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About Guitar Rabbit: Guitar Science in App Form

As an experiment in using an iPad app as a smarter way to learn guitar, I programmed 30 exercises I wanted to practice as interactive challenges with tab...

25 years into guitar I decided that there were some things about my playing that I needed to clean up. Time to learn a bit more theory and get a little more systematic about practice. I had a lot of useful learning material accumulated over the years but hadn't ever really tried to approach it in a disciplined, measured way. For example, what's an efficient way to learn guitar scales? Surely there must be an app for that? Well no, there wasn't. But there are a lot that do it wrong. So I made one that does it right. Here's why:

Firstly you need a real guitar in your hand. A simple book of scales with a touch interface that just looks like a guitar will not do. The book "This is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin describes many interesting things about how our brains work in relation to sound and music. One of them being how our motor skills are intertwined with memory, what people refer to as muscle memory. Without this, you're just not putting your whole brain to work. And this is one reason why performing music is supposed to be enjoyable: because it uses your whole brain!

Another important reason is that you learn better and are more motivated if you care about the sound that you are producing. For guitar this means a good tone. Clearly then you don't want a cheeseball sounding MIDI guitar or a bunch of somebody else's samples forced on you. Then there's the added latency that's commonly a problem in various signal processing apps, e.g. Rocksmith.

So I decided that you should bring your own tone to this one, be it analog or digital. I find even an original iPad and original iRig are perfectly adequate for pitch analysis, despite being quite "low fi". When you combine iRig/iPad with an ABY splitter pedal to send the signal you hear to a REAL analog amp, it sidesteps the whole latency problem while still letting the iPad analyze the signal. If you need the convenience of an amp sim on the iPad e.g. Amplitube, that also works fine running in the background on iOS 9 (and perhaps other versions too). Of course, then you'll also be wanting a newer iPad and one of the nicer iRig HD or Pro interfaces for better sound quality.

Playing Guitar Rabbit with an electric guitar through iRig PRO on an iPad

I also like to use my Roland keyboard as a mixer to drop in drums & click tracks to play along to when practising for similar reasons, so I didn't want to force that choice in the app either.

Next you need regular practice. Having a set routine avoids wasting time deciding what to do or procrastinating about the difficult things. Do not question the Rabbit. She is very stern. No hesitation, no deviation, no distractions. Just focus. Before this, I don't think I appreciated quite how much discipline many of the great players put into honing their craft. I can see why they liken it to meditation now.

Did I mention distractions? Many apps torpedo the whole learning experience with all kinds of distractions: freemium nagging, banner ads, paid subscriptions, facebook sign ins, fiddly menus with lots of buttons that need clicking before you can play anything, ridiculously patronizing tutorial videos shot with Hollywood production values. Yuck. I will have none of that!

The streamlined UI in Guitar Rabbit is this: Play the guitar. When you finish an exercise, swipe right to do it again, or swipe left to do the next one. That's it. It doesn't even care where on the screen you swipe, so you can easily use your (sockless) toes to navigate without your hands ever leaving the guitar.

Keeping organized? Well this is where computers are helpful, timing and tracking and charting can all be very motivating to see your real progress, and make it more scientific and objective. You start to see things like being inaccurate slows you down, so the old advice of start slow and accurate and then speed it up really has good reasons behind it.

Feedback. Pitch graphing has been possible for years but doesn't yet seem to be in widespread use. Personally I think it's interesting to analyze playing this way and you can see some quirks like inadvertant slight bends on releasing notes. Plus it's just valuable to see it has registered that you made a noise of some kind, rather than give you a binary PASS or FAIL with no explanation.

Playing Guitar Rabbit with an acoustic guitar through the iPad's built-in mic

So where to start? Ex 1: Note names. The ability to instantly find a note anywhere on the fretboard certainly makes it quicker to find a chord or scale to fit a piece. Strangely this is something that a lot of guitarists ignore, particularly given the prevalence of tab. But it's not that difficult to fix with a simple quiz. Just try it a few times and you should see yourself getting quicker each time. If you are starting from nothing, you many want to focus on just one string at a time and learn it well before moving onto the next one. Steve Stine eloquently elaborates

Ex 2: expands this note finding quiz to octave jumps. Ex 3: then exhaustively locates notes in all positions on all strings. Borrowing an idea from Joe Satriani, you should be able to get so good at this as to do it on a metronome tick without missing a beat.

Next we want to remove bias from playing set patterns in set orders if we can. Really we'd like to be equally good at many patterns or even all possible patterns, all over the fretboard, so we can play what we think rather than what our fingers feel is easiest to do. i.e. we want to break out of ruts.

So I programmed a lot of randomness into many of the exercises presented. It'd be great if we all had 10 hours a day to practice (when did Steve Vai's 10 hour workout become the 30 hour workout?) But if we are randomly sampling different positions and patterns, we should still be able to get pretty good coverage in less time, right? Hence you will likely see a slightly different version of these exercises each time you try them. Up instead of down, or maybe a different position or one of a number of possible patterns.

The next few exercises are basically finger warmups. Some might complain that they are "non musical". But actually they get a lot more fun if you try to make them sound musical by putting rhythm and expression into them. It is possible to make them sound kind of cool given enough effects and a good drum track.

You might start to notice that Guitar Rabbit demands some pretty clean playing on your part, particularly muting notes well. I don't think this is a bad thing, for practice anyway. You'll probably find it also sounds better in recordings and handles distortion and effects better too.

Then there's scales. We can start to see the note names come in handy now. And there are interesting connections between these exercises. Triad arpeggios outline chords, and fit the 3 note per string patterns to give you the notes to either avoid or resolve to when trying to build melodies around the scales.

And again the randomness, we don't want to just learn the scale patterns up and down but jump over strings, intervals, and cycles.

Note with any of these, you can try to use "drip feed mode" as a memorization aid. Swipe down on a tab screen to enter this mode. What it does is give you the sequence of notes over and over again, with one new added note each time until you have them all. Although it is tedious, it does seem to work for getting a sequence to stick. Brains are funny things.

And to test you really know them, we take the tab away and give you a quiz to see if they are sticking.

I hope you find this app helps your playing, I know it's helped mine. I'll be continuing to add more exercises as I think of new things. Meanwhile, please send feedback and ideas!

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