Fretlight Guitars Light Up to Teach You Chords (Video)
Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Jimi Hendrix — if you've ever wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the guitar gods, you'll need to know how to wield an ax (that's "play a guitar," for all you squares out there). But if you've struggled with traditional learning methods, a Fretlight guitar — by illuminating the spots on a fretboard that a guitarist needs to hold in order to produce a certain sound — may be able to help.
"We need to give people positive, immediate feedback," Rusty Shaffer, inventor of the Fretlight guitar, told us. As it turns out, simply getting a guitar is rarely enough inspiration to actually learn how to play it. "The industry statistics are that 80 percent of beginners quit," Shaffer said.
While a Fretlight is not a substitute for a dedicated teacher, it does take out a lot of hassle newbies face when they try to learn from a book or the Internet. Shaffer dubs this phenomenon "the head-bob," and it occurs when a guitarist has to look at the fretboard, then back to the sheet music/tablature/chord chart, then back to the fretboard again a number of times before strumming a single note.
The product may conjure up memories of "Guitar Hero," Activision's popular video game franchise that cast players as rock stars with plastic guitar controllers. The big difference is that while "Guitar Hero" was essentially a high-octane game of "Simon" with five colored buttons, a Fretlight is an actual guitar. There's no game involved — just learn how to play.
With the Fretlight, learning chords this way is easy: Simply place your fingers over the colored lights and strum.
Playing chords is one thing, but helping users learn entire songs is where the product really shines. By plugging the guitar into a PC or Mac with a standard USB cable, it can interface with Fretlight's software. This program contains both guided lessons and the capability to download tablatures (essentially sheet music for guitars) and MIDIs (a ubiquitous file format for computer-generated music) from the Internet.
The guided lessons are similar to what you'd find on an instructional DVD. A teacher introduces a song, walks you through the basic tablature, and imparts a few tricks about how to get an accurate sound. The difference is that a Fretlight illuminates the notes as the instructor plays them, so you don't have to constantly pause and rewind.
Guitarists can also slow down the song as much as they need in order to get it right, during both instructional videos and MIDIs. Following a series of slowly blinking lights is much easier than trying to parse arcane tablature sheets or puzzle out a demanding solo by ear. [See also: Video: Fretlight Guitars Are Designed For Learning To Play]
Since the program reads tabs and MIDIs, it's friendly to aging rockers, pop aficionados and everyone in between. "You've got everything from classic rock to the newest Pink song," said Shaffer. "Any song you want." There's no need to go out and buy another guitar once you know the basics, either: You can turn the fretboard illumination off, and it functions just like any other ax. The sound quality isn't quite up to snuff with guitars of similar price, but it's not bad, either. That's the trade-off for faster learning.
Fretlight will not replace a real human being teaching guitar, and anyone who's already comfortable reading tabs may find its usefulness limited. That said, for raw recruits to the world of rock and roll, a Fretlight may be the difference between mastering every track on "Exile On Main Street" and giving up halfway through learning "Sweet Virginia."
Although Fretlight is a novel idea, it's by no means the only game in town for up-and-coming guitarists. Ubisoft's "Rocksmith" is a video game more akin to "Guitar Hero," but it works similarly. Plug any electric guitar into your game system through a custom USB cable, then work your way up through a selection of increasingly challenging songs. Instead of an illuminating fretboard, players trust their fingers and follow on-screen instructions. The recommended guitar is $130; the game, including the cable, is $80.
Fretlight guitars range from $300 for an acoustic to $900 for a stage-quality electric, while the software that reads tabs and MIDIs costs $100. Fretlight may not make you into the next Jimmy Page, but it might just let you play a few of his songs sooner than you'd think.