Just over a month ago, I got a Line 6 James Tyler Variax. I would consider this to be the second generation of the Variax. The first generation (Variax 300, 500, 600, 700, etc) were rather odd looking and had no magnetic pickups. Line 6 has done amp modeling for a couple decades now, but with the Variax, they modeled actual guitars and packaged it so you could plug a standard guitar cable into one guitar and get the sounds of 20-some different guitars. Wow! How cool is that?
My JTV-59 is made in Korea. The USA custom shop versions cost 4 or 5 times as much, and the Korean company is the same one which made my PRS SE Soapbar Singlecut, which I absolutely love! I’m happy they did a good job on my JTV as well, at least for this price range.
The upside to being a photographer AND a musician? You get to take photos like this! Line 6 couldn’t label their model knob with copyrighted “Strat, Tele, Les Paul, Gretch”, etc. so they came up with names like “Spank, T-model, Lester, and R-Billy”. There are also Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars, and dobro/banjo/resonator models.
I don’t have much experience playing different electric guitars, but it seems to me that some of the models are more alive and responsive to playing dynamics than others. I have played acoustic guitars for 30 years, and I am very impressed with the “Acoustic” and “Reso” models. Being mostly a home studio/bedroom player, the goal for me was to get the most tonal variation out of one guitar that I could find. Nothing beats a Variax in that department, even if the models aren’t quite like the real guitars they attempt to imitate.
The second knob is for various tunings. Obviously you need to crank your amp or headphone volume up enough to drown out your acoustic string vibrations when in alternate tunings, or you’ll hear some very strange, sour, and bizarre dissonance going on between the modeled tuning and the pitch your strings are actually vibrating at.
The volume and tone knobs have a nice, smooth resistance to them and feel like decent quality. The pots were a little scratchy but cleared up with some use. I wouldn’t call the model and tuning knobs “click knobs” because it’s more of a smooth bump from one setting to the next. The text for each model lights up when selected.
This is the L.R. Baggs piezo bridge where the Variax magic starts. The modeling is applied to the piezo signal. This could be why I think the acoustic models sound more realistic than some of the electrics. At the same time, I actually think the Line 6 acoustic models sound better than my Alvarez jumbo acoustic with a piezo pickup (plugged in). Of course, the jumbo unplugged sounds heavenly.
I had an Ibanez double-humbucker guitar (GAX series?) for a few years, the these pickups sound much more detailed and responsive to playing dynamics. The cheap pickups in the Ibanez sounded muffled and mushy in comparison. The JTV’s humbuckers are supposed to be wound to James Tyler’s specs. For anyone who doesn’t know, he is a master luthier who makes custom guitars for movie and music stars in Los Angeles. Well, if you have enough money, I suppose he’d make you one too. I still prefer the P-90s on my PRS, but now I have more tonal variation, including the Les Paul, Firebird, Super 400, and Casino models in the Variax which use P-90 pickups.
So far, I’d say if you are only interested in getting the sound of a Fender Stratocaster, buy one. I am not particularly impressed with the Variax model, but we have to consider I am playing it through a Yamaha THR 10C instead of a real boutique tube amp. The THR models sound amazing, but how much modeling can you have going on before things start to sound, well… not like the real thing? In general though, it seems real pickups (P-90 and humbucker), played through the same Yamaha THR, sound noticeably more alive and less compressed than the Variax models with the same types of pickups. Just my personal, inexperienced, and non-professional opinion.
I think this top is what they call a “photo veneer”. It’s not a real flamed wood, carved top. But I wouldn’t expect one on a guitar I paid less than a grand for, and which also has built-in technology like the Variax. It looks fine, and I’m more concerned with playability, which I think is at least as good as the Epiphone Les Pauls I’ve played in stores.
It is fun playing around with the Variax HD software and putting various pickups on different bodies in different positions. My models seem to have quieter low E and A strings, and I’ve read this could be due to my particular piezo bridge sensitivity variations. So it’s nice to be able to make those strings louder and the others more quiet. Some of the variations between models are very subtle, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell the difference in a mix or with a live band. That said, a Strat (Spank) sounds VERY different from an ES-175 (Jazzbox).
Overall, for the price I paid, I think I got a good playing guitar with lots of sonic possibilities. Line 6 has just announced a third generation Variax is coming soon. Yamaha purchased a majority share in Line 6 just over a year ago, and the new Variax looks like it’s based on a Yamaha Pacifica. I just happened to play a Pacifica tagged at $179 in a music store this afternoon, and I was impressed with the playing feel, if not the appearance. It really felt great for a guitar under $200! The knobs were very cheesy plastic though, and I’m guessing I might change the pickups if I purchased one. For that price, I could afford to upgrade an already great playing guitar. Let’s see what the new Variax is like.