Updated: Feb 13
I recently left a 30-year career in the musical instrument business. I invented the Fretlight® guitar in 1989 and built a company around the product. The Fretlight guitar has lights in the neck showing you where to put your fingers to play chords, scales, riffs and songs. It’s still being sold today. Over that time, we sold tens of thousands of guitars but we could have sold millions. During the last 30 years the Fretlight guitar has gone through several technology transformations and it is because of this “race toward technology”, that sales were ultimately hindered.
When I started in 1989, there was no internet or even much of a software market for computers at the time. Forget about connecting things to computers in those days, it was virtually impossible. At that time the first Fretlight guitar had an on-board system consisting of three knobs (the knobs were attached to circuit board in the body). Each knob allowed you to choose the type and key of a chord or scale pattern that you wanted to see lit up on the guitar. It plugged into a standard electrical wall outlet. It was simple.
Let’s stop right there and let me clarify my last statement.
It was simple to use.
No, let me clarify some more. It was simple and quick for the user to light something on the fretboard and play.
Hindsight being 20/20, had that product been the product that was sold for the last 30 years, I might actually own a yacht and a plane and a Hawaii vacation home….you get my point. Now let me explain why and what actually happened to lead me to this conclusion.
I was into computers and video games as a recent college grad in the late 80’s. I was living in San Jose, CA and Apple was innovating every day. They had just released the Macintosh which was amazing compared to any other PC running Windows 3.1. Now you have to understand that as these advances were being made, people still had to do a fair amount of “work” to do what they wanted on a computer. Connecting cables, trying to get printers connected, early networking of computers, etc. So, it wasn’t “plug n’ play” for sure, but it was cool and when you finally did get your stuff connected or the software working, you were like a kid in a candy store, giddy with delight. So how does this all relate to the Fretlight? I made the incorrect assumption that my customer was like me. That they wanted advances in technology as fast as I could transform Fretlight and that they were willing to absorb a few speed bumps, do a little "work", to get to the amazing advances the Fretlight could bring their playing. I was wrong. They wanted to play guitar.
All through the 90’s I kept advancing the Fretlight’s technology. Windows 95 came out and I abandoned the on-board Fretlight system and connected the Fretlight to the computer through….wait for it…..the serial port – which by the way, required driver software that they user had to install. There was only one software program the Fretlight connected to at the time called Guitar Magic and that was it. It worked and was really incredible but sales dropped like a rock. Guitar players weren’t interested in connecting their guitars to computers and they certainly didn’t want to sign up for the extra hassle of installing software and making all this work. They wanted to play guitar. Sure, I saw that it wasn’t perfect but I kept telling myself better days are ahead with the upcoming new type of connection which happened around the year 2000 called USB.
Over the next 20 years I kept pushing Fretlight to utilize the latest tech. Yes it was great as far as tech was concerned, but I kept moving the goalposts for the customer. I kept putting additional hurdles in their way such that they had to do “work” to get something lit up on the guitar. Even in 2016 when the Fretlight connected to mobile devices and computers via Bluetooth and we ditched the cable from guitar to USB (which customers finally came to grips with and found easy to use), we put another hurdle in place for our customers. As far as tech goes, the Bluetooth Fretlight was (and is) amazing. But all guitar players wanted to do was play. Sure, we sold guitars but the tech support requirements throughout the years were extensive and costly. We couldn’t get music dealers on-board because traditionally guitars just hang on a wall and then people take them down and play them to try them out prior to purchasing them. Music dealers had no idea how to sell the Fretlight “connected” guitar or even demo it. For the dealers that did try, the Fretlight sat in the corner with its lights off. Not only did we lose sight of what guitar players wanted to do, we failed to properly understand our competition. Our competition was not the difficulty of traditional learning methods, it was the ease of preparing to use them.
A guitar player can open a book to a chord or scale pattern in about 3 seconds. They can search for a YouTube video and find what they’re looking for in about 5 seconds. Sure, once they open the book or video things get harder, but they are at the point of playing – or least trying to play. Today, getting your Fretlight connected to the point of having lights on the fretboard and you playing takes at least 4-5 minutes. That may not seem like a long time, but compared to the mere seconds of getting going playing guitar using a book or a YouTube video, it’s an eternity for a guitar player. With Fretlight you have to make sure the guitar battery is charged, open your mobile device or computer and connect it to Bluetooth (there’s a particular order you need to follow – this is not like opening your Bose headset), launch the app or software, find and launch the video lesson, song or chord/scale pattern you want lit up and then play. Can you see the challenge? Those customers that jumped these hurdles successfully and used the Fretlight as designed were rewarded and they told us in no uncertain terms, “The Fretlight is amazing!” But so many more were frustrated with the process or intuitively knew that it was going to be a hassle for them to connect and use the software that they didn’t even bother purchasing. Why does Guitar Center still sell chord, scale and song books in this day and age? The short answer is that opening a book takes seconds and is not intrusive to the playing (or the ‘trying to play’) process.
I’m still very proud of the what I invented and my initial configuration of the Fretlight with its on-board chord and scale system was spot on. Unfortunately, I got wrapped up in advancing the technology without giving thought to very real business concerns about customers using the product. The Fretlight is hands down the best guitar learning system in the world once you get something lit up on the guitar. However, this is one instance where being technologically advanced was a severe drawback. Unintentionally, we shifted the customer’s pain point. We solved one problem, and created another. The lesson here is to understand not just what your customer’s pain point is, but what their current process is and if your product/service might unintentionally alter that process for the worst.