Optek Fretlight 421 guitar
Editors' note: The Fretlight 421 Guitar featured in this review has undergone a number of enhancements. To find out more about the current product line and the improvements that have been made, please visit Fretlight's Web site. Also, note that the information and rating contained on this product page only applies to the old product and should not be considered an accurate representation of any current product in the Fretlight line.
It's not often that we CNET editors get to pretend we're rock stars and play around with conventional musical instruments. So you can imagine our surprise and delight when Optek Music Systems contacted us with a desire to send us its $600 Fretlight 421 guitar. Why would the company want a tech site to review its specialty instrument? Put simply, this is not your average guitar. It can connect directly to a computer, and it features LED lights in the fingerboard meant for teaching novice musicians the basics of play.
Does $600 seem a bit much to spend on an instrument? Then consider that a Standard Fat Strat Fender guitar, which boasts a design strikingly similar to that of the Fretlight, would cost you between $530 to $580. Of course, the Fretlight's no Fender, but the Optek instrument is more technologically advanced than the Strat. We'll get to that later but first, the basics: The Fretlight weighs 8 pounds and is roughly standard size at just more than three feet long and about a foot across at the widest point. While our test guitar came in Classic Jet Black, Optek also offers it in Pearl White, Red Light Red, and Tobacco Sunburst. The body is alder, styled after the Stratocaster, and the neck is maple with a polyurethane finish, and it's curved for comfortable gripping, as is the case with most modern guitars. On the pearl-colored pick guard, the Fretlight features a one custom humbacker/two-single-coil setup. As with the Standard Strat, there are 21 vintage-style frets, a master volume knob, two tone-control dials, a 1/4-inch amp jack, a five-position pickup switch, and all-chrome hardware.
Now, on to the techie stuff: Along the underside of the guitar is a proprietary USB connector for which Optek provides a 10-foot guitar-to-USB cable. The same cable also has a 1/4-inch adapter for connecting the optional Dual Footswitch ($24.95). Of course, the unique characteristic is the polymer fingerboard, which is traditionally made of rosewood or maple. It features LED lights for each of the 21 frets and 6 strings, comprising 126 lights in all. Optek includes software called Guitar Power so that you can take full advantage of this feature, and there are several other software apps available for purchase on the Web site. Unfortunately, none can be used on a Mac.
Setting up the Fretlight for use on the computer is a simple task, thanks to Optek's well-illustrated instructions, which are included on the software disc as a PDF file. Note that you can also use the Fretlight as a normal electric guitar, no computer required. Once you have the guitar plugged in and the Guitar Power software open, you can choose between seven types of lessons: chords, scales, arpeggios, notes, triads, chord/scale, and chord finder. Disappointingly, no songs are included in the program, probably due to licensing issues. Once you select a lesson--say, chords--you click one of the 17 notes and a chord name (for example: Major). Then, the LEDs on the fingerboard light up to indicate where to place your fingers. For our part, we found the hand contortions for many chords to be ridiculously uncomfortable, but a guitar-playing colleague assured us that the lighting was accurate. Suffice it to say that despite this nifty technology, it would take loads of patience for someone to train him- or herself in this manner, but instructors might find it quite helpful for teaching students.
Remember how we said that the Fretlight is no Fender? Well, that applies to its performance as well. Optek's fingerboard lighting technology worked without fault, but when we hooked the guitar up to an amp, the sound quality was not quite what we would expect from a $600 instrument--or even a $400 one, if we allow for a $200 technology markup. Our resident guitar expert attested that it sounded decent and felt good to play, but it came out of tune easily, owing, he believed, to cheap tuning pegs (though they are chrome). Also, although we did not notice this in our tests, some users have complained that the fret lights can interfere with the sound of the guitar. Others have noted buzzing and interference when using the instrument near a computer monitor, but this is fairly standard for most electronic equipment. All in all, we think the Fretlight implements nifty technology in a cool way, but we're not convinced the guitar on the whole is worth the price.