Fifteen-year-old Joe Hospodor parts his hair like Gregory Peck and plays surf music on an old-fashioned Telecaster guitar. This retro-minded teenager from Los Gatos, California, says he admires the Pink Floyd legend David Gilmour, but draws the line at Green Day: "I detest Green Day."
At 12, he told his father, Andy, a computer engineer and skilled guitarist, that he didn’t want to continue basic guitar lessons with him at home. The turning point? "I saw my dad reading tab one night,” Joe said. By his own admission, Joe is now "deep into tab” downloaded off the Internet.
Tablature, or "tab,” isn’t standard musical notation, but sheet-music-like diagrams that allow a guitar player who can’t read music to learn a chord, a solo line or an entire song. In tab, horizontal lines represent not a musical staff but the six strings of a guitar, and each note is indicated by a number on one of those six lines, representing the fret at which to play a given note on each string through the course of a song. (Chords are represented by clusters of fret numbers.)
Tabs are now a controversial part of online guitar learning, with music publishers threatening copyright lawsuits to shut down sites offering unauthorized (and often inaccurate) transcriptions of songs. But the proliferation of tablature is only a small part of a largely online revolution in musical instruction. From the real-time animated guitar fretboard of workshoplive.com to the truefiretv.com on-demand guitar lessons to the animated courses of Berkleemusic.com, students are increasingly able to forgo formal lessons in favor of a la carte online instruction with as little or as much human interaction as they want.
Online learning exists for many instruments — notably electronic keyboards, which interface well with computers and the Internet — but nowhere does it appear more prevalent than with the guitar. With 3.3 million electric and acoustic guitars sold this year — nearly three times the number just 10 years ago — the guitar is the best-selling instrument in the US. (The growing interest in the guitar no doubt helps explain the wild popularity of a much-noted video on YouTube.com featuring a young Taiwanese guitarist playing an exceedingly difficult rock arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon.)
As informal online learning democratizes the musical experience, it also challenges the norms of musical education and raises questions about creativity itself. Of course a background in musical theory and an ability to read musical notation are preferred skills in all forms of music (though hardly essential in much of pop music). But are they really essential in a world where autodidacts can conceivably create hits on MySpace while holed up alone in their bedrooms with a guitar, a microphone and Apple’s GarageBand software? Similarly, does learning and playing with other musicians matter? Does hybrid learning in cyber-isolation create a tower of Babel with no one speaking the same language? Or does it foster individuality and musical innovation — which, after all, are all about ignoring established conventions?
"You can learn all that stuff on your own sitting in front of a computer or a TV,” said Keith Wyatt, a guitar instructor and director of programs at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, which teaches everything from bass to recording and offers accredited degree and certificate programs. But, he added, "at the end of the day making sense of a torrent of data requires old-fashioned skills like critical thinking, pattern recognition, the understanding of musical structure.”