Sunday, August 9, 2009

Rusty Shaffer’s FretLight / SmartLight Guitars: Underdeveloped Technology?

Given Guitar Hero’s toy like guitar interface, should Rusty Shaffer make his own version of a Guitar Hero-like video game based on his FretLight / SmartLight technology?

By: Ringo Bones

After a friend referred to me a Guitar Hero related article that could arouse my interest being featured on a March 2009 edition Business Week magazine, I now begin to wonder the “what ifs” being implied by this feature story. The particular article is titled “Can Optek Turn Guitar Hero Fans Into Real Musicians?” by Peter Burrows. Though where the author of the article and I began to diverge in opinion is when the author suggested that the Optek Music Systems serve as a “gateway” for Guitar Hero video game enthusiasts into real musicians.

While my personal opinion suggests that it would be better if Optek Music Systems merge with the makers of Guitar Hero to “improve” the video game’s “cheesy” and “unrealistic” toy guitar interface. By using the one Optek Music Systems already sells called the FretLight / SmartLight series of guitars to make the video game more realistic to those people who actually play the guitar. Sadly, this won’t be a reality any time soon. But first let us review the origin of Optek Music Systems first since they are unfavorably eclipsed in popularity in comparison to the Guitar Hero video game.

Optek Music Systems was started by Rusty Shaffer in 1989, at about the same time I began to seriously hone my guitar playing skills in the hopes that I could be – in a year’s time – to have a proficiency comparable that of the greatest guitarists of the time. Like Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, etc. Even though I have scores of subscriptions to “tutorial” guitar magazines at the time – even those trendy Heavy Metal photo-mag publications – but I never ever saw an ad of Rusty Shaffer’s Optek Music Systems. Which is kind of unbelievable given that MIDI interface technology for electric guitars was beginning to be touted by the NAMM bigwigs as the “next best thing”.

The earliest Optek Music Systems ad that I ever saw was a June 1996 edition of Guitar Techniques magazine about a South Korea-manufactured FretLight pro priced around a thousand quid. It wasn’t until September 1997 that SmartLight adverts became a regular site in guitar magazines. And by then, despite of endorsement by established industry musicians like Neal Schon of Journey and scores of others, FretLight / SmartLight guitars are still an “esoteric” toy despite of the overwhelming popularity of electric guitar based musical genres during the 1990s – especially a form of Alternative Rock called Seattle Grunge.

Optek Music Systems’ SmartLight and the “older” FretLight guitars work via the use of a computer-controlled series of light-emitting diodes or LEDs strategically placed on the guitar’s frets. These LEDs light up on a particular / specific fret(s) and string(s) position(s) as dictated by the “programmed music / song” to show where one has to press his or her finger. These guitars usually come with a CD-ROM containing the programs of specific musical / works or songs that the “novice” guitarist can learn from. The greatest advantage of SmartLight / FretLight guitars is that they can be used as an ordinary electric guitar and can be played through any conventional electric guitar amplifier. Unlike that of the “toy guitar” interface / joystick used in guitar hero which can only be used as a pricey flyswatter when not connected to a video games console.

Should Rusty Shaffer team up with the makers of Guitar Hero to create a “premium” version for aspiring musicians, or should he create his own alternate version – i.e. a way better version – of the Guitar Hero video game? Well, given that Mr. Shaffer is already well-connected in the music biz, it could be much better if he set off on his own in creating his own video game-based guitar tutorial using his SmartLight and FretLight guitar technology. By going on it alone, Shaffer could exercise more “creative control”, and given his connections in the music industry, he would have very little trouble using copyrighted music works for use in his PC / video game-based guitar tutorial. If this succeeds, Rusty Shaffer could start making a Classical Music variant of his PC / video game-based tutorial via the use of violin and cello variants of his SmartLight and FretLight guitars. With titles like “How to Play Violin Like Itzhak Perlman” or tutorials that examine Yo Yo Ma’s technique on his rendition of J.S. Bach’s cello suites. The possibilities are endless.

1 comment:

  1. Optek Music Systems just recently - Back in March 4, 2009 anyway - released a "Guitar Hero" / "Rock Band"-inspired interactive version of their Optek Music Systems FretLight and SmartLight guitars and support systems called Fretlight Video Player.
    According to Rusty Shaffer, President ans CEO of Optek "There are thousands of guitar videos (guitar music videos) on You Tube and other websites, not to mention video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band that people are trying to mimic. However, these videos (games) and the toy instruments that come with the video games, do little to accelerate the learning process because finger placement is the biggest hurdle that individuals face when learning to play guitar. The Fretlight Video Player solves this problem because the teacher on the screen is literally triggering the guitar in your hands. It's almost as if the teacher is reaching through the computer, grabbing your fingers and placing them in the right place - It's truly a breakthrough for guitar education." I just hope that Rusty Shaffer will release a Classical Music version and/or with musical instruments other than the guitar. Imagine a new generation of kids with fiddle-playing skills rivaling that of Itzhak Perlman.