Ovation VXT Hybrid

Lots of us remember the image of Rush’s Alex Lifeson playing an acoustic guitar supported by a stand for the pretty intro to “The Trees.” After playing the fingerpicked part, Lifeson would step away, and crush the song’s distorted power chords on his electric. It was a cool, if somewhat complicated, way to cover both acoustic and electric textures in the same song without missing a beat. Many manufacturers over the years have tried to give guitarists the best of those two worlds in a single instrument. Some—such as Hamer, Fender, Parker, and PRS—have gone the route of putting a piezo bridge on an electric guitar. More recently, Taylor has taken the opposite tack, conjuring electric tones from an acoustic.

Now, Ovation, a company that probably electrified more acoustics than anyone, is turning the tables on themselves with the VXT Hybrid Guitar—a chambered electric that can crank out acoustic timbres as well as blend between the two.

Although known for its acoustic guitars, Ovation has dipped the company toe in electric waters before with the Viper, the righteous Deacon and Breadwinner, and others. The VXT, however, has nothing in common with those models, aside from the headstock. This new Ovation starts with a spectacular, one-piece chambered mahogany body. The back is beveled in a fashion similar to the Contour Bowl on their LX series acoustics for a comfortable fit, sitting or standing. Ovation went with a solid spruce top that contributes to the VXT’s acoustic tone and resonant quality. The neck is also a one-piece mahogany affair with a super-comfortable shape. The neck and back are stained a deep red, and the top is totally buffed out in a beautiful, high-gloss sunburst. The only thing that detracts from the cosmetics is the rosewood fingerboard, which looks dry and parched next to the rest of the wood. The electronics consist of a pair of Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers and a Fishman Power Bridge, with a Master Volume knob, a Blend control, and a Tone knob (for the magnetic pickups only).

The chambered body and spruce top make for a loud and lively acoustic tone, and the VXT fills a room much like an unplugged ES-335. The most striking aspect of the unamplified tone, however, is the amazing sustain the guitar possesses. The hangtime on chords and single notes is really remarkable. This has to be due, in large part, to the way the VXT’s neck is set. Having witnessed a neck fitting at Ovation’s Connecticut factory, this is a meticulous, precise process in which the neck pocket is shaved away 1/1000th of an inch at a time, ensuring an absolutely airtight coupling with no filler whatsoever. That said, there’s a considerable amount of space between the low E string and the edge of the fretboard compared to the high E string, which is extremely close to the fretboard’s edge. This didn’t cause any playing problems for me, but it looks a little strange.

Amping up the VXT gives rise to a few routing options for the ’59s and the Power Bridge. In Mono Mode (selected with a small slider switch on the battery compartment on the back), both magnetic and piezo signals are output via a standard q" cable, and mixed with the Blend knob. Switching to Stereo Mode allows you to route the ’59s to an electric amp, and the Power Bridge to a P.A. or acoustic amp with the included stereo Y-cable. In this mode, the Blend knob functions as a pan pot.

I tested the Ovation through a Marshall DSL 401 combo, a Mesa/Boogie Lonestar Special combo, and a Budda 10th Anniversary Reissue Twinmaster. I also ran the Power Bridge tones into an SWR California Blonde, and recorded them direct into Cakewalk Sonar.

On the electric side, the VXT is a definite ass-kicker, with punchy, throaty tones that are similar to what you might expect from a two-humbucker mahogany guitar. There are, however, a couple of twists. The chambering lends airiness, and the spruce top makes for a mellow high end, giving the VXT a warm, balanced sound. Clean and semi-clean tones are full and articulate. Again, the VXT’s sustain is a real showstopper, and at even slightly elevated volume and gain settings, this thing sings all day long. The tonal options of the magnetic pickups are hamstrung just a bit by the fact there’s only the Master Volume knob. Don’t get me wrong—both pickups sound great alone or in tandem, but it sure would be cool to have separate volume controls to vary the ratio of the two.

On the subject of tonal options, Ovation is trading on their vast acoustic legacy by imbuing the VXT with faux-acoustic timbres via the Fishman Power Bridge and the VIP (Virtual Image Processing) preamp, which is based on Fishman’s Aura system. To access the acoustic tones, just rotate the Blend knob fully counterclockwise. Rolling the Blend control clockwise will begin to bring in the magnetic pickups, with the center detent representing a 50/50 split. Initially, I auditioned the Power Bridge sounds through the clean channels of the electric amps. The tone was pleasing and musical, but not particularly acoustic sounding, and, into the Budda, it had a slightly nasal, resonator-like quality. The tone was cool and usable, however, and the headroom was indeed impressive. There is virtually no piezo quack or splatter—even when you really dig in.

To get the most out of the Power Bridge tones, I plugged into the SWR acoustic amp, which brought in more high end (thanks to the amp’s tweeter) for increased shimmer and zing. However, the SWR accentuated the piezo tone, and minimized the effect of the VIP, which is meant to simulate the sound of a miked acoustic. The balance between piezo and mic image is preset at the Ovation factory (to approximately 70 percent piezo), and can’t be adjusted. I’d love to hear what would happen if it were possible to favor the VIP tone more.

The real fun begins when you enter Stereo Mode and route the acoustic and electric tones to separate amps. Setting the electric amp dirty, and the acoustic amp clean reveals a bunch of great tonal shadings, with subtle tweaks to the Blend control bringing out more acoustic clarity or singing overdrive. In the studio, I got great results by miking the Marshall combo, while simultaneously tracking the piezo tones direct. I left the Blend control in the center detent position, and adjusted the two tracks in the mix for some intriguing timbral shifts and layers. The Power Bridge tones were not “acoustic” enough to truly stand on their own as such, but they were nice additions to the mix.

The VXT is definitely more evolutionary than revolutionary, and, in its price range, there are plenty of great guitars to choose from. However, the VXT is an American-made guitar that’s built in the same factory as upscale Hamer models, and that level of quality and attention to detail definitely rubs off. The electric player who wants to do an acoustic tune, and the acoustic guitarist who takes the occasional distorted solo both have a new option with the VXT.

To hear the VXT in action, click to GuitarPlayer.TV!