The Line 6 Variax 700 Acoustic Modeling Guitar
October 8, 2004
No more edgy, brittle piezos – just the sound of a real acoustic guitar (well, 12 of them)!
First off, I want to apologize for the long period of time that has passed since I wrote my last Tech Notes Online column. One reason for the delay has been the incredibly active hurricane season — the most active since the National Weather Service began keeping records over 130 years ago. I can tell you, we Floridians are bone-weary of dealing with these monster storms. Thankfully, though our house was pretty much in the path of all four hurricanes, we escaped with only minor structural damage. We were among the lucky ones. There are still over 300,000 Floridians in shelters because they no longer have a home to go back to.
A second (and much happier) reason is that Sweetwater has gone to great lengths to make certain the 2005 Directory is the best directory ever! With that in mind, I was asked to write much of the copy for the sections on guitars, basses, amps and effects. Despite the tight deadlines and long hours, I must confess I enjoyed being involved in the project, even though the power was out on a fairly regular basis. But now it’s time to get back on track!
The Variax Acoustic Paradigm!
If you are not clear on the whole concept of what Line 6 has done with their proprietary modeling technology, I’d really suggest going back and reading “The Line 6 Variax Revisited” (July, 29, 2004).
So now we know what was. Let’s find out what is!
In July, the good people at Line 6 were kind enough to ship me a Variax Acoustic and it arrived on my doorstep, almost in perfect tune, despite the long journey from California to Florida. Like the original Variax 500, this guitar ships in a plush gig bag that’s probably all the protection most people will ever need unless they are on the road a lot, in which case a hardshell case might be a good idea.
Although I had seen photos of the Variax Acoustic, once I reached in and removed the guitar from the gig bag, I was actually pleasantly surprised at just how sweet this instrument looks. When looked at straight-on from the front, the lower cutaway appears pretty radical, but few people will be looking at the Variax Acoustic from this angle — and certainly not the person playing it.
Once I had it balanced on my knee, I quickly saw how appropriate that cutaway is for reaching the upper registers. In fact, one of the first things I noticed was just how much the Variax Acoustic actually feels like an electric guitar. That’s partly because the body is really a solid chunk of beautifully-stained mahogany into which are set the circuit boards and the battery compartment (in the back), while the soundhole is purely cosmetic. Wood lovers note, the stains used on this instrument are a beautiful match for the woods used to build it. The bottom line is, the Variax Acoustic is in actuality a solid body guitar with a shallow hole on the top.
Speaking of the top, I had assumed it would be some form of spruce, but instead it’s a very nice slice of solid cedar, finished off with black and white binding. Compared to your “typical” acoustic, the Variax Acoustic almost looks more like a nylon-string hybrid. Note that an all-black version is available, but for me, seeing the wood is part of the fun of owning any quality guitar.
The mahogany neck is not bolted-on, but rather mortised in, much like a Les Paul or PRS McCarty. It also has a wonderful gloss finish (probably polyurethane) which I find more playable than necks with satin or semi-gloss finishes.
The Variax Acoustic Plugged-in
As nice as this instrument looks, you expect it will sound pretty sweet, too. And considering just how accurate the original Variax was in modeling over two dozen classic electrics (and a few other instruments like a dobro and electric sitar), I fully expected the Variax Acoustic to “deliver the goods!” I was not disappointed. All the acoustic models sound like well-miked acoustic guitars played through a pro-quality console. Of course, some sound better to my ears than others, and I’m sure each person who plays a Variax Acoustic will have his or her favorites.
There are actually a dozen acoustic guitars here, starting with three Martins (a 1941 5-17 Parlor, a 1946 000-28 and a 1960 D-21 dreadnought), two Gibsons (a 1954 J-45 and 1951 “Super Jumbo” SJ-200), two 12-strings (a 1973 Guild F412 and 1935 Stella Auditorium) and a 1951 D’Angelico New Yorker (the big “jazz” archtop). Also onboard are a 1958 Manuel Velazquez nylon-string and a 1933 Selmer Maccaferri (Django Reinhart’s “gypsy” guitar). For that Delta blues tone, you have a 1939 National Reso-Phonic Style “O” and a 1937 Dobro Model 27. Rounding things out are a Gibson Mastertone banjo, a 19th Century Mandola (a member of the mandolin family), a Japanese Shamisen and my favorite, a real Indian Sitar (the kind made from hollow pumpkin gourds).
I found the Martin 000-28 and D-21, along with the two Gibsons the most usable of the “straight-ahead” acoustics, and the Guild 12-string is just superb! Unlike the 12-string models in the original Variax, this actually sounds like 12 individual strings being strummed, rather than the “two pitches per string” effect I heard playing the electric 12-string models.
Oddly enough, the banjo sounds less real to me than the one onboard the original Variax 500 and to a lesser degree, the same is true with the two resonator guitars, though they do gain much more character when played with a slide. I haven’t tried it, but by switching to lighter gauge strings, you’d likely get closer to the sounds in the Variax 500. The nylon string classical is a terrific addition, but I found that it needed some additional outboard EQ to achieve the warmth of the real thing.
The D’Angelico archtop is nice, but it’s not all that different than the other acoustics, just maybe a tiny bit snappier (and it sounds great played through a typical guitar amp rather than through the console). The Selmer “gypsy guitar” is an odd timbre, somewhere between a nylon string and a steel string, but it will doubtless intrigue many players. The Stella 12-string was most likely included because of its association with Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, though the Guild sounds a lot smoother and cleaner. And try as I might, I could find no practical use for either the Shamisen or Mandola, though my guess is that each will find limited duty as an unusual tone color within a multi-track format.
This leads us up to the Sitar, which, aside from the acoustic guitars, is bound to make you smile. It has the odd resonance and complex harmonic structure you’ll recognize immediately from those 1960s Beatles songs like “Norwegian Wood.” If I had all night, I’d gladly sit around and play this one. Yeah, it’s that much fun!
All-in-all, I think the Variax Acoustic is worth the bucks for the four cool acoustics and the sitar. All the rest is bonus material in my book, and just the sort of thing we have come to expect from the Line 6 folks. They’re just not content with giving you good value; they want to make sure you are knocked out by all the tonal variations you have at your command.
Instant Alternate Tunings and other Onboard Controls
Choosing which guitar to audition is as simple as spinning the nicely-knurled rotary knob. Nothing special there. Three smooth sliders control (from top to bottom) the Mic Position (continuously adjustable by sliding right for bridge and left for neck position), Volume and Compression (right is no compression and left is maximum).
The Model Select knob has an indicator LED. When it’s green, it means the guitar is in normal PLAY mode and is receiving power from either the batteries or via the XPS Powered Direct Box. Give it a quick double push and you are in Alternate Tuning Mode, signified by a flashing green-red-green LED.
Without the guitar in front of you, I hesitate to get too technical regarding how you access the more complex controls. Suffice it to say that once you get the hang of it, you can go from standard EADGBE tuning to all sorts of options like “Open A”, “Open D” and “Drop D” tunings in seconds. You can also access an “All Strings Virtual Capo”, which does exactly what it says. If you know a song in C but the keyboard player knows it in D, you can engage the digital capo and you’ll both be playing in D. You can also save any of your favorite settings as one of 16 presets.
Yeah, you’re gonna want one! For about the same money you’d spend for a good electric-acoustic guitar, you can own a Variax Acoustic. This gives you access to many more guitars, not to mention the incredible convenience of instant alternate tunings or the ability to change pitch up or down for the whole guitar.
The good news is that Sweetwater has lots of these instruments in stock right now. They were hard to get early on, as you’d expect from such a cutting edge instrument, but trucks are dropping off new Variax Acoustics (and dozens of other acoustic and electric guitars) every day. No matter what your taste or your budget, Sweetwater has your next guitar!
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