Before I tell you about this device, I should note that a month ago I had never picked up a guitar in my life. I didn’t even know what a fret was.
By practicing a couple of nights a week for the past month, I’ve got from zero guitar playing ability, to something I’m at least reasonably impressed with, and I’m confident I’ll get better as I practice even more. More importantly, I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun as I learn. That’s the power of the Jamstik+. Will it work for you too? Let’s find out, and end of this review we’re giving away a Jamstik+, worth $270, to one lucky reader.
Although the Jamstik+ looks like a plastic gimmick at first glance, it really isn’t. These are real guitar strings, it weighs a lot more than you’d expect (though not as much as a real guitar), and you’ll actually be learning how to play a guitar when you learn with the Jamstik+. It’s really the essence of a electric guitar, condensed down into a tiny portable package.
I feel wrong even comparing this to something like Guitar Hero accessories, because it’s absolutely nothing like them, but I’m sure someone is thinking “why is this any different to those games on the XBox”, so let’s address that point now. While the likes of Guitar Hero uses a guitar shaped controller, with buttons that are skeumorphically placed to look like the real thing, and sounds like the real thing if you time it right, fundamentally they have nothing in common with actually playing a guitar. The Jamstik+ however, does. If you learn to play on the Jamstik+, you’ll be able to play a “real” guitar too.
On the technical side of things, the Jamstik+ is a MIDI guitar controller which connects over Bluetooth or USB to software running on iOS, Mac or PC (though the first party software is only available for iOS and Mac). There’s no audio output, so you can’t connect it directly to an amplifier – it needs the software layer in the middle in order to produce a sound. This does however have the advantage that you can change the sound in software; whether you prefer a classical guitar or something dirty and electric, this can be changed on the fly using the keypad on top. This also gives you quick access buttons to progress in the levels or repeat the current song.
Since it’s a standard MIDI controller, you can also use the Jamstik+ with a huge range of third party software out there, include the popular GarageBand by Apple, or other pro tools.
In terms of MIDI guitar controllers, it’s averagely priced, though I’m unable to find any others that operate wirelessly over Bluetooth, and there certainly aren’t any other portable options.
The smaller size does come with limitations though, and astute readers will notice the Jamstik+ only has 5 frets, compared to 19 or more that you might find on a full-size guitar. Apart from that obviously being fewer, I’m not qualified to state if that matters or not, so I’ll defer to the manufacturers on this point in their FAQ:
When learning guitar for the first time, it is important to get to know the chords that can be made in the first five frets. There are tens of thousands of songs that only use the first five frets. Within the first five frets, you can also learn movable “barre chords” that can be applied to the entire guitar neck.
Also in the box is a micro USB cable, and two picks.
Connection to my iPad (3rd gen) was easy: I hit the power switch on the guitar and booted up the basic Jamstik+ app. It was listed in the devices tab, and connected immediately. There was an initial firmware update, but this consisted of clicking the firmware update button, then waiting 5 minutes. For anyone that’s ever faffed around with Bluetooth devices and firmware updates, you’ll shocked at why everything can’t just be this easy. I was up and running within 10 minutes of opening the box.
Only mildly annoying is the fact that it doesn’t auto-connect when you turn it back on again. Each time you open the app to practice or learn, you need to re-select the Jamstik from the devices menu.
A number of first party apps are available to download, as well as countless third party apps which work with any standard MIDI controller (such as Apple’s Garageband).
JamTutor is where you’ll spend most of your time learning. It consists of a series of lessons (with video tutorials) that start from absolute zero, as well as an arcade mode, which resembles a slightly less polished but far more difficult version of the classic Guitar Hero and Rock Band games.
Within a few minutes you’ll be rocking out in your first arcade mode game of plucking single strings – and it’s immensely satisfying. I’ll admit right now to having played that level ten times before moving onto the next lessons. Difficulty seems to ramp up quickly, so I’d advise you to master each lesson before moving on (such as quickly switching between the E and A chords). Of course, there’s nothing to stop you supplementing your learning with some helpful YouTube tutorials too – anything there will be transferable to the Jamstik+.
JamMix is an unstructured creative application, featuring loops, smart chords and lots of other fun musical stuff. A separate application named simply JamStik+ is the official companion app, to be used as a testing tool and reference guide, with helpful diagram of chords and scales. Pro users can also adjust the octave that the 5 frets represent.
I should also note that the apps are available in beta for Mac, though as yet not for Android or Windows. The Jamstik+ can still be connected to Windows and used as a MIDI controller.
A quick word on latency: there isn’t any. Not enough for it to be discernible by myself, anyway. This was a common complaint of the original Jamstik, but appears to have been completely eradicated in the updated Jamstik+.
Should You Buy a Jamstik+?
The Jamstik is aimed at two audiences: those looking for a light, portable MIDI-guitar for practice while travelling and creativity; and complete beginners. Clearly, I fall into the latter category, and while I won’t pretend to know anything about what a professional guitar player might look for in a MIDI-controller, I can confidently say there’s nothing like the Jamstik+ on the market. It’s light, it’s portable, and it’ll get you jammin’ with nothing more than an iPad. If that’s what you’re in need of, look no further.
For complete beginners, the learning process of the Jamtutor software combined with the Jamstik+ is a powerful experience. Gone are the days of expensive musical one-on-one tuition. I’m firmly of the belief that all teaching processes will eventually be replaced by a machine, and this shows exactly how good it can be.
However, we should put the price of the device into context with other, similar learning methods for beginners. The closest comparison would be the RockSmith software package, for PC or consoles, which has a similar learning interface and works with a regular sized real electric guitar, thanks to a USB adaptor cable. The software and cable bundle costs around $50. You can also buy a full size electric guitar and amp set from Amazon for as little as $100, putting the grand total at around $150 for a beginner looking to learn how to play guitar. The Jamstik+ is nearly double that, so it’s a little hard to justify if your only intent is to use it for learning, especially since you’ll probably want to buy an actual guitar at some point too. The primary difference with other software solutions is that optical sensors underneath the fretboard detect precisely where your fingers are placed, so you can correct yourself immediately. In that respect, it’s better for the absolute beginner who wants an accelerated learning process; Rocksmith feels more suited to users who have at least a little to start with. The compact size of the Jamstik+ may also be beneficial to students or those living in studio apartments who just can’t justify a full size guitar.
You can buy the Jamstik+ on Amazon for $270 at the time of writing, or $330 direct from the manufacturers including a handy carry case.
You may also get your hands on an older version for $149.99 from our deals site.