Confession time: I’ve always wanted to be able to ‘do music’.
But early dabblings with a violin and a drum kit, plus an uncanny inability to keep time, suggested it wasn’t for me. However, one by-product of Covid-19’s lockdown restrictions is that the world has seen a rise in folk wanting to emulate guitar heroes such as Prince and Kurt Cobain.
The New York Times recently reported on the explosion of interest in people learning to play the guitar, while online instrument retail giant Gear4music announced an 80 per cent rise in UK sales between April and June, with purchases of guitars driving that surge.
Online learning platforms have also reported much greater traffic. Heritage guitar brand Fender’s online learning app, Fender Play, has seen its user base increase from 150,000 to 930,000 subscribers since April.
This current wave of have-a-go musical heroes means I’m keen to try again…
The good folk at Fender supply me with a Fender Player Duo-Sonic (£549, fender.com), from their uber-stylish entry-level range of electric guitars for beginners.
I’m also equipped with a Fender Mustang LT50 amp (£210, fender.com). The kit looks ‘dope’, as young people say.
One of Fender’s experts offers to talk me through how a guitar works to get me started. I immediately ask what the correct name for the plastic plucky thing that twangs the strings is.
It’s around this point that he realises just how basic my guitar knowledge is. Some 30 minutes later, however, I have a grasp of what frets, bridges and pick-ups
are. I know what a plectrum is too.
When it comes to learning how to strum, I stay brand-loyal and opt for the subscription-based Fender Play app (£9.99 per month). Impressed as I am by the Fender kit, the app is the big selling point for a novice like me.
I set aside ten minutes a day for five days a week for three months to see what progress I can make. I’m also fascinated to see whether an app can deliver the nurturing learning environment I’ll so obviously need.
Three months on, my initial report is it does
The app is essentially a course that takes Jimi Hendrix wannabes through the basics of what does what on a guitar and what the strings are, to more complex challenges such as playing Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie. This is a level of excellence I dream of.
Broken down into levels of competence, each stage has videos from several instructors. The general format is as follows: a tutor takes you through a specific lesson, such as forming a particular chord, then there’s a practice mode where you drill what you’ve learnt.
When you’re reasonably confident you have that down, you move to the next lesson until you complete the level and move onto the next one. Level 1 has a total of 71 lessons and exercises to complete.
The bite-sized teaching videos are well-produced and easy to follow, and the tone is one of warm encouragement. There’s a genuine feeling you’re slowly amassing nuggets of knowledge that are building into a coherent whole. It’s a well-constructed app and it’s clearly been thought through from the point of view of the user.
At the time of writing, I’m at the three-month mark, and I’m on Level 2 and I’m still enjoying it. I have basic chords and I’m strumming riffs to songs by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd and Nirvana. Sometimes people even recognise these tunes. Playing Ziggy Stardust may yet be a realistic goal.
If you instead fancy emulating The Who’s Keith Moon or Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham – minus the excessive lifestyles and early deaths – then drumming is for you. But it’s not the best instrument to learn if you have a small house or neighbours with full hearing. Help is at hand, though, thanks to Aerodrums (£155, aerodrums.com).
The basic kit includes a couple of drumsticks, two foam triangles that attach to your feet and a camera with a detachable light. So far it has the appeal of a Black Lace comeback single but the clever stuff happens when you download the computer app and connect the camera.
Your computer screen shows the view of wherever the camera is pointing but layered on top of this is an image of a virtual drum kit. Once you align yourself on a seat with the onscreen kit in full view, you’re good to go. The camera captures the physical movement of the sticks and the triangles, which simulate drum pedals.
The software translates this into sounds to emulate whatever bit of the virtual kit you’re hitting. Users can choose different kit layouts and, most impressively, there’s no noticeable lag time between movement and sound. You can also plug in headphones so you’re not annoying anyone else while you bash away.
It’s loads of fun and it’s a practical solution for anyone who wants to learn drums but doesn’t have the budget, or space. Or understanding neighbours.
Keys to success
Last but by no means least is Lumi Keys (£299, playlumi.com). At first glance, this cute mini keyboard looks like a child’s plaything.
Once turned on, the keys light up and it’s paired with an allied tablet app. Use the app to choose a song you want to learn and place your tablet behind the keyboard.
The tablet screen shows descending colourcoded keys. The keys on the keyboard light up in colours that correspond to the app screen and guide you through the tune. Think Guitar Hero but on a different instrument. Set-up is simple and the interface between the app, tablet and keyboard is seamless.
Its dinky size means it’s portable and a modular design means you can buy two and join them together if you fancy something bigger. It’s beguilingly simple to use and it looks utterly charming. Those characteristics, however, should not disguise the fact it’s a genuinely effective piece of educational tech.
I was set up and playing Mozart in five minutes. OK, the Mozart was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but everyone has to start somewhere. Even Prince.
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