Phil Brammer strums his way through this educational guitar program
Phil Brammer brushes up on his guitar playing, with help from MCMXCIX and a software package called Guitaristics
At his stand at the BMF, Mike Partridge of MCMXCIX had promised me an exclusive on this package and a review copy as soon as it became available, as he kept a watchful eye on Genie and Paps who were lurking in the background looking for all the world like a pair of terrorists. And I'd very much like not to have to give this one back, Mike...
...For reasons which I hope will become clear... You see I'd been complaining to friends (or anyone who'd listen) that I was spending so much time messing with MIDI (For MM in London, with the Warholas and with Ambush in Amsterdam) that my guitar playing was suffering through sheer lack of practice. Guitaristics was being hyped as 'a superb educational program' which was 'much more than a computerised chord book.' And Mike's sales pitch was so convincing...
Well, I should explain that I'm very lazy when it comes to practising scales and that I avoid anything that stinks of a rehearsal like the plague and have done for years. Why rehearse when you can DO IT? But Mike at 'MCM' promised me a computer friend to teach me some WEIRD SCALES... and as I've been playing guitar on and off for about fifteen years and this was the first software package I'd seen to even have 'Guitar' in its title, I HAD to investigate...
Load up the (copy-protected) single-sided disk and you are presented with the main 'Command' page. This shows two fretboard diagrams, the one on the left displaying your chord fingering positions (loads up with A-Maj-9), and the right hand diagram exposing a scale (loads A-Major), with each component note being indicated in each case by a little box (on the fret/string) which contains the note name, such as 'A'. At the moment the 'A's are highlighted to tell us that 'A' is the Root in this case.
With me so far? Well before we go ANY further let's get one priority job out of the way for once and for all. See the Menu bar across the top of the screen? The one with menus labelled Desk (forget it!), Options, Chord, Sound and Scale? Good. Well quickly, in your mind's eye, move the mouse-arrow up to the Sound menu, and when the drop-down menu gives you the choice of ticking against 'MIDI Output' or 'Internal Sound', click on the former. We have just saved ourselves from the horror of accidentally hearing any sound from the internal chip at a later stage. It's really that bad! Enough to put you off playing guitar completely. The Output is fixed on MIDI Channel 1 but who cares, I'll monitor on Paps' Yamaha DX-21, thanks all the same.
Those fretboard diagrams I was telling you about, they're the same as you'll find in most guitar tutors from A Dirge A Day to the less accessible Jazz chord books, so you'll find an X above the strings which shouldn't be plucked on the Chord diagram and beneath the strings that should be sounded. Fingering is indicated by a number 1-4, whereby 1 represents the index finger (of the LEFT hand - thank the Lord I'm not left-handed!) and 4 represents the little pinky. The position of the lowest fretted string in the chord (the note nearest the guitar nut) is shown in Roman Numerals, and the A-Maj-9 chord which loads up is given here from the eleventh (XI) fret. Which raises questions...
Lou Reed will tell you (and J.C. of the Warholas will vouch for this) that if you're new to guitar then all you really need to learn is three chords and you'll get by. So how is the newcomer to know where these magical chords are? Forget the manual, it assumes a certain knowledge. The chords are down by the nut, actually, but the first problem you'll encounter with this program is that you are presented with all the right chords but with a plethora of positions which will be overwhelming unless you already have some experience with the guitar.
Also, why not count the thumb as a finger for those rock'n'rollers who like to wrap it right around there to stop the bottom E string when the guitar is hung way down low? I can think of several Heavy Metal guitar players who would look rather un-macho if they were forced to shorten the strap and play those barre chords the proper way, as taught in Guitaristics. But what would HM guitarists know about it anyway...
Beneath the Chord diagram the notes which make up the chord are shown as a Function, so in this case A is the Root (R) and the C# played on the D string (XI position) is represented by a 3, that is the Third in the scale of A-Major. For you hieroglyph freaks the notes are shown in ascending order on staves for both Chord and Scale bottom-screen. But cosmetics be damned - let's get into the guts of this thing...
In order to play the chord displayed on the Command page all you have to do is pull down the 'Chord' menu and click on either the 'Sound Chord' or 'Practice Arpeggio' options and you will hear either, one straight play through the chord (low notes to high) in the former case or two octave's worth of the same, descending after hitting the highest note of the sequence, then ascending again and cycling until you press the left mouse button to quit. The notes are individually highlighted as they sound, and note length and tempo can be altered to suit your playing, but more of that later. With the Arpeggio running we can try jamming along using the scale shown on the right, or simply practise playing the chord.
You'll have to click off the Arpeggio to get back to the 'Chord' menu, where you'll find you can change the 'Root', 'Quality' or 'Position' of the chord shown on the Command page by selecting and clicking on the relevant option. 'Root' conjures up the letters A to G vertically, from 'double-flat' (bb) to 'double-sharp' (##) horizontally as a series of boxes (7x5). Highlight the Root you'd like and then click on 'OK' and the 'Root' dialog box disappears transferring your Root preference to the Command page, and sounding the chord once via MIDI.
Select 'Quality' from the 'Chord' menu and the associated dialog box this time offers a grid of 10x7 chord flavours to choose from including Jazz, Synthetic, and Ethnic qualities like the lovely 6/9# 11. This choice is again transferred to the Command page once you've OK'd it, and played through once via MIDI (so now maybe you can appreciate why we turned off the 'Internal' sound at the start!).
Click on the 'Position' item and you can choose the position in which you'd like to see your chord displayed from a dialog box offering the 'Open' position (next to the nut) and Roman Numeral buttons with the other fret positions. If you're still with me then you probably have some basic chords in your arsenal and it's very likely that you can learn something from this program.
'Voicings', from the 'Chord' menu, offers eight different fretboard pics showing different chord voicings in various fretboard positions. The menu bar on this page, offers only 'Desk' (forget it, really!), 'Options' which is similar to the 'Options' menu on the Command page which we'll come to soon, and the 'Select' menu where you get to pick one of the eight voicings. The 'Arpeggios' option offers similar fretboard pics and by now we should be sussing that this is a pretty straight forward program. Must have been a doddle to write(!)
Lastly 'Substitutions' will list a whole bunch of chords which should do the same job, giving a percentage rating suggesting how 'right' your chosen substitution is likely to sound, or rather how far 'in' the new chord is with the original, eg Amongst suggested substitutions for the chord E6/9#11 is VI C#7sus4, which is reckoned to be 80% groovy. In other words, at 80% you ought to get away with it. This percentage thing is a pretty subjective ranking system, you understand, but in practice is a good indication of what is likely to sound right. The same system is applied to Scales.
The 'Scale' drop-down menu gives you the choice of changing the 'Tonic' (in the same way as you change the Root of the chord), 'Scale Name' (another 10x5 series of boxes this time offering such wonderful scales as Arabic, Enigmatic, Hindu, Persian and Phrygian), and 'Position', again similar to that option encountered under the 'Chord' menu.
Then you have 'Arbitrary' or 'Musical' Patterns to toggle between. These come into play when you go for the 'Fingering Patterns' page (from the same menu), which offers the same toggle option from its own 'Options' menu. When 'Musical Patterns' is ticked, eight fretboard diagrams show fingerings of the scale thought to be 'comfortable' at eight different fret positions, whereas 'Arbitrary Patterns' draws in all of the notes within the scale which will fit the available space on the diagrams regardless of how many times the same note might appear so that you might develop your own scale patterns.
This 'Fingering Patterns' page (similar to the 'Chord Voicings' page) also has 'Select Tonic' and 'Select Scale' options (cf 'Select Root' and 'Select Quality' from that CV page), a toggle option for notes to be displayed as Notes (letters) or Functions (numbers) beneath the plucked strings on each of the eight diagrams, and an option to highlight Open notes in much the same way as Arpeggios can be highlighted from within the 'Chord Voicings' page. There's also 'Change Tuning' but for now let's quit the 'Fingering Patterns' page (by clicking on 'Exit this screen' at the bottom of the Options menu) to return to the Command page in order to re-access the 'Scale' menu and try out the 'Improvisation Ideas' option.
Click the left mouse button over 'Improvisation ideas' from the Scale menu then, and we are presented with a list of 'Suggested scales for improvising on the chord A-Maj-9'. (It's A-Maj-9 again because I have re-loaded the program at this stage owing to the first and only program crash.) Not so surprisingly A-Major, A-Chinese, and A-Lydian rank highly, but it's interesting to see that E-Ionian ranks in at 95% 'inside' the chord of A-Maj-9, and that seeming misfits like F#-Dorian, G#-Phrygian and D#-Locrian (whatever they are!) also come up favourites with a 95% ranking.
The scales are sounded using either the 'Sound Scale' or 'Practice Scale' options from that 'Scale' menu, which operate like the 'Sound Chord' and 'Practice Arpeggio' functions found in the 'Chord' menu.
Paps invited me out to the pub last night - seemingly in order to chastise me for drinking beer. So let it now be public knowledge that the reason he was late for the Feedback rehearsal (he's on loan from The Groove Toys) was that he was watching The Waltons on Telly! (This IS relevant, Ed!) Well I quickly changed the subject to Guitaristics and Paps mentioned that one of the most frustrating problems he's had whilst learning guitar is trying to play an old Stones song from sheet music wherein the right chords are indicated but the publishers don't mention that they were played on a strangely tuned guitar. The chords were right (he played them against the record) but by themselves didn't sound quite right. And this is where Guitaristics comes into its own.
The 'Change Tuning' function is available from the 'Options' menu within either of the 'Command', 'Chord Voicings' or 'Scale Fingerings' pages (as is the function to print out the screen). The page evoked when clicking on 'Change Tuning' is another 10x5 series of boxes displaying all the regular 'Open' guitar tunings (including the G tuning I favour for bottleneck playing) and some not so regular tunings. Obviously 'Standard' tuning (E A D G B E) is highlighted on load-up, but click on the 'Hendrix' box and you'll find that he apparently played with each string slackened by a semitone (Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb)! Did YOU know that? I didn't. On the Command screen I'm now looking at A-Maj-9 on a guitar tuned the Hendrix way, and the D#-Locrian scale (95% groovy) to the same tuning. And it's getting weird...
If you're still trying to suss that Stones riff, Paps, buy Guitaristics and try out the obvious tunings (if it's in G, try G first) and see how easy the chords suggested in the sheet music are to finger on the 'new' fretboards displayed with the 'strange' tunings. Chances are that the tuning which offers the easiest chords will be the one that Brian used. This is my favourite facility, offering lots of new ways to play your stuff, with a little practice.
Beneath the 'Change Tuning' option is one called 'Practice Parameters' which gives a dialog box in which you can change what you hear when you hit either 'Practice Arpeggio' or 'Practice Scale' from the 'Chord' or 'Scale' menus accordingly. Playback can be in ascending or descending note order, or both (just click on the box and OK it), Tempo can be altered in seven steps from 'Grave' to 'Presto', and the notes played can be for one of eight durations from a 'Quarter' to a '32nd'.
'Accelerando' has an ON/OFF function only, and after highlighting the ON box the next time you play a 'Practice Scale' or 'Practice Arpeggio' it will, imperceptibly at first, increase its tempo as you practise. If you've had the good sense to set the original Tempo to something you can cope with then you will hopefully keep up with it for a while - and this is a good exercise, I think.
Well, that was a quick tour of Guitaristics, and what it does, it does very well. But does it do enough?
I've always found that people who learned to play while listening to Hendrix singles played at 33rpm sound exactly like that, and the world's a sorry place when you have no-one with whom to exchange ideas and jam. If that's your situation then jamming along with your sequencer is probably a good idea. A pity then that Guitaristics comes without even the simplest of programmable sequencers. I would have liked, for example, to hear eight Arpeggios of an E chord, followed by eight of an A and so on, to get a better idea of how these things sound next to each other. You can NOT, by the way, play back both chord and scale simultaneously from the program, but their relationship is always displayed on the Command screen, eg the D#-Locrian scale is shown to be #IV-Maj-9 as a function of the A-Maj-9 chord, and its 'Ranking' is 95%. Common tones, Omissions, Extensions and Conflicts are also indicated at all times on the Command page.
So Guitaristics is more accessible than a pile of obscure library books (and there's a lot of information in here) and definitely better suited to experienced guitar players than to absolute beginners. My next job is to borrow another ST so that I can dump some of these lovely scales into a sequencer for a bit of 'cut'n'paste'... because apart from the MIDI Output on Channel 1 this is unfortunately a closed system, unless you count the Print option - and with some literal cut and paste you could produce your own scrap-book of favourite weird scales and chords in strange tunings from the printouts.
Ron the cat has just demonstrated that there are no hidden features here, by leaping from my bed onto the ST keyboard and trying a few random keys. I think he's hungry.
At £79.95 Guitaristics will make a fine (Christmas?) present for someone already fairly competent on the instrument. IF s/he has an Atari ST. It is a bit awkward putting down your plectrum and wiggling towards the computer keyboard with your guitar in your lap in order to change the Root of your Arpeggio for instance, but it beats book-work hands-down.
I have avoided mentioning the Manual so far (Oh no you haven't!) because there's really no excuse for the lousy grammar which runs throughout (- although it was written by Americans), and it tells you nothing about the program that you won't find out for yourself by just crashing about in there for a while, although the 'Suggested Reading Materials' booklist at the back may yet turn out to be of some use, to somebody!
Good to see guitarists' interests being given a cursory look, if a bit late, and I look forward to seeing the idea being developed further as this is not much more than a computerised chord book as it stands and I don't think that an additional sequencer would be too much to ask for.
Well... it's still good at the price. I leave you now to count my Tibetan skull-beads. Can anyone tell me why there are 108 of them? Answers on a postcard, please.
Guitaristics Version 1.8
Format: Atari ST mono monitor
Supplier: chro-MAGIC Software Innnovations/Dr T./MCMXCIX, (Contact Details)
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Review by Phil Brammer