Price paid: £ 649
Purchased from: Andertons
Sound — 10
I play in a modern rock/electronica band and already have a lot of guitars (a few expensive, most upgraded cheaper options I messed with myself). I didn't like the look or sound of the original Variax which seemed like a toy guitar that you had to plug into a wall-wart permanently and had no real pickups. The idea of a guitar that could model others and adopt tunings at a turn of switch was appealing for both live gigs and writing songs but I didn't really consider the Variax in it's original formats. I have been using a lot of pedals and guitar synths to model sounds but came across the new JTV-59P by accident and just loved the look of the new gold top. So yeah it was more a shallow infatuation than a hard headed decision but it paid off so far! The most obvious improvement over the old Variax is this is a luthier designed and beautifully made guitar even if you ignore the electronics. Even if the battery is dead, you can play a great Les Paul style guitar with two HOT wound modern P90s. I'm playing this into an Engl E670, Marshall JVM-410 or an Orange AD140 depending on the gig/recording/home song-writing set up I'm at. As I mentioned I don't have a lot of experience with P90s. I'd say they were more biting and airy than humbuckers but not as cutting/clear as single coils. It's a very cool rock sound. They can get a bit noisy compared to humbuckers but I haven't had any major hum problems (I have noise gates on most of the time live at least so probably wouldn't spot it). In terms of variety, the guitar has to be looked at as two separate things - the passive guitar itself is a great all round blues/rock type guitar. However when you engage the modelling you get a whole slew of electrics from Telecasters (including Thinlines and Deluxes), Strats, Les Pauls (Originals, Deluxe, Juniors, Specials etc), Gretsch big body and silverjets, semis, jazz box Gibsons - there are also a bunch of acoustics and even some more specialised things like the coral sitar, banjos, dobros etc. When you engage the modelling, any hiss or hum vanishes as it's all through the internal hex pickups in the bridge. The latency is about zero on the electric guitars, though there can be a touch detected on acoustics and some of the weirder models (it's far, far better than something like the Roland GK-3 pickup into a VG-99 though) and mis-triggers are virtually impossible unless your technique is really awful. I don't own half of the guitars modelled in here so it's hard to say how truly accurate they are. I'd say from the guitars I've actually got in real life to compare - the modelling is excellent quality - easily good enough for live shows, and great fun for writing songs and auditioning sound ideas. To be brutally honest for recording a real track for release I'd go with the real thing. The acoustics are VERY good, but I'd still prefer the feel and sound of a real acoustic for example. But on stage to go from the start of a song in say standard tuned Martin acoustic then flick a switch and be in a 1/2 step down Les Paul and then solo in a blues tuned Stratocaster is an amazing live tool and let's you write stuff you wouldn't ever try live normally without modifying. Overall I'd rate the modelling sounds at 80% worst up to 95% for the best examples. Unsurprisingly this p90 equipped version sounds closest to the P90 gold top Les Paul model - which is almost indistinguishable (the passive pickups are probably a bit louder and dynamic than the model but it'd be hard to tell at a loud gig over a drummer and bass etc). Overall this is an awesome tool for writing songs, trying out hundreds of new tunings which you can set yourself very easily even without a computer hooked up. Live it's a godsend for any weird sounding guitars (for example I don't have to bring a big jazz box that might only be used for one intro). If you want 100% realism though you'd have to buy the real things and for high quality recording that might be better, but live and writing/auditioning sounds - this is the right tool.
Overall Impression — 9
This is a great looking guitar first off. Yeah, it probably shouldn't matter - but I think I play better when I like the look of a guitar. It's well finished in every area. I was originally looking at Gibson robot guitars like the Dark Fire, Les Paul X etc - for the multiple tunings and onboard EQ/modelling - but they seemed quite cumbersome and the robot tuning gets a bad rap in some places. So now that the old Variax issues of an ugly, wall-wart dependent guitar are a thing of the past, this was an obvious choice for me. There's not much to compare it to really, other than having a hex pickup and a synth guitar modeller which is usually a lot more trouble to set up and get right (and carting around double the gear to gigs etc). If you want a great live guitar that can do acoustics, various electrics, semis, archtops and maybe even a sitar or banjo and can switch between a load of custom tunings in mid-song - there's not much else to choose from. For live it's amazing, for writing songs you can just sit with it and try loads of options without having to keep trying different guitars or retuning so you work faster and don't forget ideas. For recording demos it's perfect too. I'd just say the modelling probably isn't good enough for high quality released recordings - where you will notice the difference between say a real mic'ed up acoustic and the models - but that's a minor quibble for the price of this thing. I'd consider buying a backup battery and keep that one on charge as if you forget, it can be like 10 hours waiting for the modelling to be up and running again with one battery. I'd say that it would be nice if Line 6 would let you download new guitar models. You can custom build your own guitars on the workbench software but you're limited to the bits on the other models so far. Rather than just '59-'69 Vintage guitars maybe a few modern high gain models and HOT wound pickup options would be good. If I was being critical I'd say the model choices are a bit odd - for instance 5 different Telecaster settings, but only 1 Strat - even though strats have loads more pickup and mod options out there. Some of the acoustics are very similar and could probably have gone for some more extreme variety rather than just every Martin in the same range. You can build your own tunings which is great, but the JTV-89 version ditches all the blues/open tunings and has metal-themed downtunings. It'd be nice to have these options on the '59 - I can't see that many down-tuned technical death metallers wanting 5 different telecasters and jazz boxes etc - but guys like me who play strats and les pauls might still delve into metal territory - so the set tunings and models limited to Vintage and open tunings is a tad odd (I'd rather ditch the open G and have a drop C tuning as standard - yeah I can make it as a custom, but you are limited on custom options). Fairly minor quibbles with Line 6's approach (though I can see why the JTV-89 doesn't sell so well - maybe the metal banjo shredders out there). Other than that - awesome guitar, well made and an amazing live/writing tool. Video from YouTube:
Reliability & Durability — 8
The guitar looks and feels very robust, it's also very neat and weighted well so it's balanced and poised. That usually means it's going to last in my (limited) experience. The finish is exceptional and the little fittings on the nut etc are nicer than many guitars I've had that cost twice or three times as much. I wouldn't personally use it without a backup (but then I wouldn't with any guitar). The downside I suppose is it has a battery lifespan for the modelling and there's a lot more electronics in the guts than a regular guitar. So there's a lot more than can go wrong. The offset for this though is these new model Variax can bypass the modelling entirely and you still have a great dual P90 passive Les Paul type guitar.
Action, Fit & Finish — 9
The guitar is built to James Tyler (LA luthier) specs, though unlike the US models which are very expensive, this is a Korean spec made version. That said it was better set up than some US deluxe guitars I've had from other manufacturers. The pickups, tuners, bridge and intonation were perfect out of the box. The nut is a graphite TUSQ model which I'd love to have on every guitar now I've tried it myself. The action is low but without any buzz - as all my other "synth" guitars need to be jacked up to accommodate hex pickups like the GK-3, this was a godsend. Basically it was better than my Gibson Les Paul Standard on arrival (not sure if that speaks well of Line 6 or poorly of Gibson). This was a factory b-stock model due to what looks like a glue-burn on the 20th fret, but it's so minor I'm amazed it failed. I've had worse problems on guitars that passed inspection before - but I'm not complaining - it's a beautiful guitar that I saved a lot of money on. The one tiny, tiny flaw was one tuning peg was very loose but this could have been at the store when it was tested out.
Features — 8
This is the 2013 gold top James Tyler Variax 59P. This is made in Korea to the James Tyler specs. It's a 22 fret modelling guitar designed to look sort of like a Les Paul type guitar single cut. It is a mahogany body with a 59 year flame maple top with a semi-translucent gold sparkle paint covering. The neck is mahogany with a rosewood fretboard. The neck is James Tylers LA 59 neck design with 22 medium jumbo frets, a relatively chunky feel and a 24 9/16" scale - which makes it very close to the Gibson format. The neck actually feels more like some PRS models to me than a true Les Paul but I like it a lot. The heel of the neck is fully contoured into the body so you can play the top couple of frets with ease compared to a Traditional Les Paul - even if you don't have big hands. This version of the JTV-59 has two P-90's in it as the "analog" pickups and they are in Traditional cream casings (the black version has black casings). I've never really had any guitar with P90s before, always single coils or humbuckers and this guitar offers a really nice mid ground. The pickups are passive, however like the other Variax models from Line 6, the bridge is a piezo hex pickup for the modelling. The bridge is a joint James Tyler luthier and LR Baggs piezo design and it really is lovely to look at and use. The controls are a master tone and volume which work as normal on the passive pickups but can have slightly varying effects on the digital models depending on what they are. There is also a "model" selector knob and a "tuning" selector knob. These have LEDs in to indicate power and mode choice. Both of these knobs have dual functions. The model knob is pressed in to turn the onboard electronics on and disable the passive guitar pathway. Unlike the JTV-69 (strat-a-like shape) or the JTV-89 (ibanez style shred shape) the 59 models only have a Traditional 3 way pickup selector switch (the others have 5 way set-ups). This means on the 59 you have to use the tuning knob to access the other two model banks. Sounds a bit complicated but it makes sense pretty fast when you play it. This comes with a reinforced padded gig-bag which is decent quality though I bought a hard flightcase because I always do for any guitar I take gigging. There are various cables and tools for the guitar, the lithium-ion battery for powering the modelling side, a charger and a USB interface for plugging into your computer. It's all decent quality stuff. Better than some guitars of this value but you are mostly paying for the electronic side, luckily this was a factory b-stock option at 42% off for what was basically one minor burn on a fret - so it's great value in my case.