Great uses for the Line 6 Variax!
Line 6 unleashed the Variax over a decade ago. At first, it may have seemed like a gimmick, but now it’s a brilliant instrument that countless musicians are embracing.
During the first round of Variax guitars, Line 6 made acoustic, electric, and bass models. Today, the latest range of HD Variax guitars are strictly electric 6-string guitars. No acoustic. No bass. However, don’t fret because there’s a lot the Variax can do. For starters, the modeling system comes with 5 different acoustic guitar sounds: Jumbo, Dreadnought, and Parlor, with 2 of these models featured in 12-string versions as well. Also, the Variax can designate pitch adjustments for each individual string. Thus, you can drop the guitar’s virtual tuning down a whole octave and use it as a bass for some projects. For those who aren’t familiar, virtual tuning means you aren’t actually tuning the guitar. The guitar remains in standard tuning, but the sound coming out can be any variety of alternate tunings within the range of one octave up and one octave down. Great stuff! Electric guitar models are customizable: Choose a body type, pickups, angle the pickups, adjust the pot responses and gain levels, and more. All of these settings are created through the Variax Workbench software.
So let’s talk about that first. The tunings!
Changing the tuning of your guitar can result in string tension issues. Lowering the tuning too much will cause the string to loosen and droop, perhaps even fall off the guitar! Raising the tuning too high will tighten the string tension and potentially break the string. The remedy has always been to custom string a guitar. However, that can be a hassle! Folks like Mark Tremonti who use a variety of tunings have typically kept a slew of guitars backstage to swap out between songs. Variax resolves that – it’s the one guitar that holds all tunings.
Some people think of the tuning option as a way of utilizing popular open tunings. However, there’s more to it than that, and if you’re a creative person, you’ll find all kinds of great tuning ideas and invent your own tunings like John Rzeznik of Goo Goo Dolls. There are simple uses, too! Baritone guitar? No problem, drop the entire guitar down to the baritone range. Bass guitar? Sure! Go down a whole octave. Now, I wouldn’t suggest replacing a great bassist with a guitar player who’s playing a pitch-shifted 6-string, but in the studio in a pinch the Variax can lay down very convincing basslines. In fact, I run mine through my Line 6 Helix with bass cabinet settings, and it works great directly into my studio recordings.
Perhaps you’re an extended range player who likes 7 or 8 string guitars. The Variax won’t simulate MORE strings, but you can shift the tuning to emulate that range. In a recording situation, two separate settings can be used (and switched rather quickly) to allow for the simulation of a larger range of strings. Imagine it! Switch to a tuning 2 whole steps lower and run through that heavy killer riff you wrote. Turn the knob a single click over, and you’re ready for that solo. What’s more, this can be achieved live by simply assigning your Helix (or similar Line 6 Variax-friendly processor) to switch the guitar’s settings at the push of a button on the floor. Great stuff!
Some people miss the days of the ol’ Variax acoustic guitars. Whatever the reason for Line 6’s abandoning that series, there’s still hope. You’re the singer/songwriter who gigs with one or two acoustic guitars and a capo. These are your tools of the trade. With the Variax, you can set it up to be entirely acoustic guitar settings. All acoustic guitars. Any tuning. Ditch that capo, you can now setup patches within your guitar to feature raised tunings. Setup 6-string and 12-string guitars. The possibilities are endless. Sure, you aren’t showing up to that acoustic gig with an acoustic guitar, but the audience doesn’t care. They care about what they hear, not what they see. The guitar is still pretty! In the end, you’ve given a versatile performance that makes for a fun experience, too.
So how many patches does the Variax have?
By default, Variax has 2 custom banks, and 10 banks for types of guitars. Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, Acoustic, and lots more. They are labeled as “groups,” but let’s throw labels out the window for a moment. Digitally speaking, these are saved banks. On a processor, a bank is a group of usually 4 or more patches. What is a patch? A channel on the board which features a variety of settings. How does this apply to the Variax? The Variax has 12 banks, and within each is 5 channels. The channels are represented by and controlled by the 5-way pickup selector on the guitar. By default, this switch is emulating different pickup settings on a standard Strat, Les Paul, etc.
So what if a single Variax was custom setup with complete disregard for the default guitar models?
First, save all of your original defaults with the Variax Workbench software. You may want to put your guitar back to normal one day! Now break down the math… 12 banks total. 5 individual patches per bank. You have 60 guitars at your disposal. Electric guitars, acoustic guitars, … and tuning! Don’t forget, Line 6 also included a few other gems like the Danelectro guitars with their composite bodies, banjo, chambered guitars like the dobro, and even a sitar. That’s a lot of options! Even the greatest guitarists out there don’t tour with 60 guitars. I know what you’re thinking… “How do I remember which setting is which?? There’s no screen on the guitar.” There are a few ways around this, too. If you have a Line 6 Variax-compatible effects processor, this is the easiest way. Save each song as a patch on the processor and set it up to change the sound of the Variax automatically. This is the worry-free method. The old-fashioned method is also not terribly hard: Write the setting next to the song title on your setlist. So when it’s time to play that Ellis Paul song in open B tuning, just reference your setlist to see that you wrote, “Acoustic, bridge pickup.” This is the acoustic bank area in the Variax’s memory, and the bridge pickup setting is really the patch. 2 clicks and you’re there. I think it takes Ellis Paul longer to change his guitar’s tuning during a show!
I own 3 Variax guitars. Granted, they are the older models, but I love them. So why three? I use one for live shows, so those 60 banks are setup the way I would like the guitar to perform live. Another one is used for recording. I set that up with whatever sounds I’m using in the songwriting and recording process. Then there’s the last one, which I think is a lesser-appreciated use: TEACHING.
I’ve been teaching professionally for over 22 years. Don’t get me wrong, I started teaching at a young age. I’m still young! (I’d like to think so, anyway.) Still, I’ve taught exclusively in music schools for all of those years. My first teaching gig came up when I was hired by a local music school owner who saw something in me. The late (and great) world-renowned accordionist Carmen Carrozza had given me my first teaching job and encouraged me years later to keep at something that I turned into a full-time job. Carmen Carrozza was one of America’s premiere concert accordionist for years and years and years. Great guy, too! While we don’t think of accordion as a “cool” instrument, he would have LOVED the Variax as a guitarist. Why? Carmen once purchased a MIDI-accordion. The darn thing played just like a regular one, but with the MIDI output and a processor he could produce all sorts of sounds from orchestral strings to horns to piano. Brilliant! He was the first one to really show me that music is just music and instruments need not anchor us down. Line 6 pulled the anchors up when they made the Variax.
So how has Variax become such a valuable teaching tool?
Most teachers are content teaching on only a classical guitar, or just a steel-string acoustic guitar, or only an electric guitar. Some teachers bring a different one of the 3-basics to cater to each student. I discovered along the way that the Variax had potential here. Students aren’t just learning about music, they are learning about their instrument. Our job as teachers is to pass all of our knowledge onto our students and enlighten them about the world of guitar. We do have to tweak each class. Young students aren’t ready for effects yet, and even some older students up to adult ages don’t show an interest. That’s just the thing, however! Since each student is different, we need more variety. The Variax provides even more ammo for the teacher to use.
Many times I’ve had students ask, “What’s a banjo sound like?” I’ve never owned one let alone had one around the school to demonstrate. In fact, in a school of 35+ teachers, I only know of ONE banjo instructor, and he’s in a different building than mine. I can’t race to borrow his just to answer a short question. Thus, armed with Google image search and my trusty Variax I can tell the student all about the banjo. (I live in the south in America, by the way. The banjo inquiry comes up quite often!) I’ll show an image of the banjo, and play the sound on my Variax. The same goes for the sitar. I know what you’re thinking, “How often can THAT come up??” More often than you’d expect. While I live in North Carolina, the surrounding area around my school is about 1/3 Indian and growing. Many of my students have actually heard of a sitar, and a few have seen one in real life. They are quietly intrigued when my guitar can produce the same sound. A spark of excitement appears in their eyes as they come to realize, “wait, I’m learning guitar, but one day I could actually make this sound, too? Nice!”
We have a term that appears in the music world often: Tone-deaf.
This is a nemesis for all instruments, as we need to learn to use our ears. The worst students who suffer from tone-deafness are the voice students. There’s something dreadfully difficult about being a voice teacher with a student who is tone-deaf.
About that word, though…
A tone is described and often defined as a sound, so in a sense, a note is a sound or a tone. However, in the music world we can’t have confusion! We refer to notes as pitches, and tone as more of the quality of sound – treble, bass, warmth, bite, etc. That’s tone. A note is a tone if we’re speaking about semitones and whole tones, or scales. There is confusion out there considering how these words are interchanged. I, along with many of my fellow teachers, believe that a better term is: Pitch-deaf.
(After all, the guitar doesn’t have a pitch knob, it has a tone knob.)
So pitch-deafness is more of what we consider when we think tone-deaf. The person cannot discern one note from another. These folks don’t dislike music, they just hear it differently and cannot copy the notes by humming them in their head. My dad was tone, I mean, pitch-deaf. He’d put that radio on every morning while drinking his coffee and when he started humming his son (who wasn’t quite a musician yet) had to endure dear ol’ dad’s off-key humming. Painful!
So tone-deafness, is that a thing if the term should be coined pitch-deafness? Yes, it is, actually. I had tone-deafness when I was learning guitar. I started out with a cheap $100 Ibanez acoustic guitar which didn’t really play well or sound great. I loved it because it was a guitar, but we broke up a year later when I started a torrid love affair with my Hamer Classic 6-string electric. My teacher taught me on a Les Paul. He’d play a chord, I’d play the same chord, the two chords sounded very different to my ear. We played the same notes, and I recognized it! What was I hearing? I was hearing the difference between the unique “voice” that each of our guitars had. I still had to learn pitches, too, but because our guitars didn’t sound the same, I felt a slight bit of discouragement when I played. His guitar “sounded better” than my guitar. Not fair, right?
I’ve encountered thousands of students over the years. Many of them run into the same obstacle that I did. The solution? My Variax! I will adjust the guitar type on my guitar to match the student’s guitar as closely as possible. Very few of my students notice differences now. They feel like our guitars do sound quite similar. I appreciate how Line 6 has provided me with a valuable teaching tool that has helped my students learn in a way I would not have considered before buying the guitar. I hope other teachers can learn from this experience, too!
The only sound the Variax doesn’t produce right now is a good classical acoustic guitar sound. I’m not sure how possible it is, but I have my hopes. Perhaps we’ll see that in a future model or firmware update? One can dream!
Slide side note:
Impulse response settings on the Helix have provided fantastic classical guitar sounds with ANY guitar. A win, to say the least. If you have questions about how impulse responses work, where to find them, or how to set them up on the Helix you can write me or do a little browsing on the Line 6 forums.
Line 6 likes to target the real players out there when marketing the Variax. Their website always shows performers playing through a dreamy Line 6 rig (wireless, Variax, effects, amp, etc.) and we think, “Hmmm, maybe. Maybe.” Or perhaps you’re like me and think, *drooool* Either way, I believe there’s more than meets the eye with the Variax. This guitar is great live, it’s fantastic in the studio, and it’s incredibly useful (and underrated) as a brilliant teaching tool. When I get around to purchasing one of the new Variax, perhaps I’ll do an updated review or a comparison review of the improvements between old and new.
Thanks, Line 6! We’re loving these guitars.
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