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We’ve all seen it, and wondered just how it works – it’s that guitar with the little red lights in the fretboard that shows you where to find chords and scales. This month we took a look at the Fretlight FG-451 Pro from Optek Music Systems, to see how it works as a guitar and as a teaching tool.
The Frelight is a unique instrument, featuring a 21-fret LED grid buried underneath an advanced polymer fretboard – plugging the guitar into your computer, and using the included software (more about this later) causes the LEDs to light up and display various chords or scales, depending on what you would like to learn.
There are four options of the guitar you can purchase at different price levels, meaning that the Fretlight is feasible for those looking to get into guitar without much initial outlay. The model we received is Optek’s top-of-the-line model, the Pro. It features a Swamp ash body, with curved flamed maple top in a natural finish. Humbuckers in the neck and bridge, a middle position single-coil and locking, sealed tuners rounded out the package.
The guitar plays fairly well for having an non-conventional fretboard – the maple neck in a “C” shape felt smooth, and the fret job was respectable – but the sum of all parts results in a somewhat mediocre guitar tone when plugged into an amp. I found the tone to be a bit underwhelming, and it was hard to keep the sound from becoming muddy in higher-gain situations. That being said, most musicians would not approach this as a gigging guitar – with the Pro’s comparitively high entry price ($899.99), one might be better off getting one of the cheaper models for something that will probably never see a stage.
Of course, it would be easy to sit and point out how the Fretlight compares to a Classic Player Strat or Tele, but that’s unfair; all models of the Fretlight line, the Pro included, were designed to be robust teaching tools. When combined with the included and optional software, the FG-451 turns into a powerful instrument.
Setup and installation of everything was a breeze, and there’s a DVD video to help you out if you get stuck – even the most computer phobic users should be able to figure this one out. The included cable plugs right into a USB port on the computer and there is an input for an optional footswitch to control different features of the software. One note – the Fretlight software was designed for a PC, so if you run Mac, you’ll have to find another solution, or just use the guitar with an amp.
There is so much with the software that is beyond the scope of this review for me to go into it with any detail, so I’ll just give you a brief overview.
Some of you may know about Guitar Power – a scale, chord and arpeggio reference tool. This is essentially the same product with the added feature of being able to light up frets on the guitar. The interface is quite intuitive; you basically pick the root note and it’ll give you choices for all the chord shapes, scales and arpeggios your little heart desires. There is also a chord finder feature, which you can use to build chords and see what they sound like. Guitar Power will play the chord and show you on the neck – it is exactly this kind of interactivity the Fretlight was made for. This software was very useful, and the best part is that Guitar Power is free.
Fretlight Lesson Player
The lesson player is used to play the included and additional lesson packs. The Fretlight comes with 30 lessons, and additional packages are downloadable from Fretlight’s website. The packs come in various styles as well as in different playing levels and run $49.95 each.
Each lesson has some text and then a track that will play, while showing you everything on the guitar in real time. The lessons have many helpful interactive images, as well as additional tips from your official Fretlight instructor, Nate (he’s good people). These are great in breaking up the lesson because, at least in this first pack, there’s a lot of reading – not necessarily what users might want to do. All in all, given the amount of money one would spend on live guitar lessons, this software is a fair way to get some home instruction at your own pace.
The M-Player ($39.95) plays MIDI versions of popular songs you can play along to. It displays the chords and scales as the song plays, and lights up on the guitar as well. The software also allows you to change the tempo without changing the pitch, so you can find a speed that is most comfortable for you. Songs are available online and can be bought individually for $2.99-$3.99 or in bundles at various prices. This is a fun idea, but it might become a bit expensive if you have a long list of songs to learn.
Guitarz ($59.95) is a lot like Guitar Power, but allows you to easily build chord progressions that will light up on the guitar – a good tool for composing and soloing over your own songs. The interface is not as intuitive as Guitar Power, but there are a lot more options.
By far the most exciting feature is the ability to open up any tab file and have it light up the neck of the guitar. Of course, not all tab on the Internet is correct, so Guitarz will allow you to go in and edit the file until you get it right. Of all the software available for the Fretlight, this is definitely the most impressive program.
AxMaster ($34.95) is a guitar fretboard diagram creation tool which allows you to make custom diagrams and display them on the neck of the guitar. This is great for creating voicings and inversions in every position. You can also choose a scale and have it show all the notes on the neck of the guitar. You can add or remove sections of notes, just show notes on individual strings and even save your diagrams as images for use in other programs. The interface is a bit more advanced than other software and it takes a little longer to learn, but it seems to be the next natural step after you’ve exhausted the capabilities of Guitar Power.
Overall, I had great experience with the Fretlight Pro guitar. My only gripe is I would have liked the guitar to the sound a bit better plugged in for the price tag, but the real value of this guitar is not in the guitar itself but in the software that interacts with it. Unfortunately the software and additional lessons can be a bit pricey, so how much value you’ll get out of it depends on how deep your wallet is.
Nevertheless, if you’re set on learning, this is a great way to go.
Optek Music Systems
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