What began as an Indiegogo campaign in 2013 and can now be purchased in Apple retail stores, the Zivix Jamstik is a 16-inch long guitar with real steel strings and frets, and it connects wirelessly to Apple products (both OSX computers and iOS mobile devices). Because it’s a MIDI controller, the Jamstik opens a world of possibilities for experienced electronic musicians — the guitar’s interface can be used to produce piano, drum, and bass tracks through apps such as GarageBand, essentially allowing you to form a one-man band all from the guitar’s fretboard.
Most readers, however, will leverage the guitar’s simplicity, pairing it with an iPad app to learn guitar for the first time. It’s also a viable travel solution — the guitar is small enough to stow in a carry-on bag — though experienced players may find its feature set lacking.
When connected to jamTutor, a free iOS music app, users can learn the basics in a clear, visual way. The early tutorials will help you pluck single notes, before advancing to chord shapes and scales. As you play along, the app uses sensors in the Jamstik to identify where your fingers are positioned and displays that back on your iPad’s screen to reinforce the lesson. You get a note-for-note visual lesson that is more instructive than any DVD you may try to learn from. As you advance, you can take “challenges,” which are song clips played in Guitar Hero-style; notes cascade down the screen, giving you time to visualize what to play and practice your timing. An “Open Play” mode lets you practice the skills you’ve acquired without any extra cues.
Unlike most small-bodied guitars that usually sacrifice sound quality for portability, the Jamstik can be made to sound like a full-sized instrument when played. Because the signals are electric, they can be processed through any number of patches to replicate different instruments such as electric, acoustic, and nylon-string guitars.
That same digital process, though, can cause some minor annoyances for those accustomed to a traditional instrument. Because the Jamstik uses infrared signals instead of string vibration to create sound, you can’t do hammer-ons, pull-offs, or slides. As soon as you touch the string in a different spot or lift a finger, the sound is totally muted; the strings on a standard guitar would continue to vibrate, albeit emitting a different note. (That said, a setting on the multi-controller does allow you to “bend” notes.)
That unforgiving nature was also something we liked. As you learn to play, you really only benefit from positive reinforcement. If you practice the same errors time and again without being corrected, you’ll set those bad habits in stone, making them much harder to break later. But, because the sound dies when you fat-finger a note or miss a string, you immediately know that you’ve made a mistake.
The one drawback we find limiting to general use, though, is the guitar’s short scale. With only five usable frets, you can’t move up and down the neck to play as you might a guitar with a more standard setup. While that means you’re not going to be playing jazz tunes, those five frets are sufficient for learning or for playing rhythm to many of today’s radio hits.