be disappointed.

Guitar Hero Live: A New Flame

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The game puts you in front of a live action crowd that reacts based on how you’re playing.

By contrast, Guitar Hero Live really has rebooted the franchise with Live. This version of the game ditches the old style of playing, drops a couple of instruments from the roster, and significantly shakes up the visual design. It all starts with the guitar. Now you have six buttons, stacked three across. The notes are represented in the game as guitar picks pointing up or down. That really changes the way you play, but it also feels more like playing high and low strings on a real guitar.

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Instead of the colored buttons, the new Guitar Hero controller

The “Live” part of the game pertains to a series of festivals you play. But instead of cartoonish band members and crowds, Guitar Hero Live features real video footage shot just for the game. If you’re playing well, the crowds will cheer and scream. And your band mates will excitedly rock alongside you. Start missing notes, however, and the audience will lose interest or get upset, and your fellow players will look confused. The tone is a little cheesy, but there’s never been anything like it before.

Lead guitar takes center stage in the new Guitar Hero. There’s no bass guitar or drums, although you can still plug in a microphone for vocals. That means that group play, a big draw of the last few entries, isn’t really feasible here. Still, even though Guitar Hero Live is a streamlined music game, the revised focus makes it feel new and exciting.


New instruments are available for Rock Band 4, but there’s a big perk here. Many of the old instruments are also compatible with the new hardware. Most PlayStation 3 instruments work on PlayStation 4, and some of the Xbox 360 controllers carry over to Xbox One, although you’ll need an adapter to use the Xbox instruments. The new Rock Band instruments aren’t significantly different from the old ones, but they feel a little bit sturdier.

Meanwhile, Guitar Hero Live is an all-new experience that requires an all-new guitar. It has more of a toy-like look and feel than the Rock Band 4 guitar, but it works well, and the new six-button design offers a brand new challenge to music-game fans.


Rock Band 4 comes with 65 songs on the disc, including recent hits like “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars, “Centuries” by Fall Out Boy, and “I Bet My Life” by Imagine Dragons. U2 makes its first music-game appearance here with two songs. The Who and Ozzy Osbourne provide classic tracks. Additional downloadable songs are being released regularly for purchase, letting you expand your library a couple of dollars at a time.

And if you played past games, there’s another big perk. Many of the earlier downloadable songs carry over into the new game. So if you bought Rock Band songs on Xbox 360, you can grab many of those songs free on Xbox One, and the same applies with PlayStation 3 to PS4. Some songs aren’t available due to expiring contracts, and songs released through the “Rock Band Network” (mostly from indie artists and labels) don’t work. But more than 1,500 songs do carry over.

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Guitar Hero TV allows you play along to songs presented in TV-like format.

Guitar Hero Live takes a different path here, and that means that earlier songs do not work with the new game. Just 42 songs are on the disc, each with live video concert footage, but you’ll find another 200 songs available through the GHTV mode.

GHTV provides two always-on interactive music channels that stream into the game over an Internet connection. You can simply choose a channel and start playing along to the music at no extra charge. Each song shows its original music video in the background. You can also play these songs on demand using play tokens, which are handed out free as a reward for playing the GHTV channels. However, if you run out of tokens and want to play those individual songs, you’ll have to purchase more tokens with real money.

Platforms and Price

Rock Band 4 is available for only Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with the individual game sold for $60 on PS4, and the game and legacy instrument adapter sold for $80 for Xbox One. That’s the price you’ll pay if you already have older instruments to use. If you need new instruments, you can buy the game and a guitar controller together for $130, or the full band kit—which also adds drums and a microphone—for $250.

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The new instrument bundle for Rock Band 4 includes a guitar, drums and microphone.

Meanwhile, Guitar Hero Live has a big advantage when it comes to availability. It’s sold not only for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but also Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iPad, and iPhone. For many people, that means it’s the only new music game available on your console this year. However, you must buy new hardware, and the game and guitar bundle sells for $100 on each platform. A bundle with two guitars is priced at $150.

For the Family

Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live represent very different kinds of music game experiences, both in terms of how they play, who can play, and what kinds of songs you’ll play. That’s a great thing for genre fans who plan to devour both. But it makes things trickier for anyone thinking about bringing just one music game home this holiday season.

Guitar Hero Live is a fresh challenge for anyone who loves plastic guitar games. The revised button layout provides something new for longtime fans. The live video stuff is campy, but fun. GHTV is an awesome new feature. It’s a great way to discover new songs, and you can play for hours and hours without paying another cent. But Guitar Hero Live is primarily a single-player or two-player competitive experience, which limits its party potential.

By contrast, Rock Band 4 certainly is familiar, but it’s designed for a crowd. A guitarist, a drummer, a bass guitarist, and up to three vocalists (depending on song) can all play together to make awesome virtual music. That makes it the better pick for the family that wants to play together, or for your kids and their friends to play together. If you’re buying a new music game for the entire family, and you have a PS4 or Xbox One, then Rock Band 4 is the clear choice.

This article was written by

Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor, and his work has appeared in more than 50 publications around the world. He’s also a work-at-home dad to a wild toddler.