So you've had that guitar sitting in the corner or stuffed into the back of a closet for years, and you've never bothered to learn how to actually play it. This entrepreneur might have created the solution.

Fret Zealot is a device from entrepreneur Shaun Masavage, co-founder and CEO of Edge Tech Labs. It demoed at CES recently, where attendees couldn't help but be drawn in by the sounds of an electric guitar and the product's colorful flashing lights.

The device is simple looking: a long, thin vertical strip with a series of smaller horizontal strips hanging off of it, roughly in the shape of an oversize comb. One side is adhesive, so it can be stuck onto your guitar's neck under the strings.  

Once it's installed and synced with an app, the magic happens. The various horizontal strips have different colored LED lights that correspond with your fingers. If you're a beginner, go into the app and choose the various chord progressions you want to learn. If you're a pro, pick one of the songs in the app's library and play along. 

"We want people of any skill level to able to play," Masavage says. As far as skill levels go, I would be considered firmly in the bottom echelon: The last instrument I played was the recorder in third grade. So I was pretty skeptical about testing this out, especially given that throngs of people were stopping to watch as soon as they heard any sound at all come out of the demo booth's amplifier.

But once I figured out how to actually hold a guitar, following along was pretty simple. It was satisfying hearing a real chord (not a "note," which is what this neophyte called it) come out of an instrument I was playing. Less than five minutes in, I was strutting the opening chords to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

It's sort of like a real-life version of Guitar Hero or Rock Band, except instead of slapping away at a series of buttons--an act that has just about zero relation to the real thing--you're strumming away on an actual guitar. The company refers to it as "color by numbers for guitars."

Masavage conceived of the idea five years ago, and the startup has been creating prototypes ever since. It wasn't until recently that LED technology became compact enough to create a product that could slip between the guitar's neck and strings without interfering with the user's ability to play.

Masavage isn't some sort of expert musician who wants to pass his abilities on to others. His background is in mechanical engineering, and he'd only dabbled with the guitar he owned.

"I've been playing--poorly--for a long time," Masavage says. "I started thinking, what's my barrier? A huge thing was that it wasn't easy to just sit down and instantly get back into it."

Hence the idea for Fret Zealot, so named for the metal strips that traverse a guitar's neck. (The startup decided to back off the original name, Fret Zeppelin, for obvious reasons.) It's a device the company admits is geared toward those of a certain generation who want to learn how to play an instrument but probably don't want to invest the time or money to do so.

The company's app currently has about 40 songs installed, but Masavage says an update in a few weeks will put that number around 1,000. Eventually, its goal is to include entire songs and not just the guitar parts--a tall order, since that will require licensing deals. Fret Zealot will be competing directly with products like FretX, a $59 LED device that serves the same function, though it's more basic in design as it's placed only on the first four frets of a guitar. 

So far, Fret Zealot--which officially launched in December--has shipped 1,500 of the $200 devices, with another 1,000 orders already placed. Crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo last year netted more than $600,000, which gave the startup the means to manufacture its initial batches.

During three days of toying with devices at CES, playing a few notes on the guitar (at an incredibly slow speed, to be sure) was about the most fun I had--and I rode around the showroom floor on a motorized suitcase against the wishes of security. If Guitar Hero can take off, there's a decent chance Fret Zealot can find a market, especially with Millennial wannabe musicians.

Published on: Jan 17, 2018