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Vox Virage SC

May 28, 2008
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The drawing and CAD renditions that were shown to us last summer revealed a body shape that was contoured along both its length and its width—3D contouring, if you will.

“It’ll be made from a solid piece of mahogany,” quipped Lasner during a visit we made to the Northern Califiornia facility where the Virage series was being developed.

The computerized milling machinery being installed at the time demonstrated that Lasner and crew would spare no effort in bringing a solid wood guitar to life that only existed in computerland at that point. When the Virage DC (double cutaway) and SC (single cutaway) guitars debuted at the January 2008 NAMM show, we were blown away by what we saw. Almost everything about these guitars seemed custom. The swooping lines of the chambered bodies were deliciously comfy, their finishes looked spectacular, and the DiMarzio designed and manufactured pickups with their triple blades and swirly brown plastic covers look like nothing else on the planet.

Fast forward a few months, and we finally had a Virage SC serial #1 in our hands. The Japanese-made production SC is loaded with details that set it apart from any other guitar in its price range. The shapely body houses an integral Tonebar system designed to provide the warmth of a semi-hollow with the focused attack of a solidbody. Peering through the “S” shaped soundhole, you can observe how the wood increases in thickness toward the edges to help control feedback. The sound is very lively when you strum the Virage acoustically, and its sustain is excellent. For such a compact body, the Virage pumps out impressive volume.

A glance at the hardware makes evident how few off-the-shelf components are used. Along with the “S” shaped tuner buttons—which feel so nice to turn—a significant piece of workmanship is the lightweight aluminum Full Contact bridge, which is designed to enhance harmonics, while providing precise intonation with any string gauge. The rock-solid mounting would certainly portend good things from a vibration transfer standpoint, and the structure is so resonant that you can elicit all sorts of trippy chiming sounds by picking behind the bridge, or even directly on the saddles.

Among the many intriguing aspects of the Virage are its DiMarzio-made Three-90TM pickups, which are controlled by a 3-position switch that lets you choose between Clean, Crunch, and Lead modes. A standard 3-way selector provides the usual combinations for two pickups (neck, both, bridge), and there are master Volume and Tone controls. The Virage’s trio of 3-way toggles might allude to a bit of Gretsch-style head scratching, but their functions are simple and effective, yielding a spectrum of useable tones that range from sparkling clean single-coil sounds to sassier and slightly hollower P90 tones to a full-blown humbucker roar. What these pickups deliver is way beyond the typical tapped/ split-coil sounds you get from many humbucker guitars, and the Virage responds like you’re really switching between pickups with different voicings and outputs—which essentially you are. The Volume control preserves the highs when you turn down, and the Tone knob is voiced very sweetly.

We found it virtually impossible to get anything less than happening tones from the Virage though our test amps (Mesa/Boogie 5:25 Express, Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb reissue, Savage Rohr 15, and Bad Cat ’Lil 15). Clicking through the Mode settings allows the Virage to go from clear and ringing to a full-on overdrive assault, with so many sounds in-between that it would be impossible to describe them all. The Virage doesn’t have quite the punch or bite of, say,  a high-end Gibson Les Paul—the chambered body ensures its tones are always a little softer and rounder—but its clean to moderately overdriven timbres are so warm and sweet it hardly matters. At low volumes using a Clean setting on the neck pickup, the tones are incredibly rich—like a fine archtop. Activate both pickups with the bridge set to Crunch, and the Virage produces a very cool acoustic-electric sound (not unlike what you might get from a Taylor T5) with some P90-esque gnarl ready to kick things into gritsville when you wick up the volume. There are also hip sounds lurking in the neck Lead/Crunch and bridge Clean configurations, and the Virage is very immune to hum in the single-coil modes.

In keeping with its ergonomic design, the Virage offers superb playability thanks to a moderately slim neck (the shape feels like that of an old Gibson ES-335), low action, mirror polished frets, and a perfectly cut nut that melds seamlessly into the bound edges of the fretboard. The hand-carved neck joint also sports an “inverse” heel that makes it easy to reach the high frets—even if you have smaller hands. The Virage sounds very in-tune in all regions of the neck, and that evenness and harmonic focus really enhances the overall sense of clarity and presence that you hear and feel when playing this guitar.

In all regards, the Virage is brilliantly conceived. It’s definitely a new age product loaded with innovative features, but it is also a genuine example of wood and metal craftsmanship that requires a lot of hands-on effort to make. As a new offering from a company that hasn’t made a newly designed guitar in decades, the Virage might seem like an expensive debut. But it’s clear that Vox wanted something special to launch its entry into the 6-string market, and that’s exactly what its global design and manufacturing team has delivered. The Virage is very much a custom instrument that requires a company with significant resources to produce and market while the audience for it develops. So, at this point, it’s really up to players to start using the Virage and figuring out what it’s best suited for. We think you’ll find it an inspiring guitar, and that alone may be the best reason for giving the Virage a try.

Virage Visionary Rich Lasner

During the review of the Virage, we had the opportunity to speak with Rich Lasner, who is vice president of development for Vox Guitars. A seasoned veteran of the guitar biz, Lasner has developed highly successful instruments for a number of well-known companies, including Ibanez (Vai and RG models), Yamaha (Pacifica, Weddington, and Billy Sheehan Signature), and Modulus (Flea bass). Lasner and his team—Eric Kirkland and Bob McDonald—took the Virage from concept to production in only 11 months—an amazing feat considering the complexity of its design, and the fact most of the hardware and electronic components had to be created from scratch.

What was your primary objective for the Virage? 
I wanted a guitar with character, because I’m working for Vox, and Vox amps have so much character. We had to step up to a level where a new Vox guitar has a reason to exist, and that means it had to have an identifiable voice. It drives me nuts that I can’t tell what kinds of guitars are being played on recordings these days. When I was kid listening to the Byrds, it was easy to hear a Rickenbacker 12-string. And whether it was the Beatles or Hendrix, you always knew what you were hearing. Then, it got to a point in the ’80s—and I’m sure I contributed to it—where you had no idea what guitar someone was playing. Nowadays, people have come back to using specific instruments because they want to play into what a certain guitar does.

What do you feel are the elements of the Virage that have the most character?
The solid woods and our Tonebar construction are the major character elements of the Virage. The Tonebars are carved out of the back and top, and are not extra pieces put into the body. We really resisted the block and pressed plywood idea of the Gibson ES-335. That’s a tremendous tone, but it already exists, and lots of people do it extremely well. We had this theory of tonal separation for the top three strings and the bottom three strings that was based on observations of other guitars we were listening to. We were kind of going for the violin tone-post idea, which prevents the bottom end from interfering with the top end. We just kept carving different Tone bar shapes, and eventually we came up with different shapes for the bass and treble sides that worked.

The bridge is also quite unique. How does it contribute to the sound?
We wanted the purity of tone that we perceived in guitars with wraparound bridges, such as the Gibson Les Paul Junior. The low mass of the bridge, and its direct coupling to the mounting posts are key elements, and we discovered that a degradation in tone occurred when the bridge was moved away from the posts for intonation reasons. That’s because the tips of the adjusting screws are the only contact points between the bridge and the posts. So we decided to make a bridge that was permanently coupled to the posts, and that had enough travel in the saddles to provide perfect intonation with any string gauge. That’s why we call it a Full Contact Bridge. It’s made out of solid aluminum, and it weighs less than two ounces, so it’s not a tone sink, and it transfers string vibrations extremely well.

How did you address feedback issues with the Virage?
We carve the body so that it gets progressively thicker as it moves out toward the edges. The idea is based on the same principal as surface tension on a pool of water. When you drop a stone into the water, the ripples you see are actually sound waves moving outward, and they dissipate as the surface tension of the water causes them to lose energy. If you think of a wolf tone starting to take off in a guitar, it has to first influence the top or back to start it vibrating as one plate. In our design, these wolf-tone vibrations radiate from the thinner area under the bridge to the thicker parts of the body where they quickly dissipate. So we killed the feedback problem in a different way, while still being able to keep the weight down.

You obviously put a lot of effort into the Virage’s pickups.
Yes. We wanted each of them to be able to operate like a humbucker, a P90, and a lower-output single-coil, while remaining quiet in every mode. To accomplish these things, each pickup has three coils that are wound differently, and two coils are always active. There are two magnets under the three coils, so one coil has its own magnet, and the other two coils share a magnet like a standard humbucker does. The trick for [DiMarzio pickup designer] Steve Blucher was to find three coil combinations and two magnet combinations that would yield a real humbucker sound, while also getting as close to a P90 and a single-coil as possible. He also had to always keep two coils active. Because our pickups don’t use pole magnets, we aren’t getting the kind of quack and glassiness from the single-coil setting as you get when you have the string moving in and out of a pole’s magnetic field, and that’s only thing we’re still working on. We went with the 12th iteration of the pickup for the production guitar. We said we’d do it, and DiMarzio said it could be done, but by the time we’d gotten to the seventh sample, we were all wondering if it was possible.

Vox is launching a new guitar at a price that forces it to compete with some established makers of premium guitars. How do you think the Virage will fare?
I think it’s going to take several years for it to be widely accepted, and that’s why a limited number will be built each month for the first year. The original intention was that because the handcrafted, point-to-point-wired Vox AC15 and AC30 Heritage models exist, this guitar had to be at a level where it could be handed to anyone who was using one of those amps—or something similar—and they would feel it was of the same quality and uniqueness. So instead of coming out with a mid-level guitar, we launched a premium model. Vox is happy with a limited audience for the Virage initially, and we all realize it will take time for people to come around and want this guitar. If I had started this company myself, and was building these guitars with my two guys, we’d go out of business before it caught on, and Vox is very aware of that. The Virage has to cost what it does to be what it is, but we figure it’s a really good value—but only for a select group of people who can tell the difference. The Virage is purposely not the same kind of guitar as a good PRS, Gibson, or Fender, because we want to make sure the players who use a Virage are doing so because they want to. I’ve had too much experience with companies handing out guitars like candy bars, and that’s not going to happen with the Virage.

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