Line 6’s original Variax guitars were a great idea. They modelled various classic axes (electrics, acoustics, 12-strings and more) and they allowed you to recall various tunings with the touch of a button (actually the spin of a pot), but their look was a bit of an acquired taste. Their lack of pickups and the slinky undersized shape left them looking a little bit like a toy, and many players said they liked the idea but just couldn’t see themselves playing the guitar. We’re a conservative lot, it seems, despite the fact that we love to plug an electrical concoction of wood, wire and magnets into a different electrical concoction of wood, wire and magnets.
In an effort to combat the bias some – okay, most – players had against the visual aspect of the original Variax series, Line Line 6 has teamed up with renowned luthier James Tyler to add some boutique cred – and magnetic pickups – to the Variax concept. It’s a very clever strategy. Tyler is known for his traditional-meets-modern designs which fulfil the rare promise of being able to please conservative as well as radical players. There are tree basic guitars in the line: the 59, which is vaguely Les Paul-esque; the 69, which is Strat influenced, and the 89, which is more like your average late 80s Superstrat – perhaps an Ibanez RG or a Yamaha RGX.
Which ever body shape you choose, the Tyler Variax lets you use the revolutionary Line 6 guts or the well-voiced magnetic pickups. This also means you can change the magnetic pickups to the models of your choice if you so wish, further customising the sound if you’re loyal to a particular pickup company or model and you still want it to form the basis of your sound, reserving the Variax sounds for specific applications. The guitar itself has an alder body and a bolt-on maple neck with a rosewood fretboard. The scale length is 25.5″, and the nut is a 1-5/8″ Graph Tech Black TUSQ XL self-lubricating variety which will aid return to pitch after whammy bar excursions. The bridge is a fully adjustable Tyler-designed model featuring an L. R. Baggs Radiance Hex piezo pickup system for feeding the Variax electronics. The magnetic pickups all use Alnico magnets, and they’re controlled by master volume and tone knobs. The Variax section is controlled by a model knob and an alternate tuning roller knob, giving you access to 28 vintage instrument sounds and 11 alternate tunings. And you can interface with various Line 6 amps and processors, letting you change your guitar settings in tandem with your amp patches. You can also use the Variax Workbench software and USB interface to configure settings and modes on your computer.
The results are sonically very useful and operation is very intuitive. The sitar and 12-string sounds are especially fun, as are the various solidbody and semi-acoustic electric models. It’s quite a revelation to be able to get such distinctly different sounds of of a single guitar. Of course, if you really want to milk it for all it’s worth it helps to mentally project the guitar you’re modelling. For instance, if you want a convincing 12-string sound, play the way you would on a 12-string, where your picking and fretting hands have to account for the extra string area and where you have to slow down a bit. Or if you’re jamming on the sitar, lots of quick bends at the very beginning of notes will help to convey the illusion.
The magnetic pickups are crazy versatile, hitting various blues and hard rock tones with particular grace, and the guitar itself plays very well, with a distinctive feel and killer attack. In fact, one of the coolest things about the JTV-69 has nothing to do with its electronics: the sustain on this thing is ridiculous (in a good way). It’s a bolt-on but notes hang around as it it was a neck-through.
Let me just point out that some players of early batches report the occasional software glitch (mainly the model control not always changing models), but that was a while ago so if you buy a new one you’re not likely to run into this. Test it for yourself at your local music store to make sure, rather than relying on word of mouth from someone who played one that was a bit finicky a few years ago.
Is this a guitar for everyone? Probably not. Some players will still consider themselves too traditional to give it a chance. And that’s kind of unfair, because ultimately it’s an instrument that will help you get more in touch with the music in your head rather than being limited by your guitar’s physical characteristics. Those who will like it the most will be more open-minded players with an adventurous spirit and musical ideas that won’t be reigned in. And isn’t it that very same spirit that makes us play electric guitar in the first place?