My rock star dreams meet a Bluetooth mini guitar

CNET's Michael Franco chases his rock 'n' roll dreams by taking lessons from a Bluetooth-enabled mini guitar. He's no Jimmy Page, yet.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
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It's not quite a stage in Nashville, but hopefully I'll be able to play a song or two on my deck with the JamStik in a few months.

Diane Curry

I've always been impressed by guitar players who look like they were born with a six-string in their hands. Whenever I go to a show and see a guitarist killing it onstage, I always think, "I want to learn how to do that!"

However, the few guitar lessons I've taken were pretty uninspiring, and practice between lessons was downright boring. So when I got the chance to try out an electronic guitar tutor called the JamStik+, I leapt at it with the enthusiasm of a hair-band frontman.

The JamStik+ is an ultra-portable rechargeable mini guitar. It's so small that I packed it into my carry-on suitcase on a recent trip. It's basically a truncated guitar neck with five frets and a full set of strings.

The JamStik+ can pair with an iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth (sorry, no Android yet, but support for the Marshmallow operating system is coming soon). When you pluck or strum the strings of the JamStik+, sound comes out of your device's speakers. The app lets you change the sound of the guitar, so you can go from a traditional steel string to a futuristic twang to a full-on drum kit.

I stuck with the classical guitar setting and jumped into the JamTutor I app, which walks you through lessons with video tutorials and challenges. The videos explain how to position your fingers to play single notes and chords, and the challenges test out your ability. The JamStik+ monitors where your fingers are and which strings you're plucking, and grades your efforts.

The "arcade" challenges take a page from the Guitar Hero video game. Notes stream toward you on a virtual fretboard, and you simply strum when the notes hit the edge closest to you. In this case though, you can set the app to wait till you get the fingering right before the song continues, so the stress level is dramatically reduced.

This was by far the best part of the learning process. The app teaches you a few chords and notes, and then arcade mode puts your knowledge into practice right away. Even though I was no Jimmy Page, I enjoyed that I was playing actual music in under an hour after booting up the JamStik+. I can definitely see the lessons continuing and hope I might be able to strum out a song or two in a few months. I can also see the wacky sound settings being fun at a party.

The issue I have with the JamStik+, however, is its size. While it's small enough to throw into a suitcase, that very thing makes it a little hard to play. The fretboard on the JamStik+ is the exact same size as a regular guitar, but without a large main body to rest on your knee, playing it can be a little awkward. I eventually got the hang of using the included neck strap, but it's still uncomfortable to hold a relatively small gizmo in a way that lets you focus on your finger work.

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On the flip side, when I picked up an old guitar I had laying around the house, it was a lot easier to play than the JamStik+. I figure that learning on the electronic device will eventually let me play the real thing with ease. It sure beats air guitar.

The JamStik+ retails for $299 (about £207, AU$431), which seems a little pricey compared to starter acoustic guitars that run less than $100. Still, if you think of this as a guitar with a built-in tutor -- and throw in the fact that it can sound like a host of other instruments -- the deals starts to seem a little more worthwhile. Plus, as everyone knows, living the rock n' roll lifestyle certainly comes at a price.

Rock on!