Guitar Hooks – Grab Beginning Players and Don’t Let Go!
Also “going” are (arguably) potential lifelong guitar players. Spend any time in a guitar store that teaches and you’ll hear antidotal evidence of vast turnover in students. “We lose 50 to 70 percent of students in those first 60 days of owning a guitar,” declares Travis Perry, who has taught for three decades and now is selling the ChordBuddy in an attempt to stem that tide.
Guitar has always been different from violin or piano, as far as a pedagogical approach. While all the instruments have been around for centuries, it seems that learning (non-classical) guitar has always been especially challenging. That said, there’s never been a shortage of attempts to find the “holy grail” that gets the guitar to stick to man/woman/boy/girl who wants to play. Anyone in charge of submissions at any music educational publishing company will attest that by far the most are for new guitar methods whose author claims, “This one really works.”
So can technology and truly new approaches help? A number of innovators with new products have emerged on the scene, with traditional publishers using the Internet, software technology, and even radical new approaches to what’s been done in the past with success.
“A lot of companies are looking for the future of guitar, and this category is expanding,” Cliff Elion of YouRockGuitar says.
“Our Goal is to Get People Playing”
Rusty Shaffer is that self-taught guitarist of another generation who got along on guitar with “no Internet, direct TV – none of the distractions people have today,” he points out. “Back then you’d take a book, sit under an oak tree, and teach yourself scales and chords.” But these days, the idea of sitting with a book looking at a bunch of dots and lines is antiquated. “I thought, ‘Why doesn’t somebody just put that information on the guitar neck so I can see what I’m playing?’”
And that’s exactly what he did with Fretlight.
“I’m always the guy that looks at things and sees solutions, but this has been one helluva journey,” Shaffer sighs. The company launched in 1992 but it was a different animal–the product plugged into the wall and there wasn’t much “guitar” in the guitar of his early prototypes. He laughs about the first reactions to his idea (one he still hears today):
Music Dealer: “It’s cheating!”
Music Dealer: “I don’t know! It’s just not fair!”
Success is being had. “Sweetwater is doing great things, and selling them like crazy,” Shaffer says of the Indiana-based MI operation.
“Any kind of forward product scares the hell out of the traditionalist,” he says. “But we’re still here because we had early adapters.” He’ll tell you that one of the reasons Fretlight still here is they persisted in answering the big question: Does it emanate a real guitar?
Yes. Today’s Fretlight is a bona fide real guitar, as during his journey Rusty concluded that anything other lead people to think it was just another gimmick. “These guitars are made in China, and with China you can spec out as good or as bad a guitar as you want, so we took great pains to make sure our guitars are quality instruments. They play great.” All the necks are the same, and they have a variety of body styles and pickup configurations, and all can plug into a computer or an amp.
“The point is to have a good guitar in your hand, and Fretlight breaks down barriers by putting a good starter guitar in the hands of beginners.”
The demographic of who is picking up on this might surprise some: “It’s the older guys, 45 years old to 65 years old who are especially taking to these,” Shaffer says. “These guys want a quality guitar and they aren’t afraid of technology.” The guitars start at an MSRP $399 and go up to $1,199 for the pro models. They all come with Fretlight Studio, which shows chords and scales. There’s a video player that offers interactive video lessons (they’ve partnered with Hal Leonard for additional titles including classics by Eric Clapton, the Beatles, et cetera.).
“Our goal is to get people playing.”
For those who still are skeptical, he points out that the times and “distractions” call for a different approach. If a player puts the guitar in the closet after 30 days because it’s too hard and goes back to playing Xbox, it’s the industry’s problem for not adapting to the way people use technology. “That’s my biggest beef with the industry – we shouldn’t force the customer to fit into our [traditional] mode.”
Fretlight has been approached by some professors studying the speed of learning and are using Fretlight products in the study.
Shaffer has a unique dealer program. “I never believed in the MSRP thing and then dealers having to feel they have to knock $30 off that. Our independent music store dealers are selling at full price and they are just floored that they are selling and making good margins, plus getting an excited new customer. We are not going to the big chains because we know they just hang guitars on the wall and try to make the sale by being a few dollars cheaper.” There’s a POP display and demo available. “We’re up to 50 dealers and it’s going like gangbusters.”
A funny thing happened on the way to building a MIDI Guitar for guitarists who wanted access to all the sounds keyboardist have at their disposal – a new educational application emerged.
“I played for years and then got to the point when playing in clubs was not appealing,” says YouRock president Cliff Elion. So he focused on home recording and felt at a disadvantage from his keyboardist counterparts. His answer was the YRG-1000 MIDI guitar. But now there’s Gen2, which is a MIDI controller, “while delivering even more advanced features to motivate and inspire the beginning guitar player.”
From the Guitar Hero-type games they worked to build a bridge from playing a game to playing a guitar. When that trend collapsed, YouRock focused on the aspiring guitarist. “It’s a MIDI guitar controller that’s under $200, and so it’s the first one that’s really affordable,” he says. It comes with 15 basic guitar sounds and 15 synth sounds.
There are many advantages to learning on the YouRock Guitar. “First of all, for teachers who spent the first 15 minutes tuning their student’s guitar, now they can get right into the lesson.” Being able to tie it into the computer via a USB cable is another advantage (it also has a quarter-inch jack). It features backing tracks, and most of all, when playing along with their educational books on the computer when a student hits a wrong note, he or she gets instant feedback and is shown the correct note. And you can jam along with your iPhone or iPad. Strings are used in the bottom-half of the guitar, and are picked as on traditional instruments.
The guitar neck is a computer board, without strings. But Elion says learning where to place your fingers to make chords or play scales is the first challenge, and with this it’s much easier. “You learn the mechanics and get the feel of it, and all that translates easily and directly to a traditional guitar,” he says.
“We’ve had good luck with educators, and it’s very exciting for teachers because you have so many other sounds than just guitar,” Elion says, adding that it can teach composition as well.
The GenZ can control music software such as GarageBand, Cubase, Sonar, Reason, and Pro Tools. The touch-sensitive fingerboard supports many playing styles including tapping and sliding. Its transposition capability makes it easy to put songs in easier more guitar-friendly and beginner-friendly keys.
They have discovered one more benefit: Music Therapy. “We’ve been hearing from people with disabilities or with cancer, and for those who have problems with finger motor control skills, YouGuitar is amazing and it’s great that [the patient] can suddenly do a lot.”
Then there’s gTar, a guitar controller that will be shipping by the end of 2012. Incident Technologies originally developed it as a solution for computer musicians to make music with a guitar. But the team knew all too well that the steep learning curve a guitar requires some help, and Incident’s Josh Stansfield believes the gTar will provide it.
“It grew out of a need to write music on the computer – something accurate and affordable,” he says. LED sensors are in the frets of a 16-fret guitar and it runs off an iPhone docked in the pick guard. “But right away we saw a lot of instructional possibilities.” It’s made of wood and built by a guitar maker in China, though it has no pickups. Right now it’ll retail for around $450, which Stansfield admits is not ideal, but says they are working to make that go down as they are able to order in larger quantities.
To fund it they went to Kickstarter, an online system for funding projects, with an initial goal of raising $100,000 but ran past that to $350,000. Now that it’s a reality, they are starting to talk to some in this industry, including with David Wish of Little Kids Rock as Stansfield sees the gTar as a good fit for his classes. He says they haven’t approached retailers yet, but they have talked to other guitar makers who might want to use the technology on their instruments.
There are three modes for learning a song: Easy, Medium, and Hard. “In Easy mode, it’s about having a good time. Every single note you basically just strum and you can try to hit the notes as the frets light the way, but it’ll play the piece and this gives you a sense of playing.” In Medium mode the player needs to get his or her fingers on the right note for the note to play but is forgiving. In Hard mode, “it’s just like playing a real guitar,” so wrong notes are heard.
“There will be other bells and whistles, and we’re hoping people will develop apps for it.”
Getting Past the ‘Two Month Hump’
Travis Perry has figured out how to get past that “two months hump.”
Playing for 42 years, 32 of those as a music instructor, he long wanted to “level the playing field” for those seeking to play guitar. He had the idea 32 years ago, and it’s taken this long and a dive into a “shark tank” to make his dream realized.
Comparing the differences of piano and guitar, Travis Perry points out that the former is much more visual – “on guitar the G here is also the same G here and here” he demonstrates. “ChordBuddy, simply put, is training wheels for the guitar,” Perry declares. “It’s a patented guitar teaching system that breaks apart the different aspects of learning the guitar.” Like anything new, there’s misunderstanding from some about it; for example that it’s a device that plays chords and thus the player doesn’t have to learn anything, which “couldn’t be further from the truth.”
During his years of teaching Perry noticed that there are several things that have to happen at the exact same time to make guitar playing happen. You have to try to get one hand to play chords while learning rhythm in the right hand and hope calluses build up by the time it all comes together.
“In the beginning, ChordBuddy teaches rhythm with five strum patterns,” Perry says. “The first is a quarter note strum and then you work up to a syncopated pop rhythm – and you do that all before having to learn to finger a chord. ChordBuddy allows concentrating on the rhythm first.”
The device hooks up to almost any acoustic or electric guitar and, with a touch of a button, G, C D, or E minor can be strummed. “With those four chords you can learn thousands of songs, and our book that comes with it has 106.It all adds up to instant ‘guitarifaction.’ “The day you get the guitar you’re playing a real song.” (It doesn’t work on classical guitars or half-size guitars, and a left-handed version is in the works.)
And as for learning to finger those chords, the system is set up to slowly remove one tab at a time until you’re able to play all four chords (and more) on your own. “Once we get them past the 60-day mark, hand/eye coordination sets in and pressing the strings down isn’t hard.”
Dealers have been skeptical, he admits. Some want to stick to what they are doing; some see it as “cheating,” some wonder aloud why the F chord isn’t included (“It’s hard to play and you can get to that later”). Perry tells them that you, “Don’t put a roof on a house before the foundation is built.”
Otherwise, “for the music store owner, this helps sell the guitar,” he says. “I owned a music store for 14 years, and had many conversations with parents wanting to buy a guitar for little Joey, but were concerned it’ll quickly end up in the closet. This gets them playing immediately, and makes a customer for life right there.”
Perry is a reality show star of sorts – while he sold his first Chord Buddy in October of 2010, he ran out of funds. However, he got himself on the ABC show “Shark Tank” and walked away with a $125,000 investment from technology businessman Robert Herjavec. The ABC show allows entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to five millionaires and billionaires in hopes of getting one of them to invest. Perry had four offers in the episode that aired and chose to go with Herjavec’s, and he’ll be checking in during Season Two to report on how he’s doing. “It means everything to ChordBuddy,” Perry said of the investment. More jobs, stability, and advertising funds.
Trend from Software to Online
In print, there continue to be new approaches in teaching guitar, and trends as well.
Alfred has moved its music theory software Essentials of Music Theory online. “Students or their parents can pay for it, and it’s available 24/7,” says Alfred’s Andrew Surmani. He adds that moving educational software online is a trend, as the speed of technology makes creating software a dicey business. “You create a piece of software and by the time you get it out, Apple’s operating systems has moved to Snow Leopard and you have tech-support headaches,” he says. “You have educational software online and it eliminates that problem, especially for schools and teachers.”
He notes that one education publisher, Pearson, is moving away from physical software completely (Alfred is partnering with them for a new online music educational tool for students of Pre-K to eight grade general music classes).
Alfred believes that “technology is critical to education, and even though schools are struggling financially, they are still finding funds to invest in it,” Surmani says, adding that he’s just taken on an additional position with a local university teaching a class and papers are being posted on line, new textbooks have interactive components, there are Smart boards, et cetera. “It’s essential, yet we do know that there is an ‘old guard’ of older teachers who are weary of it.”
Specifically for guitar, Alfred’s Guitropolis, which is a game approach to learning the guitar and received awards and national press when it was released in the 1990s, is still being sold. Out of that came their “Enhanced CDs” technology — CDs with an interactive educational software component.
“Our enhanced CDs are being included in all our starter packs along with an acoustic or electric guitar, book, and DVD,” he says. “We have software in our Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning the Guitar as well.”
For the beginning guitarist that does choose a product that includes software, there is the benefit of instant feedback he says. “That’s what has made Essentials of Music Theory so successful – you have randomized questions and games that provide the new player instant feedback.”
In the analog world, Alfred is also coming out with a new guitar method for the classroom called Sound Innovations for Guitar. “In addition to being a great resource for guitar teachers, this method is perfect for band and orchestra teachers transitioning into teaching guitar. As music teachers are increasingly asked to teach more than one type of class, this method provides the support they need, regardless of the level of guitar experience.” Its pedagogy starts off by teaching chords and notes on the low E string to promote better fretboard understanding, build solid left- and right-hand technique, and to allow students to begin playing fundamental bass-line type rock and blues patterns early on.
“There’s no question that the educational product for guitar has evolved through the years, and while there are certain methods that are tried and true, we’re always trying new things too,” states Jeff Schroedl of Hal Leonard. A recent innovation doesn’t involve technology at all, though – it’s the Hal Leonard Tab Guitar Method. “It’s probably the most effective way yet to learn because while traditional methods start on the high string, this starts on the low E string.” He adds with a laugh that it starts off learning a popular “song” – the “Theme from Jaws,” which is that low minor second.
“It’s a big departure, and we think this will be a solution to retaining more students.”
Otherwise their software offerings for aspiring guitarist “all start with great content. Technology can’t hide poor content, but it can elevate good content.”
They’ve augmented much of educational offerings including those for guitar with their Amazing Slowdown Software. Out for a decade, it’s been popular because player’s been able to slow down that blues guitar solo without changing the pitch, a huge benefit to any guitarist.
There’s there Extreme Metal Bass “which has quickly become one of our bestselling bass publications. It was authored by a big name–Alex Webster from Cannibal Corpse–but we believe that its strong content combined with its unique, enhanced CD has given it a strong marketing hook and sales edge.” The enhanced CD contains regular play-along audio tracks, but the cool part is the MIDI drum files. The aspiring metalist can import the files into his/her Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), assign drums sounds, and the play along with the metal drum grooves as slowly or quickly as they wish. “It’s sort of like a special metronome, and particularly handy given the speed and complexity of the extreme metal.”
Guitar Chord DVDs (Jazz, Blues, Acoustic, and Rock) are media rich with videos showing how to form each chord, he says. “There are real musical examples with full-band backing that put the chords in context, and stylized lessons to help consumers make the most of the chord shapes. These are not your typical chord dictionaries.”
Also they are introducing a few USB-based products, the first one being with Boss eBand. “We’ve loaded the USB with audio tracks and they are pre-loaded with distinct guitar sounds making it the ultimate play-along.”
Finally, they distribute Guitar Pro 6 by Arobas. “It’s an engaging tool that is educational in nature, helping players gain a better understanding of notation.” They also distribute IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube iRig, which allows to plug your guitar into your iPhone, iPad, or iPod.
Does it all add up to more guitarists? Will any or all of these create more lifers worshiping at the altar of the six string? Time will tell…