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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
The Ted Nugent Story