I recommend that my students record their lesson, at least the songs we're working on. The world of handheld recorders is something that changes very rapidly and I have to update my recommendations regularly. The days of cassette tapes is pretty much gone and good ridance! The latest technology that I have removed from this page is the mini-disc player. we now are in an age where recorders need no discs, need no moving parts to wear out and can upload files to a computer.
Smart Phones: These are the best options for recording lessons, I think, if you already have one. Surprisingly good quality on most of them, and it's always around.
Flash MP3 Players: Often called voice recorders, these have been around for a while now and are quite popular for those who don't have smart phones. You will need to use your computer for off-loading the files when it fills up. Models and prices change quickly, so I can't recommend specific models. The sound is fine for lessons, but you wouldn't want to use it for concerts.
If you'd like a higher end recorder, the Zoom H2 ($180) is my recommendation. This recorder makes great sounding recordings. It comes with a 512 mb SD card, amd the files can be uploaded to your computer. It makes .wav or mp3 files. It's also a great recorder for concerts or band practices. It has no built in speaker, so you need to plug it into your stereo or upload the files to your computer for playback.
iPod users: iPods have had microphone attachment options for quite some time, but these have had severe recording limitations making them almost unusable. However, Belkin's new TuneTalk mic attachement for the video iPod is very high quality and extremely easy to use. If you have a video iPod or an iPod classic, this is a no-brainer at $60. For iPhone users, you simply need to download an inexpensive recording app to turn your phone into a great voice recorder.
iReal b: This program is mainly for iPhones or Android phones, and it's cheap ($7 - $10). It provides chords for practicing along with. You can enter your own songs or dowload from other users at the iReal b forum. Much like the early version of Band-In-A-Box (see below) it lets you change keys and tempos. With piano bass and drums, it's not exactly a string band, but unlike my accompanists, it
never gets tired AND never gets drunk. It does also come in PC and Mac versions, though it's more like $30 for that.
Band-In-A-Box: This is the original computer program for the Mac or PC that plays chords
along with you as you practice your songs. It's about $80 and has been so overloaded with features through the years, it's more than you really need. I've uploaded about 150
fiddle tunes to save you the typing, but I've recently switched over to iReal b, so don't expect more files from me.
Slow Down software: For
learning from recordings, many students like to slow down
the music. You can do this from the Windows Media Player 9
or higher. There is a menu item called "enhancements"
and a selection "play speed setting" that, when
checked, allows slower speeds (up to half speed) to be selected
without changing pitch. There is a dedicated program called
that will also slow down music with much more control than
the Windows Media Player. It also allows you to change the
pitch so you can fine tune old recordings for play along,
and it has a Karaoke feature that mostly removes the vocals
so you can hear backup instruments better. It works on both
Windows and Macs and you can save the files with all the changes.
Listening: Spotify is a streaming music service that legally allows users to play specific songs and has an amazing collection of bluegrass and old-time (and anything else!) It's free with commercials and $5 - $10 for premium features. If you're just looking up and listening to specific songs you'll probably never hear a commercial. One of the first amazing streaming music sites is Pandora. This service basically designs a personal radio station (via your computer or smart phone) just for you, based on what artists and songs you like. They call it the Music Genome Project and it's a bit complex what the staff there does, but suffice it to say, if you put in Ralph Stanley as the parameter for your own station, it'll play music all day long (for free!) that sounds like Ralph's kind of bluegrass. Pretty incredible, especially if you're somewhat new to all this and want to hone in on what you do and don't like.
Unless you have a program like Band-In-A-Box, you'll want
a Metronome. Steady timing
is probably the hardest thing to achieve in music. Metronomes
have been used for over a hundred years to this end. Also,
they allow you to measure your progress as you increase tempo
over time, so you don't have to guess whether you're getting
faster or not. I prefer electronic metronomes, because they're
louder and you don't have to set them perfectly level, unlike
the wind-up, pendulum type. But there are some electronic
ones that aren't loud enough for fiddles and banjos, so check
them out first!