These are all reasons why I was drawn to the Fretlight (then known as the Smartlight) when I reviewed it in the October 1998 issue of GP. I had a booming teaching practice at the time, and I saw first hand how positively students responded to the LEDs on the fretboard. After the video-game aspect wore off (and I switched the lights off), I saw that students—beginners and intermediates alike—actually remembered a lot of the info that had just lit up.
Here we are nearly a decade later, and the folks at Optek have made a host of improvements to their cool tool. For starters, you get a much more solid guitar to illuminate, because the 451 Pro comes out of the same factory in China that builds a lot of guitars for Ibanez and many other companies. It looks sweet with its creamy, understated maple top, and it plays well, too, with a medium action and clean, stainless-steel frets. The frets are seated in Optek’s patented Advanced Polymer Fretboard that stealthily conceals the LEDs until they need to show you something. When this guitar isn’t connected to a computer, you wouldn’t even notice there’s anything under the fretboard. An added bonus, according to Optek, is that the density of this material actually increases sustain. Whether it’s because of that or some other reason, this thing rings out a good long time. Another upgrade is the fact that you no longer need a breakout box to interface with a computer. All it takes is the included 8-pin-to-USB cable, and you’re a few mouse clicks away from your first lesson. At press time, the Fretlight is pretty much PC only. The only Mac fun comes in the form of a GarageBand plug-in ($29 retail), which doesn’t give you access to all that Fretlight has to offer, but does allow the Mac user to light up hundreds of scales and chords.
Installing the software on a Windows machine couldn’t have been much easier. After putting the CD-ROM in, I saw chords, scales, and songs dancing on the fretboard in no more than five minutes. The installation CD also gives you several software programs to get you burning, including the Fretlight Lesson Player (with 30 free beginner lessons), Guitarz! 6.6 (an on-screen chord and scale book that shows a truckload of patterns and voicings in all the positions), and AxMaster (an interactive lesson program). You also get two very cool MIDI players: the M-Player (for learning famous tunes that can be purchased through Optek) and the Improviser (for jamming along with backing tracks). We’ll explore these more in a moment, but first, a caveat: These are all trial programs that must be purchased after the initial 15-day period expires. The prices range from 35 to 60 bucks, which, depending on how much use you get out of them, isn’t all that much, but it kind of made me feel like I was at a burrito shop that charges extra for guacamole. (Optek says this is done so that people only need to buy the software that best suits their needs for their particular ability level.)
I put my teacher hat back on and checked out the Fretlight Lesson Player, which gets the beginner started in a nice, easy fashion. There is a good explanation of how to connect the guitar, what all the controls do, and what you might use the various pickups for. Players can debate some of the assessments—such as whether a bridge humbucker really is brighter than a middle-position single-coil—but it’s good to get students listening and thinking about these things. Subsequent lessons teach counting simple rhythms, reading tab, and then combining rhythm and melody.
The Chords section takes you through the C,A,G,E,D grips and their corresponding 7th chords for a good foundation. But, because they use only sharps for the accidentals, the flat seventh for a C7 is spelled A#. Grrr! (Optek reports that it has addressed this problem in subsequent Lesson Paks, and the company is also providing an update to Lesson Pak 1 that will correct the flat/sharp issue for the first 30 lessons. This update will be available on the Optek website.) One cool thing about all these lessons is when you click on a picture onscreen, the Fretlight fretboard lights up correspondingly. Optek offers tons of lessons for purchase online, grouped either by level or style, so you can just get blues or rock lessons if that’s what you’re into.
The Guitarz! program is a good resource for chords and scales, but, here I go again, they misname a lot of notes because every accidental is written as a flat—as in an E major scale being spelled E, Gb, Ab, etc. D’oh! If we’re going to take the time to teach people some pretty esoteric things like Hungarian major and minor scales, let’s at least get the note names right in an E major scale. Having said that, if a student of mine ever learned all the notes in a chord, I didn’t much care if they called a G# an Ab.
The most valuable and fun tools for my money were the two MIDI players. Improviser, which comes with a boatload of free jam tracks, plays chord sequences, and lights up appropriate scales and modes to facilitate jamming along. Load in a blues in E and light up E minor pentatonic, E blues, E major pentatonic, or cycle between the three. Playing Wes-style octaves with the “Bebop Major Jam” and bouncing between a C major scale and a C bebop major scale (which adds a flat sixth) was a great workout. The Improviser comes with a tempo slider (to slow down or speed up the progression) and a loop function.
The M-Player is for learning Fretlight-compatible tunes purchased from Optek’s huge library. You can get anything from SRV to G’N R, from Marvin Gaye to Travis Tritt. You can then choose what lights up on the fretboard: EZ chords, the more accurate rhythm guitar, or solo. Here’s where the tempo slider and loop function really pay off. I tried my hand at the “Sultans of Swing” solos, and I had an absolute blast. Not only are they accurate, but the ability to easily loop the sections and slow them down made the learning curve a lot mellower.
To gauge how the Fretlight would work with a true beginner, I placed it in the hands of someone who had never played a note, and had her navigate through a couple of the first lessons. It really worked. She was able to fret notes, and play along with the introductory single-note rhythmic exercises in no time. The idea here is you hope that after a few repetitions, muscle memory will kick in, your ear will get synced up with your muscles, and you’ll be off and running. An exercise—or a series of exercises—doesn’t add up to a musical statement, but neither does any student’s first lesson. Which brings me to my overriding assessment of this tool. As with any teaching method, you will get out of the Fretlight what you put into it. There’s no free lunch when it comes to playing guitar. Over the years, I’ve heard every excuse players use to avoid doing the work that it takes to get good on guitar. “I don’t like private lessons—I’d rather teach myself.” “I could never learn from a DVD—I need interaction.” “I hate method books—I play from the heart.” “You can’t learn anything by reading a guitar magazine.” [Editor’s note: Ouch.]
The fact is, any of these study paths could work great for you if you apply yourself, and the same holds true for the Fretlight. And, like every other method, ultimately you will have to get out of the house and go play what you’ve learned with other musicians. While it’s certainly not for everyone, I think this system could be just the thing to bridge the gap between video gamers and guitar
players (and any music retailer or kid will tell you we’ve been losing ground in that
battle). It might seem like a lot of cash—especially for a beginner—but it’s worth noting that you can get into the Fretlight Acoustic for $399. Optek has a lot of exciting stuff waiting in the wings to keep this technology fresh and relevant so stay tuned. Now, quit sitting around reading a magazine and get practicing!