How Fender Play Taught One Man How to Rock Again

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2000: Photo of GUITAR and FENDER STRATOCASTER and Eric CLAPTON; Eric Clapton's hybrid Fender Stratocaster "Blackie" - still life, studio
 Photo by Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

After dusting off my guitar and spending 20 minutes with Fender Play, I learned my first new riff in years. Ten more and I picked up another and nearly a whole song. When it was time to make dinner, I wasn’t excited about the meal: I was stoked to get back to my laptop to see what’s next.

Fender Play, for the uninitiated, is the venerable guitar maker’s digital instruction platform. It’s anchored by short, easily-digestible videos (think chunking) that veer away from traditional theory-centered lessons in favor of getting users playing songs as quickly as possible. That instant gratification of playing something you recognize is crazy addictive.

My 16-year-old self knew he would one day be a guitar god. The trouble was, of course, I never took lessons. My mother encouraged me to find a teacher. But my teenage self was far too punk rock to hear that noise.

I kept playing a little here and there through college. But after I graduated, I quickly parted with my ’78 Les Paul for a song and used the proceeds to pick up the Leica I’d use for a good portion of my career as a photographer.

A rather lengthy hiatus ensued, but a few years back, on a half-baked whim, I decided I should take up the guitar again. So, down I went to the now-gone Ludlow Guitars and bought a Fender Jazzmaster. But then, my total lack of work-life balance ensured I was never going to be able to make it to the lessons. So, I hung my new axe on the wall and that was that. I would pick it up here and there, but the experience was stagnant: same chords, same songs, more than a decade on.

But in the first two months of using Fender Play, this old dog has picked up a few new tricks. The short, video-based lessons allow the flexibility to grab your guitar for a few minutes and absorb a single lesson—or plow through several in one sitting if time allows.

Once registered for Fender Play, users choose from five paths; Rock, Blues, Folk, Country and Pop. After indicating electric or acoustic guitar, the player is presented with a progressive set of lessons that build from basic technique to riffs and songs in tablature to skills exercises for the more advanced players that keep the program relevant as you develop as a player. “People should never stop learning or refining their playing ability,” Ethan Kaplan, general manager of Fender Digital, told Men’s Journal. “While the song lessons are beginner oriented, within the product there are exercises, chord instruction, technique instruction and the like that should appeal to players of all levels.”

It’s especially useful for new guitar users, 90% of whom quit in the first six months. “While our industry is healthy, the biggest issue we face is abandonment,” Kaplan said. “We need to help players through this time period, both through lessons as well as other products we made at Fender Digital, such as our app-based guitar tuner.”

Fender also wants to ensure Play won’t be a static series, offering frequent updates to the platform. “We’re rolling new songs out pretty much on a weekly basis,” Kaplan said. “Besides that, we continue to evolve the product with more lessons and exploring more genres. We are also on the pulse of new artists album and single releases and music culture to see what people want to hear and learn.”

The courses play on your laptop, tablet or phone and will run you $9.99 a month, which is less than half of a single lesson with an IRL instructor. The lessons are easy to follow and easy to repeat if you get hung up.

I’m nowhere near fulfilling my teenage rock star dreams. But its only been two months. Let’s see what happens in another two.