From the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Doug Young
The acoustic guitar offers a perfect way to escape the always-connected world we live in. It’s tempting to throw a guitar into a gig bag and hike to a cabin in the woods where you can make music far from the distracting reach of computers, smartphones, tablets, and other technical gizmos that demand so much of our attention. But technology doesn’t have to be the enemy—you can also harness all those devices to improve your playing, learn new skills, share music, and even collaborate with others. Computers have been an important tool for musicians for as long as they’ve been widely available, and with the virus-imposed isolation of the last few years, more guitarists have turned to technology to help achieve their musical goals.
When it comes to leveraging technology for learning, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. There are a multitude of free and paid video lessons as well as hundreds of apps that promise to help with all aspects of your musical journey. You might narrow your search by spending a few minutes reflecting on how you prefer to learn, your musical style, and what you’re trying to improve. Some websites or apps support diverse styles, while others focus on specific genres or playing techniques.
There are also options for improving specific areas, such as learning the notes on the fretboard, music theory, or ear and rhythm training. One big choice relates to how much human interaction you prefer. At one extreme, technology can help you learn entirely on your own, anonymously and at your own speed. On the other hand, you might prefer a more personal one-on-one experience, with a teacher coaching you every step of the way.
Let’s look more closely at some of the options and explore what might work best for you.
Long before the internet, companies were using the technology of the day to teach students how to play in the comfort of their homes. Happy Traum’s Homespun Music Instruction, as well as Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop were producing lessons on cassette tape before progressing to video lessons on VHS and eventually DVD. The Homespun and Guitar Workshop instructors represent a who’s who of acoustic guitar over many decades, with an emphasis on roots music, folk, jazz, ragtime, and blues. You can learn directly from such famous performers as David Grier, Richie Havens, Rory Block, Keb Mo, Muriel Anderson, Etta Baker, Richard Thompson, even Doc and Merle Watson, in addition to Stefan Grossman and Happy Traum themselves.
Both companies have moved their massive collections of lessons to an online format that allows you to purchase and instantly download or stream instructional videos, along with accompanying tab books in PDF format. In addition to instant gratification, the online versions offer features that weren’t available in the original format, such as the ability to loop a section or slow it down without changing the pitch.
These updated classic approaches are best suited to those who tend to be self-paced. The technology requirements are fairly low—a web browser on a computer with audio output, or a tablet are all you need. A fast internet connection is advisable for streaming, but less critical if you’re downloading lessons to play back locally.
Of course, many websites that have emerged more recently were designed from the beginning to take advantage of streaming video as well as the internet in general. TrueFire and JamPlay are among the larger instructional sites. Both contain countless lessons with different styles and levels, from beginning acoustic guitar to jazz to shredding on an electric. Each of these sites has slightly different features and business models. TrueFire allows you to purchase and download individual lessons, or to subscribe to stream all lessons, while JamPlay is focused on subscriptions. The former site has over 50,000 videos at this point; to keep the content from being overwhelming it organizes many of them into courses called Learning Paths.
ArtistWorks is another website that allows you to take courses from specific instructors who are usually top pros, including Bryan Sutton or Chris Eldridge (bluegrass/flatpicking), Martin Taylor (jazz), and Jason Vieaux (classical). Students sign up for a course by a specific instructor, which gives them access to prerecorded lessons, as well as the ability to submit videos to the instructor for personal feedback.
Acoustic Guitar offers its own subscription lesson plan, Acoustic Guitar Plus, which offers online access to many of Acoustic Guitar’s instructional products, including an extensive course by Alex de Grassi, and also incorporates lessons from Homespun, Hal Leonard, Alfred, and others, all organized into courses on specific subjects, including acoustic rock, fingerpicking, blues, and more.
Some websites specialize in specific styles, such as tonebase (tonebase.co), which focuses on classical guitar as well as piano and violin. Instructors include well-known classical composers and performers like Sergio and Badi Assad, Ben Verdery, Zoran Dukić, Eliot Fisk, and Ana Vidović.
There are also some sites that are centered on a single teacher with a focus on that instructor’s specific style. Fretboard Confidential—the work of Acoustic Guitar contributor David Hamburger—offers a fingerstyle blues course, while Adam Rafferty’s Study with Adam focuses on learning the guitarist’s fingerstyle arrangements.
Many of these sites take advantage of technology and the streaming format to allow you to loop sections of the video, switch to slow motion, and so on. Some videos feature synchronized tablature that displays right on the screen and scrolls with the lesson. To take advantage of these services, you’ll need an internet connection fast enough to play streaming videos for those platforms; to participate in the feedback features that some sites offer, you’ll need the ability to record video with audio.
Choosing between these sites depends on what you are looking for. For example, some focus on skills and fundamentals, technique, music theory, improvisation, or learning the fretboard. Other sites, like GuitarTricks and Totally Guitars are more focused on teaching popular songs.
When it comes to online instruction, it’s important not to overlook YouTube—the largest collection of music videos, including free instructional videos. Some work in conjunction with services like Patreon—for example, the video lessons may be freely available, but the corresponding tab or supplemental materials may only be provided to supporters of the artist’s Patreon account. JustinGuitar, a free YouTube channel with over a million and a half subscribers, is a useful resource especially for beginners. When learning from YouTube, some people like to use foot controllers like those made by Vidami and Elmore to pause or rewind online videos for hands-free operation.
While prerecorded lessons have many benefits, it’s hard to beat real-time interaction with an instructor. Not too long ago, that usually meant finding a teacher at your local music store—often with limited choices. But increasingly, instruction has moved to the internet, and tools to make that possible have made tremendous leaps during the Covid pandemic. Teachers have been connecting with students over Facetime, Skype, Google Video, and other apps, with Zoom jumping into first place for many musicians, once it added the high-fidelity music mode.
The pandemic even motivated some well-known musicians to start teaching as a way to make up for lost performance revenue, aided by the realization that with the internet, they could take on students from anywhere in the world. Now, as gigs have opened up and touring has returned, artists are finding it relatively easy to still connect with students via a laptop or mobile device even when on the road.
Van Larkins, a solo guitarist who records for the CandyRat Records label, finds he can work lessons over Zoom into his performance schedule without much difficulty. “It’s easy enough to jump on the laptop for half an hour before heading to soundcheck and sometimes this ends up being an amazing experience for the student,” he says. “For example, I have given a lesson about performance and stagecraft followed by a livestream on Facebook at the show right afterwards so the student can see it in action!”
Larkins, who is located in Australia, has students in the United States and other parts of the world. He points out that online lessons not only work well for the teachers, but for students who are “busy professionals and stay-at-home parents, as they don’t have to leave the house and can schedule lessons around everything else they do.”
Guitarist Eric Skye has been involved in many approaches to learning. He has taught in his Portland home for 35 years, has made instructional videos for Homespun, and started teaching via Zoom long before the pandemic. He prefers in-person teaching, explaining, “I believe something extra, likely chemical, happens when we are actually together and present with other people.”
But Skye goes on to note the advantages of online lessons. “If you’re curious about what I do and you would like to have an hour together one-on-one, but you live in Frankfurt, Germany, and I live in Portland, Oregon, this is nothing short of a miracle of technology,” he says.
Currently, one of the limitations of in-person lessons online is that it’s not possible to play together due to the latency issues of the internet. Skye notes that “with students interested in improvisation, actually playing together in the same room, which makes up most of every lesson I do in my home, is something you just can’t begin to approach online.” However, that may be in the process of changing, with emerging tools like JamKazam and Jacktrip, which promise to allow multiple performers to play together in real time.
Of course, sometimes a teacher can address topics other than showing you how to play, and an online instructor can provide guidance on many things without being in the room, such as helping a student know what to work on next, or even what gear to buy. For example, Larkins coaches more advanced players on stagecraft, performance, and live sound. He says, “I have yet to find a subject that doesn’t work with online lessons.”
Another online approach to in-person lessons is group workshops. These vary widely with the teacher, of course, generally following the same idea as in-person workshops where the instructor primarily demonstrates or lectures, but with the ability for students to ask questions. Anyone with Zoom can invite others to an event like this, so many instructors manage their own sessions, announcing the workshop to their mailing list or advertising on social media. Others work through a platform such as TrueFire or JamPlay. Peghead Nation offers prerecorded lessons on various topics by subscription, but also regularly produces live- streamed group workshops consisting of multiple weekly sessions.
Learning on Apps
Everything we’ve discussed so far has involved a teacher in some way, but there are also learning apps with no human interaction at all. Most are available for mobile devices, although some also have web or desktop interfaces.
Yousician is a prime example, with its completely automated game-like interface. You learn songs and techniques by playing along with the app, while it listens to you and provides feedback on missed notes, timing, and so on. The app seems best for beginners to lower-intermediate players and should appeal especially to those who want some feedback but are too shy to play for an in-person instructor. Much like trying to hone your skills to get to the next level in a video game, you can work to improve your accuracy—and the computer will never get tired of keeping you on track.
FourChords offers a combination of instruction and play-along features. You can strum along with popular songs while the app listens to your playing and gives you a score. It also offers lessons (links to YouTube videos) from JustinGuitar showing how to finger chords and play common strumming patterns.
Fretello Pro is yet another app that provides both exercises and songs along with instant feedback. The app is aimed mostly at beginners and provides note-by-note feedback, listening to you play and not moving forward until you play the correct note. In a unique twist, it can use your device’s camera to display information on your guitar (in the video window), and light up strings as it prompts you to play.
Available for iOS only, Solo, a fretboard trainer app, teaches you to find intervals within chord changes [ed. note: it has recently been released for Android as well]. The app walks you thru various tunes and common chord progressions, prompting you to play various intervals and chordal tones. Solo listens to you and will only move forward once you have found the correct note(s).
Guitar Note Atlas is an interactive app for iOS that can display the notes of any scale on the fretboard. Also iOS, Fabulus Guitar Chord Finder is an interactive chord dictionary that supports reverse lookup—you select notes on a fretboard and it will tell you the name of the chord. The app can support alternate tunings in addition to standard tuning.
Of course, there is more to learning to play music than just playing notes, and there are apps to address almost any need, from ear training to music theory to managing setlists and lyrics. EarMaster Pro is among the dozens of apps that teach ear training, sight-singing, and rhythm training. Other popular examples include Functional Ear Trainer and Perfect Ear. Music Rhythm Trainer is an interactive app that teaches how to hear rhythm patterns and relate them to musical notation.
If you’re looking for chord charts for virtually any popular song, check out Chordify. You can search the site’s extensive library or even upload your own song, and Chordify will analyze the song and display the chords. The site will allow you to listen to the tune and adjust the volume of synthesized chords compared to the recording. You can also loop sections of songs, transpose the key, and print the chord charts. The chords presented are fairly basic, usually simple first position voicings, which may or may not correspond exactly to a guitar part being played in the song, but with a quick test, the harmony for an uploaded song seemed to be essentially correct in most cases. The tool can directly provide chord charts for simple tunes and beginning players, and at least help advanced players identify basic harmony as they figure out more complex parts.
If you are looking for backing tracks to play along with, tools like iRealPro supply a catalog of songs with basic backing instruments. You can change the speed, or style—jazz, pop, funk, rock, and so on—and also enter your own chord progressions, making iRealPro a great tool for creating fast full-band demos of new songs, as well as for practicing playing along with a band. There are also many backing tracks available on YouTube, including karaoke-style versions of many popular tunes. Web sites guitarjamtracks.com and jamtracksguitar.com are also worth checking out for more backing tracks.
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Musicians have been slowing down songs in order to learn them since the early days of record players, but modern tools make this far more convenient. YouTube offers basic support, allowing you to slow down (or speed up) any video in fixed increments without changing the pitch—just click on the gear icon on any video to slow it down to as little as 1/4 speed or to play it up to twice as fast. For finer control and more features, Amazing Slow Downer and Transcribe! support looping sections, transposing, and tone controls to bring out different parts in addition to changing speeds without affecting the pitch.
Memorization is an important part of the learning process. Apps like SmartCards+ or Anki support the concept of “spaced repetition,” an advanced approach to flash cards that prompts you to revisit material at an optimal time to keep in it your memory.
You may also find it useful to collect all your lesson materials, sheet music, and tabs electronically in one place. While you could just manage a collection of PDF files on your computer or in the cloud with services like DropBox or Google Docs, an app like forScore is specifically designed to manage digital sheet music, offering the ability to organize and annotate pages, among other things. In addition, forScore works with various page turner pedals like AirTurn for hands-free operation.
Of course, don’t forget the lowly metronome! You can just type metronome into Google to access a very usable metronome right in your web browser, but there are apps that go far beyond just keeping time. One of my favorites, TE Tuner provides a full suite of tools including a tuner with many novel features and a powerful metronome that can accommodate changing time signatures, tempo, and more. You can even record your practice sessions (audio or video) so you can listen back to critique your own performance.
It’s Your Choice
As you can see, there are many ways to leverage technology to make progress on your learning goals. It’s worth exploring a bit to decide what best fits your needs and personal style. If you’re doing fine on your own but could use some tools to keep you on track, you might start with some simple apps that can guide your practice routines. But if you’re looking to add to your repertoire, an online song database can help, or perhaps a subscription to one of the many online course platforms would fit the bill. If you need guidance on what to work on, have questions, or just prefer a real human to talk to, firing up Zoom for online group or individual lessons might be the ticket. Or you can do all of the above, all from your home, through the magic of technology.