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Guitar Goes High Tech

By Carol Arnold

In 1989, mechanical engineer, self-taught guitar player, and entrepreneur Rusty Shaffer had an idea that would revolutionize the guitar industry. With no time to memorize scales, Shaffer embedded LED lights in the fingerboard of a guitar so that when learning to play a scale or chord, all he had to do was to put his fingers on the lights. Thus, the Fretlight guitar was born. He then raised private equity capital and founded Optek Music Systems, Inc. With the invention of the Fretlight, he devised a better and more technologically advanced way to learn to play the guitar.


Early versions of the Fretlight had a simple on-board system for dialing up chords and scales and seeing them displayed statically on the neck. A later advance in the mid 1990's made the guitar computer-compatible. Despite selling about 15,000 guitars in a 4-year span, including to such notables as Neal Schon of the rock band Journey, Gerry Beckley of America and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Optek had trouble gaining market share and distribution. The invention was simply before its time because guitar players were one of the last groups of people to adopt the use of personal computers.

Enter the web age. Early in 2001, Shaffer began to re-design the Fretlight from the ground up. He envisioned a simpler, more streamlined Fretlight System and in 2004, under Shaffer's direction as CEO, Optek released a new and improved line of guitars. Connected via the USB port of a computer and driven by a selection of educational software titles, the FG-400 Fretlight guitar series allows users to learn, memorize, and play a wide variety of rhythm and lead guitar styles. They enable beginner, intermediate, and advanced guitarists to learn chords, scales, and songs from a series of LED lights embedded in the guitar's fretboard, which signify where the user's fingers should be placed.


Every guitar ships with a CD-ROM that includes the Fretlight Lesson Player, containing 30 beginner lessons and a library containing over 2,000 chords and scales, and two-week trials of four software titles -- Fretlight M-Player for learning favorite songs quickly and easily, Fretlight Improviser for improvising guitar solos, Guitarz 6.6 for playing and editing tablature files and AxMaster for advanced chords and scales.

Today, the company is based in Reno, Nevada and makes the world's first real computer-powered teaching guitar in five models - Acoustic, Acoustic Electric, Electric, Vintage Electric and Pro Electric. These guitars have been sold to thousands of individuals throughout the world.

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