Rock on with Soundslice, no sheet music required

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 16, 2012

From The News Desk

You don't have to know how to read music to make music. Some of the most famous guitarists – think Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen – couldn't read a lick of sheet music but were able to shred the hell out of their guitars. This same principle can apply to novice guitar players who might not be able to make sense of musical notation but are able to learn via other methods. Some learn by ear, others learn by looking up tabs.

Represented by a bunch of dashes and numbers that look like gibberish at first glance, tabs are a visual representation of notes and chords that offer an alternative to sheet music for people who have no idea what in the hell a treble clef looks like. Unfortunately, tabs aren't an ideal solution – they're often hard to interpret and laborious to create.

That's where Soundslice, which launched yesterday, comes in. A side project developed by Adrian Holovaty, one of the "benevolent dictators for life" behind Django, a Web development framework, Soundslice reimagines the guitar lesson by combining video lessons with a newly-designed interface that cuts the crust inherent to text-based tabs. Its tools are meant to make reading and transcribing songs less frustrating by providing dedicated tools instead of relying on antiquated hacks.

Holovaty worked on Soundslice for three years as his "occasional nighttime project" while building EveryBlock, a neighborhood news site that sold to in 2009. He has played the guitar since he was a teenager, and says that he was often asked for the tabs he used to play a song in one of his many YouTube videos. Cue the stress of transforming a series of notes into a bunch of dashes and numbers.

After spending an hour transcribing a song, Holovaty says, he would often get frustrated when he came back a week later and had no idea what he was looking at. "There's a difference between seeing the notes, knowing the placement of the notes and the time, and how long they should last," he says, so he combined the audio and visual cues of a video with the granularity of guitar tabs to build what he says is a better solution.

Soundslice originally worked with audio files, but Holovaty says that this opened the service up to copyright problems. By working with YouTube, which is already chock-full of covers of and tutorials covering popular songs, Soundslice should be in the clear. This could also help users who want to see how a chord looks when it's played or have difficulty visualizing the way their fingers should dance on the frets during a solo.

Of course, how-to videos aren't particularly groundbreaking. Search for "How to play 'Stairway to Heaven'" on YouTube and 33,000 videos pop up, and other companies – like, say, Mahalo – offer even more options. Guitar tabs aren't new either, with sites like UltimateGuitar offering multiple tabs for many popular songs.

The bit that makes Soundslice different is the way these elements work together. Soundslice plays the video and runs the tab in unison, allowing users to learn exactly what sound the author was transcribing during each portion of a song. Compare this to watching a YouTube video and then trying to scroll through a tab (which gets old quickly, believe me) and it's easy to see Soundslice's appeal.

Musical purists might argue that it would be better to learn how to read sheet music, but Holovaty says that tabs can often offer information that sheet music lacks, like which string a note should be played on.

"My sense is that it's totally fine to not read music," he says, "and of the guitarists that I know, [the ones with] the ability to read music are by far the exception."

Learning to play a song shouldn't be hard. The ability to read a sheet of music shouldn't act as a barrier to entry for those who want to express themselves with their instruments. Even if Soundslice doesn't produce the next Jimi Hendrix, the service is making it easier for novices and intermediate guitar players alike hit the right notes.