Yesterday my new Variax 300 arrived in the post, ordered last weekend from Dolphin Music (they never did tell me when it was going to arrive). I’ve been playing it quite a bit since then, getting to grips with what it can do, and playing with the Line 6 Spider III 15 amp I got at the same time. I may not have had much experience with electric guitars (this is the first I’ve owned), but so far things are looking rosy.
For those who have not heard me raving about this guitar before, allow me to quickly explain what makes this guitar so different from most others you may have seen. At first glance it looks like any other electric guitar, with the red body and white pick-guard and traditional cutaway body shape. But take a second look and you’ll find something missing – the pickups. Rather than it being one guitar, this is lots of guitars in one, thanks to some clever modelling and a selector knob. Think of it a bit like the voices on a keyboard – hit the right setting and you’ll create a completely different sound. The Variax 300 has several guitars built-in, including a variety of electric guitars, some semi-acoustics, a handful of acoustics, and some fun instruments too (banjo and sitar, to name but two). It truly is one of the most versatile guitars I’ve come across.
Straight out of the box, the guitar was out of tune, but that’s no surprise. The action wasn’t bad, and the bridge adjusters weren’t all level so I’m guessing a certain amount of work was done in the factory to set up the intonation. Of course, it being a clever bit of kit, you can’t just plug it straight into an amp and start playing, you’ve got to find another power socket for the guitar transformer, which is a little box that sits on the floor. A special lead (which is supplied) plugs from the guitar to one side of the box, and a conventional jack-to-jack lead plugs from there to the amp. The special lead looks much like a normal jack-to-jack lead, except that it has an extra contact point on it for carrying power to the guitar.
Once we’re plugged in, the fun starts. Changing between guitars is quick and easy, even if the markings and names on the knob are a little confusing to begin with – to avoid copyright complications the Fender Stratocaster sound isn’t listed by that name at all, although everything is neatly explain in the manual (but who ever looks at that??). The tones seem pretty realistic, and gives plenty of scope for creating interesting sounds. The pickup selector switch actually does a variety of things depending on which guitar you have selected – sometimes it’ll do what you would expect in swapping between pickup combinations, but in some cases it switches between guitars as well; the acoustic setting on the guitar selector knob gives you five guitars depending on which pickup position you use, including three 6-strings and two 12-strings.
One of the consequences of not using traditional pickups is that lack of noise – regardless of which guitar you select, there is no discernible hiss or background hum, which is pretty impressive. The downside is that when playing through a heavily distorted amp setting there is no guitar resonance to hide your mistakes. I’ve also found that the strings don’t seem to ring on for very long, making those soaring guitar solos a little more difficult to produce. That may be resolved by a different choice of string, but I have to admit this is one of the guitars biggest failings for me.
Another small gripe is that when playing vigourously my strumming hand hits the volume knob, which is just slightly too near the strings for comfort. I’m sure this can be avoided with practice, but it’s a shame Line 6 didn’t pick up on this during development.
Something else worth pointing out is how it feels to play. Although it may sound like a Fender or a Gibson or an Epiphone or a banjo, it won’t necessarily feel like any of them when you’re playing. There is sadly no vibrato built into the bridge, and bending notes somehow seems to deaden the note, which is rather frustrating. Nonetheless, it’s a guitar that promises fun in bucketloads, and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wishes they had a room full of guitars but can only afford one!