By David Rocks
The Good Nifty idea for learning songs and scales
The Bad Weak documentation and missing important software
The Bottom Line Cool tool, if you're serious about learning and have some extra cash
Digital technology long ago seems to have worked its way into just about every aspect of music production. Electronic keyboards are nearly ubiquitous. Digital samplers have become standard in just about any pop recording. When a singer is off-key, his or her pitch can be corrected electronically. And many guitar sounds are tweaked with electronic effects to make them fuller, richer, or weirder.
But the electric guitar itself has remained largely untouched by the digital revolution. For the most part, guitars use the same analog technology that the original electrics did seven decades ago.
Now, a Windham (N.H.) company called Optek Music Systems has applied electronics to the guitar in an effort to make learning to play easier. Though the Optek Fretlight 421 ($600 online, plus shipping) sounds, plays, and feels like a regular electric, its fretboard has tiny red LED lights at every string position on every fret. When the guitar is plugged into a computer (via the USB port with a special cable), the LEDs light up to show where to put your fingers to play various chords and melodies.
When a song calls for a D chord, for instance, the LEDs light up on the first and third strings at the second fret, the second string on the third fret, and at the nut on the fourth string (indicating that string is to be played open).
STANDARD FORM. It's a pretty nifty idea. When used with a software package called M-Player, the lights can guide you through songs that are recorded in MIDI (a format for music on computers). And you can put on the brakes to slow the tempo to as little as 10% of the original beat, which allows time to look at the lights and learn the chord positions before they change to the next chord.
The software works with a foot switch (a $25 add-on) that allows you to stop the song whenever you want if you get behind the chord changes. Also, other software packages show every note in any of dozens of scales and modes.
The guitar itself is a typical Fender Stratocaster copy. It has the classic cutaway alder-wood body, a bolt-on maple neck, three pickups (one humbucker and two single-coils), and a five-way switch. The neck plays well, with smooth action, and when the lights aren't lit you can't see them under the fretboard. Plug it in and the pickups offers a serviceable -- if not stellar -- tone. In short, it's a fine but not exceptional guitar.
PLAYING SOLO. But few would buy the Fretlight simply as a guitar for gigging or jamming with friends. What makes this guitar distinctive is the lights in the fretboard. The most useful aspect, for me, was the scales. When I was working on songs using odd scales that I'm not particularly familiar with, I plugged in the guitar and saw every note on the neck that belonged to that scale, making it a snap to figure out a new melody that fit with the chord changes.
I do, though, have some quibbles with the Fretlight. First, the guitar arrived with the meager three pages of instructions tucked away on a CD-ROM, which I didn't immediately discover. So understanding how to use the software was hit or miss at first. Also, I initially couldn't get the sample MIDI tunes to play along with me while I was learning the songs.
After a couple of weeks of trial and error and, finally, a little help from Optek, I tweaked a couple of settings on my computer and got the sound working. I also had some problems early on getting M-Player to display correctly on my computer, though that was soon fixed with an updated version of the software.
COSTLY CROONING? Plus, only a couple of software packages showing the scales on the fretboard were included in the price of the guitar. M-Player, by contrast, came in a 30-day teaser package that includes seven demo songs (Wild Thing by The Troggs, Every Breath You Take by The Police, and Fleetwood Mac's Landslide, among others). After the 30-day trial expires, the software costs $40. And albums of songs by more than two-dozen artists ranging from Barry Manilow to U2 cost $20 apiece.
Sure, paying for the songs seems reasonable since presumably the artists who wrote and recorded them get a cut, though it would be nice if Optek were to include another half-dozen or so as freebies. The M-Player software, on the other hand, should simply be built into the cost of the guitar. Yes, the scales are a great feature, but I suspect most people really use the Fretlight to learn songs they don't know.
The Fretlight is a cool application of digital technology to the guitar. And it works well once you figure it out. I would recommend buying it if you're serious about learning to play and have a couple of hundred bucks extra to pay for a guitar (about the difference between a regular guitar of the same quality and the Fretlight). For a better guitar player, it can come in handy for learning new material or scales, but it's far from essential.
Rocks is BusinessWeek's senior international news editor in New York