The Line 6 Variax Revisited
July 31 , 2004
Variax Acoustic 700
"What if your next guitar could be every guitar?" Talk about a great marketing line!
That's how I started my original review of the instrument that was to become the Line 6 Variax 500. As we all know, that instrument garnered glowing reviews from all the major industry publications, both here in the States and overseas, as well. Unlike many first generation products which require a few years of tinkering to reach their full potential, the Variax was so well thought-out and designed that it was darn near perfect from day one!
In late 2003, Line 6 responded to requests from guitar players around the world for a slightly upscale version. So while the original Variax sported a lightweight, contoured basswood body and maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, the new instrument - the Variax Model 700 - would be made of premium woods, such as mahogany for the body and a carved top made of highly figured ash.
But I don't want to jump too far ahead. My original review of the Variax 500 appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Sweet Notes and due to space restrictions, had to be brief and to-the-point. Thankfully, here in my online column, I have no such restraints, so let's all hop into our time machines (I can wait if you have to drag yours out of the hall closet) and set them for February of 2003, right after Line 6 unveiled the Variax at the Winter NAMM Show.
THE REVOLUTION BEGINS
By the end of 2002, the Line 6 people had proven themselves by designing what were unquestionably (to me, in any case) the best amp and effects models available, including the remarkable Vetta amplifiers and the best selling POD modules.
But suddenly, out of the blue, with nary a rumor surfacing in a business that's usually rife with leaks, it was no longer amplifiers the company had set out to model, it was the guitar itself. And not just one or two guitars, but a total of 25, all of them classics in their own right.
Now most of us tend to gravitate towards one classic camp or the other: There are the Fender guys on the left (figuratively, that is) and the Gibson guys over on the right. Straddling a few lines were guys that owned Gretsch, Rickenbacker or Mosrite guitars, along with a few imports like the Yamaha SG2000.
Naturally, with only so many dollars in our wallets, we had to choose our main instrument carefully: Did we want that fat, smoky humbucker tone or the "spank" and sparkle of a single coil guitar. A few lucky guitarists were able to afford one of each. When I look back over all the many guitars I have owned through the years, it's split about half and half. The '80s were definitely Strat-dominated, as guitar players had to fight for sonic space in the typical synth heavy arrangements. But by the late 1980s, humbucker-equipped axes started making a comeback, and by the early '90s, were once again looked upon with favor.
But suddenly, according to the folks at Line 6, we no longer had to make compromises! They promised us a guitar that would deliver all the sounds any guitar player on the planet might want, yet the Variax, despite all its sonic firepower, was priced within reach of pretty much any guitarist.
Naturally, as with any other revolutionary product, the question was: Could Line 6 actually deliver on its promise and produce a guitar that could sound like an entire showroom full of the most loved and revered instruments in history?
THE ENVELOPE PLEASE....
By now, everyone knows the story: Line 6 not only "delivered the goods," but was already ramping up production as demand reached critical mass at the Winter 2003 NAMM Show. Along with all the major industry publications, I was fortunate enough to receive a Variax of my own to evaluate and that review appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Sweet Notes. And I'm not ashamed to admit that the Variax so blew me away that I knew I had to own one.
Fast forward your time machine now to late 2003. Despite receiving tons of positive reviews, the original Variax was very much a "working man's" guitar. It looked good and played well, but wasn't going to impress an awful lot of people with its rather utilitarian appearance. So Line 6 unveiled their upscale Variax Model 700 ($2099 list, but available from Sweetwater at just $1499 which includes free shipping!) and actually lowered the price of the original! Wow, when is the last time you heard of that happening? You can order a Variax 500 in red or black or a three-color sunburst from Sweetwater for just $799! And yes, that also includes free shipping!
Regardless of which model you might choose, the sound set is the same. The Variax 500 is a very serviceable instrument, but I must admit, the Model 700, particularly the one shown here in the amber finish, takes top honors in the looks department. The transparent red finish comes in a close second, and while I myself don't particularly care for guitars in blue finishes, it does appeal to some, as would the basic black Model 700 which costs $100 less ($1399 with free shipping from Sweetwater).
But aside from its good looks, the Model 700 added the one thing I really wished the original had come equipped with, and that's a vibrato tailpiece (also historically - and inaccurately - often called a "tremolo" tailpiece). For my playing style, which often involves downward bends, a vibrato is essential, and I was thrilled to see Line 6 add this feature (though a standard tailpiece without the vibrato is available).
Though the guitars ship in a gig bag rather than a hardshell case, it's actually quite sturdy and is probably enough protection for most players (and indeed the guitar Line 6 sent me arrived from a trip all the way across the country almost in perfect tune!). I would probably opt for a hardshell if I was doing a lot of gigging - the road can be quite cruel. Fortunately, the Variax fits nicely into a standard solidbody guitar case.
The solid bolt-on maple neck is left natural, but with a smooth satin finish that feels very nice, though I confess to a fondness for gloss finishes (and it's worth noting that many of the instruments from several top manufacturers now ship with satin or semi-gloss necks). The rosewood fingerboard is actually very good with a tight grain - better in fact than a few of the pricier guitars in my collection, though it seemed a bit over-dried to me. I use a special oil mix that was made for me years ago by a guitar tech in Miami, and after a quick wipe, the wood seemed somehow a bit more organic.
Simple pearloid dot markers are used on the Model 500 (pearl and abalone inlays come standard on the Model 700), but it fits well with the instrument's utilitarian design. The neck is a nice compromise, not too fat or too thin, but substantial enough to fit comfortably in most players' hands. It most closely matches a late 1980s Strat I own. I've seen other reviewers compare it to a PRS "wide/fat" neck, which it most definitely is not!
I won't kid you; the Variax 500 isn't a showpiece, but rather a working musician's instrument that sports some amazing technology. The guitar will never draw the "oohs" and "ahhs" you hear when opening the case of a gorgeous flame top '59 Les Paul reissue or a PRS Artist. Its styling is rather along the lines of a less flashy Strat. It won't appeal to everyone, but neither will it offend any guitar player's sensibilities.
The Variax 700, on the other hand, is quite handsome. While its shape is the same as the Model 500, the ash top (without a pickguard of any sort) gives the instrument a classy, upscale look. Both guitars feel very solid, and will probably take a lot of punishment and still play as good as new. For anyone who just wants a great-sounding ax that plays well and produces an entire galaxy of guitar sounds, the Variax 500 is a steal. If you want your axe to look as good as it sounds (and want or need the vibrato tailpiece), the Model 700 will fit the bill, and it's still priced quite reasonably.
THE VARIX PLUGGED IN
But enough about the looks. You want to know how it sounds, right? Simply put: Sensational! In direct head-to-head comparisons of the various modeled guitars with my personal collection of axes, the Variax is actually startling in its authenticity. The single coil models have all the "spank" and sparkle of the originals, while the humbucker models are smooth and warm. The rosewood fingerboard does warm up the sound slightly, so you won't quite match the "sting" of a maple board.
Personally, the Variax is worth the price of admission for its Coral Sitar sound alone. I used to own one, and though they went out of fashion in the '70s, they are back again and vintage Corals go for some big bucks if you can find one that's in really good shape. There simply must have been some sorcery involved here, because the Variax model has nailed that classic '60s sound!
Amazingly, there are a number of modeled acoutics on board: Martins, Gibsons, a Guild and a few resonator guitars, along with a modeled banjo, and they all sound terrific, though the banjo does not decay as fast as the real thing; instead it decays at the rate of the Variax string vibration. However, as this particular sound will most likely be used to "sweeten" tracks, it shouldn't be a big deal.
For my taste, I preferred running the acoustics into a real tube preamp, the "Tube Preamp" setting on a POD or the Tech 21 SansAmp Acoustic DI, which warms up the sound slightly and gives all the acoustics a more organic quality. Sitting back in a dense mix, you'll be glad to have the extra brilliance available.
Over a 48-hour period, I threw the book at this baby: Ran it into a Fender Cyber-Twin, a Tech 21 Trademark 60, through a Line 6 POD and directly into my console. I overdrove the amps, stuck several different distortion devices inline and even tossed two wah pedals into the mix. The Variax proved up to the challenge in every case, though the acoustic models, as you'd expect, weren't as bright or clean through a standard guitar amp. They fared best direct into my console.
What I particularly found fascinating, is that the models perform almost exactly like the original guitars. As an example, rolling back the volume on most guitars changes the tone (not to mention cleaning up an overdriven amp). Roll back the Variax volume and it behaves almost identically to the guitars it's modeling. It's so dead-on, it's almost scary.
SO WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE?
Negatives? Well, imagine someone handing you the keys to a Porsche Boxster. Would you worry about the color of the floormats? Probably not. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out a few things that the Line 6 people might want to incorporate into future releases.
My main gripe is that the 12-string models don't have the distinctive "double attack" of a real 12-string. In the Variax, you hear both octaves of the lowest four strings, while the highest strings (B and E) produce a sort of chorusing sound which is characteristic of 12-strings where it's almost impossible to get both strings tuned exactly (and in fact, you get a better, fuller sound by detuning the strings a tiny bit). Yeah, go ahead and laugh; that's the worst thing I can say about this guitar.
One other very minor flaw (in my mind) is that relative volumes are maintained in the final models. For example, a Les Paul Standard is louder than a Gibson Firebird V when both are plugged into the same amp. The reason? Different pickups. So when you switch from the Les Paul, there is a significant drop in the volume when switching to the Firebird (or the Danelectro 3021 model, etc.). While it might be historically correct, it's a pain to have to tweak volumes on the amp when switching between certain sounds. On the plus side, you might use the Firebird as your rhythm sound, then dial up the Les Paul for your solos, where you'd normally want a bit more volume. See? I find a problem and solve it!
Though Line 6 isn't particularly calling attention to it, right beside the output jack on the guitar is a second "mystery" jack covered by a rubber plug. We now know this is a port for some incredible software Line 6 has developed that lets you essentially create your own guitar. I love it when a company thinks ahead like this. Nobody wants to buy a second Variax with extra bells and whistles down the road. Hats off to Line 6 for their commitment to today's Variax buyer!
THE VARIAX UNPLUGGED (WELL, SO TO SPEAK)
I must admit that when I heard there would be acoustic guitar models onboard, I figured they would be okay, but probably not something I would personally use on a recording. Imagine my surprise when it turns out that these are terrific acoustic models. Included are a 1959 Martin D-28, 1970 Martin D 12-28 12-string, 1967 Martin O-18, a 1966 Guild F212 12-string and a 1995 Gibson J-200. You also have models of really unique acostics like a 1935 Dobro Alumilite, a Gibson Mastertone Banjo and a 1928 National Style 2 "Tricone."
Each and every one of these are useable, but like me, you'll probably find three or four you keep coming back to. What's more, when you spin the tone control on these models, it doesn't cut the highs, but instead offers up a different set of harmonics, similar to using a different mic or changing the mic's position. So really, you are getting more than eight acoustic models; it's really almost like having 16 models, as the tone control gives legitimately different - and quite useful - timbres.
I won't go on and on about this, but trust me, these are terrific sounds and it will blow your mind hearing these tones from an "electric" guitar! In fact, the Line 6 folks are hard at work right now building an "all acoustic" Variax, which is dubbed the Variax Acoustic 700. Word is that one is headed my way and I'll give you the tasty details as soon as it arrives!
While the coolness factor of having models of all the most popular guitars is absolutely over the top, the real test is whether this instrument can cut it on its own, without comparing it to "the originals." The answer to that is unquestionably yes. At this price point and with such high quality sounds, the Variax is a bargain. Every time I think the people at Line 6 can't possibly top their last act, they do! That's a testament to this company's amazing vision and its commitment to getting great guitar sounds into everyone's hands.
So should you buy a Variax? Absolutely. At this price, you get all the following vintage guitar sounds, all wrapped into one amazing - and amazingly affordable - package!
- 1960 Fender Telecaster Custom
- 1968 Fender Telecaster
- 1968 Fender Telecaster Thinline
- 1959 Fender Stratocaster
- 1958 Gibson Les Paul Standard
- 1952 Gibson Les Paul "Goldtop"
- 1961 Gibson Les Paul Custom (3 PU)
- 1956 Gibson Les Paul Junior
- 1976 Gibson Firebird V
- 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special
- 1959 Gretsch 6120
- 1956 Gretsch Silver Jet
- 1968 Rickenbacker 360
- 1966 Rickenbacker 360-12
- 1961 Gibson ES-335
- 1967 Epiphone Casino
- 1957 Gibson ES-175
- 1953 Gibson Super 400
- 1959 Martin D-28
- 1970 Martin D 12-28
- 1967 Martin O-18
- 1966 Guild F212
- 1995 Gibson J-200
- 1935 Dobro Alumilite
- Danelectro 3021
- Coral/Dano Electric Sitar
- Gibson Mastertone Banjo
- 1928 National Style 2 "Tricone"
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