I got to play a Line 6 James Tyler Variax today, specifically the JTV69, which is the “Strat-ish” model with an alder body, 25.5″ scale maple/rosewood neck, and two singles/one humbucker pickup configuration.
I played it through a 2×12, two channel Fender of some sort, all tube, as well as a Fishman Loudbox Mini for the acoustic sounds.
Regular Guitar Tones
The JT Variax, unlike the original Variax, has regular magnetic pickups in addition to the piezo pickups used for modeling.
This particular version has a single coil in the neck, in the middle, and then a humbucker in the bridge. The 69 is also no available with three single coils as well.
Honestly, the magnetic pickups aren’t horrible, but are pretty non-descript. While you can eek some decent tones out of them, including some super strat bridge tones and strat-ey neck and neck/middle tones, I found the quality overall to be typical of an import guitar, which is to say adequate but generally uninspiring.
But this being a $1400 “high tech” import guitar, that’s not where the rubber meets the road, right?
The JT Variax has of course a number of guitar models, ranging from Strats to Les Pauls to Teles and even jazz boxes and acoustics, of which there are also 12-string options.
The electric models are all pretty decent; while not entirely authentic (being an owner of a real Strat) I found the strat tones a bit off, and the Les Pauls not 100% accurate. But did they sound good? Yes, they do. There are some good electric tones lurking in this guitar, and I found the flipping from Tele to LP to be particularly fun. The hollow body models were cool too, and a bit jarring when you look down and realize you’re still playing a solid body, bolt-on guitar.
The acoustics (except for the 12-strings) also sound pretty good, albeit not entirely giving the acoustic experience. Honestly you’ll also get a pretty convincing tone out of any piezo equipped solid body plugged into a Fishman Aura pedal as well.
The 12-strings, particularly acoustic 12-strings, are awful. The warbling that occurs when you strum or play fast is just unbearable, in my opinion. On top of the lack of authenticity (they just sound like a keyboard sample of a 12-string) the artifacts that occur when playing higher up the neck is dissonant, and definitely noticeable. I think it’s just not able to keep up with the playing in terms of the pitch shifting, which brings us to the next Tyler Variax trick…..
The JT Variax can be played in “standard” E tuning, or any number of preset tunings, as well as the ability to set the tuning with either the Variax Workbench software, or by holding chords and programming in the guitar itself.
In tunings like drop D, one step down, and DADGAD, the guitar performed pretty well, and even felt relatively natural, given the oddness of dropped tunings with no change in string tension or gauge.
However when reaching down to baritone (where I’d like spend a bit of time) the dreaded warble and artifacts showed their faces, and weirdly enough the faster I played, the more obvious the artifacts. This is notable because I am NOT a shredder by any means, so if it does this for me, it’ll likely do it for more proficient players as well.
All in all this is a $700 guitar with $700 of electronics. Having owned the Roland GR-55, which while obviously quite different serves a very similar purpose with its VG modeling, I’d say Roland’s modeling is a bit ahead here. Additionally, at roughly $800 with the pickup, I’d say thenGR-55 is a better value as well, particularly because it does so much more than just guitar modeling.
The JT Variax is a bit disappointing, not because it’s void of good sounds; it’s not. It’s just that it’s got this jack of all trades, master of none thing going on, and at $1400 is a bit of a tough pill to swallow, in my opinion. I was hoping that I could have the Roland VG quality in an all-in-one solution. This isn’t it.
Having briefly owned the original Variax, I was really expecting that with the dual core processor this new guitar would have a significantly better sound than the original. Sadly it suffers many of the same issues, despite the increase in CPU performance.
Additionally the traditional pickups offer little in the way of benefits, in my opinion, and just add unnecessary cost.
So I’d like the VG sounds from Roland in an all in one package? Well there’s the VG Strat from Fender, but unfortunately that one is not nearly as versatile as the Variax, nor is it even as versatile as the VG and GR floor pedal models it’s roughly based on.
Looks like modeling guitars have a ways to go yet. At least, for me they do.
It's disappointing to hear that Line 6's pickup/guitar modeling algorithms haven't kept pace with the available processor hardware.
But you raise an intriguing question: if the modeling was substantially better, say as good as the amp modeling in an Axe-FX II, would a guitar like that need the magnetic pickups? Can we forsee a future in which electric guitars have no magnetic pickups anymore and everything is digital? Maybe 50 years from now?