I didn’t know what to expect when I unpacked my new Variax 700 digital modeling guitar from Line 6. I was afraid that it would end up being a technological freak: a half-assed attempt at a guitar with some digital components stuck in the back. What I found was a finely crafted guitar that could be configured easily to work with my Mac or when plugged into an amp like any other guitar.
I got the black Variax 700 with a carved-top solid mahogany body and a one-piece maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, bone nut and pearl inlays. From the first time I sat down to play, I loved the feel of the frets and the body. Like most guitar players, I can tell pretty quickly if I’m going to like a certain guitar. It’s not about how much money an instrument costs, it’s the feel you get when you play it, how your fingers feel when they are sliding up and down the fretboard. It is definitely a personal thing for each player, and the Variax resonated with my style.
Despite its digital modeling extras, the Variax 700 is first and foremost a guitar. If you didn’t know the difference, you wouldn’t think the Variax was any different than any other guitar, other than one thing: there are no visible pickups, like those you would find on most electric guitars. Don’t let that fool you, though—the fact that they’re missing doesn’t diminish the sounds you can get out of the Variax.
You don’t need any special equipment: just plug it into an amp, effects box or PA and play. The Variax has a standard ¼-inch output, so you can plug in to any guitar amp you have—you don’t get the full flexibility of Line 6’s digital modeling this way, but you do get some.
Like most electrics, the Variax has volume and tone controls. Unlike most guitars, it also has a knob that changes the type of guitar you are playing. There are 25 Variax guitar models built-in, ranging from a 1960 Fender Telecaster Custom and a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop to a 1959 Martin D-28 and a 1935 Dobro Alumilite. When you choose a new model, the guitar’s sound immediately switches, giving you a brand new tone based on that model. The sounds are quite good—not as realistic as if you were playing the original, but they’re hard to beat, especially when you consider how much you’d have to pay for each instrument.
There is also a five-way switch to change the Variax’s virtual pickups, similar to the way you would with a Fender Strat. And if you’ve already programmed the guitar via the Workbench software, you can also change tunings on the fly. So you could go from a Martin acoustic in standard tuning to a Les Paul in Drop D (although your listeners might not appreciate the transition).
This back-and-forth is a bit awkward with the knob and switch system on the guitar, but it is also where the flexibility of the digital interface comes into play.
The Variax Digital Interface
If you really want to take advantage of the Variax, you need to plug it in to a Pod XT Live stompbox or the Vetta II amp (I’ll be taking a look at these two items in a future entry). Both of those devices have a digital port to plug the Variax into, which greatly expands the guitar’s features, and you can hook them up to your Mac to create your own custom sounds.
Line 6’s Workbench software for the Mac lets you control many different parameters of the guitar including guitar body type, its pickups and their placement, and the tone and volume controls. You can basically change anything you want with your setup and hear it in real time.
For alternate tunings, Workbench uses a virtual fretboard that allows you to change the tuning on a per string basis. If you want to get to D-standard, just type in a -1 next to each string and you’re done. The fretboard shows you the new tuning, so if you make a mistake, you can just retype the number. Once saved, the next time you choose that guitar model on the knob and that position on the five-way switch, you will be playing in D-standard tuning.
The really cool stuff comes when you program the Pod XT Live to work with the Variax. Using the two devices together you can tell the Pod to switch to a particular guitar model and tuning when you step on a preset. So, if you were playing an acoustic model in a song that called for a screaming solo, you could switch from the Martin to the Les Paul in Drop D by touching one button on the Pod.
Is the Variax worth it?
I have six guitars in my collection and I play them all. The Variax is not going to replace my Gibson (or any other guitar for that matter), but none of the others could replace the Variax either. I do find myself picking up the Variax more all the time, especially when I’m not sure what I want to play. Do I want a little bit of acoustic blues? Or maybe some Ozzy or some Zeppelin, or who knows what else? The Variax allows me to just flip a switch and change midstream.
I liked the sounds that the guitar produced. It gave me realistic feedback when I wanted it or a clean warm tone when that’s what I was after. There was no need to back off the volume to clean up the sound; it was just there for me. With a couple of presets on the Pod, I did notice some digital artifacts at lower volumes, but I can’t say for sure whether that was the guitar or my crazy preset.
If there was one thing I could change to the guitar itself, it would be to add a locking nut to the whammy bar setup. It’s a pain in the butt trying to keep the guitar in tune once you start playing around with a whammy bar, and a locking nut can help that problem considerably.
With the possibilities and versatility that the Variax brings to the table, I can’t imagine why any guitarist wouldn’t want one in their arsenal. With a street price ranging from $500 to $1,500 there is a model for most budgets. The Variax 300, 600 and 700 models have similar basic features, with the main differences being in the materials used to make the instruments.