Two decades ago, my drum teacher Marty told me how jealous he was of my (the millennial) generation. When he learned music, he repeated his favorite drummers’ licks on vinyl records. A sweaty, teenage Marty would wear out 10-second increments of the songs as he struggled to master various rolls, cymbal splashes, and fills.
My generation, on the other hand, could easily play along to our favorite System of a Down fills with earbuds on, looping tough sections on our bricklike iPods. But I’m beginning to feel equivalent tinges of happiness and envy for people beginning to learn (or relearn) instruments today. After more than two decades of formal lessons and a four-year conservatory degree, the results of my research for this guide have me convinced that a good portion of my spendy education could have been substituted with a steady supply of caffeine, a decent iPad, and YouTube.
All this to say: It’s easier than ever to learn how to play an instrument. I’ve asked friends, colleagues, and fellow music nerds for some of their favorite apps, sites, and video channels, and have been astonished to discover an entirely new world of musical tools. Plus, most of it’s free. Now’s quite possibly the best time to dust off that old ax or snag a new one. Interested in something physical to help you? Check out our other guide on the Best Music Gear for Learning an Instrument.
Apps for Learning
The following apps are great tools to help you hone the skills you need to get better at playing an instrument.
Fender’s app-based learning platform is the best we’ve found for beginners, and it’s free for everyone during the pandemic (normally, it’s $10 per month). You pick your instrument (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, or ukelele), then you select the style of music you’re trying to learn. Fender’s experts then provide a series of very well produced video lessons to steadily improve your playing. There are different tiers to ascend to, and everything builds off of something that came before. If you can’t spring for private lessons, Fender Play is the next best thing.
Yousician uses the built-in mic on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop to give you instant feedback while you play. It’s the closest you’ll get to a real-instrument version of Guitar Hero. There are specific lessons for guitar, piano, bass, ukelele, or voice, all of which have a bright and easy-to-follow interface that feels like a videogame. I particularly like the weekly challenges, which reward you for constantly learning new music. It’s worth noting that there is a seven-day free trial, but Yousician does have a subscription cost for premium service.
Soundbrenner, a Metronome App
Every musician should practice with a metronome—the clacky thing that helps you keep a beat perfectly in time. Your grandma probably had an annoying one that actually swung back and forth, but these days I use this free app from Soundbrenner. You can easily program various accents, sounds, and time signatures, and if you ever get the Soundbrenner Core—a nifty vibrating smartwatch that pairs to the app—you’ll already know the interface. Don’t like this one? Just search your respective app store; there are tons of great free options.
Good Tuning Apps
Like metronome apps, you can easily find a good tuner. My favorite is Guitar Tuna (iOS, Android), which integrates with Yousician. It has a simple interface, and it works for all stringed instruments. If you play a horn or other non-stringed instrument, try this chromatic tuner from Piascore (iOS, Android). It’s worth noting you still might want a mechanical tuner for better accuracy.
Learn to Read Scary Notes!
Take it from a drummer who was forced through years of conservatory piano lessons: Reading music can be intimidating. That’s why I love Notes Trainer (iOS), which uses a built-in piano interface to teach you where every note is on the keyboard. It even creates exercises to practice, based on the specific scales or sounds you’re trying to get under your fingers.
Don’t use iOS? Try Sight Reading Trainer (Android). It can actually listen to your piano to make sure you’re playing the right notes.
Find Music Online
Soundslice is a great website that features both music notation software and awesome notated lessons from pros around the globe. You do have to pay for much of the music, but that cash largely goes to the musicians who created the lessons in the first place. For something free, check out Musescore, which has tons of free sheet music for various instruments and can even be used to notate and print your own music. Into jazz and blues classics? Try iReal Pro, which allows you to replace your printed “fake book” (jazz books with tons of music) with a digital version. You can even change the keys of songs quickly, making learning songs around the instrument even easier.
As far as guitar-specific tabs and chord charts go, we like the premium app-based version of Ultimate Guitar, but the ad-soaked interface on the website (and the free app version) is annoying. Still, you’ll find everything there—though some user-submitted tabs are more accurate than others.
Use Shazam to Find New Music
The best way to find the music you want to learn is to use your ears. If you hear a tune you don’t recognize on the radio, or you find yourself somewhere public (rarer these days, but it still happens), and a tune you like comes on, Shazam will help you figure out what it is, so you can try to play it later.
Apps You Play Like Instruments
Mess around and create new music using these playable apps.
Moog Model D
This little app from legendary analog synth company Moog is actually a powerful piece of gear, with a number of awesome preset patches you can use to play along with your favorite music or to write your own. They’re so good, I’ve used them (via a 3.5 mm-to-1/4 inch adapter) on my own studio recordings, with good results.
Roland Zenbeats is a great app for creating beats to jam along with. There are classic Roland-made sounds, like those from the legendary TR-808 drum machine, and you can play and record loops super easily using the touchscreen interface.
This app from Korg starts out as a great grand piano app, but there’s a pretty cool secret under the hood: You can purchase sound kits from many of the company’s other iconic synthesizers for about $20 each, which makes this a great way to test out new keyboards before you actually buy one (or to cheaply and easily get a really cool synth tone on your recordings).
YouTube Channels We Love
From product reviews and interviews with famous musicians to thorough lessons plans, here are some of my favorite YouTube channels for learning various instruments.
Justin Sandercoe is one of the OGs of online guitar lessons and YouTube videos, and it shows. He’s got amazing free material that will take you all the way from tuning up your first guitar to shredding solos over advanced changes. There are dozens of incredibly useful videos, and his upbeat, Australian accent always seems to take some of the stress out of exercises you struggle with.
GuitarLessons is a great resource for learning how to play songs, in addition to having many of the same beginner lessons that JustinGuitar offers. They also have a number of videos telling you what not to do—which can be helpful when you’re first starting out.
With everything frrom gear reviews and lessons to masterclasses with some of the best drummers on earth, Drumeo is an excellent channel for aspiring drummers. Everything is very well produced, and they even have a series of free beginner lessons to get you started.
There are tons of fun lessons on Scott Devine’s bass-focused YouTube channel, but it also has tips-and-tricks videos and even some gear reviews. Consider this a great channel to follow if you want to learn more about every aspect of the world of bass, not just how to play it.
It’s tougher than you might think to find good beginner piano lessons on YouTube, but I’ve enjoyed this one, which offers lessons on everything from how to read sheet music to how to play various styles of piano. I especially like the “Piano quickie” lessons—short videos that give you a quick look into a new technique or idea.
Try Playing With Backing Tracks!
Lately, I’ve been trying to get together my soloing on guitar. Turns out, if you search “play along” and then a key on YouTube, you’re likely to stumble across a mess of great tunes to play along with. The best part of learning music is playing real music! Never practice your scales without a free backing band again.
Apps for Recording and Streaming
For most purposes, using your cell phone’s recording app is the easiest way to listen back to your playing. But it’s possible to record high-quality tracks using certain apps these days.
GarageBand for iPad
GarageBand is a lot more powerful than most give it credit for, especially on an iPad. You can use the app to create beats, record parts, and even mix songs on the fly. Plug in an external microphone and you’ve got one of the most powerful and affordable recording studios available today that’s also portable.
It’s got social media features and a community ecosystem that you might not use, but BandLab has one of the best recording interfaces around. You can autopitch your vocals, add effects, and even tune up inside the app. You can also write down your lyrics between takes and easily upload finished demos to the cloud.
Remote Controllers for Recording Software
If you’ve got a digital audio workstation (DAW, for short), there are often free apps that let you use your iPad or other tablet devices as a controller. I love the Studio One iOS app (my preferred DAW), but there are also great remotes for software like Avid Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic, among others. They can be great ways to help track multiple takes without rushing back and forth to your computer.
I hate to sound like Captain Obvious, but Instagram is a fantastic platform for showing off your music and saving performances for later viewers. If you have a tripod and attachable mic, all the better, but you can simply lean any smartphone or tablet up against something and take a selfie video too—most of your viewers probably can’t tell.
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