Instinct: Learn to shred straight from your browser

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 12, 2012

From The News Desk

The guitar is a bedeviling instrument. After years spent listening to 80s metal, watching VH1 (back when it played music), or playing Guitar Hero, the idea that becoming a guitar god required little more than type pants and a penchant for sunglasses starts to dig into your brain, convincing you that the only thing standing between you and greatness is an actual guitar.

And then you try to strum your first chord and the whole world comes crashing down. As it turns out, a guitar needs to be tuned, your fingers need to be able to contort in new and fantastic ways, and "Stairway to Heaven" is more than just the "blue-blue-blue-green-orange-red" seen in videogames. Instinct is launching today to bridge the gap between those hair metal delusions and reality.

Founded by Blake Jennelle and Brian Stoner and based in New York, Instinct is a browser-based app that "listens" to a user's guitar playing and grades their progression through a series of lessons. The company, which has raised a small seed round and plans to raise more in the future, saw some 24,000 people sign up through its landing page, and a private beta allowed some of those prospective users to log on and put Instinct through its paces.

Instinct was born out of Jennelle's own frustration with learning to play guitar. He says that he saw a number of teachers, which didn't work out, and that online "tab" sites (sites that display a pseudo-graphical look at what a song looks like on the fretboard) weren't the best either. So he and Stoner began working on Instinct, evolving it through a series of in-person product tests where the team watched "hundreds" of people use the service and identify pain points.

Problems like "how do people test this if they don't have a guitar?" for example. Jennelle and Stoner ended up spending "a couple of weeks" building a virtual, HTML5 and JavaScript based guitar to let users who don't have a guitar (or don't have a guitar handy) test the service. Spending a few weeks building a browser-based tool that is meant to be little more than a product demo was deemed worth it, so long as it could introduce people to the service.

Not that Instinct is particularly hard to grasp. The service picks up on a user's playing, converts that into a score-slash-grade, and walks the user through a sample riff via a "South Park" -looking interface. Jennelle says that the interface was designed to appeal to the broadest swath of users possible, forcing the team to break the mold of what "playing the guitar" looks like.

"We noticed that in terms of music learning and guitar products, there are a lot of designs that are really adrenaline based and testosterone-based, and we don't think that that's the best way to learn," Jennelle says. Throwing out devil-horns, screaming above a crowd, and sporting a design laden with skulls and bats may appeal to pubescent males, but Instinct wanted to go a bit further and include, you know, people who don't want to see all of that shit.

Naturally, the hope is that appealing to as many people as possible will allow Instinct to garner more users and encourage people of all backgrounds and skillsets to sign up for the service. Eventually, Jennelle says, he would like for Instinct to morph from an "expert-student" relationship – its current implementation – to a peer-to-peer relationship, encouraging the community to share and learn from one another.

Learning to play the guitar, like everything else, has gone social. Jennelle says that Instinct would like to support full bands in the future, and that the company is rolling out a feature that lets users challenge their friends to see who can play a riff or finish a lesson better. These challenges can be shared to Facebook and Twitter, bringing even more users into Instinct.

Between Instinct and Soundslice, another "learn to play guitar" tool I covered in November, it seems that guitar players will finally be able to use the Web to its full potential to hone their skills. If either service had been around when I was first struggling to learn the instrument my guitar may have made the trip from upstate New York to Brooklyn (maybe to my neighbors' chagrin).

Right now the only worrying thing about these services is the fact that neither is charging users just yet. Despite the wonders of venture capital and the "we can figure out the business plan later" mentality, if a tool is going to become a real foundation of learning and help train a new generation of musicians, it'd be nice to know that it won't go belly-up in a few months.

Besides that fear (which probably won't be shared by many of Soundslice's or Instinct's  users) everything else looks great. Neither Instinct nor Soundslice will transform users into the next "rock god," but they may help teach the basics. A start is a start, however, and I've got a feeling that we're just seeing the beginning of this Web-enabled music learning revolution.