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1/25/2013

Guitar Freak Workstation - the XXIst century guitar trainer

Guitar and Music Notation - Introduction

Comparing the guitar to the piano, one can say the guitar is optimised as a transposing instrument, and the piano is more intuitive for sheet notation writing and reading. The guitar is easy to transpose a song because all you have to do is move a certain number of frets up and down and the whole song will be in a new key; nothing else needs to be changed, neither scale patterns nor chord shapes. On the other hand, music notation was somehow conceived with the piano in mind - to each piano key, there is one and only one position in the staff. And as the notes go up and down the staff, they are played to the right and to the left respectively. That is not what happens on the guitar: each note can have three different possible positions on the guitar neck, and the notes aren't horizontally organized (one can say their relative pitches along the neck are even quite counter-intuitive ).

Maybe because of the guitar special properties, guitar players tend to focus on the improvisational approach of music. After all, learning scales on the guitar is more straightforward than on the piano, because the shapes are always the same. However, when it comes to learning new songs, guitar players are handicapped. They either choose to focus on the song chords, key signature and modes and fiddle from there, or have to decipher guitar tabs. Guitar tabs have the information needed about the notes and frets to be played, but no data about the notes timing. So, the guitar player has to know the song well already before learning to play it.

This is a tendency that can be detected on the software tools available for guitar and piano players to improve their instrument proficiency. Whenever you want to practice your sight-reading skills (playing a song you don't know by reading a sheet and playing it in real time), it's almost certain whatever program you find will be tailored for the piano - it's assumed guitar players aren't interested in that! And needless to say, the guitar sight-reading does have its particularities - for instance, there can't be more than three consecutive 3rds on a chord, or else the chord will be unplayable on the guitar. Both programmers and users steer away from notation applied to the 6 strings. The software for guitar is almost always tailored to master the guitar's strongest treat: improvising through scales.

Tackling the Guitar Sightreading Problem

I became tired of having to memorize songs and solos to play them. It's extremely frustrating when learning a song become a memorizing session. One loses his patience quite quickly. So I decided to beat the dragon: learn to sight read on the guitar. I was shocked when I found out how rare programs for that purpose are. There are tools for recognizing the notes and chords alone, tools to learn scales on the guitar, tools to know the notes on the guitar fret, even a couple of tools to randomize sheet music for piano sight-reading... But no tool designed to practice sight-reading on the guitar!! The only tool I found for that was a piece of software called Guitar Freak Workstation with Sightreader Master Extreme.

I refused to believe there wasn't any online free tool for such a simple task. But eventually I had to give up to the overwhelming evidence. So I looked for other solutions: practising each step of sight reading separately. First, learn to recognize the notes on the staff. Then, the intervals on the staff. Afterwards, the notes on the guitar neck. After that, the INTERVALS on the guitar fret. Uff... I virtually needed a different tool for each of those steps. And then, I needed something that put me using all those skills at the same time - actual sight reading. There's no such thing for the guitar. The best you can find is guitar etudes composed by classic guitar players. The problem with these etudes is you can't control their level of difficulty. They either are too easy for you, or too difficult. They either involve the same frets over and over again or bring in frets you haven't practiced yet; or the note times are too complex for you yet; or something else.

I'm a free software & sites fan. I believe it's very hard to come up with a topic you can't find info & solutions for on the net without a price tag. But Sean Clancy, the creator of Guitar Freak Workstation, seemed to be the only man on Earth with the audacity to approach the guitar sight-reading problem using the latest technologies. So I downloaded the trial version and decided to give it a spin. I liked it so much that I decided to acquire the full version.


The first thing you notice when you open GFW is that it really is a whole workstation - no marketing gimmick there.


The part of learning the fretboard notes is there - on the "Learn Fretboard".

There's the "Theory Testing" button, with exercises to pratice scales, chords and single notes recognition. Notes can be referred to on the ABC notation or according to their scale degree (I, II, etc). There are quite a few other customization options too: treble or bass clef, enharmonics...

"Quick Chords" lets you check a chord database reference to know where and how to position your fingers on the fretboard. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. It also shows you the chord on staff notation, tells you the scales that work over that chord, and gives a description of each scale's feeling and application!! I was delighted to find all that information in one tool alone.

These three tools alone put Guitar Freak Workstation on the top of its league already.

The "Progression Creator" and "Progression Player" speak for themselves. Edit and playback your (or preset) chord progressions for improvisation and jamming.

The "Ability Trainer" is a recorder for you to listen to your own playing and detect where you're making mistakes without noticing. It also has a looper for speed practicing.

The "Transcriber" is where you can load an mp3 and slow it down to figure out the single notes of faster licks, mark important sections of the song, activate loops, etc. Sean Clancy's suggestion is to use it practice transcribing to a staff, but you can use it for anything else, really.

The "Guitar / Bass Invertor" show you the positions of the notes of a chord or scale on the fretboard, along with a description of some of the chord/scale types. The difference between this and Quick Chords is QC only shows you the chord shapes; the invertor shows you the notes themselves all over the fretboard, so you can choose your own chord voicing/inversion.

"Real World Training" and "Perfect Pitch Training" provide you exercises to practice your relative and absolute pitch recognition, respectively.

GFW comes with a bundle of 4 guitar-related books.

- Guitar Virtuosity for the Everyday Man
- Joe Pass Licks - Just add fingers
- Learn to Burn: The Guitar Speed Manual style
- How to be awesome at jazz Guitar Chords


You can even customize and add scales and chords on the GFW database.

Finally, the paradigmatic Metronome and Tuner finish off this guitar Swiss knife.



Now, let's talk about my favorite, the very best and exclusive tool. The Sightreader Master Extreme.


Sightreader Master is a random sheet generator with possible customization of all its parameters. You can control the range of frets the generated notes are on, the activated strings, the scale and key signature the notes belong to, the range of possible intervals between two consecutive notes, the metronome BPMs, the probability of accidentals, the probability and type of chords on the staff, the probability of each time value on notes and rests and even combination of time values, the presence of tied notes, the volume of the metronome and the volume of notes playback... You name it. There are 66 scales/modes to choose from, each one of them with a description attached. It's guitar sight-reading heaven. And I'm not even covering every feature, this post is too long already!




Conclusion

The first time I tried SightReader Master, I was getting some bugs, e.g. I was getting notes outside the fret range I specified. But then I fiddled a bit with the program and somehow that stopped happening. Maybe it was something I did wrong. Besides that, the only thing I would change would be to make it compatible with lower resolutions. In 1024 x 768, some parts of the program window are offscreen.

Guitar Freak Workstation with Sightreader Master Extreme is a complete Swiss knife of guitar drills. It puts together every kind of useful tool you find on the net on a simple WYSIWYG interface, without unnecessary "visual bells and whistles" (if you get what I mean). But the strongest feature of this toolpack is its exclusive component: the dedicated sightreading drill generator. This one alone makes Sean Clancy's software stand out.

For almost half the price of any decent pedal (60$), you can license the SightReader Master alone. If you want the whole toolset, it won't cost you more than the ordinary decent guitar pedal effect (95$). I don't know about you, but I could certainly live with one less pedal to have all the practice tools I need in one panel, AND get going on my definitive quest to learn to sight-read on this 6-string notes mayhem.

I hope this heads-up is useful for you. ;)

Happy string pulling!!