Guitar Musician News

Introduction to the Optek Fretlight Guitar and an Interview with Optek Founder, Rusty Shaffer

by on Oct.17, 2007, under General

by Rick Messock and Tom Watson

Frustration, the step-mother of invention

The Optek Fretlight guitar got its start when the CEO and founder of Optek Music, Rusty Shaffer, was struggling to learn solos on an electric six-string. Frustrated with his progress, he asked himself the step-mother-of-all-inventions question: Isn’t there an easier way?

Enter Shaffer’s Optek Fretlight.

What it does

The Fretlight is based on a simple concept. What is it that you need to know in order to learn something on the guitar?

Where to put your fingers.

And that’s exactly what this instrument teaches – it shows you where to put your fingers to play a particular note, scale, chord, or song, by using glowing LED lights in the fretboard that mean “press here”.

Earlier version of the Fretlight

The first Fretlight guitars had a rotary dial on the body of the guitar used to select a scale or chord in a particular key. When powered up, LEDs set in the fretboard would glow under the appropriate string and fret to show you where to put your fingers for the scale or chord you selected with the rotary switch.

The Fretlight goes PC

The new generation Fretlight is computer-driven and controlled by software running on a PC or laptop. At present, it is only compatible with computers running the Windows XP operating system, though the company hopes to have the software available on other systems, such as a Mac, in the future. Gone is the rotary switch found on the earlier version.

The new Fretlight connects to the computer via a USB cable that plugs into the Fretlight (see image on the right) and into any available USB port on the computer, which allows the software program on the computer to communicate with the Fretlight’s LEDs and provides the power needed to light them.

The software

Once the Fretlight is connected to the computer, the player chooses what he wishes to learn through a software program called Guitar Power, by Jana Software, that is included in the purchase of a Fretlight (other third party programs are available at extra cost).

Guitar Power is…powerful. The program teaches over 3,000 chord voicings, 500 scales, 550 arpeggios, triads in any inversion, notes on the fretboard, allows you to name your own chord voicings, and, helps players master one of the fundamental hurdles of improvisation by showing which scales can be used over different chords and chord progressions when soloing.

For example, if you wanted to know the fingering for a Gmaj7 chord, you’d select it from the Guitar Power menu and the fingering would appear on the computer screen and the LEDs on the Fretlight’s fretboard would glow showing you where to place your fingers.

Or, for another example, the G Lydian augmented mode:

Learning songs

The Fretlight guitar can also help players learn actual songs and solos using another software program called Fretlight M-Player (sold separately), a full-featured MIDI song player that, like Guitar Power, communicates with the Fretlight’s LEDs.

Fretlight M-Player has a number of controls, including Play, Pause, Stop, Fast Forward, Rewind, and setting Loop Points, and it allows the player to adjust the song’s playback speed in real time from 10% to 120% of the song’s actual tempo. Want to learn a difficult solo? Loop a passage, slow down the tempo and follow the red lights on the Fretlight’s fingerboard.

The Fretlight M-Player software program is available for purchase (currently $39.95 USD) and download from the Optek website. It comes with only six demo songs, but Fretlight owners can purchase additional “albums” of songs from Optek that have been prepared to work with Fretlight M-Player. Optek currently offers 32 albums to choose from by artists such as Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and B.B. King.

Each “album” is actually a collection of popular songs by a particular artist. For example, the Eric Clapton “album” includes the songs: Bell Bottom Blues, Cocaine, Forever Man, Lay Down Sally, Let It Grow, Presence of the Lord, She’s Waiting, Sunshine of Your Love, and, White Room. The current price of each album is $19.95 USD.

While the 32 albums offered by Optek today total roughly 350 songs, Optek hopes to have as many as 2,000 songs available sometime this year.

The Fretlight is also a fully functional electric guitar

Optek has not designed the Fretlight to be a teaching-only instrument. It is a fully-functional six string electric guitar. When not in use, the fretboard LEDs are essentially invisible due to Optek’s proprietary advanced polymer fretboard that is mixed to a special translucent tinting that hides the LEDs when they’re not on.

And there may be more advantages to a one piece polymer fretboard. According to Optek, the inert nature of polymers makes the Fretlight fretboard very stable and not as susceptible to weather-induced problems like fret migration, fretboard swelling or neck movement. The polymer fretboard also allows re-fretting without a resulting degradation of the neck.

The instrument comes with two single coil and one humbucker pickups, 5-position pickup selection switch, and a fixed bridge (it’s a hardtail) with fully adjustable saddles. Visit Optek’s website for more detailed specs.

The Fretlight guitar retails for $599 USD.

But if you want something more than the basic Fretlight model, you may not have long to wait. Optek has announced that it will open a Fretlight Custom Shop in the spring of 2005.
* * *

Interview with Optek Music founder and CEO, Rusty Shaffer

Modern Guitars Magazine staff writer, Rick Messock, spoke with Rusty Shaffer about the Fretlight at the 2005 Winter NAMM Show.

How did you get your start?

Rusty Shaffer: We got started in 1989. I came up with the idea, basically, when I was a rhythm guitar player in college and I sat down to become a lead player. I bought a book, and I’m looking at all these scales and dots thinking, this is ridiculous! Why doesn’t somebody just take this diagram [of the guitar fretboard] and put it on the guitar neck where I need to play the notes. It sounds simple, but that was it, the light bulb went on.

Then you fight the uphill battle of, how do we do this? That’s how it started, and the rest was basically becoming an entrepreneur, going through the hoops of figuring stuff out, finding distributors, and everything else. Of course, in 1989, there was no Internet- there was the Yellow Pages. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we knew that it would work. So you start with a prototype, and then go from there.

When did you release your first product?

Shaffer: We had a prototype in 1989 or 1990, and originally we didn’t want to be a guitar company. We thought we would show the idea to Fender and they’d offer us some money and a case of beer and life would be great.

I flew down to L.A., where Fender offices were at the time, met with them, and showed them the prototype. Remember, the Fretlight did not light up at that time with a computer, since there were no PC applications like this then. There were knobs on the guitar that you would turn to select chords and scales and they would light up on the neck, statically.

I told Fender that someday this will hook-up to a computer and you can learn to play songs with it. They crunched some numbers and said the software would add $42 to the retail price, so we don’t think we’re going to do it.

I was incredibly frustrated flying back to San Jose, where we were located at the time, when I thought, what has Fender done new in the last 50 years? What has anyone done to really advance guitar education? I’ll just do it myself. That was the impetus that started the perpetual “to do” list- and here we are 16 years later.

Have you lined up distributors or does Optek do all the marketing and sales itself?

Shaffer: We’ve come a long way as far as learning about the business. Take manufacturing. We tried Canada, Mexico, we’ve done Korea, we’re now in China, and all along the way we’ve been increasing the quality of the guitar, while lowering the price of the product.

We did mostly direct sales in the ’90s. Now, with the product having been revamped, we have major distributors lining up- a Scandinavian distributor, an Australian distributor, and we’ll soon have a U.K. distributor. We’ve got a big chain of stores in the northeast- Daddy’s Junky Music- that is going to be carrying them. It’s a whole different atmosphere and feeling now, especially with the computer.

The guitar hooks up to the USB port and 8 to 9 years ago, when we first started experimenting with hooking the guitar up to the computer, guitar players (at that time) were the last people to use computers. So it was just a weird animal. Now, it’s just taken for granted — it connects to the computer as a peripheral device- no objections, no questions, in fact, it’s an expectation. So we’ve conquered that hurdle.

Would you show us how it works?

[The setup was a PC laptop with the Fretlight guitar plugged into the USB port with a 15-foot-long cable. In addition to a USB port, the guitar has a ¼” output jack that would plug into an amp. The speakers on the computer play the scale, chord, or song, while the Fretlight’s fretboard lights up showing the correct finger placement.]

Shaffer: Unlike the traditional music industry, which puts notes on paper and you have to go back and forth, we put the notes right there on the fretboard. We think it makes sense and a lot of our customers do too.

We’ve authored our own software and we partnered with existing companies. This piece of software I’m going to show you is the Fretlight M-Player. That’s our MIDI song player. If I open up a song, you can see “easy chords” for a beginner, you can see the regular rhythm guitar chords, or you can see a solo. You hit “Play” and it starts playing the song.

[“A Land Down Under” plays and the Fretlight LEDs begin sequencing.]

The LEDs lighting up on the Fretlight show me exactly what I have to play. The beauty is, I can slow it down and I can loop parts, because that’s how you need the information. M-Player allows you to loop parts, set your loop points, and control it with a footswitch.

The controls are very much like Windows Media Player. Now here’s the cool thing- what if you want to open up a lead guitar part? You can open this Eric Clapton solo, put it on solo, and hit “Play”.

[Clapton’s “Forever Man” solo comes on. The opening note on the 13th fret is rapidly followed by lights on the 14th and 15th frets and then back down.]

That indicates bending the string! Let’s slow it down. [The song slows.] Now you can learn it at your own pace.

How many songs do you offer?

Shaffer: We have 350 songs now and hope to have 2,000-2,500 by the summer.

Does someone transcribe the songs and leads?

Shaffer: Basically, we have a super guitar player play the notes right in, along with a standard MIDI file that we have configured to light up our guitar.

Can the system use any MIDI file?

Shaffer: No, it’s a special proprietary MIDI file. The thing to remember is we give the customer a choice. Some people want to learn chord progressions, some want to learn scales. We give it all to them. Why limit them?

When we partner with other software companies we make the company have their software available as a full version for 30 days, so that our customers can audition it. We also make them integrate the footswitch. It can be made to turn the lights on and off, or increment the scale up another note, or increment the chord progression.

It’s all customizable as to how you want to learn. What we really want to do is come out with a canned lesson program for the true beginner. This software is really for the intermediate and more advanced player. For the true beginner, you have to start with how to hold the guitar, which string is which, etc.

With the USB line supplying the power, there’s no need for an onboard battery, but is there an on-board battery if you want to play away from the computer?

Shaffer: No. LEDs draw a lot of power and you don’t really need it. The laptop is your best interface.

What about the fretboard?

Shaffer: When we were doing this guitar in the ’90s, we used a wooden fretboard and the factory would drill holes in the fret board and put plastic caps in there [for the lights]. If you take a look, the fretboard is now a molded polymer. There are no holes or anything.

In fact, one of the things that’s interesting is that while we wanted to hide the lights so someone could play without having their training wheels on, we got that and a side benefit. This fretboard has amazing properties for a guitar neck. It sustains tone better and fret migrations disappeared almost completely because this is an inert material. It keeps your neck straight. Now, other manufacturers are showing a lot of interest.

Getting back to the Fretlight’s basic mission, think about it. There are so many options today. Kids are busy with X-Boxes and all that. You tell someone to learn guitar and take lessons, and the kid says, “Wait a minute; I can do so many more things in quicker time because industries are reaching out to me.” What about the music industry? There’s a bit of a snob factor and we’re trying to change that. And we think we’re making headway.

We’re reaching out and trying to make guitar learning easier, interesting, and fun. For example, if somebody wants to work on a progression, I can enter a progression simply by selecting these chords, and if I hit “Play”, it will play the progression. I can also adjust the tempo, et cetera. But it’s also a way for somebody to enter their own music in- that maybe we don’t have the song for currently- and practice with it. It lights up scales the same way. You pick the key and the scale you want, and it will show you that scale. We can even blink the root notes so the user can see them and know where home base is.

It’s really all driven by software now and it’s so customizable to what a particular player wants and needs. And it’s really not limited to beginners.

We’re finding intermediate and advanced players using it. You have artists like Carlos Santana that have used one. It’s not that they need to know how to play- it’s that they need to know where to play. For example, you can drive a car, but if I put you in the middle of Alaska you’re going to drive in circles. But, if I give you a map, you can go anywhere.

And that’s what the Fretlight is for them. It’s a way to expand out of the same minor pentatonic rock scale they’ve been playing for 30 years and learn, say, the mixolydian. They are not going to crack the book to start this process- they want to get on the guitar and go. They already know how to play and so it’s a creativity tool. It’s had an incredible reception so far. A lot of the things that we had done before have really added up to launch what I hope is a standard some day.

It’s really about our customers. We started selling in earnest in 1992 and we’ve sold over 15,000 instruments since that time. Everyone has the same reaction. The guitar players- they’re visual people- they hit a wall and say, “I need this.” The reaction most people have is, “Why don’t I see this in every store?” To our customers, it’s easy to make the leap. The equation to making it work in a store has been the challenge for us. The price point has been a challenge. The point of purchase has been a challenge. The belief has been a challenge.

Most guitarists are pretty conservative when it comes to their instruments.

Shaffer: Right! The music store will say, “You don’t need that! All you need is a book. We’ll throw it in for you.. just read it, that’s how I learned!” That’s all well and good, but if this industry wants to expand to people who are getting into everything from computers to skiing, to other recreational activities, you’ve got to make playing an instrument easier.

It seems that you have to reach people still buying guitars whose basic design hasn’t changed since the ’50s because of tradition. How do you get them to buy your product? Is there an opportunity to license the Fretlight concept to other manufacturers so that they can buy traditional instruments with your technology?

Shaffer: That’s right. Not only would they buy the Fretlight version, the manufacturer would be getting a customer for life- more people would stick with playing the guitar and probably want to buy a non-Fretlight version of the brand as their skills progressed. That’s the conclusion that a lot of major manufacturers are starting to come to- and we’re delighted.

* * *

For more, visit these websites:

Guitar Musician | Gear Musician | Piano Musician 


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