Every now and then, a piece of technology is released that addresses several consumer needs in one device. In the same way the iPhone is capable of housing a phone, still camera, video camera, web browser, and a slew of other applications in a single pocket-sized apparatus, the James Tyler Variax JTV-69US by Line 6 packs banjos, resonators, sitars, and classic electric and acoustic guitar tones into a single instrument. I recently had to fly to California for a gig with a pop artist at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Hollywood. The set was only five songs, but every song was in a different tuning and some required acoustic guitar in the verses and huge overdriven electric sounds for the choruses. In the days before the Variax, I would have had to use several different guitars to get through the set. Knowing I had all the bases covered with one JTV-69US in a gig bag when I walked on the plane was a great feeling.
In addition to the JTV-69US having a plethora of tones, the instrument itself has a great feel. The neck’s smooth, sandeddown surface translates to instant comfort. The instrument plays and responds very much like a Strat. The tremolo has a nice floaty feel, but is sturdy at the same time. The Tyler bridge, paired with the locking tuners, does a good job of keeping the guitar in tune. The instrument’s frets and metal parts are skillfully contoured and free of sharp edges.
The Model knob settings include Custom 1, T-Model, Spank, Lester, Special, R-Billy, Chime, Semi, Jazzbox, Acoustic, Reso, and Custom 2. The Custom models are fully programmable and each position on the 5-way selector can store a different guitar model and tuning. For instance, the 5-way selector can be in the bridge position and programmed to pull up a Les Paul neck pickup in baritone tuning. The next position up on the selector be an acoustic 12-string in standard tuning, and so on. The Custom bank came in handy for changing tunings during the five-song set at the Whiskey. I must confess, it was fun to watch the other guitarist in the band have to scramble to switch guitars in time for the next song’s count-off when all I had to do was flick a switch to be appropriately tuned and toned. The Lester’s bridge pickup and the Jazzbox’s neck pickup were the two most impressive tones in the JTV’s humbucker world. The neck and middle pickup together in the Spank preset delivered a clear and springy tone that worked well for chanky rhythm guitar parts. The guitar can also be connected to Line 6 Workbench for in-depth tonal editing via the Variax Digital Interface jack, which is located next to the guitar’s 1/4" jack.
Workbench launches the guitar into a completely different galaxy of possibilities by allowing you to mix and match 28 guitar bodies, 17 necks, and 17 different pickups. Want to put a P-90 bridge pickup in the neck position and stack a lipstick pickup on top of it? You can with Workbench. This kind of flexibility allows the player to experiment with tones that are otherwise not impossible. Workbench also allows you to change the position, angle, volume, and phase of each individual pickup. The guitar’s passive electronics also deliver a diverse selection of tones.
The previous generation of Variax guitars did not have real pickups. This new edition is especially handy in case you forget to charge the guitar’s lithium-ion battery. If the battery isn’t charged, you still have a traditional passive guitar to get you through your show. The passive humbucker is voiced like a PAF and is especially useful for modern rock sounds. Another cool addition to the latest generation of Variax guitars is the Alt Tune roller knob.
The Alt Tune’s knob includes tunings for standard, dropped D, half-step down, dropped Db, whole step down, DADGAD, open D, open G, reso G, open A, and baritone. One of the best aspects of the rotary tuning selector is that you don’t have to get used to different string tensions mid-set. It is pretty interesting to play a guitar that is strung up with .010s and be hearing a great-sounding baritone. Lowering a guitar with .010s twoand a half steps for B to B baritone would normally create a heap of tuning, tension, and intonation problems. Since the onboard DSP is taking care of converting the pitch of each string, the guitar’s tension and intonation stay constant.
People always want to get into arguments about how modeled gear doesn’t sound exactly like the original. In my opinion, these kinds of discussions lead to missing the big picture entirely. To have Les Paul, Strat, Tele, acoustic, 12-string, sitar, Gretsch, resonator, banjo, and many other tones—in virtually any tuning you want—in a single instrument is an incredible asset for a working musician. The JTV-69US is a scrapbook of all the quintessential classic guitar sounds, yet it simultaneously delivers virtually limitless possibilities for the guitar tones of tomorrow. For all it does, the JTV-69US earns an Editors’ Pick Award.
It’s also worth noting that a more affordable, Korean-made version of JTV-69 will be available soon.
CONTACT Line 6, (818) 575-3600; Line6.com
James Tyler Variax JTV-69US
PRICE $3,699 retail/street price N/A
NUT WIDTH 15/8"
NECK Quartersawn maple
TUNERS Sealed Hipshot Grip-Lock locking/staggered tuners (18:1 turn ratio)
BODY Hand selected alder
BRIDGE James Tyler Custom Tremolo
PICKUPS L.R. Baggs Radiance Hex piezo pickup system, vintage voiced single-coil neck and middle, alnico bridge humbucker
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Model selector, 5-way pickup selector, Alt Tune roller knob
EXTRAS Variax Digital Interface Workbench Included, two rechargeable Li-Ion battery and international charger
STRINGS D'Addario, .010-.046 set
WEIGHT 7.5 lbs
KUDOS Huge range of sounds. Instant altered tunings. Great playability.