Variax Workbench allows anyone with a computer and a jones to create ultra-personalized guitars the ability to mix-and-match 28 guitar bodies (electric and acoustic) and 17 pickup types, place the pickups just about anywhere, conceive custom tunings, and more. All of this happens via an included USB interface, and, thanks to the multiple outputs of the Variax guitars, you can immediately audition the results of your design schemes through your favorite amp.
Now, I’m painfully aware that I don’t have even one single molecule of the guitar-making genius of Leo Fender, Les Paul, Ted McCarty, or Paul Reed Smith, but playing with Workbench did help me realize some of the giddy joy those cats must have experienced as they were dreaming up their designs. And whether Les would scoff at my choices of bodies and pickups or not, I’m having a blast being a virtual guitar designer.
And I can actually feel like a designer because the Variax guitar emulations are extremely credible and musical. My rockabilly model, for example, possesses the resonant zing of my fave Guild X-160, but as translated through my choice of a chunky P-90 and a snappy Tele pickup. I was even able to experience the sense of “alive-ness” that Frank Zappa talked about after he mounted a Barcus-Berry pickup on the neck of his Strat by placing a lipstick pickup in the middle of a Les Paul neck. Wild!
Things can get wackier if you’re brave (or foolish) enough to fool with your guitar’s controls. Workbench lets you mess with the pot resistance and taper of the Volume knob, as well as the resistance and capacitance of the Tone knob. I have no idea what these terms mean—and I was too embarrassed to ask Senior Editor (and GP gear guru) Art Thompson for some schoolin’—but I dug the timbral colors I could achieve by futzing with the values. And this is the true genius of Workbench: You don’t have to know anything about body types, pickup characteristics, or pot values. You can just click on a sonic element, hear what it does, and decide whether it fits into your view of bitchin’ tone.
Workbench supports all Variax series guitars, but as the 600 is the latest model we received, we used it to run the software through its paces. The guitar emulations and programmability for all Variaxs is identical, so the differences between models are matters of materials and playability. The 600 offers a solid feel, well-dressed frets, and a lacquered maple neck that invites rhythm bashing and speedy runs, but it’s really not much different from the 300 and 500, as all are lightweight 252"-scale, 22-fret instruments. Line 6 hasn’t expanded much beyond this very serviceable theme to date, although the top-end 700 has a lovely carved top. The company’s Director of Instrument Product Lines, Rich Lasner, has hinted that more ambitious designs may appear in the future, and I believe some diversity would convert players who are loathe to abandon their semi-hollowbodies, hollowbodies, much heftier models, or more bizarro silhouettes.
If you haven’t read our reviews of the original Variax (July ’03) or the Variax acoustic (October ’04), rest assured that you should have few sonic beefs with the 600. For the most part, the simulations are uncanny. Various staffers had reservations about the aural accuracy of the 12-string emulations and some of the acoustic models, but most everyone cheered the veracity of the different electrics. If you could get an audience to close its eyes, you’d definitely fool them into thinking you were switching between a smorgasbord of guitars. Yeah, the illusion is really that good.
For players in cover acts, one-man-banders negotiating several styles on cruise ships or other specialty shows, recording guitarists, or harried types who play in multi-textured groups that demand a gaggle of tones for each song, a Variax is hard to beat. You simply program your different
guitars and/or different tunings, and you’re done: a Les Paul in standard tuning on one knob position, a Telecaster in DADGAD on another knob position, and so on. (Of course, your guitar is still in “actual” standard tuning when you switch to a “virtual” alternate tuning, so wearing headphones and monitoring only the alternate tuning helps avoid confusion when recording, as does having your amp louder than the acoustic sound of the Variax when performing live.)
I can’t imagine a more versatile tone-construction kit than a Variax Workbench and a Variax guitar. The duo puts an aural rainbow in your hands, and the sounds you can devise are only slightly limited by technology. In other words, you pretty much have only yourself to blame if you can’t ferret out a singular, mesmerizing tone from these tools. And if you match these babies up with your favorite modeling amp or processor, you’ll truly know the dizzying omnipotence of absolutely awesome sonic power. If used and abused with impunity, Variax Workbench could usher in yet another period of tonal excursions. So don’t be meek, unless you’re gonna be Joe Meek.