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This is how Fender will get you to dust off your old guitar

Fender's new subscription-based app, launching today, wants to be your new source of guitar lessons. Will its song library make you want to pay?

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Fender Play will have to fend off YouTube, and also IRL instructors.

Danny Zapalac

Most people ditch trying to play a guitar after the first year, according to Fender CEO Andy Mooney. That's the inspiration behind Fender Play, a subscription-based app and teaching platform that's launching today, July 6. At $20 a month, it's trying to gamify the art of rock, and also beat YouTube's free offerings.

I'm not a guitar player. When I sat down to briefly try Fender Play in New York, I was, perhaps, Fender's ideal customer. I only tried one brief lesson, and I ended up learning a simple riff on an acoustic Fender guitar. But I have used plenty of fitness trackers. In a sense, fitness trackers are like guitars: People get them aspirationally. And, eventually, maybe forget about them. The Fender Play app keeps a user profile, adds goals and tracks progress. It has achievements.

Fender Play has lessons in both acoustic and electric guitar, spanning multiple genres. It also licenses well-known songs as the basis for its lessons, from groupls like Foo Fighters to Carrie Underwood. The app has artist and genre search for its catalog of songs, and bookmarks progress over time, but requires LTE or Wi-Fi to use. Fender's video of how it works is below.

The service runs on an iPhone app, or via desktop browser (play.fender.com). It's not cheap, but it's also less than regular guitar lessons -- which, eventually, this service hopes to dovetail with. I'll be trying it out for a month or so to see how the lessons work.

Fender CEO Andy Mooney and Ethan Kaplan, general manager of Fender Digital, talked to CNET about Fender Play during a New York event.

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Fender Play on a laptop.

Danny Zapalac

What were the inspirations for this?

Kaplan: Lynda.com [an online skill-learning website, now part of LinkedIn]. We assembled a council of elders for this, and one was Eric Robison of Lynda. What we learned from Lynda was, there's an infinite amount of instruction on YouTube on how to use Photoshop, but people pay for an organized, high-quality predictive curriculum, where they're not constantly jarred between different instructors, different ways of teaching.

How do you find the balance between theory and trying to play like someone else?

Mooney: The path to learning is so individual. We were talking about this with Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine). Brilliant avant-garde guitar player. Picked up the guitar for the first time, went to his instructor... after two lessons he was out. "I'm done." He says, "I'm going to teach myself, and concentrate on writing songs." So, that's one path. But for other people it's going to be different. We believe that getting people through the first song is the key. We provide them with the path to that, which will require you to learn technique, but we're not going to mandate you to learn all of the technique before you get to the song. If, after learning the song, you become hooked on the techniques, you can go back into the techniques, and there are hundreds of those.

How will this affect music instructors?

Mooney: A lot of the retailers that we deal with that have instructors are concerned about us doing this: Are we competing with them? There's two ways of looking at that: One way is yes, we are, but the other is if we succeed, you'll sell twice as many guitars as you're selling today. Also, we want to develop in the third quarter of next year an instructor's edition of Fender Play, so that an instructor can teach their curriculum, and on Fender Play track the progress of their student online, and make it financially attractive to [the instructors]. We want to reduce the drop-out rate.

Are there parallels between what you're doing and music video games?

Kaplan: We made a point early on, we did not want to make a video game. We don't want to teach you how to play a video game. We want to teach you how to play guitar.

Mooney: The one feature that's relevant there is the rewards system. Gamification.

How do you feel about AR?

Kaplan: I think it's interesting: the Apple ARKit announcement... if my team wasn't so focused on shipping this stuff, they would have all been in it. Guitar, you need to look and see, you can't do VR. AR is certainly interesting. What Apple just shipped is the first real consumer articulation of what it could be.

Mooney: It goes with the sex appeal of music: A lot of those companies want to talk to us. But I think we're a ways away from that.