Australia’s twelve foot Ninja regularly charts millions of views for its YouTube videos, but I doubt the band’s rabid fans are aware that Steve “Stevic” MacKay’s mercilessly bombastic guitar tone often shifts into several completely different tunings within a single song.
“I actually applied for a Guinness World Record for the most tuning changes in a commercially released song,” says MacKay. “This is fair dinkum. I’m serious. I realized one of our songs changes tunings 18 times, and I thought, ‘That has to be some sort of record.’”
Obviously, that many tuning changes doesn’t happen without technology in the mix, and MacKay has used Line 6 Variax guitars for every electric-guitar sound you hear on every Twelve Foot Ninja release. He now has his signature model—the Shuriken—which he usually pairs with a Line 6 Helix. While the Variax has been around for nearly 15 years—we ran a cover story about the debut in our March 2003 issue—MacKay has to be one of the most fearlessly creative sonic mad scientists to deploy the technology for tone construction.
What got you so immersed in this thing?
My story is no different than any other guitar player on the planet. I spent an inordinate amount of time challenging myself to do the things everyone does. When I moved into doing sessions, however, I found my inspiration would wane after I’d retune, restring, and go through my guitars to find the right tone. With the Shuriken, I can manipulate things in real-time that would not be possible otherwise. I could ask myself, “What would this song sound like with a Coral sitar, a P-90 sitting on the neck angled at a diagonal, and the whole thing tuned to Am11?” And I could literally do that at the speed that I just said it. That’s Harry Potter stuff!
But you really go off into some crazy-ass realm of Star Trek/ Harry Potter techno wizardry with your tonal explorations.
[Laughs.] The Star Trek stuff is probably the rapid and disparate tunings. I’ve also redefined the fretboard where I can finger a chord pretty easily that would take a six-fret stretch on a conventional guitar. Then, I like to set up strange tunings to approach improvisation with a fretboard that’s totally alien to me. I believe the moment you remove what you know, you immediately become more creative—even if there’s a short moment of fear of the unknown.
Obviously, you can deploy Variax technology until the tones don’t sound anything like a conventional guitar. Should we care?
I don’t think we should care. It’s all about results. Ultimately, it’s just different colors to paint with. But the future of where the technology will go is the exciting part, because there is no ceiling. I think of it like this: We’re looking at 8K UHD resolution on video screens right now, and, someday, the resolution will be the same as reality. So what happens when you can turn on a video wall and have a beach? Will it make your brain feel like you’re there? We’ll also be able to replicate every guitar tone ever made with technology. At that point, all that’s left is some sort of philosophical stance. For me, I’m all for the future and what it brings. This is not a threat to guitar. It’s just a really nifty way to create stuff.