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Chordmaster Gets Pickers Grinnin', Strummers Smilin'

By Paul Hartsock MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 14, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Chordmaster Gets Pickers Grinnin', Strummers Smilin'

Chordmaster, a guitar chord guide from Planet Waves, is available for US$1.99 at the App Store. Learning to play the guitar can be extremely easy if all you really want to do is knock out power chords and make some loud noise. There's nothing wrong with that -- some musicians, in fact, really have won fame and glory with little more than three working fingers and an overpowered amp.

However, if you want to actually be good at playing and really understand the instrument, you'll want to tighten your grasp on the myriad tonal relationships and arrangements that a guitar's design makes possible. In other words, you gotta learn them chords.

There are literally thousands of chords that can be played using a guitar's standard tuning, and any given music store should have a variety of reference books available that illustrate how to form them. Chordmaster is a reference guide for the iPhone and iPod touch.

Reference, Not Practice

At first, I was a little let down to see that Chordmaster won't actually let you form and play chords with your own fingers using the iPhone's touchscreen as an almost, sorta-kinda full-sized fretboard. Instead, a shrunken version of a fretboard stays in the lower right-hand corner, surrounded by various controls used to call up different chords. Once you've called up a given chord (G minor 9th, for instance), you can only strum or pick the strings, not move around each individual finger placement to change the sound. So you can't use this as some kind of virtual practice guitar.

Upon further reflection, though, I decided that the idea of dinking around with a cell phone and calling that "practice" would positively horrify just about every music teacher I've ever met. If any instructor from my past happens to be reading this article, I apologize for even entertaining the notion.

Real practice means developing precise muscle memory, and the iPhone isn't exactly the same width or depth as a real guitar neck. Also, some chords can have you stretching your hand much farther than the iPhone's screen can vertically allow. Want to grow rock-hard fingertip calluses that can stand up to an industrial-strength sander? You won't get that from iPhone training.

So it's no disappointment to see that Chordmaster is really just supposed to be a reference guide, something you keep handy while practicing on a real instrument, and it does that job very well. The app advertises over 7,800 different chords. I didn't count, so I can't honestly verify, but its library appears to be very thorough. Rotating selectors at the top let you choose the root, type and variant you want to see, and direction arrows on the side let you see that chord formed in every position up and down the fretboard.

Indicators on the virtual fretboard let you know which fingers go where, which strings are left open, and which aren't played. Along the bottom, each note in the chord is identified, either by name or by interval. Run your fingers across the fretboard to hear what the chord sounds like, or pick individual strings for single notes. Chordmaster even has a lefty mode.

A Shortcut

Essentially, Chordmaster puts a chord handbook on your iPhone. Those handbooks aren't usually expensive, but for two bucks, Chordmaster gives you a comprehensive guide, an easy way to look them up, and a way to hear each chord, not just see it. Not a bad deal at all.

Yet I can hear cries of anguish from a few music teachers out there who still think this is cheating. After all, endlessly flipping through chord books, forming a new chord just right, playing it yourself, and then deciding that no, that's not the sound you were looking for, try another -- that's all part of learning, isn't it?

So perhaps Chordmaster could be regarded as a crutch, a way to shortcut through the discipline of learning by unassisted exploration coupled with fearsome amounts of repetition. But hey, by that rationale, even having a handbook is cheating, since technically you should be able to figure out any chord yourself with the proper application of music theory. Crutches, schmutches -- even Stevie Ray Vaughan had his superglue, right?

Bottom Line

Chordmaster is an easy-to-use and very well-stocked chord guide for guitar players, and it's a few dollars cheaper than even a bargain chord handbook.

Though books don't run out of battery power the way phones do, what Chordmaster puts into your iPhone (all those chords plus their alternate formations as you move up and down the fretboard) would require a handbook hundreds of pages long.

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