Price paid: $ 900
Purchased from: fretlight.com
Features — 9
2013 Fretlight FG-561 Pro (Pacific Blue). Double-cut ash body - Very light (12 lbs) and comfortable. Very comfortable easy access to the high frets. The tummy-cut adds to the comfort. I would have preferred that it also have a forearm cut, but that's a personal preference. The forearm cut tends to detract from the appearance of a figured top guitar, so I can see why some would prefer to leave it flat. Birds Eye Maple figured top - Initially, I thought that bird's eye maple was an odd choice for a figured top, but it's actually quite beautiful. Stratabond neck w/ double truss rods - This neck was a very pleasant surprise. I initially feared that it was just a marketing gimmick, but it really is awesome. The laminated stratabond birch is incredibly smooth, allowing much faster movement up and down the neck. It's C-shaped back is just a tiny bit thicker than a standard American Fender Strat, making it extremely comfortable for me. I have somewhat large meaty hands, which has made it hard to find an ideal guitar neck. Also, unexpectedly, the layers in the stratabond neck are very attractive, adding to the beauty of the guitar rather than detracting it. Locking tuners - nice chrome locking tuners (locks on back). Easy to fine-tune. Once I gave the strings a good stretch, it stays in tune extremely well. I almost never have to re-tune. 22 frets - Stainless steel frets. I'm not sure of the exact height, but they are very comfortable, easy to fret with light pressure. Fretlight fingerboard - This is why I bought the guitar. The fretlight LED fingerboard is amazing. It looks like any ebony fretboard. You'd have to be looking from a couple inches away before noticing any differences. It's extremely smooth, but it feels like a normal wood fretboard that had been finished to perfect smoothness. The LEDs are completely invisible until lit, and can't be felt at all. With the exception of the telltale binding, you would never know that it had the fretlight system until they started lighting up. The true value of this guitar is in the fretlight system. I use it with both the Fretlight software and Guitar Pro 6 to learn new songs at 3-4 times as fast as I do with a normal guitar. Also, the ability to display any scale in any position or the entire fingerboard is an amazing learning tool. I've spent untold days memorizing scales at each position, vertically on 1 string, an diagonally across, but until now, I've never been able to get over the hump of full fretboard mobility. I can light up any scale and just improvise over it, or run scales and drills. The best thing is that it accelerates the learning process. After playing/practicing a scale/mode long enough with the lights enabled, I find that I can finally apply that full-fretboard understanding without the LEDs. Fixed bridge - Fairly standard well made fixed bridge. Strings are run through the body. 2 Chrome Fralin P-92 humbuckers Chrome volume, tone and Blender controls - Standard volume and tone controls. Instead of a 3-way pickup selector, there is a blender control that gradually fades between the two pickups, allowing you to dial in exactly he the blend of neck and bridge pickups to get the tone you want. It won't get the some of the more extreme ends of the spectrum, but you can really nail down exactly what you want within it's range. It seems to have a bit more range on the warmer end, but you can still get a very nice bright tone as well.
Sound — 8
I mostly play rock/blues sometimes with a little jazz influence. It's dead-quiet when not playing and has a very clean full sound with the tone control all the way up. It can reach an extremely warm sound with the tone turned down and the blender pushed towards the neck pickup, but still has a very bright tone when set fully on the next pickup. I half-expected that I would only want to play this guitar when using the fretlight system to learn, and then switch to one of my higher end guitars to play. Instead, I haven't taken out any of my other guitars since the 561 arrived. That's not to say that it sounds better than all of my other guitars. Don't expect this guitar to sound better than your high end Les Paul or Fender Custom Shop Strat, but in my opinion it sounds better than just about anything else I've played in it's price range.
Action, Fit & Finish — 9
I was amazed at how well this guitar was set up. Since it was shipped to my home, I was completely expecting it to be all screwed up requiring hours of adjustments to get things just the way I want them. Instead, all I had to do was tune it up. I didn't need to adjust the bridge or truss rods at all. The action was nice and low, with a clean tone - absolutely no fret buzz - and the intonation was dead on. No flaws in the finish or hardware. The only real problem I had was a perfectly normal issue - initially it didn't stay in tune well until I gave the strings a serious stretch. Birds eye maple wouldn't have been my first choice, but the pacific blue stain with transparent finish really does look nice. I don't think it's possible to get perfectly balanced birds eye maple, even by bookmatching two pieces, so I don't think they even attempted to do so. It's not like a flame or quilt top where you want it to be mirrored. The "eye" patterns in the maple give it a very distinct/unique appearance.
Reliability & Durability — 9
So far this guitar has stood up extremely well. I'm fairly careful with my guitars, though, so I haven't really put it through much abuse. The hardware is very solid. Some of the pots have a weird difference in resistance towards the far ends of it's range, but otherwise they feel like they will last. I always replace my strap buttons with locking buttons, so I can't comment on those other than to say they looked like any other buttons and were installed well. The finish seems very durable so far, but as I mentioned earlier, I tend to be very careful with my guitars, so it hasn't really been tested yet.
Overall Impression — 9
I have been playing on and off for 20 years. Much more off than on. I played consistently for 4 years or so as a teenager, but afterwards it's been something that I have to put aside for years at a time and only get the chance to come back to it occasionally. As a result, I've picked up a lot of knowledge over the years, but could never get past many important barriers (e.g. being able to utilize the entire fretboard in any direction for a given scale). I tend to be very picky about what guitars I purchase. My others include a Gibson Custom Shop CS-336, a Gibson Standard Les Paul Limited Edition, and a Limited Charvel San Dimas Wildcard. I'm used to playing some fairly high end guitars, and the concept of buying a Fretlight over the internet without playing it first (a lot) was really tough for me to get past. I found a nearby shop that had an FG-521 (strat style) model, and I at least had a chance to play before placing the order. (Note that the 521 played nearly as well as the 561, and has an identical neck and bridge). It was only after extended discussions with the Fretlight team that I was willing to give it a try. The great thing is that they have a generous return policy, so if it showed up and I was disappointed, I could just return it. There turned out to be no need! I'd also point out that the team at Fretlight is awesome. I was a serious p.i.t.a. sending them questions and concerns for weeks trying to decide whether or not I wanted to risk buying a guitar I hadn't put my hands on first. They were incredibly helpful, very patient and completely straightforward. They have an awesome team there. I mostly play classic rock/blues, sometimes with a little jazz influence, and it's been great for that. I would absolutely buy another of the same model if something happened to this one. I'm anxiously waiting for them to release a Fretlight Bass as well. I can certainly see using this guitar for a gig. The fretlight learning system is certainly the best thing about this guitar - and the primary reason that I purchased it, but it turned out to be an awesome guitar in it's own right. I would put it up against any other guitar in it's price range even without the fretlight features. The fretlight player software could use some UX improvements, but it still serves it's purpose very well. The loop controls are a bit awkward, and take some time to get used to, but it's fine once you get learn the tricks. Guitar Pro 6 also has a fretlight ready version that makes this pretty much the ultimate tool for learning songs. Ultimate-Guitar.com has endless Guitar Pro scores that you can download for free and learn on a fretlight several times faster that using a standard guitar and looking back and forth between the tabs/sheet music and the guitar itself. The LEDs give you visual feedback that helps you make sure that your timing is perfect. I do wish it had an all-in-one service that includes the GP6 style score with loop controls, the lessons and high quality backing tracks from the fretlight DVDs all put together into one. Also, it would also be awesome if it had a built in digital output on the same cable so you use your computer to drive the fretlight LEDs and learn songs, while simultaneously playing back and using the computer as a DAW. I manage that now using a separate analog -> digital conversion cable, but It would be more convenient if it were just one cable.