Variax 600 review by Line 6

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  • Sound: 9
  • Overall Impression: 9
  • Reliability & Durability: 6
  • Action, Fit & Finish: 7
  • Features: 8
  • Reviewer's score: 7.8 Good
  • Users' score: 8.2 (70 votes)
Line 6: Variax 600
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Price paid: £ 550

Purchased from: PMT (Pro Music Technology)

Sound — 9
I play/perform/record music that's somewhere on the alternative/experimental spectrum, so the ability to make this thing sound as unconventional as possible was just as much a motivation in my purchase as the "real-life" tones that Line 6 marketed it on. It's not very noisy at all, so I had no problems plugging it into a decent rig of pedals (all the better to mangle the tone with), although now I'm using a Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 setup for my processing, before putting it through an AC30 and/or Marshall 8100 head. Either way, there aren't any noise concerns in the main, although one of the piezos did die on me rather noisily (more on that later). Tonebench is a must with this guitar - as others here have mentioned, you almost certainly won't want 25 different models of guitar; it's much better to experiment a bit to find the three or four that really suit your sound and then just program some variations on each of those (different tunings, different pot impedances, in and out of phase pickups, series or parallel pickups, different angles or positions for the pickup, etc). In doing this, it's also really important to use your ears rather than your eyes and prejudices! I took a while to shake off my urge to stick with Telecasters and Les Pauls (my 'real' guitars of choice) before eventually deciding that the Danelectro and Epiphone Casino bodies worked best for me (with Les Paul Goldtop humbuckers, mostly) - bear in mind that, while the models are reasonably realistic for the most part, you can create some beautiful combinations that simply wouldn't work in real life! Ultimately, once these are all setup (takes time and patience), I've settled on some tones that I've yet to hear a "real" guitar emulate. If you're looking to sound like Clapton, buy a Strat, but if you want to get your own sound, you might find this is the guitar for you. The alternate tuning side of things is a funny one - as with all pitch-shifters, the effect introduces a degree of warble and artificiality that will never sound the same (especially not on a "clean" setting) as a real guitar tuned to that tuning. On the other hand, no real guitar can pull off some of the tunings this one can - I used to spend hours tuning and retuning, and messing around with spider capos and whatever else I could to get the range of pitch that I can now achieve by simply turning a pot! You can tune a full octave up or down in chromatic steps for each string - E and A strings in a deep bass throb, D and G standard, and B and E all plinky lightness? Try doing that on a "real" guitar! Like I said though, if you want it to sound "perfect" and "real", then use a "real" guitar and be prepared to go through a lot of strings! If you don't care if your guitar sounds "weird" (pretty much the definition of good tone, in my book), get Tonebench and get experimenting. Oh and a quick note on the more esoteric models - Sitar is moderately convincing as a model of the Dano equivalent, Banjo is alright in a mix, but not going to lead any hoedowns any time soon. The resonators are ok, perfectly passable but not especially life-like (if you're going to be playing a lot of Delta, you're better off biting the Bullet and saving up for the real deal, since it's more likely to sound wrong in a typical stripped-down Delta arrangement). The acoustics are ok but a little boomy (mess with the tone control for best results, but it'll still probably sound like a cheap electro-acoustic - fine in a mix, lifeless solo). Lastly, the 12 strings are pretty rotten - they achieve their effect by mixing in a slightly delayed (we're talking <10ms), slightly detuned (+/- up to 10cts) additional note for most of the strings (with a +octave for the high strings). Again, this is fine in a mix, but solo it can sound HORRIBLY out of tune and ugly (if you're not perfectly in tune, it will sound hideous).

Overall Impression — 9
I've been playing guitar for about fifteen years, and most of that time has been spent frustrated at how generic guitars tend to sound. This guitar is no different, in it's factory-standard guise. In fact, many of the models sound passable but not quite perfect for what they aim to emulate. If you want a collection of twenty five different guitars, you're probably best off playing the lottery or planning a bank job, and just buying twenty five guitars. If you want an incredibly versatile instrument with the potential to sound not-quite like any other guitar in the verse, then leap into something utterly different in the chorus, with the facility to play in all kinds of weird and wonderful tunings, give a Variax a go - I highly recommend you see about trying one out with the ToneBench software, either in a music store or renting or something: don't judge it on its ability to mimic other guitars, judge it on how much fun you have making it sound different. I'd give this a 10, if it weren't for the piezo-death and brief brain-death: both of those were likely my fault (I didn't mention, when I cleaned it down, that dead piezo was caked in sweat from palm-muting, which both shows the value and importance of keeping your instrument clean, and the utter crap of reviewers who said when this came out that you couldn't palm-mute: sure you can, you just need to adjust your technique...), but still I can't really give a 10 to an instrument that becomes completely unplayable (a dead brain leaves you with just the dry tinny piezo tone, which is awful) if you bash it too hard. Missing features? I mentioned that I record music. One thing I wish this had (might sound crazy after that last comment) is the ability to record the dry piezos and a direct-to-brain input for re-tracking guitar parts: you see, sometimes I'll play the perfect part on one model, and then a few days later after tweaking my arrangement think it'd sound better on a different model. Obviously I'm just being lazy and not re-recording the part, but sometimes there's that first-take magic to a part, and it's a shame that such a seemingly easy-to-implement feature doesn't exist. But that's it, everything else is spot on.

Reliability & Durability — 6
Live, no problems. I'm a bit rough with my gear live, but it's taken the minor knocks and bumps with good grace, and I've never done anything too dramatic to it on stage to hurt it. As mentioned before, one of my piezos began to die a couple of months ago (after four or five years of use) - the A string started to "fart" occasionally, and then developed a bit of a growly distortiony buzz, and then eventually started to just lose all volume. It was an easy enough fix to strip the guitar down, pop out the bridge, clean down and resolder all the piezos with new ones (I figured why wait for the others to go?) and put it all back together. Not something for beginners, but not a complicated task in itself. The "brain", however, has caused me problems - I'm talking about the DSP mini-computer in the body which does all the processing. Basically (and I'll spare you the details), the guitar took a fair thwack, neck first, against a stone window-ledge, and apart from taking a decent chunk out of the neck itself, this also seemed to cause severe brain-trauma. I fiddled and messed with it for quite a while myself before giving up and taking it to a guitar tech I know. He managed to pop the brain out and persuade it to reboot, and also patched up the neck-gouge. That was two and a half years ago, and I've had no problems since. Be warned though - the electronics inside this guitar clearly make it more vulnerable to shock than your average axe. For that reason, I have gigged without a backup occasionally, but only when I've known there were other people around who I could beg/borrow/steal a backup from. I've never had to use a backup, but I wouldn't want to be caught short without one.

Action, Fit & Finish — 7
Factory setup was ok, fairly generic not-too-low action, Standard factor models installed, finish all reasonably neat and tidy (nothing bad to look at, so not on a par with cheap-and-cheerful my-first-guitars, but equally not quite up there at the level of "oh my God it's so beautiful": what you'd expect from a modestly expensive factory made guitar, really). No flaws or issues with anything to do with the finish. I found the factory strings were rather light, and the intonation wasn't perfect (close, but could've been better - wavy around 4th/8th fret), so I quickly slapped on some Skinny Top Heavy Bottoms and spent a couple of hours tweaking and refining until the intonation was absolutely perfect: like most modern guitars (especially those in the Fender-style), it's really very easy to setup, and all you need is a bit of common-sense, the supplied tools, a good tuner and a lot of patience. It's well worth investing that time and effort (or enlisting a tech you trust), since a well-intonated guitar makes a world of difference (and, again, if you're going to use those 12 string models, it's a must!). Obviously everyone's different, and the ability to set up "your" guitar to play the way "you" want it is something I consider vital to all modern guitar purchases... As far as I'm concerned, mine now plays beautifully.

Features — 8
Maple necked 2-tone sunburst Variax 600, LR Baggs trem. 22 medium frets - overall, Line 6 were obviously trying to sit somewhere on the fence between Tele/Strat and Les Paul/SG feel, though definitely leaning more towards the Fender side of things. Consequently, it's a bit like playing a Yamaha Pacifica, in that it's familiar but different at the same time! It definitely looks distinctive though, especially with the absence of conventional pickups - people who haven't seen one before often look puzzled and eventually have to ask how it works, which means I then have to find a way of explaining piezo pickups and DSP without sounding incredibly boring (Pro tip: "Magic" is the best possible answer here). The guitar came with the usual tools plus a floor-pedal power supply and a reassuringly padded gig bag. PMT also threw in a stereo cable (you need a stereo one to carry the power from the floor pedal to the axe) and a strap, plus a handful of plectrums, naturally! AND I got the tonebench usb interface and software at a discount (always remember to haggle)! The biggest draw for me was the modelling and tuning possibilities, which I'll get onto next.

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