The closest I came to playing a musical instrument was a few years of piano lessons when I was in grade school. But ... I was in grade school...

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The closest I came to playing a musical instrument was a few years of piano lessons when I was in grade school. But … I was in grade school! I wanted to play outside, not sit in front of a piano.

I regret it now, of course. The best I can do on the piano is play (one-handed) a bit of “The Entertainer” and the main themes of “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Therefore, I’ve been just a music listener for most of my life. When Apple Computer introduced GarageBand as part of iLife ’04, however, I thought I’d explore music performance again. Not with a piano, though.

I needed an electric guitar.

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One of GarageBand’s signature features is its collection of guitar amp simulators. Plug in an electric guitar, and you can make it sound like you’re rocking in 1960s London or on a 1980s stadium tour.

Birth of a Prodigy: I didn’t know the first thing about guitars, except that you strum with one hand and mysteriously hold strings down with the other. A visit to the Experience Music Project museum ( lit a spark of interest: In one hands-on exhibit, by putting my fingers where the lights appeared on the guitar’s fret board, I was able to play “Louie Louie.” Me, playing music!

A professional musician friend of mine lent me one of his old guitars, I bought an inexpensive Behringer Eurorack UB502 pre-amp to boost the signal into my PowerBook (otherwise it’s too faint going directly into the line-in port), and I launched GarageBand.

For one brief moment, I hoped that I’d pick up the guitar, strap it comfortably over my shoulder, and connect with it immediately. The chords would come naturally, the finger placement would solidify as I strummed my way through a few songs (without sheet music, of course, which I can barely read), and I wouldn’t have to suffer through the whole learning and practicing stages. Who knew I’d been a guitar prodigy all this time?

Of course, I’m not a prodigy. I made some really impressive noise, especially with GarageBand’s British Invasion and Arena Rock amp settings, a curtain of fuzz and the threat of more volume masking my ineptitude. It turns out that this guitar playing thing is, like, hard, man.

Birth of a Realist: I wasn’t crazy about taking actual guitar lessons, for fear of being stuck in a little room with an old acoustic guitar and repetitions of “Frère Jacque.” I also wanted the freedom to learn at my own pace, and on my own schedule. So, I installed Guitar Method 3.0 ($60), software instruction for Mac and Windows by Seattle company eMedia Music (

Guitar Method was exactly what I needed. The application itself isn’t fancy — it’s evolved from a HyperCard stack years ago — but it walked me through the basics, from how to hold the guitar to where to put my fingers.

What I appreciate is that Guitar Method is very visual. When learning a new chord, numbered circles on a fret board diagram represent which fingers are used to hold down the strings.

The program also takes advantage of multimedia elements. Click a chord diagram to hear it played so you can hear if your own playing matches it. Each of the strumming exercises includes an audio icon that plays the song.

Another helpful feature is a 3-D fret board above the main window that also indicates finger positioning as the song is played, along with which strings are open (played) or left untouched. This image can also be reversed for left-handed players or shown upside-down to see the positioning from a front-on view.

Lots of video clips are also scattered throughout the lessons, offering more feedback; it’s extremely helpful to watch someone playing to see how they move their fingers from one chord to another, made even more effective by providing a split-screen view that focuses on the finger work in one screen and the whole performer in the other.

One distraction for me, however, is the program’s legacy: Guitar Method was designed in the System 7 days, and many of the diagrams lack adequate color. In the diagrams, it’s often difficult to differentiate open and unplayed strings, because you’re looking at thin lines that are either gray, black, or blue.

Later eMedia products, such as Rock Guitar Method ($40), use more colorful and readable diagrams; the company really should go back and re-do the early ones.

Birth of a Beginner: I won’t pretend that I’m any good at playing guitar yet — I’m not. But I’ve started learning, and am proceeding at my own pace with Guitar Method. I’ve also come to appreciate what a powerful combination something like Guitar Method and GarageBand can be. If I were a kid again with a guitar and a Mac, I probably wouldn’t want to go outside and play in favor of staying inside and developing my music chops.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to More Practical Mac columns at