VARIAX STANDARD GUITAR BY YAMAHA
by Mark King
Variax is the name of a line of electric guitars developed and marketed by Line 6. Yamaha bought the company and operates Line 6 as a subsidiary. When Variax guitars were first introduced they had no electric pickups. These guitars were meant to drive the idea of electric guitars with modeling in them which would allow them to sound like all the coolest axes in the world, at least that is what the marketing said.
I bought one of the first generation Line 6 electric guitars back in 2007. I had it for less than a week before it got returned. I found the tone from the modeling technology to be a huge disappointment. I own three Les Paul guitars so I’m a little familiar with their sound, tone and feel. The modeled Les Paul tone sounded ok through a clean amp but the moment you plugged into a real tube amp the guitar models fell flat. A real Les Paul sounds free and rings clear. The modeled Les Paul sound sounded thick and labored, there was no vibrancy to the tone.
|Variax Standard in black finish
Fast-forwarding 10-years, Line 6 has been bought by Yamaha Corporation. The two latest Yamaha-designed Line 6 guitar models are the “Standard Variax” and the “Shuriken”. In this review we’ll be taking a close look at the Yamaha built Standard Variax electric guitar.
VARIAX GUITAR MODELS
There are three physical models of the Standard Variax, they are all identical except for the finish. Sunburst, black and white are the finish color options. Each guitar is outfitted with three single coil pickups and a 5-way selector switch, very similar in style to a Fender Stratocaster.
The guitars feature ebony fingerboards, a master volume and master tone plus two knobs that allow you to select modeling tone features.
|Battery in rear compartment
Since the Variax has sophisticated digital electronics on board a rechargeable battery system is employed. The guitar comes with the battery and the necessary charger but you must remove the battery from the guitar to charge it. On my guitar the battery is not easy to remove, it requires two hands pushing in an awkward way to get the battery to release. Getting the battery to fit into the charger is also more effort than it should be.
|Variax AC power supply
The Variax can be powered by an optional $99 power supply kit. This kit includes a stompbox, a wall wart power supply and a 3-conductor guitar cable. When you use the AC power supply and cable you don’t need to have the battery installed. The AC power supply option does not charge the internal battery, that can only be done by removing the battery and using the AC powered charger (which came with the guitar).
|Variax Programming Port
An ethernet-style port on the bottom of the guitar connects to a box that connects to a PC and works in conjuction with Line 6 software to allow customizing the modeled pickups and sound. This is physically ethernet port hardware but it is not ethernet coming out of the jack, it should only be connected to the Line 6 connector box which changes it to USB. The guitar comes with this external box but you need to register your instrument and download the software to complete the setup. I’m a Mac user and unfortunately the currently offered Line 6 software is not compatible with either of the latest two Mac operating systems.
The Yamaha Variax is a custom version of the Yamaha Pacifica model which itself is a Stratocaster style instrument. The Variax version has an Alder body with a gloss finish. The scale length is 25.5 (just like a Strat) and has 22 Medium sized frets on an ebony fingerboard with a 12” radius. The nut is a Graph Tech Black Tusq and the bolt on neck is made of maple.
HOW DOES THE VARIAX SOUND?
Using the electric pickups the Variax easily gets you into Stratocaster tonal territory. Line 6 says the magnets in these pickups are Alnico 5, what really matters is how they sound. After spending a few hours playing the Variax I came to appreciate the tone from the stock pickups a lot. They have the classic single coil tone which is thinner and brighter than a humbucking but they never sound weak or wimpy. Positions 2 and 4 are humbucking (just like a Strat) and they have the wonderful sweet outta-phase sound (just like a Strat). I’ve owned a lot of Stratocasters and they all sounded different from each other, the Variax sound is like that, similar but a little bit different.
I am a fan of the simple user controls on the Variax. The master volume and master tone controls are fine with me, I typically keep the tone knob wide open. The 5-position pickup selector switch was a little bit noisy when I first received the guitar but after a few hours of use the noise went away.
The digital and modeling tone side of this guitar is one of the biggest selling points and this is still the weakest part of this instrument. The software is out of date so I could not try that without digging out a vintage Mac Mini. Fortunately you can use the two knobs on the face of the guitar to shuttle through the digital models.
There are digital models of Fender guitars, Gibson guitars, big Jazz Box guitars, even Sitar and 12-string. Compared to the real thing I find the models lacking in depth and magic, basically the same reaction I had 10 years ago. The models don’t sound vibrant and clear when plugged into dirty tube amps like Marshalls and Boogies. The electric pickups sound great through amplifiers but the modeled tones still leave me disappointed.
|Large cover on right protects digital electronics
If you set the model knob to acoustic and you put the 5-way switch in the middle position the Variax finds redemption in this well balanced acoustic guitar model. I have a Martin D-35 which features the Fishman Aura pickup system, I love the deep rich acoustic tone it gets. The Variax gets very close to the tone of my Martin. If not for this acoustic guitar model in my Variax it would have been returned.
I love being able to switch directly from a saturated Mesa Boogie to a pristine acoustic guitar in the same musical passage. Rocking-crunch power chords sitting right next to beautiful acoustic guitar has been a compositional goal of mine for many years. The Variax delivers this capability and more.
The Variax also has alternate tunings in its bag of tricks. I have tried them all and these work surprisingly well. In my studio I have worked to not need headphones for recording, all my live microphones are in an adjacent rooms. Hearing the standard tuning acoustically (coming off the physical body of the Variax) is a little bit disconcerting when the sound from the speakers is completely different. The alternate tunings work as advertised if that is what you’re into. The alternate tunings are digital creations so like the other modeled tones they are lacking in clarity and vibrancy. In an A-B comparison the digital models would never fool my ears.
If your thing is drop tunings this guitar has got them waiting at the touch of a knob. These fall under the umbrella of digital models so their suitability is dependent on the music you’re making and whether you like the character of the tone. For me the modeled acoustic guitar tone plus the Strat-like magnetic pickup sound completely justifies the price of this axe. It has become one of my favorite guitars to compose with.
HOW DOES IT PLAY?
|Large clunky rechargeable battery, must remove to charge
MODELING HARDWARE MAGIC
|Notice piezo pickups in bridge pieces
The Variax guitar relies on piezo sensors in the bridge to supply input to the onboard digital electronics. Each bridge saddle has a sensor and these must be cared for when changing strings or making adjustments. Those are some very fine wires under there and it would not take much to render them non-functioning. If you break it this guitar must go to an authorized Line 6 repair facility for repair. Packing and shipping a guitar is no fun so for goodness sakes, don’t break it. Your local guitar store techs eyes will glaze over if you ask them to work on a Variax. If you void the warranty you many never be able to repair the guitar so stick to authorized warranty stations for servicing this.
The Yamaha Standard Variax has become a key component in the music I’m composing. The one modeled acoustic guitar tone I described earlier is amazing and totally justifies the price of this instrument for me.
I have adapted to and adopted the magnetic pickups in the Standard Variax, they can go from clean jazz to searing rock to Texas boogie and finish up in the Blues. Each magnetic pickup has a unique voice and when used together they create wonderful “ping” and “chime”. The magnetic pickups work well with all sorts of overdrive and fuzz boxes too, equal to my USA Stratocasters and that is saying a lot.
If my Variax died or was stolen overnight I’d be ordering a replacement tomorrow. It has great sounding Strat-style magnetic pickups, fat acoustic guitar tones and a bevy of digital models to help light your muse.
|Rear of Variax headstock
VARIAX STANDARD SPECIFICATIONS
Body Material; Alder
Body Finish: Gloss
Neck Material: Maple
Neck Joint: Bolt-on
Fingerboard Radius: 12”
Fingerboard Material: Ebony
Frets: 22, Medium
Scale Length: 25.5
Nut Width: 1.625
Bridge/Tailpiece: Adjustable Tremolo
Tuners: Sealed Locking
Pickups: Vintage Alnico V Single-coil
Controls: 1x volume, 1x tone, 1x model select, 1x tuning select
Strings: D’Addario, .010-.046
Thanks for reading High on Technology, Good Music to You!
©March 2021 by Mark King, It’s not ok to quote or copy without writte permission.