The next 2 R's: Rock 'n' roll

The first time Hunter Unsworth heard “I Love Rock 'N' Roll” by Joan Jett wasn't on the radio. It was when he played it on the video game Guitar Hero.

Now the song couldn't be more fitting for the 14-year-old from Gastonia hoping to master the complete Guitar Hero repertoire on a real electric guitar.

A new generation of classic rock fans, many of them first exposed to the songs on video games, want to learn how to be rock stars – and music schools are popping up in the area to teach them.

The Paul Green School of Rock will open its first N.C. location in Charlotte in late September, and Indian Trail-based Streetwise Music will open its second rock-focused school in Ballantyne this fall.

The schools, which offer kids with a common hobby an after-school place to learn how to jam, have been expanding across the nation. The Philadelphia-based Paul Green School of Rock has grown to 42 schools nationwide, with another 60 under contract, from only eight in 2006.

Hunter will be an electric guitar student at the school's Charlotte location at Sam Ash Music store off Tyvola Road.

“I can't wait to learn to play in a band with other people and learn to really play the songs I already know from Guitar Hero,” he said.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been extremely popular. The video games allow kids to play a song by pushing buttons on plastic instruments according to color-coded notes on a TV screen. Guitar Hero became the best-selling game franchise in 2007, with $1 billion in U.S. sales, according to the NPD Group.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero are partly responsible for making classic rock acceptable to teach and increasing their customer base, the schools' owners said.

“It's opening up both kids' and adults' minds to the idea of learning classic rock music,” said Matt Ross, chief executive of the Paul Green School of Music.

Karl Mokal, owner of Streetwise Music, even holds Guitar Hero tournaments at his school. “The whole Rock Band phenomenon has gotten kids excited about classic rock and makes them want to do the real thing,” Mokal said.

The schools specialize in giving students the skills to play like the rockers they admire, culminating in seasonal shows that include tributes to The Who or Led Zeppelin at local venues.

Students at the Paul Green School of Rock practice in a band-type setting for three hours every week in addition to 45-minute lessons at a cost of $250 a month.

“We want our kids to play it just like Keith Richards plays it,” said Ross. “And the great thing is these kids love the music, so they want to, too.”

Sean McMullan, a guitar student at Streetwise Music, said it was a chore to practice the classical songs given to him at traditional music schools.

“When it's music I like, it makes me want to practice,” said the 16-year-old Rush and Metallica fan. “What's better than being able to play your favorite song?”

Sean credits Guitar Hero with turning on his rap-loving friends to the classic rock songs that he plays.

“Even if people don't start playing, at least Guitar Hero is getting them to listen to new, better music,” said Sean, a student at Weddington High.

The schools hire working musicians to teach their students part-time, and have even hired former students.

While rock music is a hobby for the majority of students, a select group of students form the Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars, a real band that tours the rock music scene. The All-Stars play rock festival Lollapalooza in Chicago this weekend.

According to representatives from the Paul Green School of Rock, Paul Green was the inspiration for Jack Black's character in the movie “School of Rock.”

Parents said they're thrilled to see their kids learning about the music they grew up with.

“They have taken it upon themselves to form their own band, and they work together on arrangements on their own,” said Ruffin Pearce of his 9-year-old son, Liam, and 11-year-old nephew, Klaus. “I couldn't be prouder than to hear them play.”

Liam, who wants to learn to play The Who and The Police, will be a student at the Paul Green School of Rock in the fall.

Laura Unsworth, Hunter's mother, said rock music classes provide an outlet for kids who prefer music to sports.

“If my son wants to be a rock star, who am I to tell him that he can't be?”