Guitar-teaching app: Justin Guitar

About six months ago, I started to learn how to play guitar using the Simply Guitar iOS app, made by the same people who make the excellent Simply Piano app for piano learning. I’ve been using Simply Piano for a couple years now, and I mostly love it.

Unfortunately, I don’t love Simply Guitar. My main problem with it is that it’s not very good at identifying notes and chords that I play. With Simply Piano, I have an electronic piano that outputs MIDI through a cable to my iPad, so the app always sees exactly what notes I’m playing. But with Simply Guitar, it’s just trying to interpret the audio that comes in through the iPad’s microphone, and it quite often misidentifies the notes and chords I play. Which is only mildly frustrating when I know that I misplayed a chord but the app says I got it right; but it’s super frustrating when I know that I played the chord right but the app says I got it wrong.

I was complaining one day a few weeks ago about another annoying thing Simply Guitar had done (it presented me with a new interface that required me to alternate between two chords a certain number of times with a certain exact timing, but it gave no explanation at all of what to do), and KTO mentioned that she’d seen a lot of praise for an app called Justin Guitar, in which Australian guitarist Justin Sandercoe teaches beginner guitar in a sequence of videos.

So I gave it a try, and so far I’m liking it a lot. It’s more focused on videos than Simply Guitar, but the videos are full of exactly the kind of information that I really want when I’m learning something that involves physical actions. Sandercoe gives detailed explanations of exactly how to do stuff; he talks about the most common things that people get wrong; he reminds us that people make mistakes all the time and it’s not a big deal; he mentions that different people have different bodies and so we’re likely to have different ways of doing things, and that’s fine.

(Unfortunately, the videos don’t yet have captions, but they’re working on adding those.)

And after he created his guitar course, he went through the whole sequence himself to teach himself to play guitar left-handed. And he video-recorded himself learning, so if you’re so inclined, you can watch your instructor fumbling and making mistakes and struggling with exactly the same kinds of issues that you may be dealing with. Which I imagine not everyone would like, but I find it really comforting and reassuring.

One interesting contrast with Simply Guitar: the Justin Guitar app doesn’t (yet) have any way to listen to you play. I was initially put off by that—how can I tell if I’m doing it right if the app won’t tell me?—but then I reminded myself that in Simply Guitar, I was way better at determining whether I was doing it right than the app was.

Another contrast: the play-along songs in Simply Guitar are brief versions, maybe a minute or two long (which seems to me like about the right length for this kind of thing). They’re also mostly rock songs, I think, and mostly songs I’ve never heard of. (Simply Piano feels to me like a wider variety of genres, and in that app I end up liking a fair number of the songs that I’ve never heard before; but I feel like Simply Guitar seems to expect that you specifically want to play in a rock band.) The play-along songs in Justin Guitar are full-length versions (which I feel like is a little too long when the only thing you’re doing is, for example, switching back and forth between Em and Am every four measures or so), but seem to me to be a wider variety of genres, though I could be wrong about that. And the songs in Justin Guitar are labeled by genre, so you can do things like use a filter to show only songs in a certain genre that use only chords that you know.

And another contrast: in Simply Guitar, it doesn’t even mention the word “strum” until about the tenth lesson. (I haven’t quite reached that lesson yet.) (It does teach chords, just not strumming patterns.) Whereas Justin Guitar starts early on to walk you through the exact details of how to go about strumming.

Justin Guitar does have some mildly unclear bits of UI. For example, there’s a practice scenario in an early lesson in which it tells you to play a chord, and then it runs a three-minute timer, and it’s not at all clear what you’re supposed to do during those three minutes. (I emailed them to ask about that, and it turns out that you’re supposed to keep playing the chord, but removing your fingers from the strings now and then and putting them back down again, to practice forming the chord.) But mostly it’s pretty clear.

Anyway, I haven’t gotten very far in Justin Guitar yet, but so far, I mostly like it a lot.

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