If there’s one thing Guitar Hero and Rock Band have proven, it’s just how much everyone wants to shred on six strings. But as anybody who’s tried to actually learn guitar after impressing animated audiences on-screen will tell you, it’s not that easy. Tuning, finger positioning, and various complicated chords and scales are obstacles all beginners must hurdle, which is why we were extremely excited to get our hands on an early review unit of the Fret Zealot.
A Kickstarter-backed learning tool that caught our eye earlier this year, the Zealot (originally called the Fret Zeppelin), brings advanced LED technology to the fretboard of any guitar. The device uses color-changing lights next to each fret to show you how to play everything from songs to advanced chords and scales.
Others have tried to teach guitar through tech, notably Magic Instruments, which raised hundreds of thousands on Indiegogo last year and says it may ship in 2018 (only a year or two late!). And remember this robot hand? But after spending two weeks with the Fret Zealot, we’ve come away very impressed. The Zealot brings color-coded visual learning from the video game world to the music world, and it has something compelling to offer all levels of performers — whether you’re strumming from square one or are already an advanced improviser.
The Fret Zealot comes in two pieces: A 14-fret LED strip adheres to the fretboard of your guitar, and a USB rechargeable Bluetooth-connected box attaches to the headstock of the instrument. The box connects to the strip via a short 3.5-mm cable and can be removed for travel, or when you don’t want to use it.
We know what you’re thinking: Adding a bulky strip of lights just before each fret seems like a recipe for poor playability. The folks at Fret Zealot thought of this too, taking special care to make sure that everything feels and sounds great all the way up the fretboard; they even went so far as to make the top two frets’ LED strips thinner than the rest, to accommodate the steadily shrinking distance between frets. All this thought and effort means the Fret Zealot is almost unnoticeable when playing the guitar, with the Epiphone Les Paul the company sent us feeling nearly identical to one we could have grabbed off the rack at Guitar Center.
While our Fret Zealot strip came pre-installed on one of the company’s guitars, most buyers and Kickstarter backers will have to install their own – a relatively simple (if time consuming) process that involves de-stringing your guitar, peeling off a backing strip, carefully sticking the Zealot to the first 14 frets of your fretboard, then re-stringing your guitar.
Physically, the Fret Zealot becomes almost unnoticeable when playing.
Once the LED strip is installed, simply use an included capo-like clip on the Bluetooth Box to attach it to your headstock, then connect the included 3.5 mm cable between the strip and the box. From there, all you need to do is turn on the box and pair the Zealot to your phone. The box itself should offer over 8 hours of playtime — more than enough for long practice sessions.
The next step is to download the Fret Zealot app, which should quickly and easily recognize and pair with the device.
A dizzying array of features are hidden inside the company’s app, with everything from chords and scales to play-along tracks for popular songs, making it the perfect visual solution to many beginners’ woes on the instrument.
In fact, everything on the Fret Zealot feels as though it was fueled by real-world guitar players’ desires, with each finger corresponding to an individual color on the fretboard for easy positioning, and strings that should be muted showing red all the way up the fretboard.
When playing with the Zealot in scale mode, the root notes of each scale are lit in easy-to-find white, with each octave boasting a different color. Speaking of, scales can be shown over the entire fretboard, based on hand position, or even on single strings, making it easy to work on the minutia of even the most advanced guitar playing inside the app.
The perfect visual solution to many beginners’ woes.
When you’re playing with a capo, you can tell the Zealot what fret it is on and it will adjust all chords and scales to fit its position. You can loop and even slow down difficult sections of the play-along songs inside the app. These are the little things that help the Fret Zealot stand out as an extremely exciting 21st-century guitar accessory.
Virtually every chord type, mode, and scale we had ever heard of — and many we hadn’t — are programmed into the Zealot app, and many more will come as the device finally hits the hands of users. In fact, CEO Shaun Masavage says the company is looking to work with as many developers as possible to make sure the Fret Zealot is hyper-compatible with various learning systems, meaning there’s a distinct possibility that users may eventually be able to take Fret Zealot-compatible guitar lessons online, or that the device may pair with existing guitar education apps or online platforms.
Virtually every existing guitarist and wanna-be shredder in our office had a keen interest in checking out the Fret Zealot during our review period, and everyone who spent time with the device walked away impressed.
Our pre-release unit may not have had the exact fit-and-finish of the final model (which Masavage says will have even thinner LED strips and a better-looking Bluetooth box), but the possibilities alone were enough to seriously excite us. With myriad scales, songs, and chord types to choose from — and an exceptionally easy-to-use interface — the Fret Zealot is a very useful piece of guitar gear for both beginners and experts. We can’t wait to see what happens when it makes its way into the hands of guitar players and developers around the globe.