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A musician otherwise, I’m also a trained singer with decades of experience. I sight-read sheet music well enough to jump into something new on the fly. But I’m an absolute beginner when it comes to the guitar. Well, I was until I started learning and practicing with the Fretlight Guitar and software eight weeks ago. I’ve always thought of the guitar as that intimidating, too-beautiful woman--I’d never be able to connect, so I never approached. Could the Fretlight help me learn to play? Yes, but it’s a tumultuous romance.
The 21-fret Fretlight guitar is a real electric axe. It functions the same as a standard instrument. Plug it into an amp, and get to shredding. But on top of that, it connects to your Mac to control LEDs embedded in the neck, right in time with the music. Push strings at the lights, and you’ll be able to strum chords or pick the melody. It’s the guitar’s highlight and a nice extra, but never feels essential; since your fingertips cover the lights, the feature works best to identify mistakes or to slowly drill chords.
It’s a real guitar; jam on a standard amp, or connect to a Mac to learn with the lights.
The Lesson Player software, where I spent most of my time, explains the basics: holding and strumming the guitar, music theory, guitar notation, and much more. Onscreen text presents most of the deep lesson content, although audio tips appear regularly. The drills taught me the most, and I was eventually playing along to a MIDI version of “Frère Jacques” while reading onscreen notes and occasionally looking down at the blinking guitar neck for guidance.
I sampled the optional Guitar Pro 6 software ($99.99), which targets intermediate and advanced players who are notating music, but it still helped teach me. I downloaded a few simple rock tunes, including “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and some Green Day tracks, slowing down tempos, lighting up the frets, and repeating to learn. The bundled Fretlight M-Player software can also light up the guitar when playing special MIDI files (available at the Fretlight store), but it doesn’t show sheet music or tablature, both of which are important for learning. Serious students will no doubt end up ponying up for those features in Guitar Pro 6.
After working with all of these tools, I can now play a few basic songs, strum a handful of common chords, read guitar tablature to figure out new songs, and best of all, I am eager to learn more. But I had to fight the poorly designed software to make it this far. The Fretlight Guitar hardware is the musical-instrument supermodel I always imagined, but the software is a needy diva.
The Lesson Player is the biggest offender. You can’t resize the window to fit any screen; you have to choose between three preset sizes, forcing scrolling in the middle of songs. (Too bad Lesson Player can’t automatically scroll sheet music like Guitar Pro 6.) You can choose between “slow” and “fast” speeds but can’t adjust beats per minute beyond that—sometimes “slow” wasn’t quite slow enough for me. You can’t loop a section to practice. The software doesn’t keep track of which lessons you’ve completed or resume your place. Nor does it monitor your playing to offer feedback.
Learning with the Fretlight can be a constant bug-battle, from the minor to the show-stopping. At one point, all MIDI music sounded flat, contrasting sharply with the in-tune guitar. Tech support thought the bug had been fixed in the software I was running but still told me to reinstall the many Fretlight applications, and when I did, the problem persisted.
The bottom line. If you’ve ever wanted to play guitar, the Fretlight can facilitate the process. But while the hardware, lesson content, and overall idea rock, the software is barely functional. You’ll fight against the tools as often as they guide you.
FG-421 Traditional Electric Guitar
Mac Pro, Mac OS 10.5.2 or later, one PCI Express 2.0 slot or later, one PCI Express
Flashy guitar hardware works as a standard instrument and also lights fingering positions. Lessons include valuable material for a range of playing skills; you will learn if you work at it.
Minor and extreme software bugs. Weak software interface. Lesson Player can’t automatically scroll with the music. Can’t loop lessons to practice. Fragmented software requires multiple installations and downloads of multiple tools. No integrated software update or unified installer across the many Fretlight applications. Can’t manually adjust the window size in Lesson Player. Lesson Player doesn’t automatically scroll music.