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The Challenge: Concise Overview of the Tabs for a New Song

At FATpick our objective is to create the world’s greatest guitar practice tool. We think of FATpick as your guitar practice companion — not a tutor but a tool that helps you make your practice time more efficient, more effective and more fun.

A big part of that effort is listening to our users. And many are happy to tell us about both how they use the app today and new things they wish FATpick could help them do. So we take pride in our ability to respond to user feedback rapidly. Some of our best features have been inspired by — and sometimes developed in collaboration with — requests from actual users.

The fretboard heatmap is one of these user-inspired features.

A few users have reached out to us looking for a better way to get an overview of the song they about to play “before the tabs start flying”, as one user put it.

Some of the existing features help with this problem a little bit:

  • The basic shape of the full song can be seen in the mini-tab at the bottom of the player. But that’s really intended to help you navigate the song and track your overall position as you play. It’s essentially a scroll-bar. It literally shows the full tablature of the entire song, but the view is too zoomed-out to see the score in detail.

  • You can zoom out on the tabs in the main tablature view to see more of the song at once, but for now that zoom is capped to a reasonable level. Even when fully zoomed-out you can only see small part of the typical three-minute rock song at one time.

  • There's always the option to “manually” scroll through the song's score before playing — using the mini-tab, mouse gestures or keyboard navigation — but even if you zoom out a bit you’re still looking at the track through a pretty small window. You can see full score, but still only one bit at a time.

  • You could even turn the playback rate way up and let the song play through at a much faster tempo. You could see the full song — in full detail — in a short period of time that way, but it probably won't really help you get a clear overview of tablature of the song. The notes will be moving too quickly and at an extremely high tempo it will be hard to follow the rhythm or duration of individual notes.

The truth is that it can be hard to get your bearings from quick skim of the tabs alone.

This is the problem the heatmap was designed to solve.

We wanted a summary of the song’s tab that’s concise enough to digest immediately but detailed enough to give you a real overview score — the kind of understanding of where and how the song is played that you might otherwise need a couple of play-throughs to develop.

Our Solution

We've been experimenting with a few different ways to provide an overview that helps you quickly come up to speed with an unfamiliar tab — even for a song you’re not familiar with yet. We expect to roll out additional tools and techniques for this eventually (and we welcome your feedback on this topic), but the first such feature is the tab heatmap that was introduced in the v1.7.4 release.

A heat map is a diagram that uses color to help visualize variations in the intensity or magnitude of some feature. It’s like looking through a thermal camera: the hottest parts of an object are painted red and the coldest parts are painted blue.

FATpick’s track heatmap applies this idea to a fretboard. The heatmap shows the neck of a guitar — with the approriate tuning and number of strings for the currently selected track — marked up to indicate where each note of the song is played on the fretboard (by fret and string).

Heat map showing frequency of notes on a bass guitar fretboard

The color and size of the mark up indicates how frequently that note appears in the tablature for the song. The positions that are played most often are tagged with large, red circles. Less popular positions are marked with cooler colors and smaller circles, with small blue circles indicating the least frequently played notes.

While the heatmap strips away any information about the order in which notes are played or their individual durations, it provides a very clear summary of where the notes of the song are played. You can immediately see where your fretting hand will be positioned and the range over which you'll need to move or stretch as you play the song.

Some Other Details

Accessing the Heatmap

The heat map will automatically pop-up when you first open a song in the player.

When you’re ready to move on, this pop-up is easily dismissed with a single click or using any of several keyboard shortcuts (including the spacebar and escape key).

If you prefer, the automatic pop-up can be disabled from the Gameplay Settings. In that case still open the heatmap manually when you want to see it.

You can open the heatmap with a single click on the link found at the bottom of the song info pane on FATpick's tab player. (A link to a related tool - a fretboard diagram for the current track's tuning can also be found there.)

FATpick's Tablature Player Showing Quick Links to Heatmap and Fretboard Tools

Whenever a specific track has been selected the heatmap will also appear as an option in the tools menu which opens when you click on the “toolbox” button in the header navigation.

Left-Handed Mode

Like the fretboard diagram, chord dictionary and other FATpick tools the heatmap supports a “lefty” mode that flips the fretboard so that neck of the guitar reads right-to-left (i.e. with the headstock end of the neck on the right and the guitar body end of the neck on the left).

Use the hand button in the lower left corner to toggle between the right-handed and left-handed view of the heatmap. This setting is “sticky”, so once you turn it on it will remain in effect until you turn it back off. For you convenience yhis setting is also shared by both the heatmap and regular fretboard diagram such that flipping one will fill them both.

Enabling or Disabling the Automatic Display

By default whenever you open a new track in FATpick's player the heatmap for that track will appear in modal dialog. While that dialog can be dismissed with a single click on the mouse or keyboard if you'd rather not see the heatmap automatically you can disable this feature from the Gameplay Settings menu.

For your convenience a link to that menu appears at the bottom of the heat map dialog whenever it is opened automatically.

As mentioned above even if the automatic display is disabled the dialog can still be opened on demand from the tools menu or the on-player shortcut.

Simple Stats About the Tab

Hovering over individual positions on the fretboard on the heatmap will reveal some interesting trivia about the tab, like what percent of the notes in the song each position represents and the exact count as found in the song's score.

More to Come

The tab heat map is just one of several techniques we've been exploring to better introduce and provide an overview of new songs. We expect to both refine the heatmap experience and to add more features like it in future releases. Please let us know if there are ways we can improve the new song experience for you, and watch this space for future developments.

FATpick is a guitar practice tool. It's a tablature player, synchronized with backing audio tracks, that listens as you play along with any guitar to provide instance feedback on the notes you hit or miss. Choose from the rapidly growing library of songs shared by others, or add custom songs by importing any Guitar Pro tab.

You can download FATpick for free right now for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux.

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