Recommended Guitar Apps
As a guitarist, I’m always on the prowl for what’s new in the guitar world. New guitars. New amps. New effects. New gizmos and gadgets. After the birth of powerful digital companies like Line 6, we now see more and more digital technology.
Amps are showing up on the market one after another with built-in effects, simulation, etc. Fender has had several amp models over the years that have simulated other Fender amps. Other companies have made amps that have sims for Marshall, Fender, Vox, Mesa, and other coveted tones.
Years later, we saw the birth of computer-based digital effects. Apps like Guitar Rig showed up on desktop computers with the power to effectively emulate a large number of amps and effects, and quite well over the years of development and evolution in the technology that powers these applications. GarageBand appeared first on desktop OS and was featured as a user-friendly, reliable recording studio combined with easy-to-use effects similar to what Guitar Rig does. Over time, GarageBand improved, and other apps like Logic showed up on the market. More and more, we saw guitar finding a home on desktop computers.
Now, we have the mobile world. Most would agree, the mobile world is far from ready to compete with the desktop world. It’s true, while beasts like Apple’s largest flagship iPad Pro model is benchmarking faster than many laptop computers, it’s still not showing that it can do what a desktop app is capable of doing. Perhaps that’s the fault of the developers who are not creating desktop-quality apps for tablets. Then again, maybe these devices are not ready, even with the supposed power and speed. Whatever the reason, mobile devices aren’t without their perks and useful applications in the music world.
I’m an iOS user with an iPad. I admit I don’t have the latest, most-powerful iPad on the market. Still, the iPad Air 2 isn’t completely obsolete yet. (Yet!) I’m not familiar with Android applications, nor do I use Windows. Via my own experiences, I’ve seen and used plenty of mobile apps for both teaching and personal use. There are some really great ones out there!
First, composition. There is a list of applications on desktop that specialize in music composition. Sadly, there aren’t any really great ones for iOS! A couple of years ago, an app turned up on Windows that allowed tablet users to write notes by hand and the application would transform all handwritten notes, symbols, etc. right into a printed form. This was brilliant, but the app was never seen on iOS even years later. I question whether or not the developer was either only Windows-savvy, a Windows enthusiast, or had some sort of contract with Microsoft. Whatever the reason, an incredibly large population of creative musicians using Mac never saw this app on the market. One app appeared in the App Store trying to copy this idea, but the execution was so horrible that users rated the app down to a 1-star rating and eventually the app disappeared from the top of the food chain.
The well-referenced apps out there have always been Sibelius, Finale, Musescore, and a few others. However, they each have fallen short in one way or another. Either the user interface wasn’t friendly enough to produce music quickly, or they didn’t support guitar tablature, symbols, etc. We in Guitar-land don’t wish to sit at a computer with our guitars on our laps while we take an hour just to scribble out the simplest of songs.
Enter: Guitar Pro
Guitar Pro was the solution that guitarists needed, but over time (and many updates, now at version 7) Guitar Pro has turned into an app that can be useful for any instrument, and any compositional needs. User-friendly? Absolutely! My only regret is that after a diligent search on the web I was unable to find a keyboard or keyboard cover that could highlight the keyboard shortcuts for this powerful app. I’ve memorized as many as I can, but ideally, I think we’d all benefit from some sort of visual aid for those shortcuts. Still, even with just a mouse and a few simple shortcuts, one can really get around this app without any difficulty. The focus is on the work, not the application.
As a teacher, I’ve used Guitar Pro for years to create and print hundreds of songs for my students to learn. I’ve created exercises, too. Now, having spoken with a lawyer in America, I’ve learned some things about the industry that I loathe as a teacher. The legal sharks that “protect the artists” have a strong objection to ANYONE using their artists’ music in print without permission. They “require” that students ONLY purchase legal copies of printed sheet music. In other words, if you’re using apps like Guitar Pro, be sure to ONLY use it for your original work or you are deemed a criminal in the music industry. More about that another time, that’s a subject I’ve nearly drowned in lately, and I could go on and on!
So let’s pretend for a moment that you’re an upstanding teacher and prefer that your students learn rather than coast through a boring curriculum.
Guitar Pro is the only app I’ve seen that provides a mobile addition to iOS. The mobile app isn’t for composition, but it allows the user to open any Guitar Pro formatted file and read it from their mobile device. But wait, there’s more. Additionally, the app has features for changing instrument sounds (MIDI), playback speed, and more. So in reality, this is a GREAT app for learning if you have a printed version of a song. The advantages are fantastic. You can see the notes, hear the rhythm during the playback, and control the tempo to play along at your own comfortable speed. Student heaven! Of course, that naughty little copyright law steps in and says, “Well, only use it for your originals or incredibly outdated classical music.” That wouldn’t bring many customers to Guitar Pro, would it? I don’t advise anyone violate laws; however, this IS the app to use if you want to teach and learn guitar efficiently in regards to printed material. I highly recommended it!
Ultimate Guitar has provided a similar mobile app for years. However, contrary to the high ratings I have to condemn this application. The tablature is user-provided. This means that there are potential errors in the music. Likewise, the users are writing the songs out to match the album version. They aren’t really bringing anything in for the learning novice, are they? There aren’t level versions of anything. UG is just a gigantic library of misc. Songs sorted only by artist, song title, and ratings. No levels. It’s not made to create music like Guitar Pro, so it’s limited to a particular audience. Guitar Pro blows it out of the water in this case. What’s more, it’s a rip-off. Guitar Pro does the noble thing and asks users for a mere $7 for their mobile app. This one-time fee free of IAPs and dreadful ads provides users with the same piece of mind they’ve had for generations as customers when they’ve purchased software (or items) in a store. Not UG, unfortunately. They’ve asked their users to rent their software for a monthly or yearly fee, and call it “subscribing.” This fad really blindly robs the customer. No one owns the product, they are renting it. The total charges over time fly well above what the app is worth, monetarily speaking. If you add it up over time, a single customer has purchased the app several times over. What’s more, one could argue that the app is conning customers in a way. Sure, UG pays royalty fees to the industry to avoid lawsuits for what they do. However, they aren’t selling official copies to customers. They are providing peer-to-peer sharing of user-designed cheatsheets. That’s not worth any price in comparison to professional sheet music, is it? What do the folks who work full time as composers think about amateur quality work making more money than their professional work? I don’t support it. Guitar Pro is the way to go!
Now, reading is only part of learning a song. A lot of us like to learn by ear.
Enter: Capo Touch!
Capo originated as a desktop app. The developer was a single guy who had a great idea. He had some programming skills, so he made about 3 apps and featured them on his blog. True story. Like a great movie story, Capo rose up and beyond the blog becoming one of the most coveted apps out there. I genuinely think this was a combination of the developer doing it right, and no one else really stepping up to the plate to even challenge what Capo does. I’ve spent years looking, and not a single app has ever rivaled Capo if apps in that category, in fact, few have shown up in the App Store at all!
So what does Capo do? Well, the current version (which just updated last night) is a beast. You open any audio file (preferably MP3, I suppose) and Capo works its magic right away. The app maps out a visual soundwave of the song. Beats are detected, and then measures are mapped out. Time signatures are detectable, too! (Well, ready ones. If you want to open a song with an ever-changing free-time feel, I’ve yet to see what happens myself but let me know! Chords are also detected. Users can alter the chords, too, since the chords are just suggestions. The goal is to allow the user to have an excellent tool for learning how to play a song. The detected measures can be easily looped through a reliable A/B looping system. Playback features a metronome, a powerful isolation engine, and a mixer to balance out your metronome and MP3 volumes. The song speed can be adjusted, as can the key. Changing pitch has two modes, key changes in 1/2 steps, and a newly added pitch-shifter which adjusts pitch up or down 1 cent at a time to a max in either direction of 100 cents. This allows for fine-tuning for those old-school songs that are not perfectly in tune. Perhaps someone recorded in 432 instead of 440. Capo solves all of these issues and brings it all together so we can really hear the guitar parts in the song. Great!
There’s a little website called GuitarBackingTrack.com.
Not the most simple of domain names, but it’s straight to the point, and you’ll never forget it.
Pros: Download backing tracks for songs so you can practice without the guitar tracks present!
Cons: Ultimate Guitar took over the website. Now downloads are no longer unlimited, they are limited to three per day. The website (hidden deep, deep in its login area) states that they will grant unlimited access to anyone who submits just a single track to the library. That sounds like a great deal, however, don’t get too excited. I added not one, but TWO tracks and both came back “declined.” Before submitting them, I had looked them up to see if they were there already. They were not. When I submitted them, they were magical “already there, ” and submissions were void. In other words, without any contestation, the folks at UG added my submissions under another name and declined my free downloads. What’s more, on many occasions I’ve seen the 3-download limit miscount and subtract a download I never made or received. So … the 2-download limit is a possibility at times. I’ve had students that confirmed the same error when they’ve used the site, too. UG denies that it’s an issue.
Still, I can’t condemn the website. UG has improved the library considerably providing more album-accurate tracks rather than MIDI-designed tracks. I think we can all agree that MIDI is horribly cheesy to play over when we’re practicing our favorite AC/DC song.
Putting it all together.
Imagine this for a moment. You’ve acquired a transcription of your favorite song in Guitar Pro. You made it yourself, or you found a copy. I can’t tell you where to find one, sorry. Then you open the MP3 of that song in Capo. Using the slow-down features in both Capo and GP’s mobile app, you learn the song. Then you download a backing track for the song from the backing track website. Open THAT in Capo! Voila! You can now jam out the song you just learned with a guitar-exempt copy of the song. This triad provides a wonderfully harmonious combination beneficial to those learning songs. As a teacher, I’ve used all three for my students, but they have the added advantage of me providing all of the files. They don’t need to find them during class, we have them in the classroom.
Next up is YouTube. Okay, so we all get a giggle from watching silly cat videos. Still, remember this: YouTube is a treasure trove of music. You can hear album versions, live versions, etc. I especially encourage my own students to use the YouTube app so they can listen to songs they are learning but aren’t familiar with. I will tell them to seek out the album versions, live versions, and even look for a cover version from time to time. Why a cover version? Well, imagine the song is a highly produced, electric-guitar-driven monster. The student has a steel string acoustic guitar. Looking up an acoustic version of the song could be fun and beneficial. There aren’t always acoustic versions of all songs by the original artist(s), but there are often versions by very well-accomplished hobbyists. YouTube provides access to any of the above. Great stuff!
There are countless metronomes out there. I can’t say I’ve tried them all, I’ve mostly used the free ones. Can you imagine if I paid for a dozen or more metronome apps? Silly. I can’t use all of them, it’s a waste of money. Now, coming from the old school of “click click” and “pop pop” metronomes I don’t really think features are necessary. Are they detrimental, though? Absolutely not. There are metronomes out there with some great added features. They take advantage of the technology we have today to provide a fresh new look on an age-old tool. The metronome apps that skeuomorphically resembles the old wooden wind-up models of yesteryear are outrageously silly. Ignore those!
Silverdial. Oh, how I miss you.
This application was brilliant. A free download that was already great, for just a mere 99¢ one could unlike all of the features. That’s a steal if I ever saw one. The app was simple, powerful, had lots of features, and one of the best (and most unique) features was its unique ability to customize rhythm patterns. Metronome on steroids! Sadly, I am using past tense because the developer never updated the app for the latest iOS and it has died.
My current metronome is Tempo. I have a little bit of an issue with the developer, but the app is pretty solid.
First, you’ll need to notice through a simple search that there are two versions. Tempo Lite, and Tempo. The lite version has an IAP that unlikes all features (turning it into the paid version.) So technically, this is just a duplicate submission by the developer. I hate when developers do this. Don’t bog down the App Store. Make one app and declare what you want for it monetarily. I recommend the paid version for two reasons. You’re going to pay for it anyway, the lite version puts you in a corner that requires you to unlock the features you really want anyway. Also, the lite version is riddled with bugs and often crashes like crazy when doing simple things like just changing the interface theme. Sure, themes aren’t necessary for a metronome, but who in the heck wants to pay for features that don’t work? That’s a scam, really. The developer focuses mostly on the pay version and treats the lite version like the lesser-preferred bastard child that only gets what he wants when his parents are tired of listening to him whine time and again. Just buy the pay version, maybe this lad will take the hint and delete the lite version from the store one day.
Tempo provides useful features like beat accents and simple rhythm controls. There are also visual aids like screen flashing, a conductor-imitating wand, and blinking LEDs. All in all, the app has a large interface and an even larger one on an iPad. I think it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen and used currently, but I am open to suggestions.
Today, everyone and everything seems to be going mobile.
Tempi is a great little simple app that detects your tempo while you play. This is helpful for bands and musicians that want to test out their consistency. If you’re prone to playing too fast or too slow at times, Tempi won’t lie. You’ll see the results, and this can help with making things better. There is a 30-second limit that leads users to an IAP to unlock full usage. I think that’s a bit silly, you can’t really test drive the app if it doesn’t run for a whole song. Weird! Still, the IAP won’t break the bank, and it may be a worthy tool for some musicians out there.
Soundbrenner provides use with a metronome that has jumped on the “wearable technology” train. For $99, you can buy and wear their pulsating device on your wrist, arm, or even leg if you prefer. The device syncs with a mobile app. I’ve met some people who consider this a ridiculous product. “I’m not wearing a metronome for $100, I have a drummer!” I agree, for the most part. However, there are advantages, and I do see some great potential if you can find a use for this tool. Imagine everyone in the group wearing one. The mobile app can control more than one device at a time. So, let’s put the drummer in charge of the app. He clicks in the beat, starts the song, and everyone is synchronized to the same beat. That’s actually pretty cool. There are a few of us that won’t care to wear the device or may even miss a beat regardless of the tech help. Still, it’s a great idea. I think they’d sell more if the price were lowered considerably.
Smartwatches like the Apple Watch also feature a few metronome-guided apps that allow the wearer to feel the better through haptic vibrations. Unfortunately, the Apple Watch isn’t ideal. The haptic is not as strong as Soundbrenner’s design, and the watch tends to go to sleep as soon as you tilt or lower your arm.
Many digital PA systems are now featuring mobile apps to allow for portable control over the system. Great idea! Companies like Line 6 have designed applications like the Firehawk app which runs their Firehawk effects processor and amp. Again, a pretty neat idea. All of these are inspired by the previous interfaces and power behind mobile recording and jamming apps.
GarageBand has been an ever-growing app that both functions as a simple but powerful recording studio and a fun app for tinking with on-screen touch-based instruments. As a fun app, it’s … quite fun! The instruments are well set up for basic noodling. Strings act like strings, drums can be hit on different points for different sounds. The automation and loops work well enough to draft out a decent rough idea of a song before exporting the file to the desktop version of GarageBand, or even it’s steroid-induced cousin, Logic Pro.
Line 6 also created a mobile POD app which is in the shadow of the AmpliTube series of apps. I don’t really recommend it, however. The app has a weak rating and bad reviews. Amplitube is its equal in price and provides a lot more in sound and options. The Amplitube mobile app is actually a series of apps.
What is Amplitube? Behind the scenes, it’s just an effects processor for your iPad. How do you use an effects processor on an iPad, you ask? Well, simple. You purchase one of many USB input devices on the market, such as the iRig series. I have the iRig HD. These devices are great and simple. Plug them into your iPad, plug your guitar into the device. Now you’re wired up and ready to use your iOS effects processor.
On the front side, these apps like Amplitube are decorated with skeuomorphic graphics. Sure, such designs have been frowned upon in the new age of digital devices, but in this case, they still apply nicely. There’s an on-screen amp, and visual pedals. They look, function, feel, and sound like the real thing.
Of course, a $3 digital IAP for a distortion pedal that mimics the CoPro Rat pedal isn’t going to sound exactly like the real-deal, beastly pedal that we all know and love. Still, this isn’t designed to work with pro gear. I wouldn’t recommend Amplitube (or any such app) for gigs. This is for fun and practice. They also serve as a fantastic intro to pedals for those who are still learning about them. Amplitube comes in a variety of versions, too:
- Amplitube (original.)
- Amplitube Orange (based on the Orange amp series.)
- Amplitube Slash (Yes, THAT Slash.)
- Amplitube Jimi Hendrix (vintage heaven!)
- Amplitube Fender (for the legacy fans)
- Amplitube Bass (all bass amps and effects!)
- Amplitube Custom Shop (more toys!)
- Amplitube Mesa (Who doesn’t like Mesa??)
- Amplitube Acoustic (For acoustic/electric guitars or similar modeling guitars.)
I’d say that’s quite a list. Amplitube has made it such that you can choose a version of your preference or just go for the original and set it up (via IAP) any which way you’d like. I have to be honest, the purchases can add up over time. Some are pretty cheap, but there are a few more expensive upgrades. Going for the all-in-one pack upgrades are sometimes best bang for your buck.
Are you using GarageBand or Logic to record? The Logic Remote app turns the iOS device (preferable iPad) into a fantastic extension (almost like a second screen but better) for controlling whatever part of the desktop app you desire. Imagine recording on the big screen, and using your iPad to do a final mix. Great stuff.
Once upon a time, a developer had a dream that there would be a simple app for jamming over prerecorded jam tracks that can be customized. No one really brought that vision to the table, to the developer did it himself.
SessionBand features a VERY large and quite simple interface. You can choose from 100 or more preset jam tracks, or create your own using some simple platforms/templates. There are choices in tempo, key, and even a simple track mixer. Like Amplitube, the developer created a variety of versions for every type of music lover out there. Sure, we wonder, “why not just make one app that does it all?” Each version has an extensive library of jam tracks. Perhaps, 100 per app! One large app might be nice, but they’d be categorized, subcategorized, etc. The menus, menus, and more menus! Can you imagine? SessionBand is the art of “less is more.” Each one has just what you desire in the app, and nothing more. Each one has a large, simple interface. The focus isn’t on using the app, it’s all about playing your instrument. Perfection.
SessionBand comes in versions titled:
- Jazz 1
- Jazz 2
- Jazz 3
- Acoustic 1
- Acoustic 2
- Deep House
- (and, of course) Original
Whether you’re looking to record, practice, jam, or whatever… I’d say Steve Jobs’ old slogan, “There’s an app for everything” is indeed alive and well in the guitar world. I have and use most of the apps above, and I definitely recommend them. Cheers~
More guitar tips @ The Blogging Musician