Mastering the guitar is a classic fantasy. But if you’re wary of hiring a teacher who’ll only show you the simplest chords while reminiscing about the time he opened for Sugar Ray, consider going digital. This might be the best time in history to learn (or relearn) the instrument from home. Whether you’re a rookie or a rusty old hand, new online tools and apps could fast track you to guitar demigod status, provided you put in the practice.
Dave Isaacs, a 20-year music veteran who instructs students in Nashville and across the internet via Skype, said much has changed since he first picked up a guitar as a cash-starved teen. “To learn a song, I used to have to go to a music store, open a book and sneakily write the chords down on my palm,” he said. Now you can scour sites like ultimate-guitar.com for chords of more than a million songs—even indie obscurities like Ween’s “Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down”—and find countless tutorials on YouTube, all free.
But there’s a catch. Most of that information is created by amateurs, for amateurs, so your melodic rendition of that Bon Iver anthem might not ring true with the real version. “Since anyone can post anything, there are a lot of inaccuracies,” Mr. Isaacs said, warning that beginners can get lost in an online maze of data and quickly lose interest.
To introduce a more credible method—and maybe hook prospective pros on its brand—guitar maker Fender recently launched Fender Play ($9.99/month, fender.com), a subscription-based app with polished, professional videos that touch on basic skills and emphasize contemporary music. Unlike most grainy YouTube tutorials, Fender’s videos are filmed in 4K and edited with footage from five cameras angles that can be accessed on your smartphone or tablet. An overhead view even shows the fretboard from the player’s perspective, helping quash the struggle to mirror fingerings of someone sitting across from you. The Fender program’s strength is its quality and consistency, great if you’re a beginner with limited time.
You first choose a “pathway”—Rock, Folk, Blues, Country or Pop—and are led through a structured course that alternates between mini skill-building lessons and actual song challenges. Fender Play currently hosts tutorials for nearly 300 tunes, including the Ramones’s “I Wanna be Sedated” and Lucinda Williams’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”
“We’re trying to get more people to the ‘aha moment’ quicker—a recognizable riff that’s really just two chords and some strumming,” said Ethan Kaplan, chief officer of digital product at Fender. For now, it’s one-sided: You learn only through watching and mimicking the instructor.
For real-time feedback, albeit virtual, the app Yousician (free, or $9.99 to upgrade, yousician.com ) turns learning the instrument into a videogame. Like the mid-aughts hit Guitar Hero, you follow along with an animated fretboard as it scrolls across the screen like a conveyor belt, playing each note as a bouncing cursor lands on it. But instead of mashing colorful plastic buttons, you play on your real acoustic or electric guitar while the app rates you on accuracy and timing, listening through your smartphone, tablet or laptop’s microphone. As each strum is scored “Late,” “Too Early!” or “Perfect!” you earn higher star ratings and unlock new levels, challenges, songs and lessons.
‘These apps turn learning the guitar into a videogame.’
For those who can’t get no satisfaction playing a guitar game, the Berklee College of Music’s digital arm began offering live-streamed online classes in 2016 that can even earn you a bachelor’s of professional studies in guitar. The 120-credit program includes core music curriculum, harmony and ear training, and offers one-on-ones with skilled teachers from Berklee’s Boston campus via WebEx videoconferencing.
But the vast majority of Berklee Online’s more than 8,000 pupils take 12-week á la carte courses ranging from Chords 101 to Advanced Blues Guitar. Students include active military stationed overseas and touring pros like Stefan Lessard, bassist for the Dave Matthews Band, who hones his skills with songwriting, music theory and production coursework.
Newbies, though, may want to start with Berklee’s MOOC (massive open online course) called “Introduction to Guitar.” The class offers hours of instruction videos from faculty, as well as quizzes and an interactive online forum. But unlike the bachelor’s degree ($59,160) or the á la carte classes ($1,229 each), this one is free.
As technology advances, the next generation of rock stars may even learn to shred in augmented and virtual reality, noted
Berklee’s VP of Online Education. “It’s going to have a tremendous effect on the online-lesson experience,” she said. “Soon you could be seeing your instructor’s hand superimposed over yours on the neck of the guitar. We’re on the verge of a huge shift.”
The Stairway to Heaven, it seems, will be paved in pixels.
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