Exploring Relic'd Variax from Line6
One of the things I started exploring in late 2013 ( and continue here in 2014) is an electric guitar by Line6 called "Variax JTV." I've been playing it on and off in the studio (as well as live) for a few months. Below are some of my thoughts after playing the guitar.
First off, this guitar is targeted at certain guitarists who may want to have "one guitar to rule them all." Its more or less the swiss army knife of guitars.
In the Studio:
There are times in the studio where your go-to-guitar isn't sounding quite right. Pulling out a second or maybe even third guitar requires time tuning up and dialing in gain structures. If you had one guitar that - with the twist of a knob - would offer you different "in-tune" guitar models - you could bang through studio sessions more quickly. Maybe even more creatively.
Similarly when it comes to gigging live there are times you want to travel light. Less gear is better. However as much as you want to travel light your set list requires 2 or more guitars. Well, the Variax wants to position itself as the solution to your live gigging conundrums. At least that's what I got from the marketing.
This guitar promises through on-board digital modeling to be several guitars in one form factor. Additionally it lets you digitally capo with the flick of a switch near the neck. For instance you can literally "drop D" without ever touching a tuning knob. It does all this digital wizardry through one of the magnetic pickups. If you want you can turn off it's brain and just play it as a standard electric with magnetic pickups as well.
The new variax models from Line6 all look pretty good. There are actually three models: 59 (think Les Paul) 69 (think Strat/Jaguar) and 89 (think shredder-like). You can choose between foreign or American made models. I went cheap for this experiment.
Les Paul vs Strat
I tried both the 59 (Les Paul) and the 69 (Strat/Jaguar) for a few different gigs. I found I liked the look of the 59 (Les Paul) more. The knobs on the 59 (Les Paul) look and feel way higher end. However the feel of playing the 69 (Strat/Jaguar) as well as the sounds I was getting were better and more versatile. The body of the 69 was also lighter.
From Toy to Relic
I remember seeing a first gen Variax over 15 years ago. I think it may have subconsciously inspired the toy guitars in the ever popular video game, "Rock Band." That is to say the first gen Variax didn't look all that real... more like a toy.
The new Variax are much more believable. I ended up with a black Variax JTV-69. I found that the guitar was too plastic and shiny brand new. It screamed toy with a mass market vibe that most guys aren't into. I also hated the head-stock which had the ugliest graphic I've ever seen on a guitar. It reminded me of Microsoft Word clip art from the 90's. Yuck.
In order to transform it from toy to relic I ended up taking the guitar to Keith Holland Guitars where Keith was able to relic it into some of the pictures you see here.
Quick Thoughts - Live
After being "set up" and relic'd this guitar now feels and plays like the real thing. From stage it is indistinguishable - guys wouldn't necessarily know you're playing some sort of weird hybrid electric guitar. The actual neck feels great. It's fun to play and has good resonance. The pickups are great and - after relic'ing - the knobs feel less cheesy and more vintage.
I find myself mostly toggling between Tele and Les Paul models. Occasionally I move towards a Gretsch semi-hollow model. I've also played it with the digital modeling off. With the modeling off it mostly resembles a Strat.
The sounds of each guitar model are good. They are very close. However it can feel more like an effect. Your body somehow stores what it feels like to play a Les Paul or Strat and to toggle through these sounds on a Strat body... well, it can feel sort of surreal (I'm not sure in a good way). It's not necessarily bad either. It's just feels more like an effect.
So far I would say respectfully it's not my favorite guitar to play live. It just doesn't cut it. The main reason has to do with powering the guitar in order to use the onboard digital electronics. I think this part of the user experience may work towards the reason you'd buy it - to travel lighter.
In order to use the onboard modeling you have to charge a camcorder-sized battery housed inside the back of the guitar. I've also powered the guitar via my HD500x through an ethernet cable that connects the two.
Overall powering the guitar for live through either the battery or the ethernet cable feels cumbersome. Though I could see how someone might get used to charging the battery before/after shows for me it's not worked out well. In one case I accidentally left the guitar "on" between gigs and showed up only to discover I was all out of juice. I've tried gigging smaller stages with the ethernet cable plugged in but it feels like a toy when I do so. The cable doesn't lay flat so it ends up somewhere between a tripping hazard and a visual clue that I'm not playing a "real guitar." If there was a cable that looked more "real" or it might cut it.
I'll keep trying it in live applications over the next few months. It's possible that over time I'll enjoy it more. That being said where I've enjoyed the guitar the most is in the studio.
Quick Thoughts - Studio
In the studio environment I've found I can dial the Variax in quickly and toggle through sounds to find the right textures for recorded guitar parts. The ethernet cable isn't a problem in the studio for me. It feels more like a production tool in that case. Its been a great help to quickly go from a chimey Strat or Telecaster to a beefy Les Paul.
There are some great additional features with the Variax that I haven't had the time to really get into. You can read more over at Line6 to understand the full scope of features. One producer friend was mocking it's feature list, asking me if it includes "a wifi hotspot." Overall I would say that it's a great guitar but can take some work to really dial in. It reminds me of certain amp manufactures who offer a slew of options vs some standard amps with a few simple knobs. Sometimes more is more. However often less is more.
I'll update more over the next couple of months.