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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. Author Kate Koenig updated it for accuracy in 2021 (and wrote a follow-up installment which covers YouTube channels, plus even more websites and apps you may wish to try.)
There are several reasons why traditional music lessons aren’t for everyone. In a practical sense, you may not be able to afford them. Or maybe you just don’t have the time to fit a regular lesson into your week and devote additional hours to practicing. Or perhaps, for whatever reason, taking lessons is just not how you want to learn.
Being a self-taught guitarist (or musician in general) is as well-accommodated as it ever has been, mostly because of the wide variety of apps, software, and websites to choose from. “It’s changed the way we think about the self-taught musician,” says Dr. Bryan Powell, founding co-editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education and chair-elect of the National Association for Music Education. “Now the ‘self-taught musician’ has a lot of teachers. Keeping our goals in mind while we survey resources will help us find the right ones that are going to work for us.”
Aside from the resources that can be found on YouTube, and apart from the many apps that can make the process easier, there is a bounty of pre-structured, all-in-one courses that are customizable enough to suit beginning, intermediate, and even advanced players. They fall under two main categories: immersive software programs and online lesson databases. Of course, having so many options can be fatiguing when it comes to making the right choice. Here are some of the most popular and renowned programs to help you get started.
Options for Learning Guitar Online
Best for beginners, Yousician is an immersive software package that engages users in a new way. Founded in 2011 by Chris Thür and Mikko Kaipainen, the company’s first program, WildChords, was designed as a video game for children. A few years later, they produced Yousician, which offers lessons on guitar, bass, ukulele, piano, and as of 2018, voice. It’s available for Mac and PC, as well as in an app version for Android and Apple devices.
For guitar, Yousician offers a series of lessons with three initial paths to choose from: Lead, Rhythm, and Knowledge. Each offers slightly different customized study, but the basic structure is the same for most lessons: You watch a video of an instructor explaining a technique, and then you play an exercise that allows you to practice it.
The exercises are what make the program unique. A backing track plays as tab-style notation scrolls past on a fretboard—to earn points and pass the exercise, students have to play the notes accurately and on rhythm. The coolest thing about Yousician is that you don’t need anything more than a guitar and a working microphone on your device or computer—the program processes the sound of your guitar and can tell if you’re playing the notes correctly, even when the music gets more fast-paced and complex. Through the help of this audio signal-processing tech, you get valuable feedback on note and rhythmic accuracy.
Yousician teaches through songs, and structures the course based on your skill level. You also can’t progress to the next lesson until you’ve completed the previous one. One interesting feature is that if you’re in a rush, you can enter the amount of time you have to practice, and the program will offer you a lesson that fits. The program also comes with a musical toolkit, which includes exercises for learning and practicing chords, standard notation, scales, and arpeggios, as well as collections of songs to practice fingerpicking styles, barre chords, and songs that belong to certain genres.
While the program is effectively structured and a fun, engaging tool, one drawback is that the songs are limited. Other learning methods include access to almost any popular song you’re interested in learning how to play; when using Yousician, you’re limited to covers of popular songs and traditional, public-domain folk songs.
Another commercially popular immersive software system for learning guitar is Rocksmith—a program that essentially allows you to play the popular video game Guitar Hero on a real guitar, available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Microsoft Windows. In comparison to Yousician, Rocksmith doesn’t offer as much educational value or rudimentary exercises. It can, however, act as a fun practice tool for intermediate to advanced players.
Six of the Best Websites for Learning Guitar
Aside from some smart and helpful apps—which we’ll touch on a bit later—immersive software is where you’ll find the most benefits that come in the way of what modern technology has to offer. More than gimmicks, those features are useful—but in other ways, there’s nothing better than the basic instructional tools that can be found in our other main category: online databases.
One of the most highly recommended online databases for learning to play guitar is GuitarTricks.com. Founded in 1998, Guitar Tricks offers 11,000 standard video lessons, delivered by their staff of instructors. In addition to their database, a key benefit is that on request, you’re able to book a private video lesson with an instructor, or a spot in a group session. The site, whose resources can also be accessed via its Android app, boasts a collection of 600-plus songs subdivided into categories including bluegrass, jazz, blues, metal, rock, surf, country, classical, and funk & soul. Each song comes with its own instructional video, and some come with their own scores.
One aspect unique to Guitar Tricks is the Core Learning System. Designed especially for beginning students and those returning to the guitar after a long break, the system allows you to structure a series of courses based on specifically what you choose to learn on the instrument. Like most all-in-one services, you also have access to tools including a scale finder, metronome, chord finder, and tuner, along with a few other customized exercise programs.
Guitar Tricks is one of many online databases; other popular sites include:
JamPlay offers 6,500 lessons from over 90 instructors, which include celebrity artists like Bumblefoot (Guns N’ Roses), Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), and Mike Keneally (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani), as well as live video lessons in which site members can interact with the instructor.
Though they have fewer lessons to choose from, ArtistWorks offers instruction on a variety of instruments in addition to the guitar, from seasoned teachers including Paul Gilbert, Keith Wyatt, Tony Trischka, and classical guitarist Jason Vieaux. The site’s best feature is its video exchange, in which students can submit videos of themselves playing, and receive instructor feedback based on their technique.
Acoustic Guitar Plus, an online subscription learning platform from Stringletter Media, the company that publishes Acoustic Guitar magazine, offers hundreds of instructional videos from master teachers at AG, Hal Leonard, Homespun, and others, and caters to acoustic and electric players of all levels and styles.
With the largest database online, TrueFire has 40,000 lessons with 140 plus instructors, including Muriel Anderson, Tommy Emmanuel, Laurence Juber, and Adam Levy.
An entirely free service, JustinGuitar offers over 1,000 lessons and appears on several “best online guitar resources” lists.
The Best Multi-Tool Guitar Apps
Outside of all-inclusive software programs and lesson databases, there are several incredibly useful apps that are available to the self-taught musician.
Offering a very basic yet timeless function is Roni Music’s Amazing Slow Downer—which does just what it says: it slows down recorded music without affecting the pitch. It’s available as software on both Macs and PCs, and now there’s an ASD app for Android and Apple devices that can connect to tracks on Spotify (with a Spotify Premium account).
Available on Apple, PC, and Android devices, EarMaster 7 Pro includes 2,500 exercises for ear training and sight-singing, along with fundamental music theory and rhythm study. The range of exercises is interactive and designed for all skill levels.
With a database of 2,000 songs, FourChords is an app for Android and Apple devices that breaks down songs into four simple guitar chords to make them easy to follow for beginners. It also includes lesson tutorials from JustinGuitar, as well as the ability to adjust the key and tempo, track progress, and get feedback via audio signal processing tech (the same used in Yousician).
Chordify is a unique app that uses audio signal processing in a different way: It analyzes an uploaded song (from anywhere online, or your own hard drive) and outputs a measure-by-measure chord chart. It then allows you to play back, edit, and transpose the results. It’s available as an app for both Android and Apple devices.
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You can find tablature and chord charts for nearly any song you’re interested in learning with Ultimate Guitar Tab, Songsterr, and GuitarTapp PRO. iReal Pro, and Guitar Jam Tracks are three examples of play-along apps that provide you with the backing tracks you need to play along with the songs you’re working on. There are a number of tuner apps available, but Guitar Tuna (from the makers of Yousician) is especially handy for its simplicity.
What Guitar Teachers Think of Online Learning
A former New York City public school teacher, the aforementioned Dr. Powell also teaches at several universities in the NYC metropolitan area. (He assigns homework to his master’s level education students, to whom he’s teaching basic guitar for use in their own classrooms, on FourChords.)
“I think it’s a really exciting time for people who want to learn guitar,” he says. Especially in the realm of popular music education, Powell emphasizes the importance of applying your individual goals to your self-education. “Choosing the different resources that work for you, playing the songs that you want to play, and learning in the way you want to, is a better approach for engaging students to stay with playing the guitar throughout their lifespan.
“It starts with what you want to do. The people who are going to stick with learning a new instrument, whatever it is—it’s based on attraction to their interest. Because, if you’re really into it, when your fingers start hurting because you’re playing guitar chords and you haven’t built up calluses, that passion is what’s going to keep you coming back.”
Christopher Sampson—founding director of the popular music program and songwriting professor at USC Thornton School of Music—has had a multifaceted performing career on the guitar. He uses EarMaster Pro every morning as part of his daily routine. “It’s my equivalent of going to the gym,” he says.
“At the beginning level, I think these resources and these apps can be great entry points,” he continues. “They can offer really good starting points to get somebody on fire and interested, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Enthusiasm goes a long way.” When choosing the right educational app or program, Sampson says, “It has to work very intuitively so that I’m not working harder at learning the software than I am at learning the skills that I need.
“Ultimately, all music is self-taught,” Sampson adds. “For somebody to really achieve something interesting in music, they’re going to have to take all the concepts they gather, whether that’s via technology, influences, peers, and they’re going to have to figure out how to create their own style and sound.
“They have to teach themselves what this means to them. That’s a big step—but the self-initiative part of things, of students sparking their own learning process, is a great sign that they might be ready for that down the road.”
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