When Luke Abbott got bit by the bluegrass bug attending his first festival at the age of 11, no one could have imagined he’d one day create a practice software program thousands of people are using to keep their chops up during self-isolation.
Strum Machine is an app that allows users to set the tempo and key as they play along with guitar, bass, and mandolin accompaniment on approximately 1,300 songs. They can also create and share their own songs to play on the app.
Abbott, 34, of San Luis Obispo, Ca., is a self-taught computer programmer and coder.
“I was like 7 or 8 when I started. I used to do little electronics and science kinds of projects.” Abbott also taught himself to play banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and Dobro™. He created an early prototype of Strum Machine in 2007, but set it aside. He returned to the concept around 2015 while giving private music lessons. “It really became apparent to me I want this tool to exist. I want to give my students something they can practice with at home,” he tells Bluegrass Unlimited.
After searching the internet and not finding the product he had in mind, Abbott put his coding hat back on and completed the app himself. When he was done, he made a single post on his personal Facebook page and got the emails of about 100 people who said they were interested in trying it. “And then when I released it, they told other people and that was the start of the snowball.”
When they use Strum Machine, users hear actual instruments instead of computer-generated sounds. In fact, they hear sound files Abbott recorded with his own instruments—and a bass he borrowed from a friend. After a free trial, Strum Machine requires a $5 monthly subscription fee to use.
Bluegrass tunes make up the majority of the songs on Strum Machine, along with some old-time and Celtic songs. “That’s kind of my wheelhouse,” Abbott said, “but I want to expand that.” Among the features he plans to add are swing chords, additional strumming patterns, and on-screen reference materials. “And I want to add banjo, which I’ve done a prototype of, and I’m very excited about. Both Scruggs-style and clawhammer.”
Kristin Scott Benson, banjo player with The Grascals, recommends the app. “Strum Machine has been one of the best tools for students I’ve ever used,” she said. “Almost all of my students have the app now and I usually see a huge improvement when they start using it. One student affectionately described it as ‘tyrannical,’ but it provides the necessary accountability to ensure connectedness, consistent tempo, and something a metronome can’t do – the right number of beats in the right chord. During a pandemic, using Strum Machine and playing with albums are the closest things to jamming you can find.”
Fiddler and instructor Megan B. Lynch also thinks Strum Machine is a valuable teaching tool. “In the last few years since Luke created Strum Machine, I’ve been able to help my students grow and improve at a faster rate than I ever thought possible. I can help them navigate timing issues, practice counting in a song, hear their intonation up against another instrument, learn chord progressions (in either numbers of letters), and understand the structure and patterns within tunes and songs.
“Strum Machine is the greatest invention since, well, you know.”