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This article was originally published in issue #22
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Way back in GI Issue 6 we looked at the Gibsonesque-shaped Line 6 Variax 59. Now it's the turn of the altogether more Californian looking 69. But, as Tom Quayle reminds us - these Variax guitars owe little to the past and a great deal to the future of electric guitar design. We've reviewed all three elements of Line 6's 'Dream Rig' in this issue - the Variax, the latest POD FX and the StageSource PA. Apparently, they all talk together. Time to worry..?
Back in 2010, Line 6 teamed up with renowned US-based luthier James Tyler to produce the Tyler Variax models, which offered a massively updated design over the original, 2002, Variax guitars, sensibly combining standard guitar construction with Line 6’s Variax technology to produce a much more guitarist friendly instrument. The aim has been to produce a supremely versatile studio and live performance tool designed to give guitarists a wide range of classic and modern guitar tones in a single package. The original design was always slightly odd looking thanks to the lack of standard pickups and many guitar players found it hard to adapt to - although the technology always worked superbly, allowing guitar players access to a wide range of guitar and ethnic tones from a single instrument.
We chose to look at the single cutaway JTV-59 earlier on because we had an interview with Yes's Steve Howe in that issue, who is - surprisingly given his otherwise distinctly retro tastes! - a Variax user. Our reason this time was so that we could try the double cutaway (loosely Strat-based) 69S with the new POD HD 500 X, which can be so closely integrated with the guitar. We gave 59 a full four and a half stars we were so impressed. Does the 69 score so highly? Let's find out.
The JTV-69S, is a 25.5” scale length alder body, Strat-shape guitar with a bolt-on maple neck, rosewood fingerboard and three single coils wound to Tyler’s specs. The guitar also features 22 medium jumbo frets, a Tyler designed vintage tremolo bridge, a five-way selector switch and volume and tone controls plus all of the standard Variax appointments. Sealed locking tuners and a Graph Tech Tusq XL self-lubricating nut complete the package, giving a high spec feel to the guitar that is deserving of the Tyler name.
Construction quality is top notch with no flaws or issues to speak of and top quality fret work, finishing and setup. This feels like a well made and thought out instrument that adds just the right amount of modernity to the classic S-shape design, suiting the high-tech internal workings - it is certainly a huge improvement on the original Variax design. Playability is also very good, thanks to the silky smooth neck and great factory setup, producing a guitar that suits as many playing styles as its menagerie of tones would suggest.
The flexibility of the Variax technology is staggering, with a wealth of classic guitar tones and pickup combinations on board and, thanks to Line 6’s recent Variax HD update, they sound and feel better than ever. There are ten guitar models to choose from using the model dial, with each model bank having five further sub-models that can be selected with the five-way pickup selector switch. Models range from classic Tele tones and P90 single cut sounds through to Dobro and Banjo models that are surprisingly accurate and responsive. Each model can also use up to 11 alternate tunings, selected using the tuning dial ranging from Drop D and Drop Db to Baritone and open D and G Blues tunings! Users can also create custom tunings right from the guitar and save them in any of the 11 locations and match them with a model that can be stored in one of the two custom model locations. All of this can be achieved without ever connecting the Variax guitar to a computer and Line 6 has done a fantastic job of making this editing process as simple as possible.
Line 6 has also delivered a fantastic software package called Workbench HD for the new Variax guitars, allowing the user to pretty much create any virtual guitar they can imagine with any body type and pickup combinations, matched with whatever custom tunings might be required. The onboard magnetic pickups also sound great with a nice growl for overdriven tones and satisfyingly spanky cleans that hark back to classic 60’s single coil tones.
All the models sound and react exactly like you’d expect and whilst they can’t match up to the original guitars in every way, they do a superb job of coming as close as you could ever need, making the Variax HD guitars an amazingly useful tool for studio work and a no-brainer for live guitarists requiring multiple guitar rigs. Combined with the Variax enabled POD units, the package becomes truly mind boggling as full rigs and guitar setups can be recalled with the push of a single button. Line 6 has certainly achieved greatness again here and it would seem that pairing up with James Tyler has been a very successful partnership indeed.
The ability to network the Variax with the POD 500, which I've also reviewed in this issue, and even with the Line 6 StageSource PA gear, one example of which is reviewed in our new Live Sound! section also in this issue, opens-up a completely new world of inter-operability which has amazing potential for guitarists willing to reach out and accept it.
So, once again, the Tyler Variax scores 'about as good as it gets' marks from us and, try as we might, we really couldn't find much to grumble about (though I wasn't too keen on the need to recharge the battery every 10 hours and our editor raised the question of what happens in 10 years when the battery type isn't available -- he's like that) but these are simply quibbles. Even with no charge, it still functions as a perfectly usable electric guitar. We guitarists are very conservative and Line 6 clearly has an uphill struggle to convince us to stop buying 1950s technology but for those who are brave enough to try, the rewards are all there. Go on, you know you want to...