July 2, 2008

Gadget Adviser: Teach Yourself How to Play Guitar, With Some Help


The Optek Fretlight ($399 to $529 for an acoustic and $499 to $899 for an electric; fretlight.com) offers an alternative way to learn guitar. The Fretlight has red dots of light built into its fretboard, so when the guitar is connected to your Windows computer loaded with Optek software, the fretboard lights up to indicate where to place your fingers. That makes it great for beginners, and the guitar's build and feel means the novice won't outgrow it.


If you've always wanted to play the guitar, you can search the Web for online lessons _ some free, some by monthly subscription _ to help you learn the basics or to perfect your technique. But because anybody can post a lesson online ("how to play guitar" got 178,000 results when we checked videos on YouTube last week; a general Google search turned up more than 8 million), how do you wade through what's out there?

For beginners, we recommend looking for instruction with video, so you can see and hear what you're supposed to do. Text-only works mainly for people who have already had a couple of lessons; we think the best instruction combines video and text, so you can read about what the instructor just told you, and you can see the instructor demonstrate the techniques you've just read about.

Why turn to a computer for music lessons? It's always ready when you are _ and while nothing replaces a good music teacher, at $25 to $35 an hour, private music lessons add up fast. You could also try guitar lessons on DVD, which cost $20 or more, but Web sites frequently add new exercises; with many DVDs, you have only the lessons on your DVD.

This is not a comprehensive review of all guitar instruction Web sites. After a week of typing "guitar lessons" into search engines and trying multiple lessons from a dozen sites, here is a roundup of what we found:

"Guitar Tricks"


_ The promise: "24 free guitar lessons, jam tracks, guitar forums, chat and more."

_ The price: To move beyond the free lessons, it's $14.95 a month.

_ The good: The videos concentrate on how to do what you want to do. If you want to know the why, read the clearly written accompanying text. This keeps videos _ and your concentration _ focused. Also, transcriptions are written out for those who can read music. Nice touch.

_ The bad: There's no clear how-to-use-this-site info; free video lessons are beyond beginners, e.g., do you know what DADGAD tuning is?

_ Grade: B+. A solid, professional-looking pay site.


"Jam Play"


_ The promise: "We are changing how people learn the guitar, by connecting you to the teacher!"

_ The price: $19.95 a month.

_ The good: Unlike most sites, Jam Play's free video lessons include three songs: "The Trooper," by Iron Maiden; "Back in Black," by AC/DC; and "Good Riddance," by Green Day.

_ The bad: Instructors aren't miked properly, and they don't appear comfortable on-camera. I expected more for the steep $19.95 a month the site charges. The yearly rate of $119.95 is a bargain, if you have the cash.

_ Grade: B-. Talented instructors may not always connect with the viewer.


"Video Guitar Lessons"


_ The promise: "Have you ever dreamed of taking guitar lessons from the guitar masters themselves? Now you can. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere. And for less than what you pay for a single lesson."

_ The price: $24.95 a month for a minimum of three months.

_ The good: Instructors include guys you older rockers may have heard of: Jeff Baxter and Will Ray.

_ The bad: A three-month commitment? What if I figure out after a week that this isn't for me?

_ Grade: B-. Solid instruction with easy-on-the-eyes production values. That price, though ...


"Sam Ash Musical Institute"


_ The promise: "Real teachers are standing by NOW to get you started _ FREE instant access."

_ The price: After three free days, access to the entire lesson library starts at a $29.95 a month.

_ The good: Once you figure out to click on "Members Area" then "Lessons by Section," you'll find lessons logically organized, with read-at-your-own-pace text and see-how-it's-done videos.

_ The bad: Lesson quality varies from instructor to instructor. Some lessons are just a guy and a Web cam. I'm paying 77 cents a day for this? No, I am not.

_ Grade: C-. Too pricey.


"Chord Book"


_ The promise: An animated guitar that shows you where to put your fingers to play more than 1,300 chords and inversions. Click "C6" and click the word "strum" to hear a C6 chord strummed on an acoustic or electric guitar.

_ The price: Free.

_ The good: See where your fingers are supposed to go. Sometimes, that's all you need.

_ The bad: You don't know whether to go strumma-strumma-strum or strum-strumma-strum-strumma.

_ Grade: B. Great site for those with a little guitar knowledge and a desire to hear how different chords sound together so they can write their own songs.


"OC Music"


_ The promise: "Featuring lessons in classical guitar, note reading, tablature, blues scales, modes, counting, musical terms, and guitar tips."

_ The price: Free.

_ The good: Lessons are comprehensive and text-based _ no waiting for videos to load.

_ The bad: Because you're reading text but not hearing audio, you're not sure you're playing sounds the way it's supposed to sound.

_ Grade: C+. Site needs a little better organization, but you can't beat the price.


"Justin Guitar"


_ The promise: "It works on an 'honour system.' If you can afford to pay for the lessons, then please donate for what you use. ... If you can't afford to donate, it is no problem at all _ the site is free for you."

_ The price: Free; donations requested.

_ The good: Site has text-only lessons that are well-organized, with a link to Jason Sandercoe's YouTube video lessons. Site also includes tips on how to set up effects and amps to make your electric guitar sound the way you expect it to. More sites need such lessons for beginners.

_ The bad: Justin's highly rated YouTube videos are not well-lit and are mixed in with his gear review videos and clips of his experiences in Ghana.

_ Grade: C+. Well-organized, but amateurish (and that's the appeal for some wannabe guitarists).


"Dolphin Street"


_ The promise: "My hope is that you will learn something from these guitar lessons and guitar licks or riffs. If it seems very difficult to play, try spending more time listening."

_ The price: Free, donations requested.

_ The good: Instructor Robin Renman is versatile, and his lessons get right to the point.

_ The bad: Lessons are organized by date, not in a progression according to your skill. In the video lessons, you hear an annoying computer fan in the background. Each video lesson has an ad at the bottom (forgivable on a free site, but still a bit distracting).

_ Grade: C+. Unorganized, but good lessons.



_ Computer with speakers: With headphones, you'd hear the video lesson but not your own playing. While playing guitar, sit close enough to the computer keyboard to tap the space bar quickly; that's how you'll pause the video to keep up with the instructor.

_ Guitar: Any model will do. Skills learned on an acoustic guitar can transfer to an electric and vice versa.

_ Amp: If you're learning on an electric, you'll want to hear what you're playing.



Guitar-related Web sites use tablature, or tabs, to show you where to put your fingers on the strings of your guitar. Though easy to figure out, tabs don't indicate precisely how long you should play a note or what rhythmic pattern to play. To get that information, you'd have to turn to sheet music.


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