Fretlight: Learn to play guitar 10 times faster

LED lights and a USB connection can help aspiring musicians learn their favorite tunes.

Fretlight founder Rusty Shaffer plugged in his guitar to the computer to show CNET how it lights up to favorite songs. Josh Miller/CNET

Author Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a creative genius, but who has the time for that?

Rusty Shaffer has a guitar and a digital tool kit that can turn you into the next Eddie Van Halen in a fraction of the time. Last week, Shaffer, the founder of Fretlight Guitar, visited CNET's office to show us how his FG-421 guitar worked.

A laptop with Guitar Pro 6 software preinstalled translated songs that had been downloaded from tablature, a site well-known in the music world for displaying songs in the form of instrument fingering rather than notes on a sheet. The song data is then feed into the guitar's built-in microprocessor via a USB connection. The LED lights on the fretboard change positions to show aspiring musicians where to put their fingers.

Before Fretlight Guitar added this feature, the guitar was limited to displaying different scales. That must have been boring, especially when it had to compete with options such as ( now-defunct ) Guitar Hero, which was, of course, a game not a learning tool.

Fretlight won't pick up where Guitar Hero left off, but I can see it as a useful practice tool. When looking on the computer screen, you can zoom into a certain section of the music and set it on a loop, and slow it down when necessary.

I understand the frustration of practicing for hours to learn a song. After all, I spent four years playing the clarinet while I was in high school. For full disclosure, I am an inexperienced guitar player. Shaffer recommended I try to play the song "Smoke on the Water," a perfect tune for a beginner. It took me a couple of minutes to get a hang of reading the faint red LED lights on the guitar. It felt awkward, like singing "Like a Virgin" during a karaoke party--without a shot of tequila to loosen up.

Stephen Beacham, a CNET producer and an experienced guitarist, played "Thunderstruck." Like me, it took Beacham a few minutes to adjust to the lights on the finger board. But when he did get the hang of it, he played the song from memory. No red lights needed.

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In the future, Shaffer hopes that the next version of Fretlight's guitars can hook up wirelessly, to encourage remote teaching. For example, imagine if a music teacher can be in California but control a student's guitar in Mississippi. However, any guitar won't do. You'd have to buy a custom-made guitar from Fretlight for $429, which includes the actual instrument, a USB cable, an owner's manual, Fretlight Studio software, and free video lessons.

"Learning how to play the guitar is too hard. The guitar industry is stagnant. It has stayed flat like that for the last 20 years. Making it cheaper doesn't help. [Fretlight] is going to get you going and fuel your passion to [play]," Shaffer said.

 

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