There are countless tools out there to help you become a better player. Some tools are absolutely essential for every guitarist and others will only be beneficial to certain types of players. In this article I will explain a few tools you should consider using and why we should really use as many different tools as we can.
Why we should use learning tools/gear
Most players will probably already use a few different tools to help them learn faster. For example you are probably familiar with using a metronome. Everyone can see how useful a metronome is and how it can really transform your playing. A metronome can help us: improve our rhythm, practice complicated riffs or solos, improve our speed playing, learn techniques such as sweep picking, etc. There are so many uses for this one tool that if you don't use it you really miss out on a simple shortcut.
That's really what these tools are all about to make it easier to learn or develop a skill. They really are shortcuts. Imagine how much longer and harder it would be to develop the skills listed above without using a metronome. Yes it can be done, but you will save a great deal of time and effort and get better results using a metronome. Learning tools or gear can really have a big impact on our development.
Essential tool 1: Metronome
As mentioned above, a metronome is crucial to developing many skills. Most players already know this but if you haven't used one yet then get your hands on one. There are a few different types you can get. You can get a software version (normally for free) for your computer or iPhone (most phones can get one). The second type is the physical pendulum type you see with a metal arm ticking back and forth. The third type is digital version normally the size of an electronic guitar tuner. This type could be as basic as providing a simple click or as complicated as generating a stack of rhythms and loops (as listed below).
Things you can do with a metronome:
Develop your rhythm abilities
Practice fast/complicated licks or solos
Improve your speed picking/playing
Master techniques such as tapping or sweep picking
Develop your strumming patterns
Essential tool 2: Rhythm generator/drum looper
There are many different names and labels for this tool. Basically it is a little box where you can choose a style of music (such as blues, rock, metal, swing, etc.) and it will play a drum beat that fits that style (at a tempo you choose). The better ones will also allow you to choose a key and it will play a progression (normally using a bass guitar) in that key with the drums for you to jam over. They normally have hundreds of different options and you have full control over how everything sounds. Instead of buying a digital metronome, if it's in your budget you may want to get one of these instead. All of them will have a metronome option to give you a simple click.
So what does that mean to you? Well let's say you want to join a band but have never played with a musician before, do you think you will be able to walk into an audition and simply jam with them in time and in key? That's a big challenge for a beginner. This tool will help you learn to play in time with other instruments and learn to play in the right key. You can also use it to come up with song ideas, solo ideas, practice your improvising and learn to write rhythm parts that fit well with drum parts.
Here are some things you could try with a rhythm generator:
Learn how to jam in a style you have never tried before (eg: jazz, flamenco, country, swing)
Write solos and licks in different keys and different styles
Write song ideas and riffs that fit with different drums patterns
Practice scales and learn what sound or flavor' they give your playing
Essential tool 3: Flash cards, chord charts, chord dictionaries
These three tools will all help you learn a range of different chords in different ways. Chord charts are normally a poster or page with a selection of chord diagrams. You can buy ones large enough to stick on your wall or they sometimes come with educational books. Chord dictionaries are just like they sound a dictionary full of chords. Chord dictionaries can contain up to a couple hundred different chords. Flash cards are like a pack of playing cards where each card displays a chord diagram and other information. Although they all have the same information, they can be used in different ways. Chord dictionaries are good when you need to look up a certain chord because they are normally alphabetically ordered but they aren't very practical for learning (who really wants to learn using a dictionary?). Chord charts are fantastic if you hang them on your wall as they are an instant reference to look up a chord. Flash cards are very effective in teaching you the chords because you control how you use them (eg: memory games). Out of the three flash cards are the most flexible and chord dictionaries are the most detailed. But which one should you get? You should get all three because as explained above, they're all used in different ways and you can learn from each type.
Using these tools will help you develop your chord vocabulary. Basically the more chords you know the more options you have. More choices of chords will give your songs more interesting sounds and will have a big impact on your songwriting or improvising. The average beginner will know about 10 basic open chords where as the expert guitarist will know over a hundred different options all over the neck. Don't underestimate how important it is to learn more chords. Even expert players continue to learn new chord shapes.
Here are some things you can do using chord flash cards, dictionaries and charts:
Learn more chords
Write interesting chord progressions and songs
Improve chord progressions by finding more interesting chords
Learn the notes behind the chord types (eg: major, minor, seventh, etc)
Understand music with chord theory
Essential tool 4: Recording software/hardware
Think you know exactly what your playing sounds like? Think again. The way you hear yourself when you're playing is quite different to hearing a recording of your playing. When I've tested this on my students they're normally shocked with how they sound with comments such as do I really sound like that? or Is that really me?. Being able to listen to a recording of your playing is crucial to your development. You can take a third person' view on your playing and hear every little nuance, every mistake and every detail you may have missed when you were focusing on playing. That is why recording software or hardware is our next essential tool.
You can take a couple different paths with this tool software, hardware or a combination of the two. Software is a fantastic option if you can plug your guitar in your computer (or use a microphone). There are so many options with software. You can get something basic (and free) like the program Audacity or you can go all the way up to advanced multi-track software such as Sonar, Pro Tools, Logic, etc. If you are unsure about all this, start out with the basic free software then you can work your way up as you need to. With hardware you have just as many different options. You can have basic handheld devices all the way up to the advanced gear you see in recording studios.
Guitarists have extra options tailor made for us that combine software and hardware. Programs such as Guitar Rig, Amplitube, Line 6 gear and others allow you to plug your guitar into a USB device that comes with the software and control everything from amp & stompbox modeling to effects and recording. If you don't like the sound of the previous options, this would be the way to go as you can record your playing, play it back, loop it, slow it down as well as control the tone. I highly recommend this option because they even come with built in metronomes & rhythm loopers so you get tools 1, 2 & 4 from this list all in one.
Here are some of the things you can do with recording gear:
Correct bad habits you don't notice when you're playing
Listen to your playing from an outside' view
Record a chord progression or rhythm and jam over it
Record yourself improvising and pick out parts you like the sound of
Try out different amp sounds and guitar gear with Guitar Rig, Amplitube etc.
Essential tool 5: Guitar Pro
I'm guessing about 80% of people on this site already use this program and know how useful it is, but if you don't already have it keep reading. Guitar Pro (or other programs like PowerTab) is a fantastic program made specifically for guitarists. If you don't have Guitar Pro you would have noticed that so many of the tabs on UG are in Guitar Pro format. There's a reason why it's a powerful tool. Not only can you listen to the tab and play along with it, but you can slow it down, listen to it with the other instruments playing and even write your own songs. There's really no point going on explaining why you should have it, because it should be obvious by now. Ask anybody who already uses it and they'll tell you how powerful it is. You can easily download the demo to find out for yourself what it can do for you.
Things you can do with Guitar Pro:
Slow down sections to help you learn them
Use the inbuilt speed trainer' to master complicated/fast solos
Write your own songs
Play along with the backing instruments
I chose the five above because I feel they can have the biggest impact on your development. Obviously there are countless more tools out there and you should use as many different tools as you can. As explained above, every tool will help you in different ways so the more tools you can use the better. Don't think that if you have the five above that they will do everything for you.
The good thing is pretty much every piece of gear for guitar is a learning tool in one way or another. For example what does a capo teach you? It can teach you how to figure out transposition and try out new keys. What about a slide? A slide can teach you to listen (I mean really listen) to the pitch of the notes you are playing. The main point is that by using these tools you get a new way to develop your skills. On the other hand, by not using these tools you miss out on simple shortcuts that make it easier to learn them. When it comes to educational tools (eg: books, DVDs etc.) don't hold back these are so important because they will help you understand what you are playing. You can play a million exercises until you're blue in the face but unless you understand what you are doing you won't develop properly.
Aaron writes lessons and articles over at Tempo Music Cards.com which provides beginners with a range of learning resources including flash cards to help you learn the basics on guitar.