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Sonora Guitar Intensive Review
While employing an incredibly effective teaching method, based on the four primary scale systems (major, melodic, harmonic minor, harmonic major), Sonora has built one of the most solid intermediate programs we've ever tried, with a ton of value for beginner and advanced skill levels as well. Only the price limits its accessibility, though it may still be worth it.
Sonora is one of the more comprehensive online guitar programs we've reviewed, incorporating software, feedback from tutors, and a unique learning system they've developed in-house. While it's marketed to intermediate players, it's accessible to any musician and helpful at all skill levels.
Through a clear, repeating pattern of explanation, demonstration, application, and feedback - Sonora Guitar intensive does a tremendous job at keeping you engaged and learning.
The only downside?
It's also the most expensive program we've ever reviewed, requiring you to be absolutely sure it's the route you want to go.
To help you out, we went in for a long-term test of Sonora (several weeks worth) to take a look under the hood and see if it's the right fit for you. Let's jump into our Sonora review.
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Sonora Guitar Review Quick Hits
Streamable, instructional, interactive
Ideal Skill Level
Ideal Musical Style
Applies to all
Released in 2019
IDEAL FOR: Social, intermediate players who want to push themselves into more creative spaces and get some 1-on-1 mentoring through the learning process.
Addressing Price and Basic Format
Sonora uses video, software, accelerated learning tech, a spaced repetition algorithm, and dynamic practice plans to teach. Videos are streamed, as you would from most other guitar lesson sites, though it is integrated with the aforementioned software and Soundslice. All of this material is on top of an assigned tutor that you get if you sign up for the mentored version of the program. This tutor provides daily direct feedback on your playing and helps you through the content as a 1-on-1 mentor.
If you don't sign up for the mentor program, you can still ask questions in a group setting via a weekly Q and A class.
- Mentored program: 1-on-1 tutoring style access
- Non-mentored (group) program: Still ask questions in weekly Q&A session
It's one of the few programs that have integrated this type of learning online, and the only one we've seen implement it to this degree. Let's talk about the pricing.
Cost and Value
Here are your options for using the Sonora program:
- 7-day free trial (grace period afforded to all users)
- Upfront payment of $1975 for lifetime access (payment plans available) for the non-mentor version
- Mentored version pricing is uniquely design for individuals and varies depending on the education and financial needs
With a shorter trial period, Sonora does make it extremely easy to cancel. Note the red "CANCEL" option below:
As you can see, this is easy to cancel, though you will be charged - either monthly for five months or upfront - once the seven days are up.
While it's understandable that people might be hesitant about the price point, you have to keep in mind that you're in part, hiring a mentor to help you improve - or at least paying for lifetime access to weekly Q&A sessions with a master teacher. It's not just the material you get, but the expertise of some incredible musicians that will be directly available to you.
For this to be worth it to you, I would argue you should be prioritizing the following:
- Social/feedback-oriented learning
- Intentional study
- Helps to be extroverted
- Studying jazz is a bonus, but the method can be applied to virtually any style of music
How does it all fit together?
The cadence of the Sonora program - as we'll detail more in the next section - follows a pattern of video explanation, practice, and then mentor feedback, if you've purchased a mentor membership. Again, if you go with the non-mentor membership, that feedback comes in the weekly Q and A. Either way, I'd argue that's a big part of what you're paying for here, so if you don't take advantage of it, it's hard to justify the price tag.
- Video explanation (topic)
- Practice (application)
- Feedback and review (reinforcement)
I'll touch on some of this material in the next section, since the course begins with a thorough explanation of the learning philosophy and learning process behind the Sonora program.
The Learning Process
The first few sections of the Sonora program are focused on explaining how you learn in their guitar lessons. This covers things like accelerated learning, the deconstruction process, how we retain information, and deliberate practice. While these might be foreign concepts to you, and not unique to learning guitar, they're extremely helpful to learn up front because of how the course works.
It might be a bit weird to not pick up a guitar for a while, but it's worth your time to settle in and listen through these early lessons which are mostly verbal explanation.
In early lessons, the learning process is explained using concepts that are also used to describe the process of learning language, like in the graph below:
The material goes on to explain concepts like the deconstruction process and how interviewing questions can help to identify where you should focus time and energy.
As I was going through the material, it occurred to me that it was the absolute and complete opposite of Fender Play. All of the foundation of how you'll learn is being laid up front, as well as a rationale for the theory that you're about to be introduced to.
It's also just a generally solid look at how we learn, how our brains work, and how we retain information.
Spencer Handley and the people that put this course together have done a tremendous job of getting their learning science down on paper and putting it to work for people that want to learn guitar.
Overall, it's an extremely rare and unique teaching approach that helps you learn the fretboard in a fundamentally different way.
The Four Primary Scale Systems
This all leads you to the idea of deliberate practice, where the time you spend practicing is optimized around the four primary scale systems:
- The Major Scale System
- The Melodic Minor System
- The Harmonic Minor System
- The Harmonic Major System
Here's the slide from that section of the course:
While Spencer is usually talking through the material, guitarist Ila Cantor handles most of the demonstrations. The videos are professionally shot and the script seems to have been written ahead of time.
Here's a screen grab of one of Ila's earlier videos:
Videos have a calm and relaxing feel to them, and the concepts that Ila covers are applicable to a wide range of musical genres. In other words, you won't study a specific style as much as you'll study structures that allow you to improve in any style.
Most of the content has you playing with a metronome, which is an important part of the program's teaching model.
Ila will show you things like playing behind or in front of a beat, and how to use the metronome to your advantage during practice sessions.
There's a pretty wide variation in timing between videos, with some running just a couple minutes and others running north of 10 minutes.
All of the content is extremely easy to navigate.
Sonora's Teaching Pattern
You'll notice that the Sonora program is really intentional about how they pattern their lessons. The basic structure is that you have a concept explained to you, then you get to try that concept yourself.
In other words, introduce a topic and then let the student (you) apply/practice it.
Sonora's custom learning software bakes in many of the concepts from accelerated learning, such as spaced repetition and feedback loops, allowing you to submit as many videos as you'd like to your mentor if you choose to do so. This element is optional but, again, a significant part of the material.
Most of the application lessons function in the same way. They're refreshingly simple, showing you an example of the concept being covered. This is usually a pattern that you'll play through, as in the following screenshots:
All of these lessons have tabs and sheet music from a Soundslice embed, which is a fantastic tool and our preferred method of displaying tablature. We always like to give guitar lesson sites credit when they implement Soundslice.
This makes it easy to slow things down, speed up, and displays content in tandem with the video as it is played.
These lessons don't force you to play the material (you could continue on without actually working through it), but they assume you're able to at least attempt and practice the pattern where you can get through it without too many mistakes.
As you practice these patterns, you'll start to see the concepts explained earlier make sense.
The pieces of the puzzle will start to come together.
As you get into concepts like triads, patterns become a bit more difficult, as in the following screenshot:
As difficulty steadily increases, you'll notice your familiarity with the fretboard improves as well, while the overall puzzle will continue to make more sense and come into clearer view.
The Modifications Feature
Any time you have an exercise with tabs and sheet music, you should see the "modifications" icon available.
When you click on the modifications button, it'll give you the following options for modifying the exercise you see on the right side of the page.
- Right hand
- Time feel
Here's a screengrab that shows a few of those options:
Once you select one of these, you'll be greeted with a page that shows a handful of variations of the exercise from that particular lesson.
Each section has its own video. In the example I'm using, Ila walks you through the modification and explains it quite thoroughly.
It doesn't change the SoundSlice tab, but it does give you a different method of approaching and continuing to build patterns in your mind.
Here's the section for subdivision mods for the same lesson.
These lesson mods dramatically increase the amount of time you could potentially spend in each lesson. With each section providing multiple videos, it almost makes the parent lessons a mini course, within itself.
Don't view the modifications as something you must get through, but instead something that you can do to help get a more full and clear picture of the pattern you're studying.
It seems to be designed with a lot of intentionality, to be applicable to a wide range of styles and not necessarily for a static goal.
Sonora Live Q&A Lessons
In this section, I'll cover my experience watching some of the live Q&A lessons.
The live lessons are hosted by Ila and are rewatchable on a premium Vimeo account.
These are usually a Q&A format where Ila and/or Spencer will answer questions about the Sonora Guitar Intensive program or things that students might be working on with their mentors.
It's certainly a communal experience, ideal for those that thrive in a more extroverted learning environment.
Members ask questions about material that is in the course, things they're struggling with, and overall questions of clarity.
Again, it's not for those that don't really value the classroom experience.
Because this is - in every sense - a classroom. You have a teacher, students, and the ability to interact with one another just like you would in a formal music class.
What might make it even more helpful would be if Ila actually sat in front of a markerboard and explained things a little more visually, though she usually demonstrates directly on guitar, which is also quite helpful.
If you do sign up, I'd recommend taking advantage of these sessions as they're a big part of the interaction and community that you're paying to be a part of.
The Meta Narrative of Sonora
Sonora is designed to help you learn guitar from a high level viewpoint.
This means you won't focus on a particular style of music, a weird tuning, or technique specific to a genre of music.
Instead, you're going to be working on learning guitar in a way that you can then apply to any musical style. Jazz guitar players have just as much to benefit from this program as metal and hard rock fans.
It's structural and not topical.
Think about the difference between learning algorithms/data structures and learning how to code a particular program.
- Algorithms and data structure: Learn the underlying concepts and logic that allow you to write programs in any language
- Coding a dice roll program: Learn the steps necessary for one particular coding goal
Sonora is the algorithm and data structure approach, and we think it's executed extremely well. Instead of focusing on specific tasks, they give you the underlying concepts in a way that frees you to work in any subsequent musical style.
The Ideal Sonora Context
While Sonora is primarily marketed to intermediate guitar players, we'd recommend the program to just about anyone. Perhaps for complete beginners it's not the most ideal place to start, but they do offer a prep course to help beginners get ready for the program.
If you're a social learner that prefers to work with a tutor, the mentor version of Sonora is going to be a fantastic option for you, especially since the price includes feedback from the program's mentors, who are well-known and respected industry musicians and educators.
People who enjoy interacting to learn and want a form of feedback will appreciate that aspect of the program a lot, making the price of admission well worth it.
Your Questions and Comments
Do you have questions about our Sonora review or about the program overall?
If so, drop us a line in the comments section below. If I can't answer the question for you, I can definitely put you in touch with someone who can.
Sonora is a fantastic program, but it's definitely a commitment that you shouldn't make unless you're totally invested in the guitar, and you know what you're getting into. Getting your questions answered is a critical part of that process.
We'll see you there.