Sequencers: The  Secret Sauce of Music Instruction

The Three Types Of Sequencers

Sequencers are music playback machines which can create a fun, often completely novel and real world environment for music students.  A very common type of sequencer can be found in consumer level keyboards, like the ones in department stores that automatically play MIDI files for well-known songs.  A sequencer does not play sound recording or an audio file, it essentially plays on-board or external synthesizers(s) to re-create the song anew with each press of the play button.

  • Sequencing Keyboards

My Old Sequencing Keyboard, A Roland D20, I loved it!

In the old days of sequencers I brought pro level synthesizers which always had some sequencer on board and usually loaded with lots of loops and drum tracks. This setup enables someone to record a bass line or rudimentary set of chord changes with a good solid grove and use these recordings (MIDI files) for purposes of practice, instruction or performance.  The big problems were the user interface – the cryptic little screens on the devices and a steep learning curve.  In retrospect, it really wasn’t very much capability, and didn’t really sound good by today’s standards, but at the time it was a home run.

  • Dedicated Sequencing Machines

My Old School Sequencers Made A Lot Of Gigs And Lessons Possible -note the small screens and scary interface

Later, companies began to make small boxes that combined a sequencer, drum machine, synthesizer and all kinds of pre-made,  pre-loaded songs that could be sequenced (played anew by an internal computer) and played back through an amplifier or PA system.  Again, for purposes of practice, instruction or performance it was as if a new day had dawned because every year these things began to sound better and better. Unfortunately however, the cryptic little user interface screens and difficulties in learning the machines were still there or getting worse and even more confusing.

  • Sequencing Software

BAND IN A BOX -non compensated endorsement

Software makers also created options for using a separate synthesizer, synthesizer module or small internal synthesizer found in your computer to enable you to use that computer and its speakers as a sequencer.   For my money, the only choice in this area is a program called Band in a Box published by PG music.

In my studio, my computer is hooked up to a nice little PA system that I use to simulate real-world playing situations for my students using Band in a Box.  Having a realistic and convincing virtual band to practice improvising, rhythm guitar and even songwriting and theory with makes teaching music very experiential and more meaningful and memorable.

The great thing about Band in a Box is that you can type a set of chord changes into a virtual lead sheet and the software will play those chord changes back with the sound of a full band in just about any style you could think of. If the parts generated or a little busy, funny, or too MIDI file sounding,  strip a few of them away like the strings, or the fake guitar and you will almost always get a convincing accompaniment track.


The virtual lead sheet you created has a cursor that moves in real time across the chords as they are being sounded. This is great for jazz guitar students who are trying to learn not get lost in the changes and to play to play with the chord, playing more meaningful solos instead of simply buzzing one scale.

Finally when writing songs with band in a box you can explore different options, new keys, different cadences, different harmonic rhythms and a variety of other options simply with a mouse click.  All of these changes are reflected on your computer screen in a form of virtual lead sheet. To me this means I can get more involved in the act of, in the art of instruction and encourage good musical thinking as opposed to having to play everything on the keyboard or piano and provide instruction over that very same playing. Using sequencers modernizes and streamlines my workflow by creating a real world and convincing musical environment whenever I need one.  Below is a  Band in a Box file i made and turned into a YouTube video (for home study, after the lesson), the animated play along screen is not the normal  Band in a Box environment, but a special one used in the video.

Using Music Technology To Make Guitar Lessons Fun, Interesting & Profitable

Music education and modern technology are a match made in heaven.  Way back in the early days of music programs and apps, (when computers were slow and lacking essential music specific components) I was experimenting with lots of music education, ear training, transcribing and recording programs which I had access to as a student at the world renowned Berklee college of music. I was fascinated by all these new learning approaches and by the progress I was making in key areas such as reading, transcribing and ear training that I was struggling with. Granted, this was in the late 1980’s and you really had to be determined to get those old-school computer things to work. Nowadays it’s a completely different story as most gadgets and programs not only interface beautifully but yield huge payoffs while being easy to learn and use.

Music Notation Programs

A music notation program is essentially the Microsoft Word of music, there are many but the one that I use is called Finale -it was really the first company in the space and in my opinion it’s an essential tool. There are those who would argue for other platforms so I encourage you to make your own choice but I strongly recommend Finale.

For me a music notation program is essential because it allows me to provide students with high quality, subject specific and accurate transcriptions of their lesson material and repertoire pieces that I have complete control over, since I make them myself.  The work can be time-consuming but you will quickly amass a nice collection of high-quality reusable lesson plans that will prove to be a time saver in the end.

As guitar teachers we constantly encounter students who have difficulty learning, or simply don’t want to learn to read music. I counteract this problem by constantly prosecuting the case of musical literacy using a process that I liken to reverse engineering.  When a student expresses an interest in a particular guitar tune or lick I make or provide an accurate transcription of that music, including tablature, for use as a lesson plan.  Most students are very interested to see what their favorite songs look like written out properly, this approach works like a dream for rhythm guitar notation especially because we don’t have the added burden of finding notes, were just talking about the figures but that is a very good way to open the door to more serious discussions of reading music on the guitar. Aside from that having high quality transcriptions of all lesson material inspires confidence and adds to credibility, below is an example of a famous rhythm guitar part that I have used as a teaching tool.


As an unexpected benefit, you also get paying students who actually want to learn to use the software because finale is a central and wonderful tool but does come with a learning curve.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

A DAW is a program that allows you to create and record music using a computer. It’s like a huge bad-ass tape recorder with the ability to edit and manipulate practically anything you could think of, and much more.  If you go for the top-of-the-line, it will take years to learn to use it and the cost may well be prohibitive.  Fortunately, the entry-level programs are amazing, intuitive and, with an incredible level of functionality that eclipses the finest recording studios of only 20 years ago. The one that I recommend for use in guitar lessons is GarageBand, which comes free with any Apple Computer. If you use a PC, I recommend Sony Acid -both programs are easy, intuitive and fun being based on using loops, small bits of pre-programmed music are passages recorded by you.

These types of programs make the process of figuring out guitar licks and teaching ear training more effective and enjoyable because of the workflow they create by allowing you to isolate, slow down and repeat difficult passages with ease.  This works especially well for fast are complicated guitar solos because it seems to demystify the process of creating interesting solos by reducing the work to manageable and understandable chunks.

The number one use of the DAW is of course creating recordings of your student’s ideas, songs and arrangements. By introducing recording projects as part of your guitar lesson not only will you retain students longer, you will be providing, with a richer and deeper lesson experience because you are teaching them to listen to themselves, teaching them to create things, teaching them to find themselves.  As you may imagine students and parents alike love this process and are excited to receive the finished products.

You will find it the proper application of music technology will not only add an air of credibility and professionalism to your teaching services, they will become more profitable, effective, interesting and enjoyable.  The days of scribbling in a students empty manuscript book are long gone.