A growing number of online sites offer classical guitar instruction. Among the more recent and noteworthy is tonebase.com.
A year ago, I did a review of online sites teaching classical guitar to beginners and I did not include tonebase in the listing. I honestly felt the site, though excellent for intermediate and advanced students, was not suited for rank beginners.
I’ve been in touch with some folks at tone base.com including their co-founder Chris Garwood. They have made some changes in approach and presentation in recent months. I was given full access to the teaching material with the understanding that I was free to write an independent review.
I spent about 8-10 weeks or so figuring out the curriculum there and it is one full of surprises. This review can be of great help to those thinking of studying classical guitar online.
I can say this much safely: If I were to write that earlier article afresh today, there is no way I would omit tonebase from the listing.
Big names in classical guitar to learn from
Fancy some right-hand basics taught by Scott Tennant?
Or daily routine ideas from Pepe Romero?
Mircea Gogoncea, the Head of Guitar at tonebase, mails periodic newsletters to subscribers. His recent one announced interesting ‘fretboard geography’ learning modules taught by none other than leading concert artist Bokyun Byun.
The same newsletter also mentions that Sergio Assad will be joining the Community Challenge party to explore his recent compositions. These are samples. I can’t think of any other learning site with so many accomplished pro players participating in such profusion.
There is Scott Tennant, Laura Snowden, Stephanie Jones, Kevin Kanengiser, Rene Izquierdo and Sabrina Vlaskalic among numerous others who teach the craft. Even leading lights like concert artist Ana Vidavic and composer-player Stephen Goss have performed their teaching roles at tonebase.
True, each of them takes up specific bits of technique or repertoire to help a student along rather than a full-featured course.
But, in all fairness, you don’t expect full time concert artists to draw up comprehensive courses. It is great that they are able to share their knowledge and approach to the guitar in any way they can. And these lessons are well thought out and placed inside a broader curriculum and of a high standard.
This sort of star-led material, hard to ignore for its valuable insider tips and undeniable inspirational quality, appears to be tone base’s explicit intent from the word go. Getting a never-ending array of big names to interact with amateur guitarists feels like tonebase’s unique trademark in online coaching.
“With all of the amazing technology out there,” says co-founder Chris Garwood who dreamt up the idea for the online school while at Yale School of Music with his partner Igor Lichtmann. “It wasn’t right that only a handful of students get to learn from the best teachers at elite conservatories and music schools. Everyone should be able to learn from and be inspired by the best, no matter their current level or musical ambitions. Our goal is to gather the knowledge of great players and pedagogues from around the world and expose users to all of these perspectives.”
There is obviously more to an effective music curriculum than getting famous people to teach snippets. The basic curriculum at tonebase, or learning tracks as they call them, is both solid and versatile.
There are any number of creative paths – sometimes bewilderingly so – that a student can take to further their education. It is a rich and innovative approach to pedagogy for the classical guitar.
Is tonebase right for a classical guitar beginner?
While the student is encouraged to find his or her way through technique, repertoire and fundamental skills through multiple resources, there is also a hard-and-fast, fixed curriculum for the total novice to the classical guitar.
The basic courses for a total newbie are put together in the traditional, step-by-step fashion. These fundamental lessons do not rely on star value and are fairly well grounded by a professional teacher or two leading the student with structure and continuity.
The Beginning Guitar Course is the place to start for a novice. The course consists of 28 lessons from a single instructor and includes detailed workbooks. It covers the basics of how to sit with the instrument, essential left and right-hand techniques, as well as reading in the first position. By the end of this course, you’ll be playing your first piece on the guitar.
It also goes a little beyond the absolute basics – rhythms, open string playing, arpeggios, notes on first and second strings, accidentals, multiple notes at once and so on.
If you’ve completed the course, or if you’re past the elementary basics of the Classical Guitar, a novice student is advised to complete the Beginning Guitar Course II. The 14 lessons here cover position playing, chord patterns, dynamics, slurs, RH preparation, etc.
The student dashboard tells you which lessons you’ve completed and which are in progress – so you can keep track when you return after a gap. To push a student onto ‘lateral’ explorations for their improvement, various suggestions crop up alongside the bread-and-butter beginner course: perhaps a simple piece taught by a star player, a technique lesson to explore deeper, etc.
There are new releases of learning videos constantly. “We currently publish a new lesson, course, or interview to the site every week,” says Garwood. “We are moving to a model that will allow us to do two releases a week. Having a robust library is very important to us which is why we’re continuing to put out new videos despite having almost 500 on the platform.”
Taken with the beginner courses in two parts, tonebase has a Levels system to provide a structured framework over a longer period. Each Level progressively builds on the skills of the earlier one. The system is loosely based on international and reputed music schools like ABRSM, London and is perhaps the most attractive part of learning music here for students with a formal education bent of mind.
Is tonebase right for intermediate guitarists?
The answer is a resounding yes. It’s difficult to think of such extensive coverage of learning materials – often presented by star performers, as mentioned – anywhere else. You can tell the basic heartbeat of the site is all about helping players who have crossed the early stages of learning.
Garwood makes a valid point. “The market is quite saturated with tools that teach beginners the basics of playing the instrument, but once you get past a certain level, there really aren’t quality resources out there. You can go find a private teacher who specializes in classical guitar but we hear from people that they stopped improving because they couldn’t find a suitable teacher in their area. We give them access to the knowledge and inspiration.”
Besides, tonebase is bold enough, or at least different enough, to present a wide range of perspectives to the intermediate student rather than “this is the way to do it” methods of personal tutors. Even a simple technique like a slur or a rest stroke can be performed in different ways and tonebase students are encouraged to figure out what does and doesn’t work for them.
An early level like Level 1 has 9 video lessons, for instance, to teach the essential skills like first position playing, finger planting, alternation, note reading and the free stroke. A sample repertoire to bolster these skills includes Giuliani’s timeless arpeggio studies, pieces by Calatayud, Sor and Sanz.
The Level 2 curriculum moves up to cover more skills: apoyando (rest stroke), partial barres, dynamics, slurs, 4-note arpeggios and the like. And you get to learn some tips and tricks from players like Tariq Harb and Rene Izquierdo. Pieces to play include Sor and Brouwer studies and an extended deep dive into the old Spanish classic, Malaguena.
The Level 6 curriculum, expectedly, covers more advanced skills: intermediate scales, shifting, finger independence, textures and muting among others. You have someone like Sabrina Vlaskalic teaching you a trick or two. And the Level 10 study features advanced techniques along with theory and ear training. Cross string trills, campanella scales, extended barres, polyrhythms and syncopation are among the techniques you get to learn at this stage.
While the Levels system is a fairly good way of assessing one’s place in the scheme of things and where to proceed next in one’s guitar journey, no formal certification is given.
“Our Head of Guitar first sets the vision. We then go out and try to recruit the best instructor for that particular topic and work closely with them. After filming close to 1,000 lessons between our guitar and piano platforms, we have a pretty streamlined process for working with artists and ensuring the tutorials are top-notch both from a production and content perspective.”
The tonebase team works with not only GRAMMY award winners like Ana Vidovic but also a lot of European greats who are relatively unknown in the US: players like Tilman Hoppstock, Carlo Marchione and Zoran Dukic. They do go the extra yard to find the appropriate teacher for the topics at hand.
Garwood has this to share. “When we wanted to film a series on Benjamin Britten’s famous Nocturnal written for Julian Bream, we reached out to composer and guitarist Stephen Goss who is considered one of the foremost experts on the piece as well as Laura Snowden who is one of the few students who had the opportunity to work on this piece with Julian Bream himself.”
Quite recently, tonebase commissioned Sergio Assad’s 10 Sketches and released them on its site for the benefit of students. Like most online institutions of its kind, tonebase has robust community engagement programs. Its Community Challenges and Virtual Hangouts are quite popular with students and their renditions of 10 Sketches were shared with the community.
An overview: tonebase or not?
The price is reasonable. The curriculum is wholesome and comprehensive. The faculty is world class. What more can you ask for?
I sometimes did wonder if the very versatility and abundance of options in tonebase can be an obstacle. There is the real issue of ‘overwhelm’ with so many ‘approaches’ offered to a single topic. An early-stage student, especially, may not have the discrimination and experience to decide between alternatives.
Tutors of every age have warned their students against getting carried away by the shiny object syndrome. And a site like tonebase strews around exciting and shiny baubles at every step of the way, thanks to its automated algorithm. No sooner that you finish a lesson than the algorithm suggests a fresh video to explore, off the path of the course. Obviously, these are not intended to be ‘distractions’ but more like alternate and fresh avenues for the student to explore next.
And that is the whole point in bringing this up. It will ultimately depend on you and your ideas about how you wish to be taught. The truth is, all of us learn in different ways. One person’s ‘overwhelm’ is another’s ‘motivational’. One person’s ‘distractions’ is another’s ‘insights.’ To each, her own. According to Garwood they “haven’t heard about overwhelm being an issue.” The bulk of tonebase’s users falls in the 30-50 age group and so are presumably mature enough to decide for themselves.
Did the pandemic adversely affect enrolments? On the contrary, Garwood says people became “more open to exploring technology. We saw a pretty large increase in our membership in the last year and a half. We also made the decision to quickly build and launch features like our LIVE workshops/lectures and the community forum to give people more ways to engage with one another on the site.”
So, if you are fine with online classical guitar education and not easily overwhelmed, I can heartily recommend tonebase as an excellent learning resource. It ticks all boxes in terms of techniques and skills, graded Levels and structure, fixed learning tracks and flexibility. And, to top it all, it provides a major source of inspiration that all learners will fall in love with.
A set of world-class classical guitarists telling you exactly what to do.
To learn about other high-quality resources for classical guitar learning, read my Online Lessons for Classical Guitar article. To know more about offline classical guitar instruction, read my full Review of Classical Guitar Grades on this site.