Those learning guitar have a new tool to choose from: the Jamstik+, which is aimed at both teaching guitar and allowing guitarists to more easily control virtual instruments, with the device able to act as a MIDI controller.
The device was first thrust into public attention through a crowdfunding campaign, which raised over $800,000 on Kickstarter. However, was all the hype worth it? We spent some time with the Jamstik+ to find out.
The fact that the Jamstik+ is a guitar MIDI controller is a futuristic idea unto itself, and the look of the device certainly matches that. It has a slim black profile, with the pickup located about halfway along the device.
On one side of the device is a D-pad and a power button, and on the other is a micro-USB port and mini-jack port for headphones. A rechargeable battery pack can be accessed on the bottom of the device. You will also need to open up the back when you want to change the strings, which are simple electric guitar strings. The device itself is fairly sturdy and should hold up well to a daily playing, as long as you are prepared to change the strings every now and then.
It's important to note that the Jamstik+ is the second device in a series, with the original Jamstik debuting in 2014. The "+" suggests the addition of a few new features, including a new hexagaphonic pickup, which is supposed to be more responsive than the optical sensors in the original Jamstik.
The hardware of the device is more interesting than meets the eye. Under the hood are some finger-tracking sensors along the fretboard, as well as a Bluetooth radio for connectivity with a computer or iOS device. This is a step forward, as the previous version relied on Wi-Fi.
Of course, all these sensors are important in creating a helpful MIDI instrument. While the device itself does not create any sound, it can be used in conjunction with a computer or mobile device to control virtual instruments over the MIDI protocol — meaning that it can be used with any DAW (digital audio workstation). For the most part, I stuck with Pro Tools, although I dabbled in Reason as well, with similar results.
Unfortunately, while the device looks slim, guitar players will be frustrated with how it feels. The lack of any kind of body eliminates the possibility of being able to rest the guitar in your lap, which would normally free up the left hand (or right for the lefties among us) to be able to freely move around the fretboard.
Instead, the left hand needs to retain some lift on the neck of the device to prevent it from falling over. A solution to this is, of course, the included strap, however, the strap does not securely fasten, and both sides of it connect to the back of the guitar, which can feel a little awkward at times. All this to say that the Jamstik+ takes some getting used to for guitarists.
Guitarists who want a practice guitar to throw in their bag should keep looking. Those who want an alternative to a keyboard as a MIDI controller, however, might find this an interesting concept.
I'm a little on the fence about suggesting the Jamstik+ as a practice tool. It's certainly a great way to practice things like chord fingering or interact with your playing on an iPad or iPhone, although the feel of a real guitar might take some getting used to for those who learn on the Jamstik+. Zivix, the company behind the device, is certainly on the right track in combining cutting edge technology with musical instruments, but some work still needs to be done.
An important part of the Jamstik+ experience is the software that comes with it. Zivix put a lot of energy into the development of the iOS app, which is aimed at helping new guitarists learn how to play. Obviously due to the only six-fret-fretboard, it focuses more on chords and chord fingering than scales, however, it's still a great tool for learning chords. There is even a Guitar Hero-esque part of the app that helps users quickly transition between chords.
Unfortunately, the ability to learn chords is about where the learning ends. The ability to hammer on and pull off while playing the Jamstik+ is there but severely lacks in finesse. The note is either triggered or it isn't, and when it is triggered, it is only triggered at one volume. String bending is essentially nonexistent.
The Good Parts of The Jamstik+
OK, so the Jamstik+ may not be the best device for learning how to play the real guitar or for capturing the feel of a real guitar, but as far as MIDI guitar goes, it's quite an impressive device. For those fine with simple picking and strumming, the device is quite responsive and easy to use. This is especially true for those simply wanting to build pads or simple synths behind their composition. It might be more appropriate to leave the more complex chords and voicings to the keyboard, however, the Jamstik+ is great at the simple stuff.
Of course, because a DAW is recording MIDI data, it can always be edited and manipulated to sound the way you want it to sound. In fact, while you're learning how to play guitar/use the Jamstik+, you might also learn a thing or two about how MIDI works and how to properly edit MIDI within your DAW.
The Jamstik+ is a great tool for guitar players looking to translate their skills into playing virtual instruments. In fact, I would argue that it's one of the best MIDI guitars on the market. As far as learning guitar, however, I would recommend spending the $250 on a real guitar and either finding a good tutor if you can afford one or simply looking online.
Easy to use
Great for guitarists wanting to use MIDI
Limited in teaching
Lacks proper support for some guitar techniques