Just as it is to Eddie Munson in Stranger Things 4, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” is, to me, the “most metal ever.” I spent my teen years obsessively learning the guitar, and Metallica was one of my biggest influences. The combination of vocalist and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield’s thrash riffs and progressive song structures along with lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s shredding gave me plenty to try and master. I was never quite fast or precise enough to fully nail Metallica’s hardest songs, but I could do a pretty decent impression when I was on my game.
Some 20-plus years later, I am decidedly not on my game, having only played sporadically over the last decade. I’ve tried getting back into playing in fits and starts, but nothing has really stuck. Just recently, though, Finnish company Yousician came on my radar thanks to a collaboration with — who else? — Metallica.
At a high level, the Yousician software listens to your guitar playing and matches it to the lesson or song you’re trying to play, giving you a higher score depending on how accurate you are. The app features courses and songs for guitar, piano, bass, ukulele and vocals, but my time was only spent on the guitar section.
For people who’ve never played before, there are loads of introductory lessons — but the most interesting thing about Yousician for someone like me are the song transcriptions. The app is loaded up with tons of popular songs that have, in my limited testing, fairly accurate transcriptions that help you learn to play along with the original recording. Queuing a song up brings up a continuously scrolling tablature overview of the song; play along with it and Yousician will try and tell you if you hit a chord right on the beat, whether you’re a little early or late or whether you blew it completely.
From what I can tell, the vast majority of the music on Yousician has been recorded by session musicians — so you’re not playing along to the original Nirvana or Foo Fighters tracks, but a well-recorded, though somewhat soulless, reproduction. That’s OK, as these exercises work well enough for learning a song, and then you can just go play along with the original once you have it perfected.
But the Metallica course is different, and far more compelling. Yousician got access to the master recording for 10 of the band’s songs, which means you’re learning from and playing along with the original songs you (presumably) love.
The Metallica portion of Yousician isn’t limited to learning specific songs, however. There are three courses to play through: Riff Life, Rock in Rhythm and Take the Lead, each of which dives into a different aspect of the band’s music. Each of those courses, in turn, has a handful of lessons focused on a song and the skills needed to play it. There are also videos featuring members of the band talking about the overarching concept. While James and Kirk aren’t literally teaching you the songs, it’s still great to see them play up close and personal and hear about how they approach writing and performing.
For example, the “Rock in Rhythm” course has a whole section on downpicking, a more percussive and aggressive way of using your picking hand that has come to define much of Metallica’s riffs and heavy metal music in general. Seeing James Hetfield perform some of his most complicated and fast riffs in great detail is an absolute treat.
Mixed in with these videos are lessons that focus on a specific part of a song. The Riff Life course starts things out extremely simple, with the key riffs to songs like “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Nothing Else Matters” and “Enter Sandman.” These lessons follow a pretty standard format. First, you’ll listen to the isolated guitar part to get it in your head, sometimes accompanied by a Yousician instructor showing you how to approach the song. After that, you play the part in the context of the song, starting out slowly and then gradually speeding up to play it at full speed. Then, to complete the lesson, you perform the complete song.
For that last option, Yousician offers multiple ways to move forward. If you’re a beginner, you can play simplified versions of the song — but Yousician also includes full versions of the rhythm guitar track or a combo of the rhythm and lead parts. If you’re just learning the song for the first time, you’re not going to want to jump right into those versions. But if you’re up for the challenge, the practice mode helpfully divides the song up into sections like intro, verse, chorus, solo and so forth. You can slow the song down, work on those sections, and then string the entire thing together. The app uses time stretching so that the music’s pitch isn’t affected.
As someone already familiar with the Metallica songs included, I can tell Yousician has done an impressive job with these full transcriptions. I’ve already picked up some tricks and learned a few improved ways to play these songs, even for very simple parts like the opening riff to “Enter Sandman.” I’ve known that song basically since I first picked up a guitar, but Yousician identified that Hetfield plays the riff with his left hand in a fairly unconventional finger position, one that is not simple but makes the notes ring out clearer once you master it.
The lead guitar parts are also impressively detailed, considering how fast and complex some of Hammett’s solos can be. This is a case where I’m sure it helped to have access to Metallica’s master recordings for these songs; being able to isolate parts and slow things down makes the learning process much more accessible and also likely made a difference in the accuracy of the transcriptions. While I can’t say that the notation for extremely fast solos like those in “One” or “Battery” are 100-percent accurate, they should be good enough for a convincing performance.
Unfortunately, I ran into some problems when trying to tackle the aforementioned epic, “Master of Puppets.” While I was working my way through the downpicking lessons, I was presented with the riff played during the main verse. Whether through my own ineptitude, Yousician not “hearing” me well enough or some other unknown issue, I simply could not play the riff accurately enough to move forward. It’s definitely a fast one, but even at slowed down speeds, Yousician consistently didn’t recognize that I was hitting the sliding power chords that anchor the end of the riff. A colleague of mine had previously tried Yousician and had a similar problem with the app not recognizing his playing, which can be a major bummer if you’re trying to ace each lesson.
I can’t say why this happened with this particular riff. Yousician did a good job at hearing me play the song’s introduction, which is equally fast and pretty complex in its own right. There seemed to be something specific to those sliding chords that the app had a hard time picking up. I’m not well-practiced enough to attempt the fastest solos the Metallica course offers, so I can’t say how well it’ll pick those up, but it did a fine job of recognizing the quick, arpeggiated licks near the end of the “Fade to Black” solo. Yousician did a better job of picking things up when I plugged my guitar straight into my computer using the iRig 2 interface. But since I don’t usually go straight into my computer, I didn’t have any virtual amps or effects set up, which meant playing wasn’t nearly as much fun as it is through my amp.
Despite these occasional issues, I really enjoyed the Yousician Metallica course. Whether it’s worth the money is another question altogether – Yousician costs $140 a year or $30 a month. That’s not cheap, but it’s less expensive than the private guitar lessons I took 20 years ago. Obviously, Yousician can’t tailor its lessons to me, but I’m still impressed with the attention to detail and comprehensive nature of the Metallica course, and there’s a host of other things I could play around with, too. Between the accuracy of the transcriptions, a solid song selection and the ability to slow down tracks for practicing, there’s a lot to like here.
It certainly would have been a fantastic tool when I was learning the guitar as a teenager – but in 2022, there are a wide variety of options for learning your favorite songs. That’s probably the biggest catch with Yousician. Most people will probably be happy to view YouTube instructional videos and look up transcriptions for free online. I just did a quick search for “Master of Puppets guitar lesson” and found a host of excellent videos, including one multi-parter where the instructor spent ten minutes just demonstrating the first two riffs. It was a thorough, detailed lesson from someone who clearly knows the song as well as Metallica’s approach to playing in general.
That said, I’d still encourage Metallica fans to check out a monthly subscription to Yousician. The song selection spans simpler tracks to some of their toughest material, making it useful regardless of your skill level. The video content is entertaining and informative; you don’t often get to see a band speaking so candidly about their approach to playing their instruments. And as good as some YouTube lessons are, being able to look at and play along with detailed tablature transcriptions of extremely fast guitar solos makes the learning experience much better. Those transcriptions combined with the original Metallica master tracks that you can slow down or speed up as needed are an excellent practice tool. For anyone looking to unleash their inner Eddie Munson, Yousician’s Metallica course is a solid place to start.