Steve Howe might seem like a serious traditionalist, given his love of Gibson's venerable semis - but as we reveal in this issue, he's become a convert to Line 6's revolutionary James Tyler Variax modelling guitars. So if an icon like Howe is convinced, just how good is the latest Variax? Jamie Humphries samples the JTV59.
Line 6 has long been the leader in the world of digital modelling, ever since the introduction of the original POD around 10 years ago. Since the birth of the company, it has pioneered direct recording units, floor units, effects, software and amplifiers, all of which model classic amplifiers and effects in affordable units. Several years ago Line 6 introduced the Variax guitar, an instrument that modelled a wide variety of instruments, from vintage solid bodies, semis and jazz guitars, to acoustics, Dobros, banjos, and even a sitar. The guitar worked well, with the signal not being picked up via MIDI, but via a piezo bridge, eliminating the tracking issues that had been associated with MIDI guitars in the past. They didn't quite set the world on fire at the time - the guitar's looks being issue, as it didn't have any pickups, and in some cases didn't sit or balance well.
Nothing daunted, Line 6 has since enlisted the guitar design skills of James Tyler, to fuse its digital modelling capabilities to a well-built premium quality guitar that also has traditional magnetic pickups, allowing the guitarist to use the guitar either traditionally or, as a modelling guitar. Suddenly, it has become a different animal altogether.
Line 6 and Tyler have released three models to date, a single cut Les Paul-like guitar - the JTV 59 which we are reviewing- a Strat-ish style, and a modern hard rock/metal guitar. Also available are USA custom shop models.
The JTV 59, is a classic Les Paul style guitar, made from mahogany with a set neck, a carved maple top, and rosewood fingerboard. The guitar features two vintage voiced Tyler alnico humbucking pickups, and a Tyler hard tail, with LR Baggs piezo system. Add to this medium jumbo frets and a Graph Tech self lubricating nut, and already you have a high quality instrument. Add to this 25 models of classic vintage electric and acoustic guitars, plus the ability to use 11 different tunings, and you begin to see that the Variax is a force to be reckoned with. Surely this is a session/ gigging guitarists dream? You can see the list of models offered in our Tech Spec box.
I already own a Variax and have been a fan of them for a number of years. I use mine extensively in the studio and on sessions, if I want a specific guitar, or unusual acoustic instrument, so I was keen to see the improvements, namely the addition of the altered tunings onboard (previously these could only be accessed via the Workbench software) and also the improvements to the guitar itself.
Straight away I could feel that I was playing a well designed and well built guitar, although the set-up of the review model we had could have been better, with a little neck adjustment to bring the action down a touch. The finish of the guitar was immaculate, however, and the '59 style neck profile was very comfortable, with no rough fret edges. Plugging the guitar in and using the magnetic pickups, the sound was rich, producing warm cleans and thick overdriven tones, with plenty of bite and drive in the bridge position, and sweet and woody in the neck.
Moving on to the models, and again I was impressed with their accuracy. I was able to switch from vintage Strats, Teles, Les Pauls - the list goes on! - and enjoy an array of instruments that I could never afford! The sounds were authentic and closing your eyes it was hard to believe I was holding just one guitar.
Add to all these sounds, the acoustic instruments and you can really see and hear the potential of this instrument. And the fun doesn't stop there! By simply engaging the tuning knob we can use all of the common tunings, from dropped D to Eb, even open Blues tunings. I had a lot of fun with the Dobro model, using open G tuning and a slide! Be sure to check out the video, as I really feel the best way to experience this instrument is to see and hear it in action. I could go on for pages about the sounds on offer here - but just listen for yourself. On top of this, there are two custom banks that you can store five settings in each bank, so ten in total. These can be any combination of your favourite guitars and in any tuning. You can even simulate using a capo!
The guitar also comes with battery charger, the battery giving you 12 hours of playing time, plus Line 6 cables to connect the guitar digitally to any other Line 6 device. There is also an interface to connect it to the Workbench software, plus a very high quality gig bag.
All in all I feel that this is a great guitar, and a huge improvement on what was a great initial idea with the original run of guitars.
It's well constructed out of fine quality materials and has attractive conventional styling - so it's obvious that employing James Tyler has been a huge plus for the Californian company. The addition of the traditional magnetic pickups with the 25 models and 11 tunings makes this a very versatile tool, and well worth exploring further.
The Variax 59 isn't a cheap guitar but for a working Pro who otherwise could need a variety of instruments to get him through a gig or a recording session, it actually becomes really good value for money. And anyway, who wants to take a '58 Strat on the road? Even for the semi-pro pub and club player who might want several different sounds during an evening, it's still quite an affordable guitar - comparable in price with a lot of other one-sound guitars but a whole lot more versatile, while being potentially just as nice to play.
Is it the Variax the revolution that Line 6 says it is? Actually, yes. Unlike some other flights of fancy, this one really works, is affordable and lives up to the promise. You simply have to get out and try one of these.