At some point every guitarist has uttered the following statement: how the [censored] did he play that? Riffstation ($49.99), simply put, is a program that helps you learn how the [censored] he played it.
The core of Riffstation is a component that lets you load an audio file, and have it scan for chords it finds in the song. Currently it’s limited to Major, Minor and 7th chords. You can then play the audio file within Riffstation and it will show you when the chord changes occur. It’s important to note that currently it only handles detecting chords, so if you want it to score an Yngwie Malmsteen solo, you’re out of luck.
Trial by fire: How it handled four songs
I gave it a mix of songs, most of them I already knew, to see how it fared.
Rockin’ in the Free World, Neil Young: This is a pretty easy song, all open chords. The main part is a E-D-C chord progression and the chorus is G-D-C. Riffstation handled this one completely accurately.
A song involving pretty girls and jewelry, ZZ Top: Again, a pretty easy song based on a E-A chug, with some B, C# and F# thrown in as well. Again, Riffstation did an admirable job, although it temporarily thew me by referring to a C# chord as a D-flat (they’re the same chord, I just call it a C#, so it’s not inaccurate). There are a couple of ways to play the song, either with E major, or E5 chords. Naturally, it only detects the major chords, but I’ve played the song both ways depending on my moods.
White Room, Cream: This song isn’t really a fair test, since most of the song isn’t really chords, per se (for a good lesson on how to play it, I found this guy’s to be one of the better lessons). Riffstation didn’t really know what to do with the alternating major/minor chord progression in the intro, actually didn’t do a bad job with the verse chords, and did very well on the chorus. This is one of those songs I don’t think is a good song to have Riffstation detect the chords, but you can use the looping tools to help you learn difficult passages.
Wasted Years, Iron Maiden: This song shows one of the big limitations to Riffstation: while it will tell you the correct chords, it will not tell you the position they are played in. So, for Wasted Years, it did a good job on telling me the first chord is an E, it didn’t tell me that it’s played on the 7th and 9th frets; instead it showed an E chord on the 2nd frets. I’m going to repeat this several times, but while Riffstation is a great tool to help you figure out how to play songs, it is a complement to your ears; not a replacement.
Isolation: Riffstation lets you isolate the guitar tracks using the Jam Master tab. You can adjust the separation to let the guitar parts stand out as much as you want them to. I don’t like to isolate the guitars too much, since I like to hear the backbeat while I’m learning a song.
Looping: If there’s a part of a song you’re having problems with, you can select the passage in the uppermost window by clicking and dragging, clicking the loop button on the playback controls, and then hitting play. This is handy also when learning a solo. While Riffstation won’t transcribe the solo, you can loop the passage so you can figure it out by ear, or, if you have the tabs to it, while reading along. What I’ll usually do is pick a measure before where the solo actually begins and loop that with the solo.
Tempo controls: As you’d expect with a program of this nature, you can affect the tempo while the song is played back. This is very handy if there’s a passage you are struggling with, and especially useful when combined with the looping tools to repeat that troublesome passage.
I think Riffstation is a fantastic tool to help musicians learn new songs. As I said, Riffstation is a complement to your ears; not a replacement. You are still going to need to listen to the songs and detect if Riffstation was correct in its analysis. The developers have said that the program is about 80 percent accurate, and I found that to be the case. However, I didn’t throw at it songs I felt it would have a problem with, like Hendrix songs. What it does do is get you in the ballpark and helps you build your ears.
What I’d love to see in future versions — other than better detection tools — is a way where it can play a version of the song based on its analysis of the song, so you can tell if it’s even close at all.