Back in 2013, Kevin Honeycutt (a former art teacher, who is an now educational motivational speaker) tweeted about the JamStik, a guitar controller for iOS (and Mac) that was an Indiegogo campaign. I wrestled with the idea of “buying into” the device, but finally decided to jump on board. The JamStik was being sold at a discount to early backers, and I submitted my $219 to be an early backer to the project.
Well, time passed. The company, located nearby in Minneapolis, Minnesota, took prototypes to various computer and app shows. And I was (and still am) teaching at the middle school level where students are asked to choose between band, choir, and orchestra–meaning that as a choir director I have students who either love singing or cannot play an instrument. This has convinced me that students at the middle school level–even if selected by hand because of their reluctance to sing–should have another option as a performance class–guitar. I understand this is an unpopular stance, but I strongly believe in it. Furthermore, I teach at a 1:1 iPad school, so a guitar controller for iPad makes sense as a way to learn guitar. Small, light, rechargeable, and NO TUNING. Yes, guitarists need to learn how to tune a guitar. But I have never been in a guitar class where all the guitars were in tune (within any individual guitar, or with all the other guitars in the room). Tuning is a skill that can be taught along the way. With this in mind, I saw (and still see) the JamStik as a device with a lot of possibility for education, even at a suggested price point of $299.
The problem was that the JamStik was delayed, then delayed, and then delayed more. Thankfully, the company was busy enough at prodcut shows to demonstrate that it was still in the game. And last month, units to the original 900 backers began.
My JamStik shipped last Friday, and arrived Tuesday night. I have had some time to play with the device, and it is perhaps the first device that I have ever backed that has lived 100% up to its promise (with the exception being the shipping dates along the way). As promised, it is a five fret MIDI guitar controller for iOS or Mac. It is solidly built, and uses real strings with infared sensors. Although it is probably a “toy” for a “real” guitarist, I think “real” guitarists could make real music with it. At the same time, for casual guitar players, like myself (actually, I have a hard time calling myself a guitarist) or for educators teaching (or students learning) guitar, this might be the perfect device in a 1:1 iPad setting.
The device connects to your iOS device (I have used it with both my iPad and iPhone) with a wifi connection, which is broadcast by the JamStik. If you run the JamStik Connect app (free), and JamStik Connect runs in the background on your device, you can use the JamStik with just about any CoreMIDI app on iOS. JamStik Connect broadcasts its own audio (you get a choice of five guitars) out of the iPad, so if you plan to use another app, you have to turn the guitar sound created by JamStik Connect “off.” Otherwise, you get the sound of the other app PLUS the sound of JamStik Connect. This isn't a problem, but it is something that may take a moment to figure out when you hear two guitar sounds out of one app. I do wonder if each JamStik creates its own channel and network name, and I wonder if it is possible to have a room of JamStiks in an educational setting, or if that would be wifi overload. The wifi component surprised me…for some reason I thought it would be a Bluetooth device.
The apps that come with the device seem to be well made…Jamstik Connect works well (no discernable delay) and Jam Tutor is solid. As a music teacher, my only “complaint” about JamTutor is that it doesn't teach guitar from “traditional” notation, which always one of my goals when I teach a guitar class. Think about the power of letting students use JamTutor so they can learn at their own pace, and then supplementing the experience with traditional “guitar” methods including notation and tablature! I have not worked with their sequencing app, JamMix. All the Zivix apps are free on the App Store.
As with all devices, I only see two “negatives” with the JamStik. First, as a MIDI device, you can shift the JamStik up or down an octave or two octaves. You cannot, however, shift MIDI in terms of half steps. I can see the possibility of a basic guitar player wanting to use chords from the key of G, but to transpose the JamStik to another key (such as F or C)…but you can't do this with the JamStik hardware at the current time. You would need some kind of display to show you your transposition, which the JamStik doesn't have. In other words, the JamStik lacks a digital capo. That might be a negative for some owners, but I am not sure if a future firmware update can address this functionality.
Second, the strings, although not actually amplified, are not tuned to the pitches we normally associate with a guitar. As a result, as you pluck the strings, you can hear the “pluck” of the actual pitches, while the MIDI sounds comes through your iOS device. This makes for a small amount of dissonance. I don't know if it is possible to tune the JamStik to the actual pitches (in truth, just being “close” would be enough to solve this issue). Maybe this only bothers me as I am a music teacher.
From what I have gathered, the folks at Zivix have said that the strings are very rugged, although I expect we will see ways to buy replacement strings and batteries soon.
One of the tough things that has happened is that the JamStik is now in some Apple stores while some unknown number of JamStik owners are still waiting for their JamStik from backing the product back in 2013. My guess is that Zivix thought they were going to meet all their deadlines, signed a contract with Apple based on those deadlines, and then had issues with parts (a stock e-mail from Zivix, sent to backers who inquire about their missing backed device, explains the part shortage). I think Zivix was requried to ship product to Apple, not having shipped to all backers first. That is a hard thing to take if you have been waiting more than a year for a device–and additionally Zivix's lack of addressing that situation (to date) is a little awkward. I don't think there is any explanation that can soothe feelings after a year of delays and now the Apple store situation. I personally would always to like to see open communication from a company, but I tend to be more patient and am not the litigating type. I also have my JamStik in my hands at this point.
I filmed a video with the JamStik earlier today; I will post that when I get a chance to edit it, which may not be today.
$299 may seem like a lot of money for this device, but a traditional backpack guitar (I have one of these from my time teaching guitar at the high school…it was just easier to deal with than a full guitar while teaching) costs around $200. For the added benefit of being able to bring MIDI into an iOS Device or Mac via a wireless connection based on infared sensors? $299 seems like a pretty good price, and as with all things, I would expect that advances in the product might eventually lead to additional models (a full size guitar?), features, and lower prices. I would also like to see educational sets of JamStiks and educational pricing. If schools were willing to drop thousands on Yamaha's MIE keyboard labs, why wouldn't you consider 30 iPads and 30 JamStiks ($27,000)? The JamStik is a device that could really change how we teach guitar and also help non-guitarists music educators to include guitar in their course load. I am excited to see where the product goes from here.