Years ago I thought I could be in a rock band (right around the same time I thought I could make money writing poetry) but I eventually resigned myself to the fact that I’d never be a great guitarist. I didn’t have the drive to practice and the act of soloing confounded me completely. How did you play along with the Zep and the Beatles? How do you get great? How do you meet groupies? As time passed, I gave up and my guitars lay fallow in the corner, the groupies forgotten.
However, I think Fretlight may have given me a new lease on life. Fretlight makes guitars with LEDs embedded in the neck. You connect these guitars to a computer, run a MIDI player, and then follow along with the lights as the music plays. You can slow things down or speed them up and loop parts of the song over and over to practice certain riffs. The Fretlight will literally show you how to play all of your favorite songs.
Generally, the $429 Fretlight is a one-trick pony although the guitar is obviously quite exciting as a teaching tool and – more important – a long distance training system. A teacher in a central location could teach multiple students at once, running them through chords, riffs, and scales by flashing the LEDs on the neck. This, according to Fretlight, is in the works and is one of the most interesting parts of the system.
In short, the only difference between a “regular” guitar and this one is the lighting, and I think the lighting makes a huge difference. Some dudes just want to know how to play a cool riff. Why not make it easy for them? Would Slash be caught dead with this around his neck? Now, probably not but as a young riffster trying to learn D’yer Maker? Maybe.
In terms of playability I found the guitar itself to quite nice with excellent action and a great sound. The guitar has three pickups, two single and one humbucker. My buddy, Rick, shown above playing the Fretlight with great gusto, found the strings a bit tight on the out-of-the-box model but Marc of IntoMobile, an accomplished guitarist, found the entire kit to be well-made and on par with a mid- to entry-level Strat. Fretlight, in fact, makes their guitars overseas in the same factory as another major player in the guitar industry, so you’re not too far off from industry standard.
The guitar uses a few pieces of software, including a free MIDI player as well as Guitar Pro 6, a piece of training software already popular with guitarists. It works on Macs and PCs, and there is a separate break-out box/foot-pedal that lets you pause your playing or perform other simple actions.
Is the Fretlight a good guitar? Yes. Is it a good training tool? Yes. Is it for everyone? I don’t know. In some ways I can see what concerns critics would have. For example, would Clapton have become great if he had a “crutch” like the Fretlight? Would Jimi have been a better guitarist if he didn’t have to sit by his radio and listen obsessively to every note of every song he ever loved? I don’t know. I honestly don’t.
This is a tool. It’s a teaching tool and a method for training guitarists. While I know that very few Jimis will appear regardless of the tools at their disposal. Talent is rare and beautiful. But it takes a while to get good and maybe this will give a young kid the leg up he or she needs to do a better job than I did at becoming a rock star. The only thing the Fretlight can’t do is show you how to get those groupies and, as I’ve gotten older, that quest has gotten considerably less interesting anyway. Now I’m just happy to play Smoke On The Water.