A Lesson Learned From A Tyler Variax JTV-69

The JTV-69

A series of events conspired to put a Tyler Variax in my hands this week (these events included an upswing in students, massive price drops in that particular model, and a demo model in cherry condition selling for $800 shipped) but my joy on Wednesday quickly turned to frustration and, in a first for me,  it goes back to Sweetwater today.

Disclosure

I have owned Variaxs before.  When I moved from California, I sold a 300 and a 700AC and I liked things about both of them (I really regret selling the 700 to this day).  I like the concept of modeling and if there is an ideal demographic for a person who wants complete control over the sounds in his guitar, I would have thought it was me.

Unboxing

The guitar came with a Line 6 gig bag, USB interface (for connecting with Workbench), USB cable, Variax CAT cable and a battery charger.  The 700AC came with a GREAT gig bag.  While this gig bag looked the same, the interior was much cheaper in both materials and construction and the padding was of what’s found on a $30 no name bag from Musician’s Friend.

This was actually a harbinger of what was to come.

The Build

First, the positive.

  • The design on this is light years from the VAX 300.  It didn’t feel like a slab of wood the way the 300 did.  The wrist cut (rounded to the back) and rounded heel were nice additions and there was clear access all the way up to the 22nd fret.  The finish was flawless and, in short, it’s a nice looking guitar.
  • The top loading tremolo bridge is a really clever design and works well with the TUSQ nut and locking tuners.
  • Line 6 developed a new battery that worked really well with the guitar and was a welcome relief from the AA batter holder or the powered cable box required with earlier models.  They claim 12 hours of use time when fully charged.  I spent 3-4 hours my first day charging the battery and it didn’t run out of juice during the testing time so that seems like an accurate estimate to me.
  • The addition of the tuning wheel to dial in alternate tunings for the patches is also a great touch.

Now the not so positive:

  • The neck….I hate the neck.  The fingerboard radius is fine and the string spacing is actually comfortable – but the neck… first it’s a matte finish and not a gloss finish.  That’s just a personal preference but it didn’t work for me.  Second, the neck is a C shape but it just feels incredible bulky.  Apparently this isn’t a minority opinion as once it was determined on the forums that the Mighty-Mite compound radius Strat necks sold by Stew-Mac fit with very little alteration, Stew-Mac sold out of them, and they’re currently on back order.
  • The acoustic tone.  By that I don’t mean the models.  I mean, how does the guitar sound when it’s played un-amplified.  And to be honest, it just sounded a little one-dimensional.  More specifically, it sounded like a plastic Maccaferri which is not a tone I prize.  I bumped up the string guage to .011’s and that helped with the projection a bit but it wasn’t an inspiring guitar to play.

The Firmware

When I went to register the guitar I realized that it shipped with v 1.8 software (You need v 2.0 software to connect to workbench).  Upgrading required using the same USB interface that the 1st generation Vaxs used.  Given that a key selling point for this instrument is the integration of the Variax and the POD fact the requirement of an external box just seems clunky.

It behaved in a clunky manner as well.  It took 3-4 times to get recognized by Line 6 Monkey before I could upgrade it.  The upgrade was very straightforward.

Workbench

One of the most intriguing elements of this guitar is the fact that EVERY aspect of the tone (and intonation) is fully customizable with the Workbench software.

Pickups:

You can control the type of pickup. The wiring of the pickup (series or parallel) the polarity, the angle, height and placement. Virtual pickup placement and angles are literally drag and drop parameters and place them anywhere along the string path of the body.

WorkbenchJ

Strings:

StringsJ

You can control individual volumes!  No more of that E string barking out at you if you don’t want it!

You can control individual pitches (this can also be done on the guitar itself with the virtual capo function) and you can control the intonation through the Parallel Pitch function.

PotsJPots:

You can control the resistance and taper of the pots so the tone “rolls” on or off the way you want it to.

In other words, you can customize any aspect of a guitar or just create sounds that have never been made before.

It’s a remarkable piece of software and engineering, and a tweaker’s paradise.  But playing this guitar taught me something.

I’m not a really a tweaker.

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The Sounds and Performance

This is where this realization really came into play.

Again, let’s start off with the good.

  • The physical pickups.  A number of players who have these guitars say that they use the on board pickups most of the time and they sound good enough that it’s easy to see why.
  • The models are dead quiet.  That’s the thing I loved about my original Variaxs, no buzz when recording.
  • The string muting is MUCH better.  This was a big downfall on the original Vaxs but this was largely fixed with the new versions.
  • The tracking is unbelievable.  I found ZERO perceptable latency with the models on this guitar.
  • The virtual capo function is pretty awesome.  You can literally touch notes on a guitar and the computer will assign a new open tuning in a second or so.  I got this guitar because I thought It would be fun to play in standard tuning and drop into a DADGAD for a chorus.  You can do that with this guitar.
  • The integration with the POD is stunning.  You can change patches and guitars with a foot switch.  Acoustic alternate tuning on the verse and distorted Les Paul on the chorus.  One switch can be set to do that.
Here’s where I had a problem.
Basically, my biggest problem with the guitar (other than the neck) is that you have to adapt your playing and tone to the performance aspects associated with each guitar.  Sean Halley hipped me to that with his Line 6 Blog post where he talks about using .011 gauge strings, playing as light as possible and using a really minimal signal path to get his acoustic tone.
  • I tend to play hard.  So this was a learning curve for me, but even playing softer, I still needed to drop my volume down to about 50% on all of the models I was using because I was hearing really strange aliasing with some of the settings.  It was more pronounced on some models than others – (The Dano and the teles were some of the best sounding models on there to my ears) – but it was still really problematic.
  • I tend to play with low stage volume, and if you’re not playing loud enough to cover up the acoustic sound of the guitar, you’re going to be subjected to sonic weirdness as your ear tries to mix the acoustic sound with the modeled tone – particularly with regards to altered tunings.
This leads me to a favorite story of mine.
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The Ted Nugent Story

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Here’s where I get to tell my favorite second hand Ted Nugent story.  (If you like this story –  ask Bob Bradshaw about the time he made a board for Prince because it essentially ends the same way.)
A GREAT guy I knew from Berklee used to run sound for the Nuge back in the day.  Where most live stages have a wall of amps that are basically there to fill out the stage (there’s a reason that only one of them is miked usually), the Nuge had a wall of Fenders that were all live (even more insane when you consider that he was playing a hollowbody guitar at that point!).  The stage volume was deafening, and based on his signal path he would walk up to each amp and just dial in the numbers that he knew would get him his tone and play.
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The amount of noise that was coming from the stage was driving the sound people nuts.  So they rack mounted and hard wired his pedals and Echoplex (they changed the tapes and cleaned the heads as well) and got rid of a ton of hiss.  They showed their work to Ted and he hated it.
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He hated it, because it completely changed the sound of his amps – and the number system he used to dial in his tone no longer worked.  Ted wasn’t about to re-discover how to get his sound, so they had to undo everything (they put the old tape back in but refused to dirty up the heads again).
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With that in mind here was my problem.
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I might have been able to fix the aliasing issues with Workbench but the thing is, I didn’t dig how the models were sounding with my tones. It makes sense.  My tones were crafted around my FnH which sounds completely different from this guitar
But like the Nuge, I spent a lot of time getting some of those sounds together.  I didn’t want to do that again.
And there’s the real review.
This is a bold solution to a sonic problem.
If you are the type of person who wants to be able to control every aspect of tone and have the ability to create tones that have never been heard before – this is a solution that approaches the answer.  And I say that because if you are that type of person, then you will swap out physical pickups, swap out the neck and make every aspect of this instrument conform to what you want it to be.
This is expected when buying a used guitar but that’s not why I would buy a new guitar.
This particular guitar wasn’t inspiring to play, and the thought of customizing every aspect of it (from the neck to the pickups, to the string output, to the patches and having it be weeks or months to get to where I needed to go) just isn’t interesting to me.  As it is, I’ve already lost the better part of two days just trying to get it going, and that’s my threshold for moving on.
What follows is pure conjecture and should be viewed as opinion rather than fact.
I don’t think I’m alone.
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I’m guessing that the Variax cost, if you were getting an artist rate, would probably be $600-$700. So if Sweetwater is selling these at $899 for a new model.  They can’t be making much money.
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Furthermore, Guitar Center Used is selling these for around $700.  (A JTV-59 was up today for $549! – Ouch indeed!)
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I don’t know if they’re making a price drop to promote these guitars, to move them, or what have you but what is interesting to me, in contrast, is that the JTV-59 (The Les Paulish one) has not dropped in price.
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That one also looks much more comfortable to play and knowing that you can mount a Bigsby to it makes it appealing to me.  The only reason I didn’t look closer at that one is the substantial price difference.
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You may dig the JTV-69.  You might like the neck, embrace all the things I really liked about this guitar and not be bothered by what I didn’t like.
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So I haven’t given up entirely.  I’m sure that there will be a point where I try to cross this bridge again, but it’s not the right guitar for me right now and so back it goes.

5 thoughts on “A Lesson Learned From A Tyler Variax JTV-69

  1. I’ve found myself over the years trying to model utilize modeling amps due to the variety of styles that I play and tones that I like…
    From a digitech rack mount 2120 with a Marshall 50/50 tube head to alesis systems, in between these I always went back to tube amps… A Peavey JSX, A 5150, A Marshall JVM and pedals… ( I hate tap dancing) what I hated was the fact that the higher the gain settings, the loss of effects occurred, requiring two or three Digital Delay Pedals…
    Then I acquired my first Destop UX1 pod and was very impressed, so I went to a Line 6 Vetta, which “Woofed” at the bass level I loved…
    So back to Marshall, however I bought a X3 Live and loved it, it was great to carry to practice and plug into the PA without having to lug my half stack around…
    But it was plastic and I didn’t trust it on the stage…So I kept my Marshall
    Then the HD500x came out, a metal board and better modeling, a/b with my buddies and it sounded just like their Amos but better because I was used to tweeking right from the unit, and sound guys love the board…
    For a Speaker I bought the line 6 l3t 1400 watt speaker… I have never ran it past a quarter, my kids turned it up once and I was scared to death to get to it and turn it down!!!! But it is a PA, acoustic amp, electric guitar amp all in one…

    To the point, I just bought a JTV 69 and after re-reading the hd500 manual and the Variax software manual I have come up with some great tones…
    And it switches guitar sounds with patches on my board…
    I’m still learning, but when I get irritated I tweek and get the sound I’m looking for…And it pinch harmonic screams on the digital side to which I didn’t expect and love…
    Patience, and it will come together…
    So many artist are using systems like Line 6 or
    Axe to get the same consistent tone every night….
    Point is, a pedal board and a guitar to a gig is an increadable useful way to go, ad the l3t and I can DJ and sing too…
    Patience and willing to get through the learning curve and I can promise a very versatile setup that sounds increadable

    • Hi Paul. Thanks for posting! I really like my podHD500x. Great unit and I have ZERO desire to go back to a Marshall or something similar.

      I had a vax 300 that I liked the FEEL of the ’69 was a deal breaker for me. Having said that, I would be interested in trying the new Yamaha VAX because I play their acoustic guitars…

  2. Interesting article, but I’m not feeling it as much as you. Eric Johnson is pretty picky about the placement of his pedals and the power in the batteries. They are his idiosyncrasies, most people aren’t getting a panic attack over batteries. Carlos Santana said, 8 out of 10 concerts are ordinary, but the other 2 are life changing (paraphrase, but the gist is right 🙂 There are a certain amount of guitar conditions that are worked through and lead to valuable experience.
    The Line 6 blog with the guy playing 11’s was a big mistake. They were reducing the efficiency of the piezo elements in the saddles. You could tell that the “thud” was the mass of the strings.
    The 59 style neck is a very desirable neck unless you are used to shredder necks. For me, I like the extra mass for tuning stability and the extra beating it can take!
    And, the “adapting the style” point is a little moot. Doesn’t everyone play an acoustic differently than an electric. I have a Takamine acoustic, Les Paul, Strat, a modded PRS copy, and a custom shop Tele, I play all of them differently. I would say that I’m a Strat guy. You really have to dig in and play dynamically to get the best tones. The PRS copy has a shredder neck and humbuckers (’59 and BBQ Bucker) and it plays itself, practically. The Paul weighs a ton and annoys me, hahaha. I think that is the way they are designed.
    This was a thought provoking article, even if we don’t agree. I guess I will throw out that a guitar filled with a computer will be less resonate acoustically is a more than fair assessment. I played, briefly, a Tyler Strat and thought it was dreamy. James Tyler is known as obsessive, never would I think that there would be a sub-1000 guitar with his name on it.
    I don’t own one. I’m doing research to see what others are saying, both good and bad. I think that is the best way to make a decision. But, I still want one, I loved the Tyler neck and tones from that brief period about 10 years ago.
    Peace, thanks for writing a thorough article; it’s the most thorough that I have found.

  3. Very informative article guys, thanks for sharing. I’m a tone nut and a tweaker. I play live and through a stereo rig, I’m not a computer recording guy. My band is a corporate band so I play different styles and genre of music on each set. What attracted me to the JTV 69 and HD 500x was the ability to setup a patch for each song with the specific guitar, amp, and effects that were used to record each record and be able to switch it all by pressing 1 button when I change songs. I have 25 guitars most of them high end or vintage, that i’m afraid to gig with for fear they’d be stolen or damaged, the JTV 69 solved this problem by let’s me take 2 guitar ( The JTV and a backup ) instead of risking 5 or 6 expensive ones. I love the JTV 69’s onboard pickups. The single coils sound identical to my 79 Strat. They are very clear and articulate even the humbucker and they handle distortion without getting muddy and sounding like a chain saw. I use the guitar in this mode most of the time but that is not what I bought it for, I bought it for the modeling which I am disappointed with except for the Dano and the Paul’s. I play clean and crunch a lot. I really don’t like the rest of the models especially the Fenders and the Semi’s, they all seem to have this 240K – 250K honk to them and lack of presence. I’m getting around this by A / B my guitars against the models, then EQ’ing the guitar models using the HD500x to match, this is in addition to EQ’ing the amps and patch which takes a lot of time and effort. I love the feel of the 69’s neck but hate that the string action can’t be set low without buzzing and that’s with a professional setup. That’s aggravating. I don’t want to invest more money into this guitar by buying another neck to get the strings down but at this point I don’t know what else to do. I wish Line 6 would offer a firmware feature in the work bench allowing you to globally EQ the guitars but that’s doubtful since L6 has moved on to Yamaha. Overall, I think the JTV 69 is a quality built ax and offers a lot of features especially if you’re playing heavy distortion styles of music, but If you’re playing clean or light crunch styles where tone and articulation are essential, well it’s not working for me I’m struggling with it and may have to leave Line 6 for a more conventional route.

  4. Thanks for the great review. I’ve been playing through an amplifi for some time and I really like the modelling that Line 6 allows. I use an acoustic and a strat copy, and both are necessary to get the range of sounds I want. My JTV69 will arrive in a few days and I’m really looking forward to combining it with the amplifi. Being able to switch between acoustic and electric mid song will add a whole new dimension to my performance if all goes well.

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