Jon Phillips Sep 15, 2011

Fretlight FG-421 Review

At A Glance


A killer hardware package at a killer price.


The crucial software component of the system needs work.

An invaluable teaching tool—no learner's permit required

Probably every beginning guitar player who’s ever struggled with a chord diagram has looked down at his instrument and thought, “Man, it would be so much easier if those little diagram dots could appear on my fretboard instead.”

Easier, indeed. Printed chord diagrams require a lot of back-and-forth glancing, from diagram to fretboard—again and again, repeat ad nauseum. Enter Fretlight, which puts an end to the madness by, well, putting those little diagram dots on the fretboard instead.

All Fretlight guitars have a grid of LEDs sandwiched between an advanced polymer fretboard on top, and a wooden guitar neck underneath (maple in the case of our FG-421 test model). Two different software packages drive the LEDs, showing you exactly where to put your fingers, whether you’re learning chord phrasings or the individual notes of complex scales (as shown in the photograph here).

No, the lit frets aren’t showing a chord diagram! We wanted to show you as many lights as possible, so we loaded all the notes of a scale—a Spanish Phrygian Scale, to be precise.

When the fret lights are active, they do their job with aplomb. It’s a simple system, and there’s really not much to say about it, save that it just plain works. See the lights, put your fingers on the frets that are lit, strum the strings. Shucka-shucka-shucka. You’re playing a chord. And when you’re not using one of the compatible software programs (and the lights are inactive), the fretboard is indistinguishable from that of any other $500, Stratocaster-style guitar. To this extent, the FG-421 can serve as a perfectly respectable practice or even gigging guitar. No one ever needs to know that your training wheels are still attached, but hidden from view.

The FG-421’s overall build quality is impressive for a guitar in this price range. The instrument doesn’t include any name-brand hardware, but you’ll find an alder wood body, chrome tuning pegs, a chrome bridge with fully adjustable saddles, a two-way adjustable truss rod, and a 5-way-position pickup switch driving a humbucker at the bridge, and individual single-coils in the middle and at the neck. We found playability, action, sustain, pickup hotness, and state of tune to be surprisingly good, so for a $500 Strat replica, it’s almost like they’re giving away the fret lights for free.

So that’s the Fretlight hardware. It provides a clever, winning system for learning chord fingerings, chord progressions, note-by-note solos, and scales in real-time. Sadly, however, we’re less enthusiastic about Fretlight’s two supporting software packages, which trigger your guitar via a supplied USB cable.

First there’s Fretlight Studio, which comes free with every guitar. This program provides a number of modes and methods to help you learn chords, solos, and even entire songs. Mainly, you play along with video demos or hook into text-based lessons, and both of these modes trigger your guitar’s lights, and allow you to adjust tempo to a comfortable pace.

Unfortunately, Fretlight Studio has a very clunky, old-fashioned, dis-integrated U.I. It’s clear that as the package has evolved, new elements have been clumsily grafted onto old. The guitar itself provides the perfect platform for easy, simple, stripped-down learning, but Fretlight Studio is an intimidating kludge of feature creep. Ideally, the program would be as self-evident and easy-to-use as an iOS app, but it runs screaming in the opposite direction.

You can also purchase the Fretlight Ready edition of Guitar Pro 6, a high-end tablature/composition app. This software can hook into many thousands of free Fretlight-enhanced songs from the likes of UlimateGuitar.com and other tab sites. In theory, you should be able to load a Fretlight-ready tab file, and play along as that file triggers the virtual chord diagrams on your physical fretboard. Inexplicably, however, we found that the vast majority of Fretlight-compatible files we downloaded didn’t generate chord phrasings on the guitar! From the Beatles, to Johnny Cash, to Led Zeppelin and many more, more than 90 percent of the files were bereft of those simple chord diagrams (the holy grail of learning for beginners), and instead focused on note-for-note lead transcription, or entire ensemble arrangements. We can see how experienced guitarists would love this system, but as beginners, we just mumbled in defeat, “Dude, we just wanna learn some chords.”

The guitar itself kicks ass, and if we can emphatically recommend it to any would-be guitarist as his first instrument, because it does so much for its price tag. However, until the software improves, we’re not sure it makes sense for anyone in rank-bottom learning mode to purchase this as a second guitar. Stick to those printed chord diagrams instead.

$499, fretlight.com


Fretlight FG-421

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