Can Optek Turn Guitar Hero Fans Into Real Musicians?

Back in 1989, Rusty Shaffer decided it was time to try his hand at playing lead guitar, rather than just strumming chords. So he bought a music book and started looking at pages filled with scales and then trying to play them on his instrument. Very soon, he tired of “the head bob” as he looked back and forth between book and guitar. Instead, the 26-year-old started a company based on a new idea: have lights in the fret-board that would light up to show which notes to play.

In the twenty years since then, his Optek Music Systems has met with limited success. His first move was to bring his idea to Fender, which refused to create a model with his FretLight technology embedded because of the added cost. Frustrated, he began building his own guitars. While he’s sold 25,000 in the years since, priced from $400 to $900, the company has hardly revolutionized the industry. He says the company, while profitable, does around $1 million a year. “We’re just a small company,” he admits. Among the many problems: people are loath to buy a guitar from his website sight unseen, but retailers that carry it just hang it on the wall next to far better known brands.

Now, he insists the time is right for him to make his dent in the universe. That’s because millions of fans of Guitar Hero fans have been given a taste of the joy of playing the instrument. While Gibson and Fender no doubt have sold to some of these people, Shaffer feels they’ve done very little to capitalize on this opportunity. “Guitar Hero has fueled desire in millions of people to learn guitar. Fretlight could be the bridge for them, once they’re done playing with a toy,” says Shaffer. He’s not at all shy about lambasting the guitar industry as unimaginative and out-of-touch. “What have they done in the past fifty years to make it easier to learn guitar?,” he asks. He claims the average guitar player will end up buying six of the instruments, making the mystery even greater.

I think he’s got plenty of more work to do, in particular when it comes to building his brand. And it’s not enough for FretLight to be known as the best guitar to buy if you want to learn to play. At $400-plus, it’s also got to be considered a decent guitar in its own right. I don’t believe most people would buy a training guitar, if they knew they’d have to spend just as much or more to get one they’d actually want to play.

But Shaffer does have a lot of promising avenues opening up. He says he’s in talks with Best Buy, which might sell his guitars along with conventional models in the music stores-within-a-store the retailer has set up in 85 of its outlets in the past year. And he expects to have an iPhone app available next year, so that iPhone and iPod Touch owners could call up “lessons” on the device and have them wirelessly trigger the lights on those FretLight guitars.

Most important, he says, is a plan to create a YouTube-like service, in the hopes of sparking the creation of more lessons. At this point, one of the company’s eight employees has to do the programming to synchronize the lights with the “lessons”, which range from basic chords, to charting famous solos from the rock-n-roll greats. (Personally, I kind of dug just watching the fretboard light up during my demo from Schaffer, as it reflected the notes that Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore was playing during a solo in “Comfortably Numb” filmed in 1994).

He says that by next year, anyone will be able to easily post such videos of themselves to a Fretlight site. That way, other Fretlight customers and prospective customers would have far more content to learn. That’s got Shaffer dreaming big dreams. “I’ve been at this for 25 years, but I truly believe I will end up selling more guitars than Fender or Gibson. And I think that I’ll be able to sell this company for $100 million in the next five years.”

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