Apple's iPod and iTunes spawned a purchasing frenzy in the digital music world. Now it's time to give something back. Talking Panda's iRocker can teach you how to make music yourself, using the rocker's instrument of choice: the guitar. If you or someone you know feels like picking up the guitar, iRocker is a good way to learn the fundamentals, although it won't do your practicing for you.
Like most manufacturers, Apple doesn't allow third-party companies to write their own software to run on its line of iPod MP3 players, but Talking Panda uses the same loophole as many other software programs designed for the iPod: the Notes feature, which can be used to present rather complex text documents with navigational links and links to audio samples. Installing iRocker takes over your iPod's Notes directory completely, although we're happy to say that the installer does create a backup folder with your old Notes in it. Once installed, clicking Extras > Notes on your iPod takes you to iRocker's menu. There's no technological copyright protection, so once you unzip the installer, you can put iRocker on any additional iPods you might own in the future (the license agreement prohibits redistributing the software).
When you first launch iRocker, you get an instructional text introduction to the program, which teaches you how to read tablature notation so that you'll be able to play the chords and scales covered in further sections. Then it's time to tune your guitar. The Guitar Tuner feature gives you accurate tones for the standard guitar tuning, plus eight alternate tunings. You click each open string on your iPod's screen to hear an acoustic guitar play that note through your headphones or your speakers (whatever your iPod is connected to). Then you can tune each of the strings on your guitar to match those--fairly self-explanatory.
Virtual Chordbook is the meat and potatoes of the iRocker app. Using a clever ASCII-ish depiction of a fret board (don't worry, it looks good--see the image below), iRocker shows you where to put each finger in order to create each chord. It doesn't take you into upper positions but includes 12 chords for each note: major, minor, seventh, suspended, diminished, ninth, and so on. That makes 144 in all, although Talking Panda counts them as "more than 200," probably because it counts A sharp as different from B flat, even though they're the same.
Clicking the iPod's center button plays an audio sample of the chord displayed on your iPod's screen. iRocker first plays the chord one note at a time, then as one full strum, which is helpful. Miss it? Just click the center button to hear it again. Our only gripe here is that you have to wait a second or two before the sample plays.
If you haven't understood all of this talk of chords, don't worry--once you start learning them, you'll soon figure out which ones go together. String a few chords into a repeated progression (the Ramones famously never really needed more than three), and you're a songwriter.
Playing melodies or soloing as a lead guitarist requires a grasp of scales, and iRocker comes through, offering clear instructions on how to play scales in five modes: major, minor pentatonic, blues, major pentatonic, and minor. An audio sample of each scale is provided here as well so that you can check whether your version of the scale sounds right.
Once you've mastered the basics, you're ready to jam along with the five included full-length rhythm-guitar tracks, which are labeled by style and starting chord. You can either follow along with the chords or, more likely, try to solo over the backing track. For practicing the timing of your picking and strumming, iRocker also includes a metronome that plays a click track at 10 preset tempos, from 40bpm (beats per minute) to 160bpm.
Talking Panda's iRocker runs on any iPod with a Notes feature (third generation and later). It requires 47.5MB of your iPod's disc space, as well as some commitment on your part. If you're going to use the program only a couple of times, $30 is too much to throw away on iRocker, as it's more than you'd pay for an equivalent beginner's guide at your local music store. That said, paper guides can't play chord samples over your stereo. If you're willing to put in the necessary time to learn the basics, Talking Panda's iRocker is worth the money.