COTA: Learn-to-play website taps into instinctive desire to learn guitar

In sixth grade, I had the insight to realize that girls love musicians. So when the time came to sign up for music at school, I quickly raised my hand and declared my intent to play guitar.

“That’s great,” said Mrs. Bonham, as she handed me a violin. “Start with this.”

Fast forward a few more years than I care to count and I still have that itch to learn to play guitar. It’s true that I’m still motivated in part by a quest to impress girls, but they’re now limited to my wife and children.

I’ve heard stories of people learning to do all kinds of things by watching Youtube videos. I tried this method with my guitar but it didn’t work well for me. I grew discouraged as my dreams of slashing cool riffs on my axe began to fade. (See? Two years in and I don’t even have the lingo down yet.)

So it was with this foundation that a friend casually mentioned that Instinct ( was “blowing his mind” with its interactive guitar lessons. After spending some time with it, I can confirm it’s a bit of a mind-blowing experience.

With the tag “Learn Guitar, Love Guitar,” Instinct aims to make playing music as natural as singing it, because “playing music is one of the most natural things a human can do.”

The site was created by two guys who, when they were learning to play, wanted something to show where to put their hands, something to make the notes visual. They wanted something that would provide feedback as they played and divide difficult songs into smaller chunks to help them master the pieces as part of the whole. Outside of sitting down with a private teacher, that experience just didn’t exist.

Thanks to Instinct, it does now.

As I write this, it’s difficult to put into words how this works, mainly because it feels like magic. When you log in to the site on your computer, you’re presented with a simple animated screen showing the front of a guitar and a sheet of simple notes above.

The first step is to tune your guitar. By using the built-in microphone, Instinct “listens” to the notes you play and provides instant feedback. The simplicity of the process sets the tone for all that comes next.

Once you’re tuned, your “teacher” explains what you’re going to do next, then shows you, then listens while you play each note. You’ll run through practice a few times before moving on to the next section of the song.

I was playing “Amazing Grace” in about 30 minutes.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. After two years of fits and starts, when all I really wanted was the ability to pluck out a few notes, I learned to do it in less than an hour.

Does this make me Eric Clapton? No. Does it provide enough gratification that I just might continue working on it? Absolutely.

From “Amazing Grace,” you move through seven other lessons while building a better foundation for your new skills. By the end, you’ll know the “Mexican Hat Dance” and some of “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

When you’re comfortable with both your guitar and the coursework, you can move on to the next lesson, “The Year in Rock.” Here you are taught a skill you’ll need, like Single String Blues, then have it reinforced with more lessons, including ones uploaded by other users.

This is not a panacea; much to my chagrin, I probably won’t have Oscar Lopez shaking in his boots at my guitar skills. But there is a growing book of material here to become comfortable and proficient, and the rest is up to me (and you).

Instinct claims, “With this technology, you’ll become a musician—faster and more easily than anyone has before.” I think it’s on to something.

I’m planning a jam session at my house on Father’s Day. The girls will be so impressed.•


Cota is president and co-founder of Rare Bird Inc., a marketing communications firm specializing in Internet application development. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at

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