Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Review: Line6 Variax 600

Do you remember, back in 2002 or so, when the Variax came out? Every magazine put it on its front cover, whole issues were devoted to relentlessly brown-nosing Line6, it was universally hailed as the Future of the Guitar™. We, the buying public, were told that if we did not all go out immediately buy this marvellous piece of technology, the stereotype held by all ‘serious’ guitar people (ones who write for magazines), that all guitarists are conservative luddites who want our guitars to look and play the same way they did when Noah was making a nice little earner selling Stratocasters hewn out of offcuts, would be forever proven true and that the government would have to force people to buy them under pain of imprisonment so that we could all march on to musical heaven.

Which of course was nonsense. Guitarists, as well as other musicians, are always willing to embrace new designs or technology if it’s any good. Amp modellers, transistor-amps, locking trems, peizo pickups and wireless systems were all rapidly adopted by amateurs and professionals alike, either because they were cheaper or more practical than existing options or let you make a new and interesting sound – Line6's own POD was a massive success as it made practicing, recording and even performing, much easier and cheaper. Guitarists love to push the boundaries, of sound, overall volume and acceptable behaviour, but they’ll only turn to something new if it’s any good. Which brings me to the Variax.

Well, six years down the line, I think it’s safe to say that, comrades, the revolution has been postponed. I have never seen a professional musician use one live – the closest I came was seeing a session musician backing a DJ on Jools Holland’s show using the bass version. They’re not, even with new and improved models featuring such radical new ideas as a tremolo arm and a slightly more heterosexual design, exactly flying off the shelves, and have at the most a niche market. Tellingly, no other manufacturer has attempted to produce a rival, even Yamaha, whose massive financial resources and track record in peizo systems, sampling and synthesisers would make them ideally placed to take on that market.

For those of you who this has passed by (and, to the shock of the guitar journos, that may be more than a handful of amnesiacs and recovered coma victims), the Variax is a ‘modelling’ guitar. By means of a few switches and a dial on the guitar, you can ‘call up’ any one of 25 different simulated guitars, with various pickup switching options as well. Models on offer range from Teles and Strats to resonators, acoustics, and even a sitar. So, it's a bit like a keyboard that can be a trumpet, piano or oboe depending on which button you press, you know, like in the 80's, except that it's like only offering 25 kinds of piano and maybe (gasp) a harpsichord.

But to listen to the music press at the time, it was the beginning of a whole new paradigm. With thousands of pounds worth of guitars available at the flick of a switch on an instrument costing just £700, we were all going to burn our oh-so-yesterday Les Pauls and Rickenbackers, because this was the only guitar we’d ever need. Any parallel between this and Line6’s marketing blurb, or between the content of the magazines that came out at the time and what would have happened if the mags just let Line6 write the entire issue for them while they went down the pub instead, is, of course, purely in the eye of the beholder.

A lot of guitar ‘experts’ were made to look pretty silly. A great deal of guitarists, me included, wandered down to their local guitar shop to see what all the fuss was about, played one, though “nah”, and carried on with whatever they happened to be doing. The ‘experts’ were left scratching their heads, either wondering why or castigating the guitar-playing public for failing to appreciate the genius of Line6’s marketing department, sorry, the guitar. So why didn’t it perform commercially the way they said it would?

For a start, as guitarists rapidly discovered, playing one made you look like an absolute tool. Few convincing revolutions look like a 25-year-old Danelectro design left out in the rain. Line6 had obviously decided that a ‘neutral’ look would be best, so that they could sell it to everyone. Of course, that resulted in no-one liking the design, which was uninspired and limp. Truly revolutionary guitars break new ground in design. The Strat and Les Paul, to name but two, were design classics as much as great guitars to play and listen to. The Variax looks as if it was designed by a washing machine salesman. Now I’m the first to rant against shallowness and putting image before music, but this is showbusiness, and looks are very much part of the package. Would Slash be such a legend if he had a short back and sides and wore a suit? Of course not. Now picture him playing a Variax. The problem suddenly comes into focus…

Nor will a Variax make you sound like Slash, either. Partly because Slash is way better than you, but also because you can dial in the right Les Paul and the right amp settings into your POD, but you’ll still be playing a Variax. Part of the Les Paul’s sound comes from its relatively high action, responsive fretboard and massive body sustain, and the Variax has none of these. A Les Paul sounds different from a Strat partly because it has different sound dynamics, but also because players play it differently, due to its shape, size, neck dimensions, weight and the way it responds when you play it. Whatever the knobs on the Variax tell you you’re playing, your hands tell you you’re still playing a cheap Strat, which is what the Variax feels like, and that will affect the way you play, and therefore how you sound. Slash playing a Variax wouldn’t sound like Slash playing a Les Paul, he’d sound like Slash playing a Variax that sounds like a Les Paul. And then he’d hunt down and murder anyone who had photographs of him doing it.

It seems that the geeks at Line6 were so obsessed with their modelling and clever software that they forgot they were making a guitar. This is why the music journos missed the point as well. Most of them are descended from bedroom noodlers. You know the type. Know every scale, study the theory, can disassemble and reassemble a guitar in 5 minutes flat, but lack a creative bone in their bodies and have never played in a band. I knew some at university who were technically stunning, but couldn’t even play standing up. They were often maths and engineering students, with mathematical minds that could recreate anything, learn any scale, but not break out of their own comfort zone into something new. (Apropos of nothing, they tended to like Dream Theater.) To people like this, I’m sure the Variax was very appealing – they could recreate more things, imitate more things, and the fact that they looked like a berk was irrelevant because no-one was watching. The ones who went professional became session musicians, or, more tellingly, guitar journalists.

I’m not saying for an instant that the Variax doesn’t do what it says on the tin. The sounds, by and large, sound right (except the 12-string and sitar, which are almost unlistenable), and it offers a lot of different tones, although there's nothing on offer with active pickups, or any baritones. I’m sure that if you’re in your home studio, recording advertising jingles or whatever, a Variax offers you tremendous flexibility to produce a lot of different sounds that suit whatever it is you want to record. But for anyone playing in front of actual human brings, it’s very different. Especially at the rock/metal end of the spectrum, most gigs are so loud and the sound quality so bad that any subtlety in tone is entirely lost on the audience. If you saw Zakk Wylde playing a Variax, you wouldn’t think “wow, that sounds like a Les Paul”, you’d think “Wow, I wonder what criminal organisation are holding his family hostage and forcing him to play something that makes him look like such a dweeb?”, and notice that he can’t shred because of the Variax’s middle-of-the road setup, 22 weedy frets and cheap-feeling neck.

There are other problems too, like the fact that the software can’t cope with alternative tunings and you have to pay a whole load of a lot more for the privilege of a rubbish whammy bar, but the big problem here is one of philosophy. All the Variax does is imitate that which has already come before. The truly revolutionary instruments, and I just don’t mean guitars, were those that could let you make a sound that you could never make before. Think of the truly revolutionary guitarists, the great innovators – Hendrix, Van Halen, May, Morello, Bellamy. Aside from pushing the boundaries of the guitar’s sound into uncharted territory, they all either built their own instruments or used conventional ones in a way no-one had done before. They couldn’t have done that with a Variax – it actually relies on you playing within the limits of conventional playing and technique in order to function.

The Variax could not be the future because all it did was imitate the past. It didn’t do something new, it just did something old in a way that was cheaper, but not as good, as how it could be done before. The technology and the opportunity exist today to create new sounds and ways to use them. Much as keyboard synthesisers did in the 80’s, guitar manufacturers can look at this technology not as a way of saying “how can we make this guitar sound like another one” but “how can we make this guitar sound like one that doesn’t exist?” Guitar synths have a terrible reputation gained in the 80’s, when they were unwieldy, unreliable and ludicrously expensive. But that isn’t the case now, and I think that the truly creative companies will make great strides in this direction.

So, the Variax failed to take over the world, not because guitarists didn’t want to innovate, but rather because they did.

Verdict 3/5

Your revolution is a joke.

1 comment:

hilhaf said...

Ever so hip and cool - and stupid :)