As the legend goes, the Sex Pistols's bass player, Sid Vicious, didn't know how to play his instrument. High on amphetamines, he stayed up one night picking along to a Ramones album on a beat-up Fender. The next day, he was no Jaco Pastorius—but in the same way I hold a guitar after spending a month using the online guitar-learning platform Fender Play, he had a much better grip on things. (Well, musically speaking...)
Since the phenomenon known as the online instructional exploded in the form of the massive online open course (MOOC), YouTube tutorials, and master classes, I've been wary of the "watch (a screen) and learn" approach. I'm a social learner, for one, so if a lesson doesn't have a clear narrative flow between what I'm hearing and what I'm seeing, I'll make different connections than the person explaining something wants me to. Production-wise, they leave a lot to be desired, causing my mind to wander, and unfortunately Aldous Huxley's fantasy of "sleep learning" only sort-of works. My biggest gripe, though, is that I learn by asking questions, and I'm hesitant to try any mass-education program that doesn't allow them, even—and often, especially—if that's due to a platform's own limitations.
But guitar-playing isn't quite the same as eschewing history to devote more time to computer science, and a revolving door of guitar teachers, from junior high to the present, left me with enough glaring gaps in my own understanding of my instrument that I feared I'd be stuck mangling cover songs until I could nail down a reliable network of fellow noobs.
So, armed with an American Professional Stratocaster (full disclosure: Fender sent one me to keep as a tool with which to do my review), I spent four weeks on my computer and smartphone, working my way through 67 individual lessons spread out over five difficulty levels, covering everything from basic picking through 12-bar blues and how-to guides to rock classics like Heart's "Barracuda." Unless you're training to out-fiddle the devil—which I wasn't—a typical guitar lesson lasts about an hour, once a week. This was 13.5 hours at home over the course of four weeks. And you know what? It worked.
Before you ask me to play "Eruption," however, allow me to qualify: I'm no Anna Calvi—hell, I'd be lucky to call myself a Johnny Depp—but what I am is, finally, equipped with the basic building blocks upon which I can grow and develop my own skills and style as a player. Here's why:
First, the videos are clean. Unlike most guitar tutorials, there's nothing in the background to distract you; no instruments hanging on guitar shop walls, no home studio webcam video glitches, and no tube amps humming in the background. In fact, the videos are remarkably quiet, a testament not only to the instructors' control over their instruments, but to the production quality of the videos as a whole. Each clip features one instructor seated on one nondescript couch, with one guitar. It's so devoid of distractions that I found myself seeking out visual cues from the instructors' wardrobe when I was looking for absolutely anything to focus on instead. But alas: no toenail hematomas in flip-flops, no song lyrics written on Chuck Taylors, and no veritable library of "natural cures" books (all personal effects of my previous guitar teachers). No nonsense, just lessons.
The second-most distinguishing thing about Fender Play is how clear the instructors are. Every line is delivered precisely and purposefully, and segments are clearly ordered to get you from not-knowing something to knowing enough to solidify new skills with practice. Fender's tutors definitely recorded multiple takes in order to get their dialogue so exact, possibly even with the use of actual scripts and a legit teleprompter, which impressive considering the fact that they're also playing the guitar. This means there are no umms, no smoke breaks, no poetic license when it comes to describing how things are supposed to sound, no "personal licks" to boast their own skills (or boredom teaching you), and definitely no tangents about how GMOs are what the government uses to control us. Each video ends with an encouraging sign-off and a note on how to practice what you just learned, which was maybe the only other thing I could think about, beyond the power-workout my brain and hands were getting.
11 basic chords, 38 skills, 27 songs and riffs, and 67 courses later, I'm dramatically more comfortable exploring the ins and outs of my axe by my lonesome. It's not without its flaws nor room for improvement—Rosetta Stone-style recap quizzes would help, as would a metronome and library of guitar tabs, and every now and then you'll encounter an autoplay bug (or something like it)—but unlike the proto-Mumford and Sons mandolinist who refused to show me anything that wasn't in his beat-up Beatles songbook, Fender Play works at your pace, is easy to take a lot of at once, and won't tell your mom when you show up late and visibly stoned.
While I don't plan on signing up for any more online courses anytime soon—I, erm, have guitar practicing to do—I do plan on going through the other "Paths" in Fender Play, which include blues, folk, country, and pop (my first pick was rock, obviously). Sure you'll never get the one-on-one experience a live teacher can provide, but that's literally what other musicians are there for. Instead, for $19.99 (it's monthly, if you even need that long), you can definitely get to a level where you're comfortable enough with your own skills to seek out others.
Just like how I learned how to have sex. Thanks, Internet.
Click here to check out Fender Play.