Review: FretX LED learning sleeve for guitar
The basic idea of an LED learning system is to light the way to guitar playing basics, by showing students where to put fretting fingers to form chords or play songs, and most importantly – when. There are a few setups that embed the LEDs in the neck itself, but what if you already own a guitar and don't want to invest in a new axe? That's where LED sleeves come in, allowing learners to wrap a follow-me learning system around the neck and get stuck in. We've seen a few concepts come and go, but FretX has actually made it into production. New Atlas recently slid a FretX under some strings and got our strum on.
We first met Frederico Rodriguez, the creator of the FretX LED learning system, at a Paris tech expo in 2015. The rough and ready prototype on show brought a smile to the face of everyone who pushed their way through the crowds and gave it a try. A slimmed-down design and successful crowdfunding campaign later, and the FretX production units went on sale earlier this year.
The hardware comprises a thin sleeve embedded with LEDs and a plastic box that's stuck the back of a guitar's headstock. The control box is home to a rechargeable battery, a Bluetooth antenna, the FretX circuitry and a power button. The sleeve has four adhesive-backed arms spaced to fit between the first four frets of the neck, and is installed under the strings and secured in place.
The first arm is thicker than the rest and has two columns of six LEDs – one line that lights up blue to signify open string playing and another with red LEDs to indicate finger positions. The other three arms each have one column of red LEDs. The arms are numbered one to four, which appear to the top of the neck when installed.
Unlike guitar tab notation or good old-fashioned chord books, which let players know which finger to use for a string and where to put it, the FretX only shows which fret positions on the neck require a finger to push the string down. Though the system does show when to make a chord during a song, which should help develop a sense of timing.
The numbers at the top can act as a sort of finger position guide, but there are many chords where two or more lights will appear for different strings within the same fret marker. New players will just have to find what works best for them when pushing down a string at the fret indicated by a red LED, or pay close attention to the more helpful of the videos on offer.
The box doesn't include any user manual or Getting Started card, so users need to head to the FretX website for guides or follow the tutorials from within the iOS/Android companion app. That app is an essential component of the FretX system, though is described as still in development.
"Both the Android and iOS apps are mainly at the Beta stage," Rodriguez revealed. "We are still iterating on functionality. iOS users will be able to connect FretX with a few partner apps from December on (Uberchord first)."
After user registration, the app asks for the type of guitar you intend to use, whether you're a total beginner or already know some chords – such things can be changed later in the app settings. That said, there appeared to be little to no difference to the content on offer when we swapped between the options. Rodriguez confirmed that such things were "just purely [for] statistics, for us to keep track on and understand how can we serve the user better."
There are setup videos within the app to guide students through the hardware installation process, as well as showing the different LED states on the FretX itself (also available on the FretX website). The sleeve can be installed on the guitars of left- or right-handers, and is held in place with finish-friendly adhesive so can be removed and reinstalled as required. We found setup to be smooth and easy.
We were concerned that the ever-so-slightly raised LEDs might cause nasty string buzz when fretting, but there were no such issues if fingers were placed near to the fret. A little buzz/damping did creep in if pushing down strings a ways back from the fret, however.
The Rockstar Pack we were sent included a handy smartphone mount, which can be secured to a guitar's body (providing there's enough flat space) with suction cups and the smartphone similarly mounted to the hinged arm so students can look straight down at the screen while playing.
Jumping straight in
The smartphone or tablet rocking the FretX app pairs with the hardware over Bluetooth, though Wi-Fi and location mode will need to be active on the smart device too. An internet connection is needed to load in the videos, and "location services are necessary to comply with Android Low Energy Bluetooth."
The app launches straight into Play mode, which presents over 150 video jam-along sessions sourced from YouTube, although one of those turned out to be a crowdfunding pitch video. There's quite a decent selection of styles and tastes covered, everything from Get Rhythm by Johnny Cash to Heroes from David Bowie and Taylor Swift's Style to Fear of the Dark by Iron Maiden.
If an "eye" icon is left active, the student is presented with a preview lesson that shows all of the chords featured in the video to follow, in the order that they will appear. A graphic representation of the chord shape appears onscreen, along with its name. And the finger positions on the FretX illuminate. The app makes use of the smart device's microphone to determine if the correct chord has been strummed by the student. When the app registers the correct chord being played, the lesson advances to the next until the video is readied for launch.
For the most part, this worked OK but we did have some hit and miss issues with microphone volume levels. "The audio detection that we are using is a built-in library that we have built as a self learning system," Rodriguez told us. "This is pretty new and we are still refining the detection tech and improving at each step. We are currently bringing the detection from the app. That is why, especially in Android, we have some variations on the detection according to the device."
Deactivating the "eye" icon bypasses the song preview and launches straight into the play-along video. This can involve a member of the FretX team belting out the song, a YouTuber giving it their all or even a version from the band or artist selected. A progress bar scrolls along the bottom showing the chord names playing and coming up, a big neck diagram with finger positions sits above and a tiny box containing the video from YouTube is positioned above that. And of course, LEDs light up on the sleeve to show chord shapes.
The idea is to strum along to the chosen track, something that a student knows or likes to start, perhaps, and then move onto to unfamiliar territory. Some songs proved easier to get into than others during our tests. Heroes, for example, or La Bamba have the student playing pretty much what's heard in the video, but Sweet Child O Mine from Guns N Roses is the actual song, so what comes out of the speakers of the smart device is quite complex and includes all of Slash's guitar mastery – which can be quite offputting, to say the least.
We found the videos recorded by the FretX team to be the best for learners, showing exactly what's expected and sticking pretty much to the script, so to speak. Strumming along to band videos could be engaging and maintain a student's interest in the learning process, or it could be overwhelming and confusing. But Rodriguez explained that "perfect strumming is not the core expectation, but rather playing along. We are working on a more curated Preview mode to teach strumming on the app as well as more 'step by step' on the songs."
Members of the FretX community can add to the available song library by uploading their own videos to a special portal called the FretX player. This allows more experienced players to share their skills with newbies, and also means that teachers can use the system for tailored lessons.
Learning some basic chops
The Learn tab in the app takes the FretX user to a collection of 15 chord exercises, offered in pairs – such as Cmaj7/Asus2, Am/Dm and Em/Gmaj. The first exercise comes with a video that plays before the lesson, outlining what's expected and how things work. Again, LEDs show chord shapes on the neck, and the app listens for the chord to be strummed. We would have liked to see more chords on offer, together with some info on playing in different keys.
"We deployed the first 15 chords for learning while refining some detection on the chords," said Rodriguez. "Today only 2.5 percent of our users go to Learn. All of them go to the Player mode."
Students looking to build up their chord knowledge base can set up custom chord exercises that let you select any chords from a comprehensive list – with as many as you like in an exercise, in whatever order you like. This would also be useful for teachers looking to curate tailored sessions or homework for students.
The Learn section also includes scale diagrams, though FretX doesn't run players through the scales note by note but rather just presents a scary-looking block of red and blue LEDs on the fretboard and kind of expects learners to work out that they need to pick one note after another up and down the strings.
And finally, the app includes a tuner mode that defaults to manual (where you have to touch the tuning peg icons onscreen to move between strings). Auto can be selected with a slider onscreen, which auto detects the string being picked. This seemed pretty accurate when checked against the Roadie tuner.
Rocketing along nicely, but not without issue
Having LEDs show chord shapes, backed up by onscreen diagrams and videos, is a great way to learn. And learn quickly. It won't turn you into a Steve Vai clone overnight, but it has the potential to help overcome a common problem amongst new players – not being able to rock out anything recognizable or ear-pleasing before initial enthusiasm fades away or frustration creeps in. There is no substitute for dedication and hard work, but FretX will give you a good start.
We did encounter a few teething troubles worth noting though, as they spoiled an otherwise enjoyable learning experience. The Bluetooth signal between our Android tablet/smartphone and the FretX was frequently lost, despite both devices being essentially cheek to cheek. And getting the connection back wasn't always as easy as switching the FretX sleeve off and back on again, and then clicking the headstock-shaped pairing icon in the app. Sometimes, the FretX and the app had to be restarted.
The FretX sleeve is powered by an ML2032 rechargeable battery, which can be removed for swap-out or charging. But the system has a sleep mode that shuts down the hardware after 2 minutes of inactivity. We found that the FretX would occasionally switch itself off mid session, for no apparent reason. This meant that a restart and reconnection was needed.
While the workarounds for current system quirks are simple enough, we feel that such issues may be somewhat offputting for students, who really need everything to run as smooth as melted chocolate. After all, the idea here is to make learning easy, engaging and fun – so that newbies keep on going and don't falter early on and give up. And when all works as it should, that's precisely what FretX offers. But it's frustrating when problems do arise.
The FretX Rockstar Pack includes the LED sleeve, two rechargeable cell batteries and charger, spare adhesive stickers and a phone mount. This carries a list price of US$110, but can be had direct from FretX for $89. The standard FretX Pack includes the LED sleeve and one cell battery for $89, but again it's available at the FretX store for $49. For that kind of money, even with the current bugs, it's well worth diving in.