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One of the reasons I love recording this tech podcast is learning how technology is revolutionizing every aspect of our world. When you think about the digital transformation, you don’t automatically think of guitars.

Fender Digital is leading the online revolution and modernization of Fender with a new division dedicated to digital education, innovation, customization, and mobile learning. Anyone that has asked the question “How Do I Learn to Play the Guitar?” now has a digital platform to get them up and running in seconds.

In a mobile-first world built on Insta-stories, Spotify playlists, and ClassPass, where will the musicians of tomorrow learn to play guitar to become the Jimi Hendrix and Eric Claptons of today? Step forward, Fender Play, a revolutionary new on-demand video-based online learning platform (think Netflix of at-home guitar lessons) featuring instructor-led lessons with personalized curriculums based on the user’s favorite songs.

Fender Play brings the 70-year old guitar manufacturer back into center stage by unlocking the instrument for guitarists of all skill levels through state of the art learning technology. The platform invites users to embark on their own rock star journey with the option to play hits from the world’s biggest superstars such as U2, Shawn Mendes, The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, Meghan Trainor, Carrie Underwood and more, and track their progress development in real-time.

Personalized learning paths enable even brand-new players to master chords and riffs in minutes all while learning to play their favorite songs. Instructors guide users through easy-to-digest lessons via 4K quality multi-camera video footage.

With the rate of students learning music in schools dropping 22% between 2010-2015, schools are turning to electronic learning tools which are proving successful in bridging the gap between today’s iPhone generation and classical music curriculum—and finding success!

Ninety percent of people who pick up the guitar will drop out after one year, and we see Fender Play as a solution to that challenge. – Ethan Kapla

Since the age of 16, Ethan Kapla launched a fan website for the band R.E.M. The rest of his career extends from there. For the past 20+ years, Kapla has been operating at the forefront of old media’s emergences into the new, including the print, broadcast, music and entertainment businesses.

A self-confessed geek in every sense. “Music, media companies, technology. I enjoy being labeled as such. I lead and manage geeks they way they want to be led. I design products. Sometimes I program. I like music too much. More importantly, I understand not only technology but why, when and how you apply technology in a product and user-driven manner to solve real business problems.

Transcribed Interview

Ethan Kaplan:  I’m Ethan Kaplan, so I’m the general manager of Fender digital. Fender digital is pretty new. It’s about two years old, a division of Fender instruments, musical instruments court, which as most people know is a 70-year-old company who’s made pretty much every electric guitar you can think of and amplifiers. I run the entire digital team and I’m responsible for everything from fender.com to all of our applications, and as well as our new digital learning product called Fender Play.

Neil: I’m a big rock fan, so this is incredibly exciting for me, but like you said Fender is a 70-year-old guitar manufacturer. There’s a fantastic rich history in names that immediately spring to my mind at least such as Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Holly,  the Edge, Flea, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Marr and so many more but for younger listeners that might not know about that history, can you just expand on that incredibly rich story that you’ve got over there at Fender?

Ethan: Yeah. So Fender was started roughly 70 years ago by Leo Fender in and just a city south of Los Angeles called Fullerton, which incidentally is where I grew up and Leo was an interesting guy in that he never set out to make guitars. He was making amplifiers. He was a radio technician but the thing that Leo had going for him wasn’t that he played guitar because he did it, it was that he listened to guitarist and he listened to musicians and he really made instruments that responded to the needs of musicians and that pedigree that we have that responsiveness to the artist community and really working hand in hand with them to make the best toolset possible for them to give creative expression, that’s continued since then.

You know, we make a lot of guitars. We make very iconic ones. The Stratocaster, the Telecaster, you mentioned like The Edge Stratocaster Guy, Bruce Springsteen’s played the same Telecaster since day one.

We make guitars that look different, feel different and function differently for every type of musician. I think for the younger generation, the guitar has become less about the guitar hero and more about just everything. It is a compositional tool that can be used anywhere from hip-hop to Edm, to rock music, punk music, you know, whatever it needs to be and it kind of has permeated genres and I think that’s one of the beautiful things about the instrument. It’s so diverse. It’s so infinite in the possibilities of what it can do and Leo, you know, kept it simple, kept it focused, kept it optimized for wherever the musicians needed to take it.

Neil: It really is. I mean, we could talk about the history of Fender all night, in fact, that’s a whole episode that needs to be made right there, but it’s not where you guys have been, but where you’re going. So we’re not in a mobile first world built on Insta stories, spotify playlists and class pass and that left me to wonder where will the musicians have tomorrow learn to play the guitar, you know, to become the next Jimmy Hendrix or Eric Clapton of today and this is where I came across Fender play and the big reason I invited you on the show today, because to me at least, it feels like a Netflix of home guitar lessons featuring instructor led lessons with personalized curriculums all based on the user’s favorite songs, off for younger listeners, It’s like a real life guitar hero but can you just explain to the listeners what Fender play is and there’ll be the idea behind it and why you think it’s so important?

Ethan: Yeah, I mean, our biggest challenge is in an industry is not getting artists to play Fender gear and getting guitars on stage. We do that in 90% of the stages at Glastonbury or Redding had Fender on him. The issue is that it’s a really hard instrument to learn and so more often than not, 9 out of 10 people that start playing guitar are going to quit within six months. Every year it’s the same thing. You get a bunch of people starting and they all quit and those that stick with it, that’s how you get the core of music. They stick with it for life. So if most of our audiences just starting can’t get through it and we can create something that helps people learn, that guides them through that first really challenging month of learning, and lets people get a win, then we make the entire business grow and we make music row and we get more people with guitars and hands making that next generation of music and what the next guitar hero or will be.

So when we did Fender play, we looked at not only how do we help abandonment, how do we help people through, how do we get people through, but also how people learn today and it’s not long videos. It is not songs that you don’t have never heard of or don’t sound like anything you really want to play. It’s quick wins, quick videos, songs that are relevant to you, songs that are approachable, and getting you kind of through a quick reward system and so we made, you know, you’re apt and calling a kind of a Netflix for learning and that, you know, we made it very easy to go through, easy to consume, very short snackable. I hate saying snackable, but that’s what it is.

A video that gets you really quick and then you get through more skills, but you have a song as your mild point, as your mile marker. It’s not having to learn theory and you learn the theory around the songs you want to learn and we’re trying to make sure that the songs we teach are not just the hits from yesteryear, but our new and emerging acts and new songs and things that are very different. So we wanted it to be a video companion to learning and we have other, you know, apps that forum kind of companions to that, like our tuner or riff station that are kind of like help also, the learning pathway but Fender Play for us is like our platform to getting that next generation of player in and learning and playing guitar and also helping those 9 out of 10 that quit get through their first six months.

Neil: I love how you just get to embark on their own rockstar journey with the option to play hits from the world’s biggest superstars such as You2, Rolling Stones is my personal favorite, the national, all of which I’ve seen on stage at Glastonbury and rocked out with them, which again brings me back to that guitar hero for real-life comparison to me. So how hard was it to get those artists involved to give a little back to the music industry?

Ethan: So we’re fully cleared on, the publishing side, which is what we did to stay legal, stay in on a level but if you take an artist, I love the National too and they have a new record coming out and it sounds great and all is good there but if you take, the artists have to approve us teaching a song lesson but I think what we’ve seen is, uh, you know, they’re as passionate about enabling that next generation as we are and we have songs that you would never think to go and subscribe to a product from Fender to learn how to play, ‘I Need My Girl’ a National record but that’s how you get people hooked in because you realize you don’t have to, you know, it’s a pretty easy song to learn at the basic level and you can get it more complicated, but it’s approachable and it’s something that you’re familiar with.

We’ve talked to labels and we’ve talked to artists, I think that’s the part that resonates with them and our aim is not just to have a four-year-old songs from the National but I would love to be teaching this stuff from the new record and I would love to be making sure that, you know, as new stuff is released, that we have lesson sport, so that you’re playing things that you’re also listening to because that’s what gets you hooked.

I learned how to play smoke on the water. That’s good but learning how to play, I named my girl or ever long, that’s more fun because that’s the stuff that I’m going to want to play like to my kids and friends and sing along to.

Neil: Oh, absolutely but can pick it up and give it a try there but one of the most often overused phrase is at the moment is that businesses need to disrupt or be disrupted but do you think this officially marks fender shift from the analog world to the digital and reach that next generation of millennial and Gen zed players? What overall, really it’s the disruption of the guitar manufacturing category forever, isn’t it?

Ethan: You know, it’s interesting, Fender for seven years has been a tech company. There’s no way of getting around that. Like you look at early pictures of the Fender Factory and there were oscilloscopes and soldering irons and it’s all circuitry and sound and had a massage sound and doing things at the core, yes, the instrument is wood and metal and craftsmanship that has this huge enrich pedigree to it but we’ve always been looking ahead and we’ve made digital amplifiers for over 10 years and we have a new line of those out and this is an extension of playing, so, you know, while it’s digital, it’s a digital product, we have a lot of engineers that worked for me, you know, we have all these nice cameras and we shoot everything and we’re coding and IOs and android, etc etc. At the core of it, where we’ve always been a tech company, this is just where technology is taking us and we never want to be the company that doesn’t have something to offer a player.

We make applications that are dependent on you holding a guitar in hand while you’re used them. So our tuner, our tone, in play are all dependent on you having a guitar. So that’s automatically kind of a companion piece to something that’s very physical and tactile and I think if you look at how we design our products and how we put them to market and the voice behind them, it’s all very much about playing and it’s about tactility and holding things and the kind of the physical aspect of playing and not just about doing something digital to do something digital and we put a lot of attention into everything we’ve done from the how we shoot the video, how you lay out the screen, how the mobile app works to make sure it’s a companion to playing because I don’t want people to just use a Fender app. I want them to use it while they have a guitar in their hand and are playing it actively.

Neil: So if there is anyone listening now that feel quite inspired by a conversation and they thinking about I want to learn how to play, I Need My Girl by the National or Everlong Foo Fighters. Can you explain how they would sign up to Fender Play and exactly what is waiting for them and also talk them through the process of getting up and running?

Ethan: Sure. So Fender play is available in native, you know, in, UK, US, and Canadian currency, but it’s available anywhere at play.fender.com and you sign up for a 30 day trial  and after that, it’s $19.99 US a month and whatever the equivalent is in pound sterling and Canadian dollars and basically what it does is when you sign up, you say, I’m an electric and acoustic player and then you choose one of five genres that we offer from fault country, pop rock, and bluegrass, I think it is, I believe are blues, sorry, not bluegrass and then you’re immediately put into your curriculum, your pathway to learning and within 26 to 30 minutes, depending on the genre you’re up and running with playing a riff and then with a little bit longer, you’re playing a song and if you’ve never picked up a guitar before, the first lessons that you have are the very fundamentals.

How you hold it, how you hold a pick, how you strum, how you read a chord chart. If you have picked it up before you can skip that stuff and go straight to what you don’t know but we have a very guided curriculum that gets you on a pathway toward learning how to play songs and you’re playing a song within 30 minutes, another 20 minutes maybe you’re playing another song and if you ever want to like bounce to just learning a song, there are hundreds of songs within there that you could actually go and explore and if you ever get stuck, we have an entire database of skills, everything from how to play every permutation of accord, to how to strum, how to finger pick, and even little exercises to warm up your fingers.

So we try to make it something that you return to every day. The more frequently you play, the better you get but we also know that it’s painful. It is to get started. Your fingers are going to hurt. We have exercises to help that. We have exercises that if your fingers do hurt and you want to do single notes, cords and things like that, we can get you in there. So it’s a pretty fun thing to learn from. Even I’m a player but not great and I still find it really fun to go and explore

Neil: And it’s rock and roll. If you don’t play it till your fingers bleed, right?

Ethan: Yeah. I think what a pride is, the bloody thing you need to wear that Instagram it out. That’s something you should point to like you’re learning guitar. Not everybody can. Everybody should.

Neil: So I do want to sign up. How many levels are there, how many courses and what’s the average length of each lesson?

Ethan: There is, the average length is around seven minutes depending on the type of lesson. I mean, we have a very exhausted lesson on how to play D or the D chord and that’s even four minutes long. The average song lessons around 10 minutes. We have five levels for genre. There’s an average of, I don’t even know what the total lessons per, there are hundreds of lessons and hours of footage.

So we got a level five, will be extending genres and extending levels as we go and adding more songs pretty much every week. So next week if you check Fender play, there will be new songs at it and we have kind of a week. We’re shooting consistently so that as new songs are released we put them in there.

Neil: Now I know Fender play is relatively new service but have you had any feedback from users yet?

Ethan: Yeah, we’ve gotten really good feedback. People say, I mean, one of the things that I think we really narrowed down on is learning how to play is a very singular thing, usually you either have an instructor, are you doing it on your own but there’s a lot of beginner players out there and so we also have a community component on Facebook for the community for the play community but one of the things we heard and I really liked is that no one ever felt dumb for asking questions of the product.

So a lot of times you’re like, what is a seven and versus having to go ask. You can look it up in the skills database and it’s all right there. So we don’t want people to feel like it’s an off-putting thing to learn how to play, we want it to feel very welcoming and that you’re joining a community of beginners and the community of people that just want to get into it and so we really want the voice of the product to be that and I think having really good songs, a very approachable lesson format and this database of skills that are always available for you. I think those things are really key and the feedback that we’ve gotten is really good on that stuff.

Neil: Now, nobody wants to be the guy, you know, with all the gear and no idea but what is the best starting guitar would you think or would you suggest?

Ethan: We have an entire line of starter packs from the Squire brand. So whatever suits your fancy. I think that if you’re going to pick a pathway, acoustic guitars are harder to play than electric and so if you actually want to save your fingers and electric pack is probably the best format, the best place to start but if you started in acoustic, it’s a little bit different style, but it can be almost, it’d be just as fun. It’s just a little harder to finger with the cords and so we make a broad variety of entry-level acoustics and entry-level electrics and any of those would be good.

Neil: Now, you made a great point a few moments ago, how Fender has always been a tech company. It’s always evolved. So I’ve got to ask, how do you see the Fender play service continuing to evolve over the next few years?

Ethan: We’ll continue adding levels and songs. We’re exploring different instruments to add and getting into base and ukulele and other instruments or instruments to come and you know, we treat this as a platform for learning. It’s not just a product so it will be continually fed with new stuff. We will optimize, we’ll add new features, we’ll do more on the community development side. So it’s a very iterative, growing product. The cool thing about this company for me, most of my team is really new here. Our divisions existed almost two years, but most everybody’s been here less than that, from my side and we, I’d say about half were players when they came in, but the rest of them are now players and we’ve been using this product since we started developing it and I have people learning guitar for the first time using Fender play and so all the feedback we get from the data, from users, from internally as people are learning, we’re all putting, we’re putting all that in the product and I think one of the cool things is everybody here, is a user of the products we make from the guitars to play a tune and we all really believe in what we make and so everything that’s improving is responding to that. We’re very proud of these things.

Neil: Well, a huge thank you for coming on the show today, but before I let you go, could you remind the listeners of your website or where they can sign up or to find out more information about Fender Play?

Ethan: Sure. You can sign up for Fender play at play.fender.com or just go to Fender.com and click play at the top of the screen and it requires a credit card to sign up, but you get 30 days free once you do that.

Neil: Well, I always say at the end of every episode that technology works best when it brings people together. Now today’s episode, who’s going to get been to, I think it’s about listeners in 150 different countries and I hope that we’ve planted that seed into somebody’s had somewhere in the world to pick up a guitar and learn how to play it and that’s the beautiful thing about both technology and what you guys are doing there.

So a big thank you for coming up.

Ethan: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

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