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Review: Variax and Sweetwater

Before I delve into the Yamaha Variax Standard,....

 

Sweetwater 

I've used Sweetwater for well over a decade now.  Though I did not purchase the Variax from Sweetwater.  It was Sweetwater to the rescue.  My purchased Yamaha Variax Standard did not come with a Battery Charger.  Rather then send the Variax back and wait for a replacement I looked around locally and online for a charger.  Sweetwater to the rescue . http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/L6VBatCharge  Not only did they carry the charger separate.  They did so at a very reasonable price compared to competitors.  The story would have ended there.  I had already waited a week for the variax to arrive and had my hopes up to play it before the weekend as I work two jobs.  I'd made the purchase Wednesday Evening and thought to myself there would be no way for the free shipping of the item would land my charger until Monday.   James Masterson a sales engineer at Sweetwater, followed up after the sale letting me know when the product was shipped and provided tracking information.  It arrived at the post office on Friday (because my mail box is too small) and I was able to pick it up on Saturday.  Very fast.  Very thoughtful 

 

So on Saturday I was able to charge up the battery for my variax and get some play time in before heading off to work.  What's more is that added thing every Sweetwater customer knows.... SWEETS From SWEETWATER.   Me, I'm a happy camper I didn't need any sweets. but I had them so I gave them to a sweet gal at work.  She happily gobbled them up and had a smiled the rest of the night..   It's one of those little extra things that Sweetwater does which separates them from the crowd of online retailers.  Sales and Support have always been great with sweetwater, sweets always sweeten the deal.

 

The Yamaha Variax Standard

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There is so much to write about this instrument it's really hard to cover all the bases. So I'll cover the Body first followed by the variax modeling technology and then other personal observations regarding it all

 

The Physical

 This is the one in white which I own.  I've never owned a white guitar before. It is based on a Yamaha Pacifica Model.  Classic strat shape with few appointments. There is a forearm relief cut into the top, however no belly cut  Standard 4 bold properly joins the alder body to the maple neck. It is very much a "student" instrument.  Nonetheless it's a well fitted guitar.  The three ply pickguard fits securely to the top, joins perfectly around the neck and wraps well around the bridge plate. I have to say when I was making minor adjustments I was very impressed with the tremolo assembly. The screws for the saddles are fully recessed so as not to scrape the players palm.They turn easily and uniformly Yamaha was even considerate enough to supply the proper  Allen wrenches for the saddles and neck.  The volume and tone knobs as well as the model and tuning knobs have that traditional telecaster flat dome chrome feel.  It will never slip when you are sweating.  The maple neck sports a 25.5 scale length on a 22 fret standard C profile neck . The nut width is 1.614" with a flat radius rosewood fretboard 

 

Nitpicking:

Yes, The variax faithfully recreates all the instruments it's designed to with the sonic espressiveness that the instrument has.  However at the root of that is the articulation which comes from the performer / performance.  One of my peeves has to do with the location of the volume knob which makes strumming near the bridge a clumsy affair.  My second and biggest pet peeve has to do with the neck setup.. Take this with a grain of salt. You may not get the same setup I did.  While the frets were properly dressed and the intonation is correct the action was simply too high.  It also had excessive bow.  I straightened the neck a little and brought down the action only to find uneven frets.  Which meant I had to raise the action and apply some bow to the neck in order to escape fret buzz.  This may be an isolated incident with my guitar that may not represent Yamaha Variax standards as a whole (I'll get into this more at the conclusion)  The guitar was sold as an "open box" by a retailer known for B-stock.  Which is why I received it for 525 rather then the 800 one would expect to pay for from a reputable seller.

 

 

The Sound - Magnetics

If the battery ever fails you'll always be able to play the equipped with three passive Alnico V pickups.  I've seen the videos as well.  Surprisingly they don't sound near as dark and aggressive on my guitar then those demonstrated.  However it may be something as simple as I'm not that aggressive a player and amp settings.  That being said they are darker and more aggressive then your average strat pickups.  They are single coil pickups.  They hum, not excessively.  To my ears they sound like Dimarzio.  Yes they are more expensive then those in a Yamaha Pacifica.  Call me a cork sniffer,  Every time I look over at my Stratocaster Plus with Gold Lace Sensors I say to myself I wonder how much it would cost to swap pickups.  I do the same thing as I compare my strat neck with the Yamaha...or for that matter every guitar in my stable.  

 

The Sound - Modeled.

Every variax be they JTV or Yamaha have exactly the same modeled sounds in them.  They all have the same workbench software.  What you get with different models of JTV's be they American or off shore goes down to aesthetics.   More Guitar sounds are to be found in the Variax Workbench hardware.  It is possible as stated over and over again in Workbench videos.  You can modify / create any electric guitar using the workbench by selecting the body design then swapping pickups, adjusting the pickup placement and selecting the electronics / wiring.

 

 

 

 

Amazing recreations of the instruments they were modeled after. All the nuance is there if you can coax it out To be honest I haven't played with every model sufficiently.  Not enough time in a day and...I get sucked into one tone and lose myself.  The tone control for the acoustic instruments affects the mic position. In that regard it is both more subtle then your average electric guitar tone control 

 

Here are my responses to common questions and concerns regarding the variax.

Which one is the best?

The JTV 89 (fixed bridge)  Honestly it all comes down to weight and playability.  It's the fastest most playable model of the lot. These oddly appear to have been discontinued.  Even the 89F USA is getting rare. Plays like butter as it should.  It has the same neck profile as my Yamaha Variax standard but the attention to detail regarding the overall neck work. Is vastly superior.  If you've ever played a top of the line Ibanez RG you'll feel right at home.

 

One of the common excuses Line 6 touted about the JTV69's higher action was that in order to properly recreate the sound much goes to action of the original modeled guitars setup;  The "feel" helps with the expressive control.  Well, I've played Ric's with thier high action short scale length and they feel much more playable then the Variax standard.  I've also played some higher action jazz boxes.  It's just an excuse for poor neck work and possibly a belief held by James Tyler as he may like his action higher.  Prior to the JTV versions of the Variax it was not uncommon for many players to have transplants performed.  Taking the guts (electronics) of a Variax and placing them into a more playable instrument.  Yamaha (the current owner of line 6) would probably be able to have greater profitability  if they simply sold the electronics out to other companies then build their own.  It would be a win win  win. Yamaha cuts down production costs, Other makers get into the game with still the best modeling technology out there.  And consumers can have variax technology in a favored brand model.

 

Why do all the modeled sounds have a sameness to them?

Turn up your master volume.  If you like me live in an apartment with thin walls you are prolly playing at low output levels so as not to disturb the neighbors.  As a result your ears are getting a blend of the acoustic tone (yes even from a solid body) and the amp tone.  Also,  play around with your amp / effects settings. What we hear when we listen to recorded music is filtered guitar tone.  Effects. the amp, it's settings, the speaker cab and speakers, the placement of the mics and types of mic's the mixing board eq and post processing even the type of analog tape used to record and the delivery process (vinyl, cassette, radio, digital compression) all effect the final tone.  Line 6 can only capture the guitar's character, it can't capture the performers character of performance nor all the other things which make up the tone.

 

The Spank Model Doesn't sound like "my strat"

Eric Clapton's strat doesn't sound like Eric Claptons strat,,, what's your point?  EC has played many stratocaster guitars over the years. [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brownie_(guitar)] "Brownie"[/url] doesn't sound exactly like Blackie

Which doesn't sound like his 80's fender signature sporting lace sensors, which also doesn't sound like his current signature guitar that features fender N4 noiseless pickups. One important note about early pickup windings.  They usually didn't have counters to to count how many winds the copper had around the bobbin. If someone operating the machine lost count they'd guess.  This resulted in some single coils having more winds which produced a "hotter/darker" sound and some were under wound producing a "quieter/brighter" tonality.  This wasn't limited to single coil production.  The famous "Peter Green" Les Paul sound that was slightly out of phase was a result of improperly placing the magnet in.  It was a factory oversight.  To be honest if you want a noiseless single coil sounding pickup that properly reflects the tone without the noise... It's in there.  If you long for single coil noise you can always switch to the magnetic pickups or blend the magnetic sound with the modeled sound (via Workbench HD software)

 

Why does the guitar jump volumes when switching instruments?

If you want to faithfully recreate a specific guitars sound then you also have to faithfully recreate it's output.  That's "Keeping things real"

 

Why don't they have more guitars and pickups?

Well they do but those are in the workbench HD software. No it's not every brand of ever model imaginable.  Sure I'd love it if they modeled a Parker Fly or a Ibanez Satriani or various other guitars and pickups

 

I only get 10 custom slots?

Actually no. All 60 slots can have custom modified guitar sounds  Which you can load from Workbench HD.  You can swap either an entire 60 at a time or as few as one fairly easily.  It took me about 3 minutes to load the entire collection. YMMV depending on your computer setup.

 

I get clipping

More then not it may relate to sending the guitar signal out to an input where the trim is set to high.  (Just like what would occur with any other guitar. Other reasons include playing too thick strings too aggressively.  The obvious answer is to use the gauge strings Line 6 advises and not play like a thrash metal idiot.  If you are still getting clipping consider using Workbench HD and lowering the individual string volumes or simply reducing the volume on the volume control.

 

Warbling

 

 

Yes I to get the warbling effect while playing harmonics on the acoustic 12 string. It's the only one I can reproduce the warble effect and the only way.

I've got the latest in Variax technology Workbench HD 2.0 and while it's improved the overall virtual instrument quality this quirk though minor is still present.

 

Final Thoughts

Before the advent of JTV there was a great deal of interest in Variax guitars yet minimal sales.  Line 6 sold less then 1000 variax guitars.  Many of which where transplanted due to mostly visual appeal and secondarily to play-ability.  JTV's did what the old 00 variax models didn't.  Capture the imagination and present the instrument in a visually pleasing form.  Mostly by just adding magnetic pickups.  There was always something holding me back from purchasing the original Variax series of guitars and later ones including the JTV line.  Yes played them all in stores and still walked away from the deal.  The yamaha variax standard offered a new hope.  Mostly in regards to the body style and play-ability of the Pacifica neck of which I've owned a Pacifica in the past. After a few days of constant tweaking I've finally got the neck into playable shape. Making minor adjustments to the truss rod and the bridge saddles.  One thing I've noticed about the JTV 69 (strat) is that many guitarists are swapping necks.  Yamaha has spent most of it's time focusing on Line 6 amplifier and effects lineup.  It's also borrowed back and is evident in the THR series amps which... I love.  The dedication and re invigoration to developing technologies especially yamaha's point to point  modeling has brought line 6 back on top of the Amplifier modeling market with Helix.  While I find the Variax a complete solution with little need to advance.  (it's near perfect) I hope Yamaha's enthusiasm isn't lost on helix / thr and some of it can come back to advancing Variax technologies.  One need not look to far into the past to see Yamaha dropping the ball on many an acquired project.  Such as when they acquired the Charvel/Jackson line and due to poor oversight dropped the quality and sales.  It wasn't until Fender acquired Charvel / Jackson from Yamaha that the guitar was revitalized to it's full potential.   Over the last few days I've been making adjustments to my Variax setup with hopes that it would play better.  Yes it plays much better then when I first received the guitar but it's still a far cry from...every guitar I currently own and many I've had in the past.. including Pacifica's.  Granted I'm a stickler for action, the average joe/jane guitarist would be rather satisfied with it.  Enough Whining....

 

It's taken me much longer to write this review simply because... I pick it up and play something then I can't stop finding songs to play.  I love the tone and I love the expressive responsiveness.  Magical.  I'd prolly not even bothered writing the review had I not struggled with the neck so much.... I'd be too busy playing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Just caught up with this review. I thought to find it on the forum. It has certainly triggered my interest. Thanks Mike.

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Hey Mike,

I've just re-read the review in light of the 'Flaxwood thread'. There is a discrepancy. Nut width here is 1.614" (41.mm) whereas on the forum you quote 41.9mm.

 

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