For as laid back a reputation as most musicians have, they sure can be snooty sometimes. For instance, I have a friend who's played guitar for the last fifteen years or so, and the last thing you want to do is casually suggest a game of Guitar Hero or Rock Band around him. That is, unless you don't mind sideways smirks and frequent derisive remarks. While he doesn't get nasty about it, I was always tempted to wait for him to play a game of Street Fighter so I could make quips about how he should just learn how to fight a "real" opponent.
Well, you can imagine how happy I was to finally get my hands on the Fretlight system. My friend's insolence notwithstanding, playing Guitar Hero did set off a spark in me, and I often found myself wondering how easily I could learn some of my favorite anthems on a genuine musical instrument. Little did I suspect that even the fine Fretlight system could inspire some snobbery. But we'll get to Snooty Friend B later in this review.
Yeah, it's a toy . . . for your soul
First off, let me extend Snooty Friend A an apology. He was wrong to bring it up constantly, but I now see his point about how music games are a little goofy. If you've put in the time to learn that DragonForce song on Hard, you need to know right now that dedicating a similar amount of effort might have you playing a moderately complex song on a real guitar. And as exhilarating and satisfying as Rock Band is, it doesn't come close to the thrill of mastering a real piece and knowing you are on the way to composing your own riffs.
As exhilarating and satisfying as Rock Band is, it doesn't come close to the thrill of mastering a real piece.
The Fretlight system comes with a beautiful, genuine musical instrument. There are a variety of axes available (see, I'm talking like a veteran musician already!) in alder or swamp ash and a rock rainbow of colors. Mine is a pearl-white Stratocaster-style unit with a sleek maple neck, one humbucker and two single coils, two tone controls, a five-position switch, a volume knob, a tremolo bridge featuring fully adjustable saddles, and a snazzy pearloid pickguard. What makes this guitar unique, though, is the proprietary fretboard.
See, built into the board are LEDs that light up to guide your finger placement across all twenty-one frets. These aid immensely in helping you learn a song. Heck, I still look at the keyboard when I type, so I'm not even sure how lost I'd be if I always had to look up at a page or a screen when learning a new tune on the guitar. With the Fretlight system, you can focus more wholly on your instrument, building an intimacy and a harmony with it that is otherwise broken by glances at musical notation or an instructor. Finger placement is key to mastering the guitar and I have never seen a better tool for learning it than this.
The instrument connects to a USB port on your PC via a special cable. When hooked up to Fretlight-enabled software, the music that is played onscreen is reflected on your fretboard. That means that you can watch the instructor go through the piece once or twice to get an idea of the proper positioning then spend the rest of the time concentrating on your fingers playing across your guitar.
If your ego swelled with pride every time you unlocked an Achievement or Trophy handling a plastic guitar, you're going to love the feeling you get as you unlock song after song - not on some video game playlist but in your own skill set that will follow you wherever you go for the rest of your life. It's like a toy for the soul.
This ain't YouTube; this is serious
After unpacking my new Fretlight guitar and installing the software, I was eager to plug in and get started. The disc comes with two suites of beginner lessons and samplers for the intermediate and advanced courses. You start out with a little bit of background instruction, but you are soon set to picking notes and learning your first scale. As the instructor plays in the video, the same notes light up on your fretboard in real-time. You don't have to guess where he is pressing down the strings and you don't need to curse the camera angles - it's all lit up for you, literally at your fingertips.
In the middle of my first lesson, Snooty Friend B showed up. B is closer to a pro than my other friend. She actually studied formally for years, went to music camp in the summer as a kid, played at recitals - the whole nine yards. She's sensible enough to enjoy both music games and the genuine article, but the claws came out for Fretlight:
"This doesn't show you anything," she said. "Unless you learn how to read music and understand theory, you're pretty much wasting your time. You'll learn a couple of songs and not much else."
The bad news for me is that people seem to want to rain on my music parade sometimes, but the good news for everyone is that the Fretlight Studio software comes with extensive written lessons that supplement the main course material and accommodate a more conventional learning style. There is a library of chords and scales displayed in tablature, a multitude of exercises with incorporated multimedia content, and an introduction to music theory. Best of all, the notes you are learning onscreen are also lit up on the fretboard so you can practice scales and chord progressions at your own pace with the same smart teaching style as found in the video courses.
When combined with the video lessons, this makes for a comprehensive approach to learning the guitar that not only got me thirsty for knowledge but also impressed my professionally trained friend.
Break through your limits
There is over two hours of video instruction included with the Fretlight guitar. Any part of a lesson can easily be looped so you can have the same fragment play repeatedly while you polish your skills. Most of the time, you can adjust the tempo of the piece to aid in your mastery of it. You can even put on a backing track and jam to it with the guidance of Fretlight: the fretboard will light up showing you which notes are available within your chosen scales.
With consistent practice, you will conquer everything on the enclosed disc, but that doesn't have to be the end of your journey. The Fretlight store not only boasts a selection of guitars and amplifiers; you can also download instructional packs with lessons and play-along songs, in addition to individual favorites from classic bands. Similar to the downloadable content for Rock Band, these songs are Fretlight-prepped and are offered both individually and in bundles.
Even more ambitious: Guitar Pro 6 - the powerful tablature software that allows musicians to compose, edit, and play music - is compatible with Fretlight. Any musical piece in Guitar Pro 6 can be used in tablature, chord, or scale modes, allowing both lead and rhythm players to more easily master any song. The mode you pick will dictate what is lit up on your fretboard. As with the standard video lessons, you can loop particular sections and really concentrate on them.
There are options available with the Fretlight system that I haven't tried, such as the foot pedal that allows for hands-free control of both Fretlight Studio and Guitar Pro 6 functions. I am moving on to the intermediate lessons, to learn more about playing lead, and as I peek ahead and see what can be done with Guitar Pro, I am amazed and excited. Fretlight is truly an introduction to a lifetime of music and personal growth. Living in the age of high technology has some wonderful benefits.