For many years now, my Stratocaster has been a memento hanging on my wall representing the time before I got a MacBook. I swapped my electric guitar out for a 25-key keyboard controller and a library of virtual instruments once my career headed to podcasting. In Logic Pro or Ableton, the Stratocaster could only sound like a Stratocaster, but the MIDI keyboard could be anything I needed it to be for my music or sound design work.
But recently, I bought a new guitar that offers those very same strengths: Jamstik’s Classic MIDI Guitar, which has brought my unused fretboard skills back into the digital audio workstation (DAW), with almost as much flexibility as the musical keyboard.
The Jamstik Classic is a fully traditional electric guitar — six strings, quarter-inch jack, and all — but with an added analog-to-MIDI converter you can plug straight into your computer via USB or Bluetooth to control virtual instruments in real time. Need a trumpet or a violin in your song? Just play it on this USB-C guitar.
I am probably one of the more ideal candidates for using a Jamstik. I’m a guitar player who doesn’t have great piano skills to take full advantage of a MIDI keyboard, but I love making music in a digital space. Though there are a few third-party MIDI pickups and guitar pedals that integrate with standard electric guitars, Jamstik is the first company I’ve seen in a long time to fully incorporate a MIDI converter into a regular body guitar. It has the added benefit of looking like the traditional Strat that I have been accustomed to playing for years.
The dual output enables a lot of possibilities in a recording session
Because the Jamstik can convert notes on the guitar to MIDI data, it has allowed me to make music in different ways than I could with a desktop keyboard. Because of my familiarity with electric guitar, I have spent many hours over the past couple weeks recording modular synth sounds, piano chords, bass rhythms, orchestra strings, a saxophone solo, and even percussion tracks at a faster and more complex level than what I have been able to do with programming or playing keys. It is also just an endlessly fun novelty. I can easily transpose my guitar digitally live and play a different key than the strings are tuned to, or move up a few octaves to better fit the instrument I’m emulating.
The best scenario I’ve found with this guitar is playing some synth riffs and melodies, and then quickly switching inputs in my DAW to my audio interface to record the actual guitar’s analog output. The dual MIDI and quarter-inch output enables a lot of possibilities in a recording session.
Jamstik supplies its own library of virtual instruments inside its app, Jamstik Creator, which includes all those synths, guitars, classical instruments, and rhythmic sounds. As a standalone app or as a plug-in in any DAW, you can use the software to view a virtual fretboard that updates with the notes you’re playing in real time and lets you change instruments, tune the guitar, and alter effects and settings.
Though many after-market analog-to-MIDI converters can help you emulate these sounds, what stands out with Jamstik’s own software is how smart it is at detecting and converting guitar-specific nuances to a MIDI map. String bending, hammer-ons, and muting translate super well to the virtual instruments. With the articulations of a guitar player, a funky bendy synth solo sounds so much cooler and more human than anything I can make with a keyboard. Though those specific subtleties are best with the Jamstik plug-in and samples, the guitar can still be used as a controller for any MIDI tasks you’re doing in an app like Ableton or Logic Pro. And of course, you can also plug in the Jamstik with a quarter-inch jack and record just like any electric guitar.
As an electric guitar, the Jamstick Classic is a sufficient replacement for most single coil models, though I’m not sure a guitarist would prefer playing this over what you’d get for $999 from a company like Fender. The neck doesn’t feel as fast or slick as a higher-end model Strat, but the guitar seems to stay in tune pretty well over the time I have been using it. I’ve gotten some pretty good Stratocaster sounds out of the analog output with some amp modulation software, and I started to rely on it for tracking quick riffs at my desk.
You must use this USB-C to USB-A cable to get this model to work properly
The Jamstick does have some limits as a MIDI controller. I have found that it works best at slower tempos, or at least slower playing on the fretboard. Musicians will definitely hear even the slightest delay from their playing, so it may be hard to do some chugging on chords without thinking you are a little off time. Most of the time it was able to keep up with some Van Halen-style finger tapping, but occasionally notes will not register if I am speeding through the fretboard too fast, especially using an open string. For example, playing “Jordan” by Buckethead on the guitar with a virtual instrument, the MIDI pickups could not keep up with the riff and left it sounding choppy. Though you can obviously fix the digital notes in your DAW after the recording, a live performance may sound a little robotic or slightly off tempo at times.
USB-C inclusion is nice, but the supplied USB-C cable has a USB-A plug in the other end. The way the internals are built, you must use this USB-C to USB-A cable to get this Jamstik Classic model to work properly. Using a USB hub (even one with a DC input) won’t work well — when plugging the Jamstik into my Anker 575 docking station, the guitar will occasionally stop working and blare out a loud, long glitching sound that won’t go away until I restart my audio interface. The best result is going straight into the computer. This may be a little frustrating to users who have their computer’s ports tucked away or use a lot of the ports on their physical computer already. Jamstik has a new Deluxe and Standard model coming in February with an upgraded circuit board and a true USB-C cable, which will hopefully resolve the problem.
Even with those hiccups, using an electric guitar with a MIDI converter moved past novelty and into something more practical quicker than I initially thought. I can quickly plug the Jamstik straight into Logic Pro for the iPad with a USB cable to record a bunch of tracks, without having to use an external audio interface and multiple cables. It brought guitar playing back into my day-to-day hobbies. Eventually, I just took my keyboard off my desk to declutter and have been using the Jamstik as my main controller. There’s a reality where I can just plug a Jamstik guitar into an iPhone 15 Pro’s USB-C port and record a riff into GarageBand. Though I can’t fit this guitar on my desk like a MIDI keyboard can, it is going to sit right beside it as one of my arsenal of tools for creating music and sound design.
Photography by Andrew Marino / The Verge