In 1993, Radiohead assured us that “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” but, as that band is composed of admitted creeps and/or weirdos, this supposition is suspect. The guitar-based rhythm game explosion of the latter half of this decade, however, proves that if nothing else everyone at least wants to play guitar. Yet while outlets from South Park to XKCD are quick to point out the not-too-subtle difference between playing an instrument and playing a game, Optek Music Systems looks to blur the line between string-picking and button-mashing with their FretLight Interactive Learning System.
Optek’s innovative approach to musical education is two-pronged. It’s most recognizable component is its specially designed FretLight guitar. Throughout the training process, unmistakable visual cues are provided through a series of — wait for it — “fret lights” mounted beneath the guitar’s fingerboard. These lights react to instructions from the second component of the system. Its companion software package is a unique set of applications and training exercises designed to teach everything from guitar tuning to music theory.
When I opened the packaging to reveal my review unit, a handsome FG-421 Standard in what Optek calls “Renegade Red,” I was relieved. It at least looked like a regular guitar. Moreover, it was solidly constructed, and even through my tiny practice amp provided a warm and substantial sound. It’s a relatively respectable Strat copy for the money (around $500 American), with a two single-coil/one humbucker pickup configuration and some sharp chrome hardware, but it’s the innovative fret lights — those tiny red markers that all but scream “put your fingers here” — that really make this axe stand out from you average student instrument.
Also included were the obligatory manual and case full of install discs, as well as another accoutrement that seemed a bit more exotic. Rather than a typical instrument cable, the FretLight relies on a specialized 8-pin DIN (which I originally mistook for a 5-pin MIDI) to USB cable with an additional junction for an optional foot pedal. This cable connects your FretLight guitar to your PC or Mac, thus allowing the software to turn on and off the individual fret lights as necessary.
A closer inspection of the guitar itself revealed that, situated behind the standard 1/4 in. jack, the FretLight boasts the necessary DIN output. And this isn’t the instrument’s only interesting divergence. Upon further scrutiny, its fretboard was revealed to be made not of rosewood or ebony, but of a dense, sturdy polymer. Between this rather exotic fingerboard and its more conventional maple neck lies the integrated circuit board that truly makes the FretLight a unique training (and playing) experience.
Obviously, the FretLight’s strategically-placed LEDs are of no use without the system’s specialized software. Unfortunately, this was where the process first becomes tedious. The FretLight training system consists of a number of separate discs — an intro DVD, an installation CD-ROM and an additional DVD featuring four free lessons for use with the system’s Video Player — which could prove a little daunting for folks simply looking to plug and play with minimal fuss. Thankfully, my intro disc was clearly marked, and proved an ideal place to start.
For the most part, the face (and voice) of the FretLight system is that of Nate Comp. Nate is Optek’s own Director of Music Education, and he comes through as mellow and confident as any guitar teacher worth his salt as he guides you through the finer points of setting up your new purchase. His matter-of-fact explanation of the FretLight and its related software made a fairly deep undertaking seem infinitely more accessible. Sadly, my primary knock against the product became apparent as Nate further elucidated. This software takes a number of forms and, though Nate capably explains the general aspects of each, the sheer breadth of it still seemed a tad intimidating. FretLight Video Player? Okay. Lesson Player? Check. FretLight M-Player? Guitarz? Improviser? Uh’ AxMaster? It’s obviously a well-intentioned and robust system, but, particularly in one’s early days with the applications, it can sometimes seem a bit too much. Mind you, it’s not the utilities themselves that are particularly problematic. In fact, each performs its prescribed tasks ably. It’s simply that there are so many different apps at work that, once again, it can make an otherwise intuitive system seem daunting.
The core of the Fretlight software package is its Lesson Player. Not surprisingly, it relies upon downloadable sets of Lesson Packs to deliver proper instruction. Thankfully, the entire first Lesson Pack (representing a full 30 lessons) is included. In addition to teaching basics like chord structure and scales, these lessons include a robust glossary of musical terminology and an incredibly competent explanation of basic music theory. Each lesson is broken down into individual objectives and exercises that are fully interactive and use the fret lights to translate the instruction provided into an impossible-to-misunderstand visual model. Further, things are deconstructed to bite-sized chunks of information — understanding a time signature, practicing a picking exercise, etc. — which serves to make the lessons themselves easily accessible even to new players.
These central lessons are supplemented through the Fretlight Video Player, playing exercises in which the riffs presented on-screen are reflected through the movement of lights on the guitar’s neck. A sliding selector even allows you to change the tempo of individual runs so as to keep the level of on-screen action more in tune with your personal skill level. (Sadly, this particularly innovative control is introduced by the chirpily annoying Brook as opposed to your regular rock ‘n’ roll motivational speaker, Nate.) Four separate video lessons are also freely included, and if they are any indicator this portion of the system provides an even more robust introduction to practical theory, ample opportunities for play-along practice and an enlightening instruction on building arpeggios. Unfortunately, the Video Player again shows the system’s structural seams by suggesting that you drag your DVD-based video lessons to your desktop for easy access.
The FretLight system also includes a number of other tools with a less strictly instructional but far more broadly creative scope. It’s M-Player, for example, is a MIDI player for song tutorials that breaks a title down into individual guitar tracks, thus allowing players to learn the lead riffs or rhythm chords from pop classics while at the same time gaining a better understanding of song structure. This is aided by the AxMaster module, a comprehensive reference tool that can highlight any chord, scale or arpeggio on the neck so as to help you learn root notes in all positions. Likewise, the Guitarz software is a reference tool for chords and scales that allows users to build custom progressions via copious drop-down lists of roots and voicings. These chord progressions are then displayed via the fret
lights to help you take a piece from conception to performance. It’s also of note that Guitarz supports tablature files in the .tab format, thus allowing you to import and play tablature using the same visible interface. Of course, as free guitar tab has, like the noble buffalo, been hunted to near extinction on the modern internet, this innovative feature lacks some of the luster that it might once have possessed.
Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising aspect of the FretLight’s supplementary arsenal proved to be the Improviser. This application encourages you to improve your playing by practicing in a truly unique manner. First you choose a selection from an ample library of 60 or so accompanying tracks, and then, as the selected song plays, Improviser suggests a scale (or a set of chord tones) for accompaniment and lights up each note on the guitar. This is an amazingly empowering experience that allows players to hone their developing chops by doing the unthinkable: playing real music.
The Improviser represents the FretLight system at its best. While the overall product is a perfectly ample analog for a traditional guitar teacher in most aspects, what Optek has done is truly craft a system that tailors learning to the needs of the pupil and provides adequate hand-holding while still affording the opportunity to feel like a developing musician as opposed to a clumsy student. That being said, the FretLight is, at its very core, an educational tool and, as is the case with most musical instruction, the fun can sometimes be eclipsed by the hard work inherent in the learning process. And even putting aside the fact that learning an instrument itself is unavoidably difficult, the overall system is certainly not without its flaws.
To some extent, Optek has adopted a scattershot approach to teaching, and nowhere is this clearer than with regard to the FretLight’s compulsory software. Rather than a single, manageable, modular application, it spreads its unique functionality across a number of specialized programs. Early on it can be a bit of a hassle to try and discern where to go and what to do to scratch each individual musical itch. Still, Optek is a relatively young company, and as technology becomes even more advance and accessible, I foresee further refinement to their products that can truly make the FretLight system achieve its full promise.
In short, the FretLight is a good product and the system’s methods of instruction are sound even if not always perfectly implemented. From tuning via reference tones to identifying string notes to powering through your first scale, the FretLight system is comprehensive and boasts tons of potential. Though elements of the training software could certainly do with some refinement, it’s hard not to recommend this product to new players looking to learn an instrument at their own pace or even to more knowledgeable guitarist who simply seek to gain a more complete understanding of their instrument.
As a player who falls more into the former category than the latter, I can honestly say that my short time spent with the FretLight was both enlightening and productive. While it certainly didn’t turn me into Brian May – a feet that would require not only more than a couple months with a digital guitar tutor, but degrees in Math and Physics to boot – it did afford me far more practical exposure to the mechanics of guitar playing than similar stints with more traditional fare like the obligatory Mel Bay book.
While it may lack the idle appeal of something like Guitar Hero, Optek’s FretLight is a quality product that is as accessible or as challenging as an individual user needs. It’s certainly no game, but it does manage to inject some fun, flexability and much needed freedom into the realm of musical instruction.
This review first appeared in GeekDad.