If you’re new to all of this, you should acquaint yourself with the ways in which technology can help. Here’s my rundown of useful tools (that can change over time)
Recording your lesson
I recommend that my students record their lesson, at least the songs we’re working on. Smart phones are the best options for recording lessons if you already have one. Surprisingly good quality on most of them. iPhones come with a voice recorder app, Android phones owners need to download one – many are free. And since we’re talking smart phones, a good metronome app is essential. I use Tempo on my iPhone and it works great. Of course stand alone metronomes are available too.
Other Software for Students
Metronomes: Steady timing is probably the hardest thing to achieve in music. Metronomes have been used for over a hundred years to this end. Once again, if you have a smart phone, you’re in luck – I use an app called Tempo on my iPhone and it works great. Of course, stand alone metronomes are available too – just make sure it’s loud enough! There is also a very cool phone app called liveBPM that will continuously measure the speed you are playing or any recordings you listen to. Kind of a reverse metronome.
Strum Machine This is a really easy to use web-based bluegrass app that plays simple guitar, bass and mandolin backing tracks. You can change tempos and keys and it has a database of most common bluegrass songs already there. And you can add your own too. Only $5 per month and well worth it.
iReal Pro: 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 download 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.
Slow Down software: For learning from recordings, many students like to slow down the music. I use a dedicated program called Transcribe!. It 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. $50. Also popular, with the most of the same features is The Amazing Slowdowner, which has a smart[hone version.
Listening: Spotify and Apple Music are the two largest music streaming services with lots of the old bluegrass recordings. My Really Good Bluegrass Lyrics book has a Spotify playlist that you can access which will allow you to get familiar with jam session repertoire. YouTube is a great place to find songs and it even features the option to slow down the video – great for learning. It also has a surprising number of backing tracks.
Updated October 5, 2019