After playing guitar for twenty-five years, I sometimes look at the state of technology and imagine how my journey might have changed if I’d had some of those benefits when I was starting. None of these things would count as much as sheer number of hours put into to learning the instrument, but they might have provided a little boost. I even imagine going back in time and bringing some artifacts from the future with me to my teenage self and watching my brain explode.
I first picked up the guitar in 1987. Obviously, technology has transformed our lives in innumerable ways since then. It would be too easy to simply say that personal computers, digital-processing or the internet have changed everything. Instead, here are five specific things that would have absolutely blown my teenage mind.
AnyTune & AmpKit
I could easily call out the iPad as one of the big noodle-bakers. But that’s too easy, so let me be more specific. One of the challenges everyone faces as they’re building their repertoire is picking out songs by ear. Yes, you can probably find the tab on the internet now, but it’s not the same as decoding it yourself, you just understand the tune at a whole different level. So what you need is something that will let you pick apart a tune by looping regions, slowing them down and letting you play along with them again and again.
Enter Anytune Pro+ and AmpKit+. Now this is a little bit fiddly, but if I plug my guitar into the iPad and fire up AmpKit, I have a decent amp simulator that can run in the background. Then I can fire up Anytune and start picking apart a song and playing along with it. The guitar sounds from AmpKit are decent enough to practice with and Anytune lets me pick apart a song a lick at a time. I recently did exactly this with Eric Johnson's “Cliffs of Dover” (stay tuned for more on that later) and it was awesome. I still had to play the tune over and over and over, but with these tools I at least had a shot of figuring out what EJ was doing.
Another mind-blower on the iPad would be GarageBand. Now it’s not only DAW on iOS, nor is it necessarily the most powerful. But I think it hits a real sweet-spot between capability and complexity. For basic idea capturing it’s pretty amazing. For $5 it’s mind-boggling cool. Hell, in 1987 I would have parted with $5 for this in a heartbeat.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)
I suppose we should probably take a step further back and call out DAWs as a major breakthrough. I got a Fostex four-track in 1991 and it having the ability to do multi-track recording was huge for me. But it was fiddly and had all sorts of limitations. Eventually I paired it with Cakewalk and a MIDI card. I could stripe one track with SMPTE time code and then program drums and synths all at once. The remaining three tracks were all for bass, guitar and vocals. That was about as far as I could take it.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and the DAW rules the home-recording world. The combination of falling storage prices (or the increase of storage bang for your buck) and increased processing power made it possible to ditch tape altogether and go digital. As audio interfaces improved, digital sampling works nearly flawlessly. Now people are doing pro records with these setups. The power to have a virtual studio on my MacBook would have completely blown me away (to say nothing of having a MacBook in the first place).
My personal DAW is Apple’s Logic Pro, but frankly there are so many good ones on the market, it’s hard to go wrong.
The next thing is relatively small, but has had a profound effect on my musical life. iTunes Match has allowed me completely forget about where my music is. It just exists as a whole and can be retrieved on-demand, anytime. There are other services like this, so it’s by no means unique to iTunes Match. But, I’m an Apple guy and I'm fully invested in the entire ecosystem.
Regardless of your platform of choice, the ability to call up specific music on-demand is liberating. When you pair that with the ability to take your own recorded material and catalog it in the same right alongside your favorite artists you have an instant portfolio right in your pocket. Wow.
The last thing I’ll call out is YouTube. Yes, 99% of YouTube content isn’t worth the bits its printed on. But, you do occasionally find something good—especially when people share their expertise. Can’t figure out that little descending run to “Help!”? Go to YouTube and somewhere within the first ten hits you’ll probably find some dude that will show you how to play it. It may not be the greatest quality or instructional quality, but you can find the answer. Again, it’s the obvious thing, but internet (and YouTube specifically) have greatly reduced the “scarcity” of information.
This is a BIG DEAL. The only excuse you have for not learning something new is not committing yourself to it. These days, finding the information is the easy part. Execution is where the real toil happens.
I don’t know how this whole time travel thing would work. But I imagine it might look something like Marty McFly playing the part of “Darth Vader” and nearly “melting the brains” of his father with Eddie Van Halen. Yeah, that might be kind of cool.