Fender on its music-learning move: ‘We’re not Guitar Hero’


“This fundamentally changes the nature of how we talk to beginner guitar players. We’ve always sold them guitars and amps, but we’ve never been part of the learning process other than ‘here’s the instrument’. Now we’re saying come back: we’ll teach you how to use it…”

Chances are you know Fender makes guitars and amps, but you may also have spotted the company’s move into music education in July, with the launch of something called Fender Play. It’s a video-based site and app that teaches people to play guitar.

It’s the most ambitious digital move yet for Fender since former Warner Music and Live Nation exec Ethan Kaplan joined the company in September 2015 as its general manager and chief product officer – digital.

Fender Play’s roots lie in a well-known problem in the guitar world, crystallised by a customer survey conducted shortly after Kaplan joined.

“Most people who pick up a guitar will quit within six months. That’s 90% of our first-time buyers, and the first-time community accounts for almost half of what we sell,” he tells Music Ally.

“We have a massive problem in our industry of just basic attrition. But if we can address that, we can start building a lifetime relationship with the customer. It’s about that really challenging first six months.”

Fender Play

Fender also studied some of the existing ways to learn guitar, from in-person lessons – excellent with a good teacher, but often expensive – through to the glut of free videos on YouTube explaining techniques and specific songs.

“They’re a good way to learn for some, but you have to piece together a curriculum for yourself from nothing,” says Kaplan, who adds that Fender also paid close attention to trends in other areas of digital learning, including language-learning.

“A lot of what we’ve done is taking current trends in e-learning – quick, high-quality lessons and a quick path to rewards. For us, the reward is being able to play a song,” he says.

Fender Play is also hoping to woo people to its $19.99-a-month subscription through quality – all its videos are shot in 4K resolution – and personalisation. Anyone who signs up is asked about their preferred instrument and genres, with this information used to plot a ‘learning path’ through the catalogue of lessons.

Kaplan says that the service is tuned to the demands of a new generation of guitar players, reasoning that their digital-entertainment habits may well influence how they expect to learn.

“It’s very easy to be long-winded and teach how to play a song in 45 minutes. It’s harder to be very concise and get it down to 12. But the attention span of the average person is not increasing: there’s always another screen demanding your attention,” he says.

“If we look at how our kids are consuming YouTube content and Twitch, and playing Minecraft and Roblox… My kid is eight, and I watch them bounce between a YouTube video on how to do something, then back into doing it. They don’t like a lot of setup and talking.”

“You can get down to 12-minute lessons if you deconstruct a song. There’s not a lot of fluff in there. Our instructors have personality, but it’s not repartee. These videos need to teach you how to play a song.”

Ethan Kaplan

Some music-learning apps use the microphone of their host device to listen to players and provide feedback on their right (and wrong) notes, often scoring their effort. While Fender has developed chord-recognition, Kaplan says it deliberately steered clear of game-like feedback systems.

“We’re not Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero-type systems teach you how to play a videogame. That removes expression from the mix a bit. There needs to be a balance of the two,” he says.

Instead, Fender’s efforts have gone into a dashboard system for showing people how they are progressing. Like all music edtech startups, the company is tackling psychological issues – how people learn and what makes them abandon an instrument – as much as technological ones.

Fender Play’s emphasis on songs is part of that, with Kaplan remembering his own teenage years learning guitar, working with a teacher who took a by-the-book approach.

“They made me learn all my scales! I just wanted to play a Smiths song. There was a lot of theory and then you’d play a song that you didn’t really like. I mean, I like the Beatles, but I didn’t want to play Hard Day’s Night. I wanted to play How Soon is Now!” he says.

Fender is planning to add “a couple of songs a week” to its catalogue over the course of the year, covering a range of genres rather than just focusing on classic rock.

The company has access to data from its separate Riffstation app, which provides people with guitar, ukulele and piano chords for a range of songs, to inform its decisions about what songs to create lessons for on Fender Play. Kaplan stresses that musical snobbery isn’t welcome in the process.

“I don’t prejudge what is good and what isn’t good to play on guitar. Despacito is the number one song that people are trying to play on RiffStation at the moment. It has a chord progression and a melody. If somebody wants to pick up an acoustic and play a rendition of that or I Can’t Feel My Face by The Weeknd, I’m not going to question that,” he says.

“If you look at things like America’s Got Talent, what people are doing is reinterpreting music. So for us, to constantly say ‘no, guitar is only the instrument for guitar music’, you’re limiting yourself.”

“EDM DJs use guitars as a compositional element. James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem is an amazing guitarist, and you hear that in the mix: he uses guitar as a colour and compositional tool. So does Skrillex and so does Jay-Z. I don’t judge what people should and shouldn’t play.”

Fender Play

This attitude extends to Fender Play’s focus on expression as much as on proficiency, with Kaplan keen to ensure the latter doesn’t dominate at the expense of the former.

“The guitar has been an instrument of expression more than an instrument of proficiency since it was created. Not that proficiency is bad, but Joe Strummer used it as a hammer, and he made some of the most socio-politically impactful music over the last 40 years,” he says.

“I’ve seen guitars used in ways that are… unholy! I’m not saying I’ll teach you how to play guitar with a violin bow and you’ll sound like Sigur Ros. But we want to make sure we make our curriculum inclusive. It’s one of the biggest things our industry’s had a problem with sometimes.”

Publishing relationships are key to a service like Fender Play, and Kaplan says that the licensing process has been fairly smooth thus far. Partly because the compositional-sync licences required aren’t a struggle, and partly because of Fender’s brand opening doors.

“There will be more relationships with publishing coming. There is sheet music to come for example,” says Kaplan. “But we’re a really good brand doing this for the right reasons, we’re not a cynical play, a startup-type thing.”

“We believe in teaching people to play, and that will strengthen the creative side of the business. It’s great discovering new bands, but there are no new bands to discover if people don’t feel they can pick up an instrument and play it.”

Fender has not yet published any figures for the number of paying subscribers to Fender Play, but Kaplan is optimistic about its subscription-based business model.

“People pay for not being frustrated. That’s basically the root of it,” he says, poking fun at some of the varying quality found in free videos on YouTube.

“I’ve seen video content where the first thing in the frame is the guy’s bare foot! There’s value in consistency and value in quality, and in the execution and the collection, and how things come together,” he says.

All this is geared towards fulfilling Fender’s aim of more guitars being in people’s hands rather than gathering dust in a corner. Kaplan says that the sense of a community will be key to this, as will Fender Play’s ability to keep people motivated by their progress.

“Fender Play is a platform for learning, but it’s also a club: a club that you’re joining to be a part of something. That’s one of the things that’s missing sometimes: if you’re in something alone, it can be hard to motivate yourself,” he says.

“This isn’t about watching videos of people who are much better than you’ll ever be either. It’s not about becoming a rock god. If you know G, A and D there’s 5,000 songs you can play just with those three chords. If you know those, the world is out there for you…”

Written by: Stuart Dredge