teaching

CHORDMASTER: THE LONG ROAD TO MEDIOCRITY
November 17, 2015 6:36 pm

What’s one thing that this world sorely lacks?

If your answer is “More people that sort-of know how to play guitar a little,” than you are in for a treat.

Mahalo.com’s Chordmaster is here to send you on your way to being a little better at guitar than you previously were.

The app is charmingly simple with only two modes: “Play” and “Practice.” Practice presents tab forms of major, minor, and major seventh chords for less than half of the keys, limited to the first three frets. The app will highlight which frets need to be pressed, and then sound the chord upon fretting correctly. The practice mode also offers the chance to “play” without any guides or penalties, practicing chords from memory.

The Play mode takes this concept and attempts to put it to a “Survival” game. The screen will list a chord by name, prompting the player to press the correct frets as quickly as they can. There is a timer falling to zero, and the more chords you can hit before running out of time, the higher your score goes. The game also allows for integration with Facebook, incorporating leader boards and the ability to invite friends.

Chordmaster is a pretty good idea, with some issues in its execution. First of all, the “Play” mode has an insanely steep learning curve. Each chord is only presented once. After that you are expected to remember it, and are penalized for requiring a prompt. With the default timer being set to about 20 seconds, this means I (as a beginner) was only able to get about 3 or 4 chords in a row before losing, and that’s if the controls worked properly.

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“But isn’t that the point? Shouldn’t that encourage you to get better?”

In theory yes, but in practice it is actually discouraging. I should not have to already know all the chords in this app to be able to start to play it. Some sort of a more forgiving “Beginner Mode” would be much appreciated. After all, the whole point of a game like this is to “trick” the user into learning guitar. It feels like you have to learn guitar in order to play this game.

Another issue is the physical interface. I found it basically impossible to hold the phone as you would an actual guitar neck and play. I do have a bigger phone, and Chordmaster incorporated a setting where you can shrink the width of the virtual guitar’s neck, but this didn’t solve this issue. The problem didn’t come from the size, but more the layout and response. I found it very difficult to place my fingers in such a way in order to play the frets the way they were supposed to.

“Well it’s hard to do that on a real guitar too! That’s what makes playing guitar so hard!”

Yes, but real guitars don’t tell me I’m playing strings that I’m not touching at all. They also allow for bar chords, which Chordmaster has an issue with. On a real guitar I could use one finger to press down three strings on the same fret. Chordmaster doesn’t like this. These issues led to me playing the “frets” with both hands, using a combination of thumbs and forefingers, which is not how anybody plays guitar at all. What this means is that while the app can teach you how to play these chords (in theory), it can’t teach you the muscle memory required to actually put them on the guitar. In almost any physical thing one might practice, muscle memory is the ultimate goal, and a sign of true retention. This app can’t provide that.

Finally, there is the most glaring issue with Chordmaster – IT ONLY TEACHES YOU 14 CHORDS!

“But aren’t those the most important ones? Like the ones that are the most used…”

NO! There is not one form of B chord, no C or G minor, and no sharp or flat keys at all. Hope you don’t plan on playing with a horn player ever. It also doesn’t allow for playing chords in any another position on guitar.

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“But weren’t they trying to keep the general “feel” of a guitar by sticking to three frets? Besides, that sounds like it’s starting to get pretty complicated…”

Well we already established that the Chordmaster fretboard doesn’t come close to working like a real guitar, so why not give the app the functionality to be a more useful learning tool? It couldn’t be more complicated than sitting down with an awkward app to learn 14 chords just so you can play a demanding game.

Chordmaster is free, so expecting perfect functionality is unrealistic. But the starkness of features in this app leads me to believe it is a ploy to get people to buy Mahalo’s “Learn Guitar” app for $1.99, complete with a click-through in Chordmaster’s main menu.

Chordmaster can help you memorize the frets of the 14 basic chords that it teaches you. But it can’t teach you anything about how to actually play them. If you’re looking for a fun, guitar-based game, look elsewhere. If you’re a guitar student looking to improve at chords, there’s a good chance you already know these ones. If you are brand new to guitar, you may leave Chordmaster with more knowledge than you had going in, but you probably won’t have much fun doing it.

Does knowing the most basic versions of the most basic chords make you a Chord Master?

No it does not.

Know what might?

Practice playing guitar.

GET YOUR GROOVE ON WITH GROOVE SCRIBE
November 10, 2015 5:49 pm

Q: How do you tell if your stage is level?

A: The drool is coming out of both sides of your drummer’s mouth.

The “Dumb Drummer” joke. A staple of any respectable touring group. Even aside from the preconceived derogatory jokes, drummers catch a lot of flak.

One reason behind this is that there is a huge percentage of drummers who are completely self-taught. While many of these players are legit, this trend can precipitate the stereotype that drummers are dummies who don’t actually know anything about music.

This trend has compounded even further with the advent of electronic drums and digital producing. Now you don’t even need a drumset to be a bad drummer – just a laptop. Again, this has opened the door for some to write drum parts who otherwise might not have tried (Dan Deacon, James Murphy, Darwin Deez…), but it has made a longtime issue in drumming even more problematic: How do I write down this drumbeat?

For as long as drumming has been a thing, this has been an issue, even for highly trained drummers. Traditional music notation doesn’t really work as well for a drumset. There is a high learning curve toward reading any musical notation well, but traditional western notation can be frustrating even for drummers that know what they’re doing, especially when trying to write music on computer software.

Fortunately electronic drumming did not just complicate this problem, it also provided a solution.

That solution is Groove Scribe, a new notation and learning tool from Mike Johnston. Johnston’s website (mikeslessons.com) is the largest educational website for drummers in the world. Through his experience, Johnston became aware of just how much of a pain it is to digitally “jot down” a drum beat, especially for the many players that don’t have the requisite music theory knowledge, or the necessary musical notation software suite.

Johnston’s solution came from the world of drum machines. The advent of samplers brought with it a new concept – a beat grid. Incorporated in some of the earliest drum machines, beat grids are now commonplace in programs like Ableton and even GarageBand. These grids are a relatively simple representation of a musical measure, and allow mostly anyone to come up with a drum beat.

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Example of an Ableton beat grid

Johnston’s tool takes the grid a step further. After composing a beat on the grid, Groove Scribe then translates that grid into actual musical notation. This makes this not only an ease-of-use notation tool, but also a learning tool. Now drummers that don’t have a firm grasp of notation can not only write out their beats, but also learn how to write them out in proper form.

Another huge feature of Groove Scribe is the share function. Any beat can be named and sent to any friend, student, or bandmate. This furthers Groove Scribe’s use as a teaching tool. Now a teacher can send a beat, the student can see it, hear it, and then change it and send it back. This can also be used to help musicians collaborate over long distances.

The craziest thing about Groove Scribe is its price point. That is – it doesn’t have one. This tool is totally free to use, for anyone, at any time. This exponentially increases its use as a learning tool. I can post a link to a beat, and any drummer in the world (with internet access) can use it. There is no sign up or download, just instant beat making. Johnston also provides a series of tutorials, highlighting the depth of functionality that Groove Scribe offers.

The one issue with Groove Scribe is that it’s currently only browser based, so you need an active internet connection to use it. Hopefully an app version is on the way, which would allow users to quickly use the tool on their devices. While the online version still looks pretty good on a mobile device, it certainly leaves some things to be desired, and doesn’t feel exactly “right.” Also, there can be a bit of lag when the drum loops repeat, especially when doing anything else with your browser. An app would also help as many drummers have access to their smart phone while sitting at their drumset, but not necessarily a computer.

So go ahead, give it a shot. Make a beat. Or better yet, take mine and make it better.

beat atticus