GarageBand for iPad: The Smart Guitar

Ever since the introduction of GarageBand for iPad back in February, many iPad users have really immersed themselves into music creation because of how easy it is with the app. Today I’m going to teach you an easy way to create a guitar song using the built-in Smart Guitar instrument. To add to this, you can even learn a little bit more about the app in general.

Please note that this will require a little knowledge of how to use the iPad, some music terminology, and common sense on the side. Keep reading for the full guide.

Firstly, buy GarageBand for your iPad here ($4.99), if you don’t already own it. Now open the app and press the little “+” button at the bottom of the screen followed by tapping “New Song.” You’re now taken to the instrument selection screen which shows all available GarageBand instruments. Swipe right once to select the “Smart Guitar” and tap it to begin.

What You Can Do

GB iPad Smart Guitar Screen

Smart Guitar

There are a lot of different approaches to playing the Smart Guitar, but the one I’m going to demonstrate should be the easiest for beginners. However, if you would like to try something different, take a look at the small list of presets below and experiment with them – once you’re comfortable of course.

In the main screen of the Acoustic Smart Guitar, there are a few important things that we need to take a look at. Most of these are features are displayed in all guitars, but pedals are only in electrics.

  • The Question Mark Button: At the top right hand side of the screen there is a little round question mark button which, when pressed, will give you hints and specific functions on any part of GarageBand, along with a button leading to the full manual. If you want to learn more about the Smart Guitar, tap the question mark and then the arrow next to “Learn more about the Smart Guitar.”
  • Guitar Selection: Using the tab in the top left corner side of the screen, you can select from four different guitars: Acoustic, Classic Clean, Hard Rock, and Roots Rock. You’ll learn more about the different types of guitars and their specific features later.
  • Chords Mode: In the chords mode, you can simply play the predefined chords, which are by default Em, Am, Dm, G, C, F, Bb, and Bdim. The chords displayed can be changed either when you change the key of the song (below) or, when in Autoplay, use two or three fingers to tap the chord for variations. You can also play the individual notes, which uses a picking sound with reverb and does not include the ability to stretch strings for the twang effect like notes mode (below).
  • Notes Mode: Say that you don’t want to play preset chords, but instead want to make up your own melody out of raw notes. This can easily be done with the power of the notes mode. First, tap the switch icon to change into this mode and then tap whichever note you wish to play.

    For a fun alternative to simply tapping the strings to play a note, you can also drag the strings up or down for the “twang” effect that I mentioned above. The twang effect changes the pitch of the note, depending on how much you drag it. You can also drag up or down the fret to change the note that you’re playing.

  • Autoplay: Autoplay is a simple feature that automatically plays a variety of different melodies using the strings included in the chord you have selected. Each guitar has a unique set of Autoplay presets which range from picking to strumming to palm muting. Autoplay can be used by tapping whichever preset number you want and then tapping a chord to play it. This feature is not available in the notes mode and also disables individual notes in the chords mode.
  • The Fretboard: All guitarists should know this well, it is simply the string holder in this virtual guitar. When not in Autoplay mode, you can play by either taping a chord letter, strumming the chord by sliding your finger down all the strings, or tapping single strings for picking. If you’re in notes mode then you will see the familiar lifelike fretboard that is similar to the one seen in chord mode, but lacks chord selection and Autoplay.
  • Muting: All guitars have a muting feature which can be activated by holding your finger on the left or right side of the fretboard and playing a chord or note. The muting feature is not available in notes mode.
  • Scale: Only available in notes mode, the scale is an easy way to find a selection of notes that sound good together. The preset scales include Major, Minor, Major/Minor Blues, Major/Minor Pentatonic, Japanese, Dorian, and a few others. To use a scale, simply tap the “Scale” button and then tap the scale you wish to use. The fretboard will then change to a layout of that scale and also change key to the scale’s preset.
  • Changing the Key: You can change the key that the guitar is in to play other chords and notes in chords mode, this is like tuning your guitar to a different key. Changing the key can be performed by tapping the little wrench icon at the top right hand side of the screen and then tapping “Key.” Once you’re in the key selection screen, you can then change it to whichever you wish to play in – major or minor. The default is C major. Please note that you changing the key will not effect the notes mode.
  • Changing the Tempo: You can change the tempo of your song by tapping the same wrench icon as above and then either tapping the “Tap to set Tempo” button while listening to a beat or turning it up/down with the arrows at the indicator to the right. The default tempo is 110 and that’s what I’ll be using in this tutorial, but please explore if you want a different feel to your song.

Got that? Okay, lets move on to the fun part…

Start Recording

I’ll start you off with a nice simple song with the chords of F, Am, C, G on the Acoustic Smart Guitar. We’re going to keep the default tempo of 110 and key of C. Now here’s what you should do next:

  1. Figure out when you want to switch chords and practice a few times so that the recording sounds good.
  2. Set the Autoplay to whichever fits your needs – I’m going to use preset 2. Be sure you switch at the right time with this preset because it’s a picking algorithm that will have gaps if you switch during the wrong note.
  3. Fire away! Start up that recording and play the chords you’ve been rehearsing. If you want to loop this (info on this below) then try to stop it from playing at the 5th measure.
  4. Made a mistake? Quantize your notes to correct them by first tapping the button to the right of the guitar icon, which is left of the play and record buttons. Proceed by selecting your recorded audio and then tapping the button at the top right hand side of the screen left of the wrench, it looks like three small volume sliders. Now tap “Quantization” and, for this recording, tap “1/8 Note.” This should correct any loop issues with your recording as well as make sure it’s on tempo. For other recordings, it depends on which Autoplay preset you’re using or how fast you’re playing the notes. Try exploring.
  5. Now that you’re done playing them, hit that strange bar-filled icon at the top of the screen next to the little guitar to start arranging.


If you wanted to loop your little recording to go along with drums and other instruments, then simply tap the green rectangular box titled “Acoustic” twice and select “Loop” from the pop-up menu. Your guitar track should be looped, but beware of gaps. If you played off-tempo or didn’t play until the 5th measure then it will have a large 1/8th measure gap of nothing in there – which is not what you want.

  • Don’t forget that you can always switch the guitar that you recorded on to another one by simply tapping it. This may hurt the sound, however, because the Autoplay recorded from earlier might not mix well.
  • If you got annoyed of that little woodblock metronome, it can be disabled by tapping the wrench icon and then tapping the “On” switch beside Metronome.

The Mixing

Now lets say you want to add some drums, keyboard, or even another guitar to your song – that’s easy. All you need to do is tap the “Instruments” button and then swipe around until you find the one you want to add.

Now if you want to actually change how loud one instrument is, simply tap the view button – its that little button to the left of the beginning, play, and record buttons – and swipe the little tab on the left of the screen to the right. You can now adjust all the volumes of your instruments, or mute them.


Chord hint screen

Chord hint screen

Now what if you don’t like that Acoustic guitar and want an electric or distorted one instead? That’s easy to change and I’ll guide you through the different guitars’ features and presets.

Classic Clean

Your standard Classic Clean preset will come with a new fretboard style and Heavenly Chorus and Blue Echo pedals. As with the Acoustic guitar, you can still tap chords to play them and do the same with individual notes. Below is some brief information on the new items in this guitar.

  • The Pedals: GarageBand’s Classic Clean guitar comes with two special effects pedals that I mentioned above: Heavenly Chorus and Blue Echo. Sadly, these are not customizable and can’t be changed to one of the other pedals from the amp instrument. The Heavenly Chorus is a chorus pedal that gives the guitar a slight flanger-sounding effect with a “heavenly” touch to it. The Blue Echo pedal simply gives the guitar a echo, as you would assume.
  • Autoplay: In the Classic Clean guitar, Autoplay has changed up a little bit to match the style that the guitar should be played. It includes two picking-based presets and two chord-based ones.

Hard Rock

This one is for all you hard rock lovers out there. It includes two pedals, Vintage Drive and Robo Flanger, and four new Autoplay presets like all the other guitars.

  • The Pedals: The Vintage Drive gives the guitar a vintage overdrive, as you would assume from the name. The Robo Flanger is a simple flanger with a robotic sound to it, but it sounds far different than the Heavenly Chorus as it is meant for a different guitar.
  • Autoplay: Hard Rock’s Autoplay is similar to the rest, but this time has lots of distortion, palm muting and a large hard rock touch to it.

Roots Rock

The last guitar, and my personal favorite, is Roots Rock. This guitar has a very old style to it and sounds a lot like classic rock. It also sounds very similar to the Classic Clean, except it has totally different Autoplay presets.

  • The Pedals: Roots Rock has a Hi-Drive distortion pedal that boosts the treble, but it goes a little too far in my opinion. This pedal ruins most of the AutoPlay because it doesn’t work well with picking and sounds bad with chords. The second pedal is that old Blue Echo, which I went over in the Classic Clean section.
  • Autoplay: Autoplay in the Roots Rock guitar has four very classic-sounding presets. The first and last have good picking, whereas the second is more towards a build-up and the third sounds very smooth with a funkier picking melody.

The End

So there you have it: A complete guide to GarageBand’s Smart Guitar and a lot of other functions of the app. I hope you enjoyed this how-to and if you have any questions then please post them in the comments.