Maybe you picked up a guitar last Christmas, resolved to learn, got fed up with the Mel Bay books you borrowed, and ended up hanging up your brand-new axe in frustration. Or you gave it a shot in your teens, and haven't found the time again, until now. Or you're planning on getting yourself an instrument, but you just don't see how lessons are going to fit into your already packed schedule, or onto your overextended credit cards. Raw Talent Guitar aims to solve all of those problems, with a refreshing digitally modeled twist on old-school instruction.
The program's approach to guitar learning that's at once more traditional and more contemporary than the reinvented-guitar paradigm employed in Optek's Fretlight system, and though it lacks the LED visuals, you can use the guitar you already have; a bonus for those who've already tried and failed to learn the instrument via other methods. RTG relies on the tried-and-true — video lessons with an engaging teacher, not totally different from the approach used in Fretlight's Video Player — but the RTG system throws in some cool contemporary software additions, supplying a full amp and effects simulator (courtesy of IK Multimedia's AmpliTube), plus a real sense of lesson interactivity via an app that can track your playing, listening to and grading your performance as you progress through the curriculum.
Another IK Multimedia product, the StealthPlug, handles input duties; it terminates on one end in a USB connection (which you'll plug into your PC) and a 1/4" plug on the other, via which you'll connect your guitar; between those two points you'll find a triangular dongle with a headphone/speaker jack through which you can monitor both the direct guitar signal and the output of your computer, along with a set of cable-mounted volume controls (actually quite convenient while playing, freeing you somewhat from the need to tinker with onscreen controls).
The software centers around a set of video lessons, presented in conjunction with a well-organized and illustrated lesson guide. Pádraig O’Kane, a veteran University of Miami guitar instructor, provides the personality (and a deep knowledge of the instrument, of course). He's very engaging in the video format used by RTG, and his sense of humor, ridiculous collection of custom instruments, and versatility keep the lessons entertaining, even when the software touches on drier material. O'Kane walks students through a series of graded exercises, from introductory videos aimed at getting comfortable with the instrument to intermediate instruction in music theory and soloing and rhythm concepts, from two-handed tapping to funk rhythm comping. As you watch O'Kane (often in a split-screen view that shows both his fretting and picking hands), you'll get onscreen graphical representation of the harmonic and melodic territory he's taking you through. Slick.
O'Kane is interesting to watch, and executes the material flawlessly (the videos are quite well shot, making emulating his right- and left-hand technique easy). Some of the lessons, especially the introductory videos, felt a tad overlong to me, but that could be bias stemming from having gone over this ground before. I'd imaging newcomers to the instrument would welcome the thoroughness.
The heart of RTG is the performance evaluator (and what differentiates it from the multitude of video learning options out there these days), and the tool worked as advertised. Following the completion of a lesson video, you proceed to an exam. There, you're presented with an exercise, written out in music notation and tablature, and given a chance to hear it played. You can practice as much as you like, and then you decided to take the exam itself at your convenience. You'll get a one-measure count-off and then you'll play through the exercise, after which the evaluator scores your performance on a scale of 0-100. Instant feedback, and the "scoring," looked at in the best light, provides a game-style incentive to improve. If you like, you can upload your scores to the RTG Web site in the spirit of good-natured competition.
The evaluator seemed very accurate, even tracking the muted chords and double-stops of the funk rhythm lessons. Transposing the pattern up or down a half-step (or even playing the part with the guitar slightly out of tune) quickly got me a low or even a 0 score.
My only complaint would be that I'd like to see more targeted feedback that a simple admonition to "keep on practicing." Certainly as you begin to play the parts more accurately your score goes up, but it'd be nice if RTG could offer explicit advice on what you're getting wrong — you could be making all manner of errors, from bad left hand position; incorrect picking angle; not listening, etcetera, etcetera. Of course, this might involve some heavy AI lifting beyond the scope and capabilities of your average laptop. But I can dream.
Quibbles aside, the evaluator is impressive to see in operation, will probably be useful to many, and if RTG refines this feature further, it could be a fantastic tool.
Once you've gotten your chops together, you'll find a couple of options for applying and extending what you've learned. The "Jam Tracks" menu includes a library of Music Minus One–style rhythm section tracks that you can jam over; these lean towards funk and blues jams, and are certainly nice to have on hand for trying out solo concepts you've been working on, though they're not incredibly interesting in themselves. More immediately appealing is a collection of "Bonus Tracks," 15 rock classics (ranging from The Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" to Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper"), presented in three versions — full band, with lead guitar removed, and with rhythm guitar removed, allowing you to audition and practice (obviously enough) either your lead or rhythm playing in a familiar full-band context. A series of short "Pro Tip" videos introduce technical concepts, from artificial harmonics and tremolo effects to country-and-western style strumming and string skipping.
Overall, this seems to me a very solid collection of learning and practicing tools. RTG claims it provides a year's worth of material for study, and depending on your level of commitment, that may well be accurate.
Is it a worthwhile investment? There are a ton of well-produced video lesson content circulating on the Web these days, both legit and illicit, but there's nothing out there that I've seen that provides the sort of feedback on your own efforts that RTG's evaluator does (aside from spending time playing with other musicians or taking lessons with an instructor, that is).
Can it replace a guitar teacher? I think especially for those who don't want to or can't learn easily from textbooks, RTG (and the same could be said of other software-assisted systems like the Fretlight we looked at a couple of weeks back) provides a nice alternative; it's well-organized curriculum is a distinct plus, but a human being can give you pointers and point you in directions for further learning that no software package can. Still, in these days of stressed pocketbooks and schedules, I think a guitar owner — who might have lost interest with other methods but doesn't have any interest in shelling out for private or group lessons — would probably be well served by at least giving RTG a look.
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