Blog Post

How my iPhone and iPad helped me (re)learn guitar

About 20 years ago, I was a pretty good guitar player. Once it hit me that I was never going to be a rock star (although I did have a fun four summers setting up stages for some instead) guitar playing fell off the radar. I didn’t get rid of my gear, however, and earlier this year I got the urge to play again. It was immediately obvious how much easier current technology has made the process of learning to play.

Back in the day, our best options for learning were either slowing down a song, having a friend teach us, or hoping it was featured in a guitar magazine. Apple has a surprising amount of available technology for picking the guitar back up — my iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro are at the heart of my learning process. Here’s a look at how I’ve used them, and some tips for those who’d like to do the same.

The iPhone

Every Monday night, I take a lesson from an excellent blues guitarist. Rather than take notes and write down the various chord progressions he shows me, I instead shoot video of the homework parts of the lesson on my iPhone 4S. I then quickly edit the clip in iMovie to add a title and then re-save it to my camera roll.

I also have a few apps on my iPhone to help me out. I have an iRig, which I pair with their Amplitube app (free). While I don’t use the app as my main practice amp anymore after I bought a modeling amp, I do use the app as my tuner and for the Song feature to play along with a song I’m learning.

GarageBand for iOS ($4.99) is also a handy practice tool. I really hate using a metronome, but having something keep the beat is crucial. So my solution is to use a sample drum loop from GarageBand on my phone that sounds close to to the beat I want.

The iPad

My iPad is the device I keep on my music stand while practicing. I use Apple’s Camera Connection Kit to import the video from my iPhone onto my iPad. I’m also toying with shooting the video on my iPad and skipping this step, but I find the small size of the iPhone is easier for recording when I’m also holding a guitar. Then I watch my lesson video and follow along, pausing and fast-forwarding as needed.

I also use Songsterr to look up the tabs for songs I’m interested in, and then use its iOS app ($9.99) to “favorite” the song. Then the app becomes my music sheet when I’m playing. While Songsterr isn’t perfect — some songs are transcribed perfectly, some are good enough and some aren’t even close — I find it does an adequate job.

We’ve covered reading apps on the iPad already, so I won’t go into it too much here, but there are two apps I use for reference: Zinio and the Kindle app(s AMZN). I subscribe to several guitar magazines on Zinio, so I reference those while practicing. I also have some music theory books I’ve purchased for Kindle that I’ll look up chord fingerings on.

The Mac

While the iPad sees the majority of the music action, I still use my Mac. When I find (an accurate) song on Songsterr’s site I want to practice, I’ll mute the instruments on the web view of the song and then use Audio Hijack Pro to record the backing tracks. While my Amplitube setup lets me play along to the song, I find this is good if I want to do any recording, or if I don’t want to listen to the additional guitar parts.

After that I import those into GarageBand for Mac ($14.99)  and lay down guitar tracks on top of them. I have an amp (a Peavy Vypyr 75 watt) with a USB port, so I can hook my Mac up to it without having to mess around with mikes and the like. I’ll also use the drum loops in GarageBand to outline a basic song structure to jam over. If I want to try and mimic jamming with friends, I’ll use the Magic GarageBand feature to add some drums, bass, keys and harmonica to a track. One thing I don’t like about Magic GarageBand — the jam session feature in Apple’s software — is that I have to click “Open in GarageBand” to change the key; it would be nice to be able to do that from the main screen.


It’s been a lot of fun getting back into the guitar, and a lot of that fun has been how much iOS devices and OS X have aided me in the process. While I’m still in the early stages of getting going again, the skills and techniques I’m gaining with the software, in addition to the instrument, will form a great foundation for future work. It won’t be too long before I’m recording full demo tracks in GarageBand.

4 Responses to “How my iPhone and iPad helped me (re)learn guitar”

  1. Right before the iPhone app craze I bought a professional strobe tuner for hundreds, and now the app for that is about $9.99, iStroboSoft by the same manufacturer, Peterson Tuners. Worth every penny and just as good!

  2. Ben Ng

    Agile Partners has a pretty good tab viewer called TabToolkit. The only annoyance is the hassle of getting tabs on and off the device (you have to do it through a network using a browser.) Otherwise, the app is hands down the best tab viewer out there.

    AmpKit is actually a partnership between Agile and Peavey. The other one I have tried is iRig, but the quality was so awful I returned it in a week. The problem I hear is that iRig’s adaptor is passive while the AmpKit’s is active. I’m surprised you were able to use it without tearing out your hair — I couldn’t take it.

    I was a little disappointed as well by Songsterr, so I made my own tab app: The goal was to bring together the best parts of TabToolkit and Songsterr. You can try it online or on your iPhone/iPad. Let me know how you find it!

    This was a great article, and its fantastic to see musicians embracing technology. Not too long ago I was still flipping printouts on a music stand.

  3. scottburrow

    There are a lot of great apps out there, It seems like I have all of them. Being a semi professional musician for more then twenty years I was excited when this technology made itself available. I have all three versions of the ipad as I am a technologist as well. My advise for every one is to get away from the Guitar input devices that use the headphone plug as there is a lot of cross talk. the thirty pin devices work a lot better, because they are digital. The good thing about amplitube that I just found out is that their next release of their software will let you use your thirty pin connector such as an Apogee Jam (99 bucks). A few other great guita apps are JAM UP Pro, which to me sounds the best and has the ability to loop a song, change a pitch and slow it down. Indispensable for someone who is trying to learn songs on a regular basis. The last one I will mention is AMP KiT by peavy, it does get pricier as you add more amps and it doesn’t let you slow things down or change pitch but it does sound good.