Fretlight Guitars’ Rusty Shaffer
When learning the guitar, beginning players are invariably challenged by how much repetition is involved in the memorization of scales and chords. Ultimately, many are put off by the time required in order to become competent.
While still a student in college, Rusty Shaffer was also thinking about these barriers to learning guitar and began to devise a method that would be easier than the age-old approach of flipping through countless books and translating the written page to the fretboard. The innovative concept and design of his Fretlight guitars has vastly simplified and sped up the learning process. In a recent conversation with MMR, Rusty Shaffer shared with us the past, present, and future of the Fretlight teaching system.
MMR: Could you tell us a little bit about the beginnings of the Fretlight system and the people behind it?
Rusty Shaffer: Sure thing. I played guitar in college, at the University of Connecticut. I was playing cover songs and rhythm with a couple of friends and we’d play out at the local bars. After I graduated, I moved to California and shortly afterwards wanted to get into lead playing. I was told by someone at a music store to buy a book of scale patterns and start memorizing. When I cracked the book open it became apparent that this process, of going back and forth from book to fret board, trying to memorize the scale was inefficient and boring.
The light bulb went off in my head (no pun intended) and I thought to myself, “Why doesn’t someone just put these patterns on the neck of the guitar so I can see them where I need to play them?” That was it, really, and shortly thereafter I began building a prototype Fretlight guitar.
MMR: Your site states that, “All Fretlight’s are made at the same factory as Fender, Gibson, Ibanez” — what factory is this and where? And, just to be clear: You don’t have a specific production arrangement with Fender, Gibson, or Ibanez, do you?
RS: We use one of the top quality factories in China to produce the Fretlight. They produce for many of the brands you see in distribution today. No, we don’t have any affiliation or agreement with any other guitar company. The reason we say that on our Web site is to let our customers know that a Fretlight guitar is a great playing musical instrument – like many other guitars out there.
MMR: Do you feel that some people have misgivings about buying a guitar with such non-traditional features, such as light-up fret board? If so, what about the product would convince a skeptic?
RS: It’s funny because, with the advent of “Guitar Hero,” many people do think that the Fretlight is something other than a very real instrument, but most of the people that say that, of course, have never seen a Fretlight in person. When people do see and use a Fretlight guitar, the reaction is vastly different. We’ve hidden the lights so cleverly under the advanced polymer fretboard that you can’t even tell the neck or fingerboard is any different than a normal guitar. But when the song lights up – say, for example, the riff to “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns n Roses – most everyone is blown away!
MMR: To what extent, and in what specific ways, do you believe the Fretlight system helps novice musicians?
RS: The concept of Fretlight is simple: eliminate the back-and-forth traditional learning method of your eyes to paper, then your eyes to your (blank) fretboard, eyes to paper, eyes to fretboard, et cetera. Seeing the notes and patterns light up right under your fingers allows you to “get it” instantly. Here’s an analogy – look down at the keys on your computer. Where did they put the letters and numbers for those keys, on a piece of paper to the side of a blank keyboard? No! They put them right on the keys, where you need them. Do we advocate eventually memorizing those patterns? Absolutely, but why struggle to do so? In this day and age of 1,000 TV channels, X-Box and Playstation, Internet, and more, everyone’s time is so limited and valuable. Our customers make the most of that time playing a Fretlight.
MMR: Would someone with little computer knowledge have an easy time understanding the system and working with the software?
RS: The Fretlight is truly plug-and-play. One cable from the Fretlight connects it to the USB port of a Mac or PC. The Fretlight studio software launches to a screen that simply gives the user four choices: play a song, take a video lesson, light up a chord or scale, or improvise a solo. Within another couple of clicks of that, our customers are doing it – lighting up their Fretlight and playing. If you can surf around the Internet, you can easily use the Fretlight and its software.
MMR: Fair enough. But how do you feel the Fretlight system is beneficial to more advanced musicians who may shy away from such a product, deeming it more appropriate for beginners?
RS: The advanced guys can learn on a Fretlight just like a beginner. Most advanced guitarists know how to play and probably know a few different scales. But if I’m doing a demo and I show an advanced player that our software will let them improvise over a given chord progressions using several different scale patterns and chord tone patterns that change automatically during the progression – well, they finally admit that even they can learn from Fretlight.
Carlos Santana used a Fretlight for a while – it wasn’t that he needed to know how to play, but he wanted to know where to play to get new sounds and tones. The analogy is this: those reading this can probably drive a car pretty well. But if I magically dropped you in a strange location, you’d drive in a circle. Give you a map, though, and you can go anywhere. The Fretlight’s lighted fretboard is a map for the advanced player to create new tones using scales they don’t know and wouldn’t otherwise have the time to memorize.
MMR: Do you see the company moving the software to any other platforms such as Xbox360, Playstation 3, and possibly reaching a wider audience?
RS: Absolutely. We have plans to incorporate other platforms such as the gaming consoles, the iPhone and the Internet. What we’re trying to do is to increase the chances that the average person, who might not consider that they could ever learn to play and enjoy the guitar, can succeed and enjoy the guitar. The world of non-guitar players is vastly bigger than the world of existing guitar players. Look at the success of “Guitar Hero.” If we can reach just a small percentage of those customers and potential players we’ll sell millions of units and guess what? The music industry will supply them with straps, strings, amps, etc. Fretlight is truly a market expansion tool for the guitar industry.
MMR: Are there other products from Optek/Fretlight that we can expect to see in the near future?
RS: Yes, we have a bunch of products revolving around Fretlight and expanding the technology in the coming months and years. I can mention one product that we have in the works right now which is a new Web site that we are building that is very similar to YouTube, where there will be hundreds of guitar videos showing how to play signature riffs and songs or someone’s own creation. The big difference, of course, is that by simply connecting a Fretlight to the USB port, all of these videos will light up to show the fingering for what is being played in the video. It’s an offshoot of our highly acclaimed Video Player technology that we currently have in our Fretlight Studio Software.
We also have plans to equip all Fretlight guitars with a proprietary MIDI pickup system by mid 2010 so that a player can record their own videos and associated Fretlight data – upload to our new Web site, and their friends around the world can watch their creations light-up on their Fretlight guitars. It’s going to be amazing. Learning music and sharing creations will be revolutionized with Fretlight and the Fretlight Video site.
MMR: Have there been any big-name musicians to offer any interactive lessons or endorse the product?
RS: Throughout the years we’ve had various endorsers or users of our Fretlight guitars such as Neal Schon of Journey, Carlos Santana, Edge from U2, Metallica, America, Brooks & Dunn, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and many others.
MMR: Where do you see the company heading in the next couple of years?
RS: Our mission is to be the leader in guitar education around the world. We’ll be implementing educational programs for schools and colleges, creating products so that traditional guitar instructors can use Fretlight in their everyday lessons, and reaching out to mass distribution in order to fill the demand of millions of non-guitar players who want the technological advantage of Fretlight. In the end, Fretlight is the path to for those non-players to reach their dreams – playing guitar and making music.