Guitar Teaches You To Play Using LEDs


[Andrew] is an electrical engineering student at UIC, and decided that he would build a MIDI guitar for his senior design project. After tinkering for awhile, things were not looking good, and the MIDI guitar idea was scrapped. With his deadline creeping up, he came up with a new idea, the Guitarduino. His new project is a guitar that teaches you how to play chords and scales by showing you the proper notes to play via LEDs embedded in the guitar’s neck.

He removed the neck, and carefully drilled the holes that would eventually house his 130+ LEDs. The LEDs were wired to his Arduino via some multiplexing circuitry that resides on the back of the guitar’s body. The Arduino was mounted on the front of the guitar along with a shield used for communicating with his LED array. He built another shield that serves as the LCD display as well as the input board for his guitar.

The final result of all his work is fantastic. The user simply needs to dial in the chord or scale that he wants to learn, and the guitar lights up, showing the proper finger positions on the fretboard. We could see this coming in quite handy for anyone just starting to learn how to play.

Check out the video below to see a demonstration and walkthrough [Andrew] put together highlighting his guitar’s features.


38 thoughts on “Guitar Teaches You To Play Using LEDs

  1. Wonderful! I’ve been wanting a fretlight guitar for so long!

    If I can make a suggestion, as chords are made up of scales, why not have a mode that shows the I, III, V notes of the scale across the whole fretboard, to build your own major chords, or I, minor III, V for minor chords, etc?

    And then, oooh, a computer GUI to load tabs into the arduino for song mode! (okay, I’m getting carried away).

    Great work, again!

  2. @mowcius

    Yes, I understood the point after watching the video for myself… the problem is all these websites are focusing in on the LED hack as if that’s the innovative part of the project. Upon first reading these blogs, I was like Ron and sitting here thinking “this is not a new idea”.

    Honestly, I think these blogs are doing this kid a huge disservice by putting focus on the LEDs in the neck and making it out like he came up with that idea. The genius is the software and the true star of his project. Great idea by him, poor reporting by the bloggers writing about it.

  3. I think there was a mainstream product in the 90’s that did this. The internet is to cluttered with LED zeppelin / guitar results to yield any relevant results. I hope someone at google is reading this so they can fix this algorithmical problem!

  4. Keep in mind, I had a deadline and only started 2 months ago. This is the final project I am turning in, this is only round one. My main goal is to create a MIDI controlled device, like a guitorgan.

    @johnny6 I have always felt that sometimes as engineers and project builders we forget our audience is not only other hackers like ourselves, but the general public. The focus of the project to almost everyone at my expo will be the LEDs. They are great to get those interested into hacking. How many of our first projects involved LEDs? This is just on a larger scale.

    Thank you everyone for your comments and for some more great ideas.

  5. There are several sources online that show how to use an LED as an input device also.

    It would be cool if you could use one of these methods to record what notes are played, then either log that on a computer or send to a second guitar. Then you could have a tutor playing something on one guitar and the student can easilly see what was played and repeat it on his guitar.

    At the moment it can involve awkward leaning around and moving peoples fingers for them.

  6. @holly_smoke – Ha, This was our original idea even before the MIDI part of things! This is something I still want to do. Another implementation I thought of was adding tricolor LEDs. The different color LEDs would indicate which fingers should go where. Next implementation will involve using a PCB as a fretboard. I could not imagine doing this again the way I did it, especially with tricolor LEDs. It was mainly a time and money issue.

  7. @steaky

    Or you could use all the LEDs on the fretboard to show tuning. You could make the middle (let’s say 7th) fret the “in tune” point and then light up the lights below or above that center fret which would correspond to how flat or sharp the note is. Might be cool.

  8. Your ground loop is probably between the PC and the amplifier, since the arduino is getting its ground via the PC. Tieing the grounds shouldn’t be necessary as long as you have the PC disconnected when you’re playing.

    I’m going to guess that the noise problem comes from the multiplexing, you’re switching relatively high currents there, and with long wires, so it’s going to radiate quite a bit. Playing with the frequency here might reduce the noise problem or make it easier to filter out.

    Very polished product. Any thoughts about ditching the Arduino and building a custom board with all your electronics directly into the body? That’d be sexy!

  9. @Andrew – I found the PROGMEM last week and plan on rewriting the code once senior design is completed. I have been taking care of my report over the last week. Thanks.

    @error404- The GuitArduino is not plugged into the computer, but is from a USB (B?) cable plugged into an outlet. Yes the noise comes from the rapid change in current in the long lines which creates a magnetic field. To polish up the project for the next round the plan is PCB as a fretboard, with SMT tri color LEDS as well a hollow bodied guitar. I am with you on making it polished up. Makes it appeal to more people. Not planning on ditching the Arduino though. NO WAY!

  10. Andrew, did you have to take any considerations regarding the stresses on the neck? After drilling all those holes, I think you might have had to reset the torsion bar at least? Does the guitar stay in tune after a long period of playing?

    BTW – I first saw this concept some time ago, when Mark Knopfler (Dire Straights) was showing one off on TV. I was thinking the same things as others here, about interfacing it in different ways, but unlike you, I didn’t get off my arse and do it ;-)

  11. @Frido – that is a great resource. Thanks. I want to implement something like this similar to the way that fretlight does it.

    @Coda – The only thing I did to alleviate stress from the the neck was not have the truss rod tightened all the way. Aside from that I don’t think that the strength was really taken away from it. What I did was dremel out a cavity deep enough to fit the wiring. Check out this video and you can fast forward it 2 minutes and see what the inside of the neck looks like. You will see that the truss rod is not exposed.

  12. ernesto
    This project “Guitarduino” is open, maybe for that reason you don´t have any user feedback.
    Personally i´d download Guitarduino doc , and is very informative, and learn a lot about how this was build, this is the arduino spirit.
    Power to the people, build your own stuff, and share it!!!

    Sorry for may bad English
    In Spanish

    ernesto, este proyecto “Guitarduino” es abierto, por lo tanto ,se puede modificar , aprender de el. Eso es lo que me cautivo de Arduino, hay proyectos tan interesantes e impresionantes como maquinas cnc o impresoras en 3d y otros cientos mas y son totalmente abiertos, en su parte hardware y software, yo he visto tu proyecto, pero solo lo muestras , al parecer me da la impresion que esta cerrado o no tienes intencion de abrir el codigo o el hardware, creo que si abrieras tu proyecto, hicieras una web , contarias con un cientos de seguidores y seria mas connotado aun

  13. Hi all!
    Based on Andrew’s Hardware and software.
    We have added several chords m7,m9,7,9 and scales pentatonic min, pentatonic maj and more.
    Also spanish support, change key signature, ram to flash, serial support to display anything.
    We have done a TuxGuitar plugin to interface with guitarduino.

    You can check history, video, photos, source code on

    Hope you like!

  14. Andrew……care to assist with adding the feature of LED’s illuminating inside the bodies of the acrylic electric guitars I mfg. If so, we can work out compensation!

  15. Feeling very sad…this idea came in my mind before 1 mnth ago….and i was making a prototype….and i also chk on google…bt its nt showing…and i was thought that this type of idea is new…bt when i check with different keyword like led fretboard it shocked me….the concept in mind was already developed by fretlight and this brokes my heart……

      1. Actually the guy came up with Fretlight in 1987 and Mark Knopfler didn’t market it he tested the Fretlight on the program Tomorrows World, broadcasted by the BBC, 28th April 1993. In the end, they asked Mark what he thinks of it. He said: “It wouldn’t be for me because I am not really a join the dots player.” When Mark is later asked to play a bit on it of his own choice and that he could decide if he plays with the lights on or off, he said: “Well, if all the lights are on, I just start to cry and then I can’t see my chords through my tears.”

  16. Very interesting!
    I have a 1996 optek fretlight guitar driven by a Philips processor
    2714327 9722hD
    But, unfortunately my wife recycled the control box ( no longer available and fretlight says they dont have schematics or logic description, or all high proprietary) that hook to the guitar through an 8 pin din but not a real MIDI connection.
    The new Fretlight guitars are now wireless bluetooth devices, and Im wondering if there could be a patch to drive the philips processor to address the led array in the fret board.
    Or maybe just get a cheap junked fretlight guitar and use its electronics to control the led displays.
    I may just start tinkering with inputs to the phillips processor, but I figure it is hard programed and proprietary secret.

    Any ideas if this is trigger by MIDI signals, or ideas about figuring out the logic.
    I could ask the Fretligh folk, but im pretty sure they just want me to by a new guitar. I like the old 1998 31 series guitar, that still plays nicely, but would be interested in getting it lit up.
    I would purchase one of the old controller boxes, but I cant find them on Ebay or elsewhere.

    And ideas or suggestions would be welcome, though I realize this is a very old thread.
    Art Tatum,
    no relation to the famous Jazz Pianist!

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