After proving my love for luthiery from both sides of the workbench, as a builder of 25 years and a buyer/player, why have I ordered a Variax Acoustic 700 modeling guitar? It’s not really an acoustic or even an acoustic/electric. It’s not a real instrument, is it? It’s a computer in a guitar-like container!
When the Variax Acoustic arrived double-boxed, I opened the package to discover a sturdy gig bag, a high quality stereo cable, a powered direct box and power cable. Unveiling the guitar, I could see one slight binding flaw but otherwise, I was visually pleased except for the modernistic logo on the otherwise attractive headstock. They modeled the sound of a D’Angelico, but that aesthetic was lost in the cosmetic presentation. Still, overall, it’s a nice-looking instrument.
A few minutes of playing revealed that the truss rod needed to be loosened. That adjustment is smooth and easy, and a small hex wrench lowered the bridge saddle to compensate for the stiffer feel. The Line 6 “Pilot’s Handbook” has clear instructions: setup is simple and effective. The information and videos available on the Line 6 website are also very helpful in learning how to operate the guitar.
The modeled collection includes three Martins, two Gibsons, Maccaferri Selmer, D’Angelico New Yorker, Velasquez classical, two resophonics, Guild and Stella 12-strings, and the exotics: sitar, mandocello, Gibson Mastertone banjo, and Japanese shamisen. I couldn’t afford many of them now, but I’ve owned several Martins and Gibsons, resonator guitars, 5- and 6-string banjos, cheapo nylon strings, petite and grande bouche Selmer copies, and even a 1949 D’Angelico Special. It seems this instrument was made for me!
My immediate conclusions, though favorable, were that extensive experimentation was going to be necessary to maximize the models for my use. The alternate tunings (eight presets and multiple programmable possibilities) and virtual capo settings (up a fifth, down an octave) are convenient, although a perceptible delay was apparent on detuned strings. Also, the 12-string settings differed from the 6-string settings, upping the angle of the learning curve.
Still, I felt comfortable enough in an hour of set up and play to bring the Variax to my gig. It performed well and listeners commented favorably on my guitar sound.
After four gigs with the Variax, I decided to record a slide guitar track.
Just prior to receiving the Variax, I’d recorded seven songs with bassist Tony Markellis (currently with the Trey Anastasio Band). I played four different flat-tops, using three condensor mics through tube preamps. Pickup signals, into a Mackie 1402-VLZ, were split to stereo, totaling five simultaneous guitar inputs into a Fostex VF160 hard disc recorder. Each guitar required slightly different mic placement and sound level adjustments, necessitating a setup period averaging at least 30 minutes per instrument.
The Variax offers both 1?4″ and XLR outs. I opted to run in from the Variax direct box 1?4″ output, direct, no tube preamp, no nuthin’. The online promotional video makes a big deal of recording the guitar with no EQ, effects (except reverb on one track of one demo song), and with no mastering done after the recording. “If they can do it,” I reasoned, “so can I.”
I plugged in, dialed in a sound utilizing the round-neck resophonic guitar modeled from a ’39 National Style O single-cone biscuit-style resonator. My song starts with an E minor, so I programmed the model for standard tuning and open E. Over the E minor, I used standard tuning with a metal slide, and easily and noiselessly changed to open E as I approached the major four chord. Cool!
I had a useable slide track in 40 minutes, but more significantly, I was ready to record in under five minutes with a very pleasing guitar sound.
I now had recorded and gigged with the Variax, after owning it for less than a week. Basically, here’s what I bought.
The neck measures 15/8″ at the nut; fingerstylists might like a wider neck option. The 24-fret rosewood fingerboard with pearl “snowflake” inlays has a 253?4″ scale length, 17″ radius, and medium, well-dressed frets. The mahogany neck, carved with a volute, is a hefty D shape, nicely rounded at the fingerboard for a very pleasant feel.
A laminated cedar top is glued over a chambered mahogany body. Online reviews of the Variax Electric suggested its modeled acoustic guitar voices were overly compressed sounding, a likely function of the solidbody construction. Presumably, the chambered body lends the Variax Acoustic a more natural response. The body measures 19″ long by 1315/16″ wide, with a deep cutaway for easy upper fret access, and the guitar plays in tune up the neck very nicely. Five layers of black-and-white binding and a matching rosette surrouding the oval soundhole make for a conservative but attractive guitar, with a glossy natural finish also available in black. Weight is approximately 7 pounds.
How does it work? Designers put two mics on a selection of highly desirable instruments, carefully documented, in an acoustically well-designed room, and, to quote the “Pilot’s Handbook,” “…we then process the signals through software algorithms that capture the physical properties of the guitars that we’ve modeled.”
I know a lot about guitar acoustics, wood, and construction techniques, but this algorithm stuff is Greek to me. The designers even modeled some movement into the mic placement to simulate the movement of a guitar in the lap of a player. The body resonance of Brazilian rosewood on the 1960 Martin D28 and 1946 Triple O models is clearly audible, and controllable with the mic placement slider.
The metal-and-biscuit resonator of the ’39 National Style O is easily discernible from the wood-bodied, spider-bridge setup of the ’37 Dobro Model 27. I especially like the parlor guitar model – a ’41 Martin 5-17 – and the guitar voices that are less satisfying, such as the Selmer D-Hole and Velasquez models, are still useable.
The idea of hearing a 12-string without having to tune one is very appealing, and the Stella model drips Leadbelly vibe. I’d gladly trade the exotics for a Robert Johnson-y L-1, a Richard Thompson-esque Lowden, even an Ovation Adamas.
The modeled sounds were impacted like an actual acoustic by string deterioration, and were spiced up nicely with new strings. Percussive playing, slide, and harmonics all respond normally, and on my gigs the Variax stayed in tune like a rock.
As natural as the sounds and response are, the strangest thing about the Variax Acoustic is… well, it’s not acoustic. I miss the sensation of having a vibrating guitar in my lap. Also, if a player is accustomed to performing with piezo pickups, it’ll take time to adjust to the decay and attack of the Variax. It’s more natural-sounding than a great acoustic amplified with any combination of the most popular saddle, surface-mount, or soundhole pickups.
Line 6 has created a third category to add to the acoustic and acoustic/electric categories. And, instant access to several easily amplified and recorded vintage guitar models is a great boon to a working acoustic guitarist.
Line 6 Variax Acoustic
Features Software-driven models of 16 acoustic instruments, including jumbos, 12-strings, nylon-string classical, resonators, banjo, sitar, and more. Also, ability to play in programmed or custom open tunings, de-tunings, capo tunings, etc.
Price $1,679 (retail).
Contact Line 6, 29901,Agoura Road, Agoura Hills, CA 91301-2513, www.line6.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sept. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.