With Guitar Hero on extended leave and no new Rock Band title coming out this year, now is the perfect time to trade in our toy guitars for something a bit more substantial. Going from five colorful plastic buttons for six strings with 22 frets each is a daunting task however, especially when music games have trained you to respond to visual cues to guide your playing; you see a green circle, you hold down the corresponding button and strum. A regular guitar won't flash little circles in front your eyes to help you hit the right notes.
The Fretlight guitar does.
Optek Music Systems' Fretlight is a guitar learning tool like no other. It teaches by example, and that example is a series of red lights blinking on and off on the instrument's neck, letting you know exactly where your fingers need to be to play the music you wish to learn.
How does it work? Let's shed some light.
The key to the Fretlight's power lies in a thin layer of LED circuit board pressed between the guitar's neck and polymer fret board. This circuit board contains a red LED for each of the instrument's frets, capable of turning on and off according to the instructions sent to it via the included software suite. Setup is a simple matter of installing the software and plugging the guitar into a Mac or PC via a MIDI to USB cable. As a Fretlight-ready song is played, the frets on the guitar illuminate to indicate where fingers need to be pressed in order to duplicate the sound. These moving lights guide the Fretlight player through the motion of playing songs, forming chords, or crafting light-guided solos to numerous included backing tracks. The software also includes video tutorials which illuminate the Fretlight as the on-screen guitarist plays. Both videos and song files can be slowed, making it easier for eager students to follow along.
Not a Bad Little Guitar: You could do a lot worse for the $429.99 asking price of the Fretlight FG-421. The Stratocaster-style alder body has a lovely weight to it, and the sound it crisp and clean when hooked up to an amp or piped through the computer using my M-Audio Fast Track Pro. The five-position pickup switch offers a nice range of tones courtesy of a pair of single coil pickup sand a humbucker. My only real issue with the guitar is a lack of action from the fret board (especially noticeable when bending strings), likely due to it being polymer instead of wood. It's not the sort of instrument you'd bring on stage to make your mark on the music map, but it's a good start.
Connect the Dots to Learning and Fun: The frets in the Fretlight guitar? They light up. I know, I was surprised as well. Used in conjunction with included Fretlight software, the guitar's fret board becomes a lighted you-should-be-here map for your fingers to follow, whether you're trying to learn simple chords or tearing your fingers apart attempting to follow Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover". As a child I took guitar lessons from a man that would simply play something, ask me to play it back, and glare at me judgmentally as I failed. The Fretlight shows you how to play, allows you to set your own pace, and never ever gives you any indication that it's secretly judging you.
Along with teaching songs, scales and chords the Fretlight software also gives you a chance to flex your solo muscles via its Create a Solo mode. In this mode you select one of 149 backing tracks in wail over. The MIDI files play a series of notes to play that can be plucked in any order to create a passable guitar solo. It makes even the most sausage-fingered novice (me!) sound good, thus it is somewhat addictive.
Required Reading: While I had issues with the Fretlight software in general, tucked away in the 'Chords & Scales' section of the package is a wealth of information about how to actually play the guitar, versus simply watching the red dots flash. Chords are illustrated with photos showing the proper fingering, scales light up the Fretlight with notes that sound perfect when played together. Beyond the lights there are text lessons, a glossary of guitar terms, and even a brief introduction to music theory. It's all information just about anyone could find with a Google search, but it's good to have it all in one place.
Pay to Play: One of the strongest features of the Fretlight is also one of the more expensive aspects of the device. The bundled software only offers nine MIDI versions of popular songs for the player to play along with, five more promised when the guitar is registered. Beyond that, you're going to have to pay, either for a copy of Guitar Pro 6 that allows you to download free guitar tabs and use them with the Fretlight, or by paying $2.99 per song for the relatively limited selection of tracks available in the Fretlight store. A dollar more than a Rock Band track scores you a MIDI file of the song you wish to learn compatible with the Fretlight software. Yes, Optek Music Systems has managed to monetize the dinky music files I used to download in the early 90's before the rise of the MP3. Bravo!
Bitter Software Suite: The suite of software tools that comes bundled with the Fretlight guitar leaves much to be desired. Of the four included applications — Create a Solo, Midi Player, Chords and Scales, and Video Player — only the first two items look as if they were designed as part of a cohesive package. The design is messy and for the most part counterintuitive, requiring a lot of fumbling about before you figure out what's what. As if Optek Music System realized the weakness of the package, the Fretlight website suggests players purchase a copy of the Fretlight-ready version of Guitar Pro 6, a much superior program that unlocks the full potential of the instrument. If it's that good (and from what I've seen it is) Optek should just find a way to work it into the price of their guitars and toss out the bundled junk.
I've purchased many a guitar over the past few decades, each time promising myself I would take my learning beyond the three or four tunes I've managed to pick out by ear, and every one of them has ended up sold, traded, or stuffed into a closet and quickly forgotten. The Fretlight FG-421 is the first instrument that's actively taught me something. I'm not suddenly a guitar master. I can't quite play along with the intro to Dire Straights' "Money for Nothing", but after watching the notes illuminate themselves in time with the music several dozen times I can do a fair approximation.
There are less expensive ways to learn how to play the guitar. You could pick up a $99 Wal-Mart special, scour the internet for free tablature, and watch any number of YouTube videos dedicated to passing on string-plucking skills to the masses. It's easy to get started. It's also easy to get lost and fall off track. With the right software the Fretlight guitar could be the light that guides you further down the road to musical mastery.
The Fretlight FG-421 was manufactured by Optek Music Systems for the PC and Mac. Retails for $429.99. A unit was lent to us by the manufacturer for review purposes. Other models available, ranging in price from $329 to $1199 at Fretlight.com. May have rocked the cradle of love, but not easily, it's true.
My brother Richard volunteered to help, as I cannot play guitar and hold a camera at the same time. Why didn't he record me while I played? Shut up.
This is how we do it.
Here's the software suite's main screen. Lovely.
The MIDI player looks like a decade-old Winamp skin.
Just showing off my mad picture-taking skills.
Four pickups, all in a row.
The Chords and Scales sub-program in all its glory? We'll go with glory.
The whole shebang.
Random picture number seven.
Scales light up quite a few LEDs.