How to Use GarageBand Without A MIDI Keyboard [macOS/iOS]

Music production has become a lot easier over the years due to the improvements in our technology. There was a time when you needed to spend thousands of dollars to get access to things that you can now have for little money. Simply downloading GarageBand iOS gives you access to technology that no one had 30 years ago.

Additionally, many of these new DAWs and devices have enabled users to create music with less and less equipment. GarageBand has Loops, a Piano Roll, and other tools that you can use as a replacement for a MIDI keyboard. This is especially the case for the iOS and iPad versions. So how do you use it then without a MIDI keyboard?

It’s easy to use GarageBand without a MIDI keyboard with features like the piano roll to draw notes, the arpeggiator tool, Apple Loops, Smart Drums, Guitar, Bass, and Strings (if you’re using the iOS version), or you can import 3rd party samples. However, a MIDI keyboard will improve your workflow.

For the longest time, I was one of those people who were making music without a MIDI keyboard, or any MIDI device, for that matter. It’s definitely possible to make music in GarageBand and other DAWs this way, but it’s not the best. I think a better way of looking at it is to be open-minded to all types of gear, equipment, and tools, that way you aren’t held back by petty limitations.

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7 Different Ways to Use GarageBand Without A MIDI Keyboard

1) Using the Piano Roll

Impossible-Chord-in-the-Piano-Roll-How-to-Make-MIDI-Guitar-Real-
The piano roll in GarageBand macOS

The piano roll will be your bread and butter if you’re trying to make music without a MIDI keyboard. The reason is that it allows you to draw – instead of manually playing – the notes in a grid-like format for both GarageBand iOS and macOS.

The piano roll maps out MIDI notes on a grid and lays them next to the notes of the piano so you know the name of each one. My guide on the piano roll talks all about it, but essentially, what you need to know is that it can do almost everything.

What it can’t do is offer the natural and authentic vibe that playing a real instrument or a piano can give you. In other words, you can map out any pattern of notes that you want, but it just won’t have that same vibe. It does have many other capabilities, however, including the following:

  • Velocity and Time Quantization
  • Automation and Velocity Automation
  • The Range from C-(-2) All The Way to C8
  • Transposition Tools
  • A Score Editor
  • The Ability to Retract and Extend MIDI Notes
  • Copy and Paste

Another thing that it has is the arpeggiator. A person could probably consider it as just another part of the piano roll, and I do too as well, but I believe that it should get its very own section because it’s that useful. Let’s talk about that now.

2) The Arpeggiator

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The many options of the Arpeggiator – which I talked about in my other guide.

The arpeggiator in GarageBand macOS works great and there are a TON of options to choose from, many of which you can see right in the image above. What the arpeggiator does, is that when you press on a note, the arpeggiator will proceed to play the notes of the same scale which surround that note.

In effect, you play the notes of the chord, which is really what an arpeggio is. An arpeggio is just a word for a broken chord or the notes of a chord. What makes this useful for someone without a MIDI keyboard is that you don’t actually have to draw the notes or play them yourself. The computer will do it for you automatically.

Scales  Chords iOS Arpeggiator - How to Use GarageBand Without A MIDI Keyboard
The iOS arpeggiator gives you the option to arpeggiate entirely different scales and chords – very cool.

The GarageBand macOS arpeggiator is great, but it might be one of the few examples where the iOS arpeggiator is better. With the iOS arpeggiator, you not only get the standard presets and patterns, but you also get to choose from different scales and also the automatic chord player right in iOS.

3) Apple Loops

iOS Loops - Apple Loops - How to Use GarageBand Without A MIDI Keyboard
Both iOS and macOS GarageBand have a huge library of loops to choose from

A lot of people love Apple Loops (my guide on how to use them here), and for good reason. They make beat-making, songwriting, and general music production a lot easier – and a lot more fun, too. While I don’t use them that much, I find they’re great for breaking out of an artistic or creative slump.

In simple terms, Apple Loops are beats, melodies, and other sounds that are pre-made for you, so you don’t actually have to make anything yourself. Obviously, if you don’t have a MIDI keyboard, you can see how this would be convenient. And yes, they’re royalty-free (my explanation on that).

Both macOS and iOS have extensive loop libraries, although, I believe the iOS version will – if it hasn’t already – surpass the macOS loops library.

In my article comparing iOS and macOS GarageBand, I explained that it appears that Apple is putting a lot more work into the iOS version because they regularly release new sample packs and updates for iOS, but the updates for the macOS version are few and far between.

4) 3rd Party Samples

AUSampler for macOS and the iOS Sampler - How to Use GarageBand Without A MIDI Keyboard [macOSiOS]
Both versions have some form of a sampler.

One of the most common ways to make music nowadays which was popularized by hip-hop is to use samples from other artists. You need permission before you use someone else’s work, however, there are many places where you buy loops, samples, and sound packs.

Cymatics and Loopmasters are two of the most common places, but you can also find royalty-free, DRM-free, copy-right free samples on YouTube. This is where most producers go to get their hands on samples. Check the following guides for more information on how to sample:

Additionally, you can use the Sample browser extension to record audio right in your browser. If you want to quickly create a melody without using a MIDI keyboard, a sample or a loop found elsewhere is a solid place to start, just make sure you don’t infringe on anyone else’s intellectual property.

5) Smart Piano, Bass, Strings, Drums, and Guitar (iOS)

iOS-Garageband-Smart-Instruments-iOS-versus-macOS-Garageband
GarageBand iOS has many Smart instruments

In addition to the GarageBand iOS Drummer, it also has 5 other interfaces for automatically creating melodies and sounds. This means you don’t really need a MIDI keyboard at all to create all kinds of music. You can even play the Drums on GarageBand iOS.

This is one of the cases where the iOS version has a leg up on the macOS version. GarageBand iOS is built for portability and convenience. You have a lot of tools at your disposal for making music, all without any external gear or accessories.

6) Using A Drum Pad Instead

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You can also use a drum pad like the AKAI MPD 226 (on Amazon) which I have here.

A Drum Pad is just a MIDI Controller except it’s in the form of a drum pad and not a keyboard. The two do very similar things – trigger MIDI – but how they do it is different. The option is certainly there if you don’t want to use a MIDI keyboard. I have a YouTube video on how to use it here.

One thing I’ll say before I get into the last section is that using a Drum Pad is a skill set in itself. I’m not that great at using it for making rhythm sections, but I find that it is really fun to play with if you’re trying to lay down a kick and snare pattern. Some people are amazing at using drum pads, so give one a shot.

7) MIDI Guitar 2 or a MIDI Guitar Like the Jamstik

MIDI Guitar 2 - How to Use GarageBand Without A MIDI Keyboard [macOSiOS]
MIDI Guitar 2 is an awesome tool.

If you’ve got a guitar laying around and a Scarlett 2i2 (on Amazon), you could easily download MIDI Guitar 2 from their site and use your guitar as a MIDI controller instead of a MIDI keyboard. The thing about it is that it works pretty well too.

In simple terms, this application translates your guitar’s string vibrations into MIDI information. The end result is that you can control MIDI instruments with your guitar. It’s extremely cool, and I couldn’t recommend picking one up enough.

As you can see, there are many alternatives to a standard MIDI keyboard, including the Jamstik which I’ll talk to you about now.

The Jamstik is a tool that’s kind of like the MIDI Guitar 2, except rather than turning an existing guitar into a MIDI controller, you buy a guitar that’s meant to be a MIDI controller and a MIDI controller only.

I listed this as a MIDI Keyboard replacement last for the simple fact that it’s around $1000, approximately. I haven’t gotten a Jamstik yet, but it’s definitely on my Christmas list. There are many reviews of this thing online on YouTube, so take a look around.

Now that you’ve gotten an idea of some of the keyboard alternatives out there, I’m going to give you a couple of tips to help you on your way.

3 Tips for Making Music Without A MIDI Keyboard

1) Understand Triad and Chord Structure

C Minor/C Major - What Guitar Chords Are Sad?
A C Minor and C Major triad

Having a solid understanding of basic major and minor triads goes a long way for creating music as well as for playing any instrument. They’re a great way to unlock the guitar fretboard among many other benefits which I talked about here, but they’re also amazing for compositional purposes.

One of the many advantages of memorizing your major and minor triads is that they allow you to build chords easily, anywhere, and without a lot of effort. This makes them perfect for making chord progressions without a keyboard. It’s kind of like learning to walk before you can run.

If you know that the I, IV, and V are going to sound good, just play those three notes with an arpeggiator. You don’t need to play something with 100s of notes to sound good.

Once you understand what they are, you can move on to really familiarize yourself with the diatonic major scale, the most important scale in Western Music Theory.

2) Know the Chords of the Major and Minor Scale

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What the chords of the C Major scale look like on the staff.

Like learning triads, memorizing the chords of the major scale is very, very helpful. For one, you really learn how to figure songs out by ear when you’ve memorized the chords of the major scale.

Most popular songs use only a few chords, and the progressions are often very similar. Knowing the chords of the major scale will allow you to come up with simple – but solid – melodies in your GarageBand project and without a keyboard.

Once you really understand the major scale and how simple some of the best songs are, you’ll learn that building your own songs doesn’t have to be super complicated either, which brings me to my next point.

3) Don’t Overcomplicate It

There’s no need to overcomplicate music production and songwriting. I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately learning songs by ear and uploading the videos to TikTok, and what I’ve found is that some of the best songs use only 2-3 chords.

In other words, you don’t need the range that a keyboard would provide to create some of the greatest songs. I have this problem when I make music, as a lot of producers do, where we try and make things way more complicated than they need to be.

Many people who are trying to sell us stuff too try to convince us that we need all of this and all of that, but really most of it isn’t super necessary. If some of the best songs only use 2-4 chords, a huge MIDI keyboard won’t even be that necessary.

A keyboard is for range, creative expansion, and eliminating limitations. It’s possible you don’t even need to worry about getting a big piano if you haven’t even figured out how to play just 3 notes yet.

Important Things to Note About Going Keyboardless

1) Repetition is Always Key

Just make it a habit of yours to create one song per day using a simple 3-chord progression (my guide on this). Make a simple drum pattern and see what you can come up with. Sing a melody over it, and then rinse and repeat daily. It’s impossible not to get better by doing this.

Gear Mentioned

1) AKAI MPD 226 (on Amazon) 

2) Scarlett 2i2 (on Amazon)

3) Jamstik (on Thomann)