PRS SE Zach Myers guitar (SOLD)

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Line 6 James Tyler Variax guitar

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.

JTV-59, model & tuning knobs

JTV-59, model & tuning knobs

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.

 

JTV-59 bridge

JTV-59 bridge

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.

 

JTV-59 pickups

JTV-59 pickups

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.

 

JTV-59 body

JTV-59 body

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.

Yamaha THR 10 & THR 10C

Yamaha THR 10

Yamaha THR 10

A couple years ago I sold my Fender Princeton Chorus guitar amp and purchased a Yamaha THR-10.  These are not even the same type of product, so why the switch?  Well, I’m a hobbyist and I don’t play my amp in medium to large venues. When I play for my church, I use an acoustic into a mic or DI.  I never played the 120 watt Fender combo much at home because level 3 on the volume knob was already too loud.  And my jumbo acoustic produces plenty of volume for small to medium rooms with no amplification and sounds way better without being plugged in.
But I am starting to get into playing electric guitar, and they don’t sound very good unplugged. I wanted more variety in my guitar tones but still wanted a high level of quality in the tone.  The Yamaha THR had several things that appealed to me:
1. High sound quality: Co-developed by Yamaha Hi-Fi and Yamaha Musical Instruments. The guitar amp models are very accurate, organic and real sounding, and they do respond to your playing dynamics. This is a modeling amp, not a real amp, and modeling amps can have trouble getting this right.
2. Full range speakers: Dedicated guitar amps have great mid-range sound, because that’s where most of an electric guitar pickup’s tone is. But try plugging your mobile device into a regular guitar amp and playing an mp3 song. It sounds muffled, boomy, and generally lacking in definition. But the THR sounds great with pre-recorded music and acoustic guitars alike.
3. Acoustic setting: I could play both my acoustic and electric guitars through the amp. I’ll say the acoustic setting is decent with a piezo pickup-equipped acoustic plugged in. Much better with the James Tyler Variax guitar set to an acoustic model. Line 6 has done an amazing job modeling a miced acoustic.
4. Small, portable size: I’m not crazy about it being only 10 watts, and would have preferred 30 to 50 watts. But I have to admit I have the volume around the halfway point most of the time, and it can get loud enough to hurt your ears at close range. The form factor makes it easy to set on a desktop and tweak comfortably from a chair. I can put the power adapter and guitar cable in my gig bag or case, and the slick handle on the THR makes it easy to carry.
5. Recording interface: The THR can connect to the computer via a USB cable, which allows you to do several things.
  • You can record straight into recording software with no DA/AD conversions.
  • You can send music from your computer to the THR through USB and control the “Guitar” and “USB” volumes separately.
  • While sending your guitar signal into a DAW, you can use processing plug-ins on the guitar tone, and hear the result through the headphone jack on the THR.
  • Also, you can use the THR editor software to get more in-depth editing functions for your saved presets on the amp itself, or download and install presets others have created.
There is one quirky thing with the sound projection. When the speakers are aimed directly at you, there is a unbelievably wide stereo field from such small speakers so close together. I honestly don’t know how they did that, but it sounds awesome when you sit in front of it. But when I play standing up, with the THR on the floor, in a small hall that has some echo, it sounds muffled to me, and I have a hard time detecting what my playing dynamics are doing when playing with other instruments. I probably need to put it a few feet behind me on a tall stand so that the sound passes my head on the way to the audience. Granted, this was made to be a practice amp for the living room, and it isn’t geared for performance. But the sound is so good and volume acceptable for playing for small groups, so I use it that way sometimes.
A novelty feature that in no way affects performance is the orange glow meant to imitate the glow of tubes in a real tube amp.  It slowly brightens when you turn the amp on, just like a tube warming up.  It’s kind of cool and that’s why I shot these photos the way I did.
The THR is a modeling amp with built in effects like reverb and chorus, all of which sound very high quality. So how does it compare to software amp simulator and effect plug-ins? I’m probably not the guy to make an objective judgment, just because of my lack of experience and low skill level, but I did try out trial versions of several popular guitar amp sim/effect plug-ins (I don’t want to name names). After hours of tweaking software-based amp sims, when I switch over to the built-in THR processing, it always sounded more organic and real. Only 5 amp models, but they sound amazing. Yamaha really took the time to get it right.
Yamaha THR 10C

Yamaha THR 10C

Then a few weeks ago I learned that Yamaha had released the THR-10C (and THR-10X) not long after I purchased the THR-10.  The THR-10 has a wide range of tones from clean to screaming distortion. Because I play mostly clean and crunch tones, I only used 2 of the 5 electric amp models 90% of the time.  When I found that the THR-10C had all cleaner, tube amp models, I put my 10 up for sale and purchased a 10C.  I like it much better because I find all 5 models on the 10C useful. I can still get screaming distortion if I crank the gain higher, but there is a whole range of clean and semi-clean tones on each model that have a very expressive and rich sound. I love it!  I have a PRS SE Soapbar Singlecut with P90 pickups which sounds awesome through the THR-10C, and I just got a Line 6 JTV-59 Variax guitar which can put out an astounding range of tonal variation. Modeling guitar, meet modeling amp!
So “THR” is a sort of acronym for “third” amp.  Yamaha reps say that most players have a big stack for gigging, a small combo for practice or smaller venues, and this was made to be a home-friendly practice amp with extra features.  It really is true you can get screaming distortion without disturbing sleeping children down the hall, but at that point I just plug in headphones. I guess I’m not the typical target market.  I don’t have bigger amps because I’m not a gigging musician, but rather a hobbyist who plays at home and records music on the computer. The THR is my ONLY amp right now.
Yamaha THR 10C - Models

Yamaha THR 10C – Models

Yamaha made up their own names for the amp models, but these are based on real amps. Obviously, some of the amps they modeled don’t all have the same knobs, so they’ve taken some artistic license.  They are proud of the fact that they have modeled at the individual component level (tubes, circuits, transistors, etc.), rather than just modeling the sound. So the amp models respond to tweaking and playing just like real amps.

Yamaha THR 10C - Effects & Output

Yamaha THR 10C – Effects & Output

My favorite two effects are the hall reverb and the chorus. They sound very high quality, and all these effects can be edited more in-depth using the computer software. Unlike some products I’ve come across, everything about the THR says “quality”, from the construction to the sound.

So what about modeling amps and guitars?  So far I think the models don’t always sound exactly like the real thing, but when the sound and tonal quality is this high, I don’t really care.  Some people may be fooled in a blindfold test, others might not. If I find the sound useful and pleasing, it doesn’t have to sound exactly like the real gear it’s imitating.
Thanks to Yamaha for a genius product, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next for guitar players.