It is a great time to be a musician. We have so many tools at our disposal, from thousands of wonderful inexpensive guitars to amazing technology that fits right in our pocket. This article will mentions some of my favorite iOS apps. Now I haven’t tried all guitar apps out there, but these are the ones I like and use the most. As far as Android apps go, I just got an Android phone, so I am not familiar with them yet, but hope to write an article about guitar-related Android apps in the future.
Currently, I have an iPad Mini, and an iPod Touch. As someone who grew up before computers were in every home, I made a habit of scouring local used book stores for old music books. It might be a song book or a chord book, and over time, I was able to gain quite a library of music reference books. What does this have to do with apps? Well, when we think of how much information an iPhone or iPad can hold, a lot! While it is true that an average iDevice can hold more information than all of NASA in the 1960’s, good programmers have used all of this power to make our lives a lot easier. The price/performance/convenience ratios are firmly on the modern guitarist’s side as we explore some of my favorite apps.
A tuner should be one of the first things a guitarist buys, and my favorite app is a simple tuner called APTuner. I had used this on a PC for years, and I like it because it is accurate within 1/10th of a cent, and it has a big ‘needle’ that you can see from across the room. The iOS version is accurate enough to set the intonation on your guitar, and just as easy to see. I like simple things that work well, and this app is elegantly designed. I was happy when this tuner was available as an app, since I had used it for over 10 years on the PC. Yes, there are prettier tuners out there, but when I need accuracy paired with visibility, APTuner is the one I like.
For more about intonation and scale length, read Orpheo’s excellent article on the subject.
This is another favorite tuner, and I like it because it will tune many other instruments as well. Tun-D has paid and free versions (I use the free version) and has a very high-contrast display. It might not be as accurate as APTuner, but it doesn’t need to be. It is great for students who can’t quite stop a regular tuner’s needle from bouncing around, or people who play multiple instruments.
I used to have to remember to pack up my metronome if I was going to be travelling for a series of shows. Now I can leave it at home. Pro Metronome allows me to tap in a tempo, set a time signature, and choose the downbeat sound. It will also allow for beat subdivisions, flash instead of using an audible beat, and features a giant button in the center of the screen to stop that infernal beeping when I need to. It will also allow me to save presets for different pieces I am working on. Best of all, it is free. As a musician, I love that.
This is a new one for me, but I love it so far. It is a chord and scale dictionary, but different from the others available. It doesn’t come with a bundled list- it actually generates chords, so there is essentially an endless array to choose from. Chord will allow for a capo, alternate tunings, mandolins, basses, and ukes, and I can add or take away any strings I want. I can even put dots on the fretboard and it will tell me what chord it is (many can have several names). It can generate chord progressions from scales, and with a swipe of the strings on the screen, I can hear the chords and scales it generates. Like APTuner above, there are prettier apps, but this one replaces a whole bookshelf of chord dictionaries I have collected over the years.
For learning specific songs, nothing beats Jammit. This app uses the actual multitracks of an ever-growing library of tunes to isolate and notate specific guitar (or bass, drums, keys, or vocal) parts. It notates them in tab and standard notation, and includes overdubs. I can isolate specific parts, and mix in the rest of the band, and when I really get good, mute the guitar entirely and play along with the actual band tracks. I used this initially to isolate the parts in a favorite Yes tune. It allowed me to hear things Steve Howe was playing, all of his overdubs, and slow it down enough so I could figure it out. I could loop a section, and pour over the notation until I got it right. This would have been amazing when I was younger, learning songs off of vinyl. The app itself is free, although they charge per song. I can request songs too, but they have enough there to keep me busy for awhile.
This is a more expensive app, and it required a way to get my guitar plugged into my iPad. I use iRig, which is small and inexpensive. Amplitube is a complete guitar rig and recording studio realized in software. I get modeled pedals, amps, mics, and drum machines to practice with, and I can even import songs to play along with. There are a few free versions too, which allowed me to check out their modeled Fender and Marshall amps. They even have a version based on Slash, with his complete modeled signal chain. This is a pretty deep app, and it sure beats my cassette recording rig I had in the 1980s.
Other Non-Guitar-Specific Music Apps
There are 1000s of non-guitar-based music apps out there, and these are some of my favorites.
The Yamaha Tenori-On is a strange grid-based tablet-like musical instrument that triggers samples of percussive and pitched sounds. The TNR-1 is the app version of this instrument used by sonic sculptors like Bjork. It is a blast pressing buttons and seeing what happens. I use this app to jam over, and get some rhythm ideas I could never come up with any other way. This app allows me to share my creations with friends, record my rhythms for later use, or import into another program. After experimenting with pressing buttons, it is easy to then start composing with specific sounds. It is a new way to write music for me, and fun enough to keep my attention for quite awhile.
Developed by Dream Theater Jordan Rudess, Geo Synth is notable for being a very fun, very powerful synthesizer. However, instead of keys, it uses rows of buttons with the note names. The great thing about this is that you can set it up to have 6 rows of buttons, and guitar scale patters are directly transferable to the Geo Synth. You can add vibrato by just wiggling your fingers, and slide from note to note by sliding a finger across the surface. This app works best on an iPad, where the bigger screen will allow more notes to appear. I can channel my inner Rick Wakeman and Jan Hammer without having to learn keys, too. It is your choice to set it for monophonic or polyphonic playing too, and there are some very guitaristic patches on there.
Developed by ambient pioneer Brian Eno, Scape is a generative music app. That is, you move objects on the screen, and it creates dreamy, ambient music. One object might only play every 10 seconds, or only play when 2 other sounds are playing, and how the objects interact is constantly variable so my Scapes are always constantly evolving. As I use it more, other sounds are revealed too, and after a while, there are many ways to affect the sound. As a fan of ambient music, I use this app to improvise guitar over. Keys and moods shift, so it trains my ears and hands to play in unfamiliar keys. As a bonus, it is great music to fall asleep to.
This list of apps is certainly not a definitive list of the best guitar apps out there, just simply the ones I like the most. As you can see, I tend to like more specialized apps than ones that try to cram a lot of features into one app.
Do you use any iOS devices for guitar? What are your favorite iOS and Android apps that I should be aware of?