Growing up, I pretty much riffed my way through most instruments. I would plunk at my piano non-stop, trying to coax some sort of music from the hammers and wire, though I knew no real songs. With my guitar, it was much the same. I had about eight basic chords mastered, but had no songbooks to practice from or teachers to correct me.
Well, riffing might make for some fun afternoon idling as a kid, but it doesn’t really help when you’re trying to learn how to play an 80s rock hit. For that, you need a songbook—or the next best thing:
Ultimate Guitar Tabs.
Drawing from the popular website of the same name, Ultimate Guitar Tabs is a gigantic collection of crowd-transcribed guitar chords, tabs, and lyrics for just about any modern song you can name. It boasts over 800,000 songs in its catalog—more than you could sing in all the jam sessions of your life.
The basic premise of Guitar Tabs is simple: Search for a song, and choose whether you want to play chords, tabs (the notes/fingerings of a guitar solo), bass, or ukelele. As these transcriptions are user-submitted, often there will be multiple options for one song; these are each given a 1-5 star rating by other users on their reliability and good sound, so you end up with the most accurate tab possible. (For the best tab, you might still want to buy the songwriter’s paper score, but most user-submitted tabs are excellent.)
Once you choose a song, you’ll see the user’s transcription along with chords used; you can tap on a chord to see its variations up and down the guitar, ukelele, or bass (in case, for example, you love playing barre chords over open ones). There are a whole bunch of options you can turn on along the top row—some of which require in-app purchases—including the metronome, automatic tab formatting for the iPhone screen, printing, Tabs Pro (sort of like Guitar Hero for real songs), buying the track through iTunes, transposing the song, full-screen mode, and saving it for offline play.
Of that big long list, I particularly like the last three. Automatic chord transposing is fantastic when you’re a girl who wants to belt a rock song written for a lower register, while full-screen mode also includes a “play” option that automatically scrolls the tabs and lyrics for you as you strum, so that you don’t have to fiddle with your device. And offline play is great for campfire evenings where there’s nary a cell signal to be found.
The app’s also gotten nicer-looking and more streamlined over the years—when I first picked up Ultimate Guitar Tabs, it crashed semi-regularly and had a nigh-unreadable interface; now, it sports the cool, accented tones of iOS 7 and the only crashing you’ll see involves rocking out to a great song. It’s an excellent little tool for string musicians to pick up, especially if you’re jamming with friends and want to look up some chords on the fly.