iPad: The Ultimate Guitar Tool

This slim device can do so much more than games and surfing: with the right add-ons, it can be your guitar nerve-centre. Martyn Casserly has been shopping

Since its introduction in 2010, Apple’s iPad has become a regular fixture in many homes, helping the UK populace browse Amazon and Facebook while watching the telly. What you might not know is that this simple slab of glass and electronics could also be the single most useful tool in any guitarists’ arsenal.

Not convinced? Well, read on, and we’ll show you the wealth of apps and accessories available that you could use to take your playing to the next level – well, just as long as you can avoid the black hole of productivity and financial ruin that Candy Crush presents. We didn’t say it would be easy.

Playing the guitar is a pretty simple thing. Put your fingers there, strum this, move that; no, not there, up one; no, up a fret, not a string, yes, that’s it. Simple. Getting better at playing the guitar is somewhat harder.

Of course there is pretty much only one way to improve (we accept that now after those magic beans made no difference and left us down a cow), and that’s boring old practising. Putting in the hard yards, coaxing errant fingers to contort and move in seemingly unnatural ways, all the while wondering how Steve Vai seems to make the whole damn thing look so effortless. Anything that can help in this lonely and physically bewildering endeavour would be a blessing to all involved. Thankfully an iPad comes armed with many tools to make things more bearable, so let’s head to the App Store and see what’s on offer.

LICK OF THE DAY – Free (lessons priced individually)
A great way to grow your musical vocabulary is learning new licks. This app is an excellent resource, with multiple styles covered including blues, rock, funk, country, metal, and others. Lessons are packaged into volumes that contain either 25 or 50 examples of a style, usually costing £2.99. Inside each volume are also a couple of free licks to act as tasters. You can also download the lessons so they’ll still work when you don’t have an internet connection.

The app screen itself is broken into three sections, with the track menu on the left, a main video screen on the right, and beneath this the tab for the piece with a map of the fretboard showing you where to put your fingers as the video plays. The tuition is of a professional standard, with a full-speed play-through and then a slower section with the teacher explaining exactly what they’re doing. Excellent.

It can be less than inspiring to sit in a room and play along to nothing, and that’s why backing tracks are so much fun. Turning up your guitar and jamming along to a mystery band that always show up on time and never tire of your ceaseless widdling is a thing of beauty.

Guitar Jam Tracks does all this but also throws in chord charts to stop you getting lost, provides fretboard maps to show you the scales you can use, and will switch between any key (major or minor) at the touch of a virtual button.

There is a free version (Guitar Jam Tracks Acoustic Blues) that has two tracks and the option to buy more. Or you can plump for the Scale Trainer & Practice Buddy that has more styles and retails for a very reasonable £2.99.

SESSION BAND (£1.99 – £5.99 depending on app)
Jam tracks are always fun, but sometimes they don’t quite scratch the musical itch. Session Band is a great alternative as it gives users the chance to create their own, using pre-recorded loops. This might sound a little daunting, but thanks to a cleverly-designed user interface and step-by-step tutorial it’s actually very straight forward.

You simply choose the style (say slow blues rock), pick the key you want, cycle through the various chords available via a piano keyboard (no chord knowledge required), then pinch your fingers to stretch or shrink the section. In just a few minutes you can set up a track that fits whatever song is in your head, which is very useful if you’re writing an original piece.

There are various styles of music available in separate apps, although they’ll need to be bought individually. So if you’re stylistically diverse you might need to save up, but for what you get, the cost is justified.

ULTIMATE GUITAR TABS HD (£7.99 for a year’s subscription)
Remembering all the chords to songs can be tricky, especially if you play in a function band and the belle of the ball stumbles up asking for an obscure song request. In the past an essential part of your gig bag was a folder containing the sheet music to your various sets, which over time would become heavy and cumbersome. Well, you can set fire to the lot of it now, as Ultimate Guitar Tabs is an essential app that gives you access to over 400,000 songs, all packed into the slight frame of an iPad.

For an annual fee of £7.99 you can save chord sheets on your device, and even arrange them into handy playlists. You can also adjust the key up or down, and many have chord boxes available. The tabs are user-generated on the whole, with several versions for each song, so you might need to hunt around for the right one, but it’s usually there.

Sometimes you just need a few bits and pieces to get things done. GuitarToolkit is an all-in-one solution for many tasks that face a practising guitarist.

You won’t find fancy amp emulation or track creation features here, instead there’s a tuner, chord boxes, scale patterns, and a metronome… all handy essential tools. There are also in-app purchase options to expand the features, with a programmable drum machine being the star of the show.

ALSO TRY: OnSong, Jammit, Jamup Pro, Jambox Jamtrack

Once upon a time, if you wanted to record any kind of demo or album you’d have to divine the mysteries of a Tascam 4-track Portastudio, or pay a small fortune to go into a professional studio. Computers have changed that, but software still isn’t cheap and the learning curve can be steep.

On an iPad the apps are simplified to make them easy to use, but this doesn’t mean that they are simple. You can record compositions quickly using full digital suites, replete with amp and pedal models, and all from the comfort of your sofa, or indeed a caravan if that is your want. We’ve even seen musicians in function bands embracing the use of iPads in live settings, with impressive results and much smaller bags to carry home.

Making music on an iPad is easier than you might think. A great place to start is Apple’s Garageband app, which retails for a ridiculous £2.99. In here you’ll find a simple interface, a full suite of instruments (such as bass guitar, drums, and strings) which can be recorded live via virtual fretboards or kits, and a bevy of loops that are copyright-free.

Your iPad has a built-in mic, so you can record your guitar that way (which is passable but certainly not incredible), but if you opt for one of the many guitar interfaces (see Sonic Port and Apogee One) then you’ll have access to various built-in amp and guitar emulations, plus the ability to use any other amp simulation app in conjunction with Garageband. The app even has a quantising feature to help fix out of time playing. Magic.

AMPLITUBE (£13.99)
Guitar emulation apps offer powerful ways to transform your iPad into a full pedalboard and amp rig, all for less than the price of a capo. Amplitube is an excellent example, as it contains 11 effects and five amps, alongside the advanced features of a recording track (good for quickly getting down ideas) which can be expanded (for £10.49) up to a full suite of eight tracks for more advanced compositions. There’s also a drum machine to add some beats, and a phrase trainer so you can brush up on your soloing before recording those epic eight bars.

You can purchase expansion packs that feature a variety of specialist amp and effect modules. These include brand-specific offerings such as Fender or Orange, and musician-related apps like Slash or Hendrix. Each app costs £10.49, or you can but the whole kit and caboodle for £31.99 – which is still less than a decent pedal. The sounds are all very good, but bear in mind that you’ll need a digital input to make it work. Thankfully, we’ve got a few of those in our next section.

ALSO TRY: Ampkit+, iShred Live, GuitarTone, Auria

The iPad by itself is very useful, but to truly open up the musical possibilities there are a number of accessories that could bring the electronic wonder into the heart of your rig. When you consider the cost of a high end multi-FX unit, many of these gadgets come at very affordable prices, and due to their digital natures they will be open to software updates in the future which could increase their capabilities.

It’s all well and good having these amazing tones and recording features available in apps, but unless you can plug your guitar into the iPad you’re not going to get much use out of them. The Sonic Port is a neat little solution for this problem, and small enough to fit in a jacket pocket or guitar case.
Just plug the Sonic Port into the iPad via the included lead (which caters for both lightning and older 30-pin connections), then plug your guitar into the standard jack socket on the device. That’s it… you’re done. Load up a favourite app – Garageband, Amplitube, or any other that supports Core Audio (pretty much all of them) – and you should have access to the tones that the app has available. Tracking is very fast, with no discernible latency, and power comes from your iPad rather than a wall plug.

One standout feature is that there are two jack sockets, one of which is an output. This means that you can place your iPad in front of your physical amp, using the Sonic Port to send the signal from your application. So, if you have something like Amplitube installed, it now becomes an effects unit for live gigs. Very cool, although don’t try stomping on it. Try pairing it instead with IK Multimedia’s iKlip Xpand holder, which attaches your iPad to a mic stand for easy operation.

Yes, we know, that price – but Apogee make high-grade music recording hardware, and the One takes that expertise to the iPad. If you want premium AD/DA converters and a studio quality mic all in a package marginally bigger than an iPhone (and you have the cash), then the Apogee One is about as good as it gets.
It’s a 2-in 2-out interface, so you can record both instrument and vocal takes simultaneously – so long as the app supports that feature – and the sound quality is something special. It’s not cheap, but it doesn’t feel it either. If you don’t need the microphone or dual inputs though, the Apogee Jam (£119.95) might be a more sensible option.

LINE 6 AMPLIFI 75W (£299)
Line 6 has bypassed the idea of linking apps to your amp, and instead made your iPad the core engine of the amp itself. The AMPLIFi is a new breed of backline, that comes packing a rather paltry four amp models, but when connected via Bluetooth to an iOS device it has access to hundreds of modelled classics, and a world of effects.
It is also, cleverly, a high-class speaker for your digital media – again via Bluetooth – and can blend the sounds of your guitar against songs you stream to the unit. It can also search the Line 6 online database to find any guitar tones that match the track being played.

The elegant design features an 8″ central speaker with two high- and two mid-frequency drivers for hi-fi style aural pleasure. If the 75w model is too small, you could always step up to the 150w 12″ version. Conversely you could always try the iLoud (£239) portable amp from IK Multimedia, which packs a more neighbour-friendly 40w into its easily-carriable frame.

In 2014 Fender took the unusual step of releasing a version of its legendary guitar featuring digital outputs for USB and iOS devices alongside the traditional analogue jack. In most respects the Fender Deluxe Stratocaster HSS Plus Top with iOS Connectivity (who, pray, is the person in charge of naming new models) is a standard guitar, only now you can plug it directly into your iPad (via the included lead), as well as your amp.

This means you can practice quietly in the corner of the room with your headphones on, or even record parts for a song in Garageband, without annoying the rest of the household.
ALSO TRY: iRig HD, Digitech iStomp, Focusrite iTrack Solo.

While there are many great reasons to buy standalone FX, amps, and recording platforms, the speed at which the iPad has matured into such a versatile device is impressive.
For the price of a midrange guitar you can have a fully-featured recording studio, effects rig, and songbook all in a package barely bigger than this magazine. The touch-based nature of the iPad means that apps are easy to learn, as the interface quickly gets out of your way, leaving you can play rather than spend time reading manuals. When an idea strikes you can set up in mere seconds, which can make all the difference. It won’t necessarily replace your cherished gear, but it could the best addition to your collection that you ever make.


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