Q: How do you get a guitarist to stop playing?
A: Put some sheet music in front of him/her.
Sad but true. We 6-stringers have a bad — but often deserved — reputation on the bandstand for being musically illiterate. On the one hand, it’s great that the guitar is so easy to pick up by comparison to other instruments, what with its cleanly delineated frets and the minimal technique required to strum a chord and pick a basic melody (try doing the same with a violin or trombone). On the other hand, it means we really have no excuse for not learning some theory along the way.
I’ve spent the last several years recovering from a decade of notational neglect, and let me tell you it’s been a slog. Fortunately, 21st century technology is there to help — particularly the availability of some great instructional apps for phone and tablet.
I recently downloaded “Fret Tester” by William Wilson at guitargames.net. The well-designed app has several simple games designed to reinforce fretboard knowledge, including matching note names to frets and frets to notes on the musical staff. Stats at the top of the screen track your accuracy and speed. Fret Tester is easily re-calibrated for 4-string bass, 5-string bass, and mandolin — it even has a setting for left-handed players. This app is a bargain at $1.99, and is highly recommended both for players just learning the fretboard, or more advanced pickers wanting to strengthen their music reading skills.
A solid harmonic vocabulary is an asset for improvisation in any genre; jazz guitarists in particular are expected to know their scales backwards and forwards. MWG Jazz Scales, by online educator Matt Warnock, is a one-stop shop for both scale reference and practice. A user-friendly interface allows the picker to dial in the scale form, key, and mode; notes are overlaid on a virtual fretboard. Intervals and fingering can be displayed, and a handy info button brings up Matt’s clear explanations on the practical application of each scale. Practice tools include a simple chord backing track for jamming in key, along with illustration of different patterns for getting the scales under your fingers.
The best part of both these apps is that you don’t necessarily need a guitar to get in some valuable practice time. I spend at least an hour on public transit everyday, usually zoning out to music. Now I can do something a little more constructive with that time.