Old-school Socal electric guitar building meets 21st-century Line 6 modeling technology
Senior Editor, Harmony Central
[Editors Note: This review previously appeared in a somewhat different form on Harmony Central. Since original publication, the Line 6 JTV-89 Variax is no longer available at Musician’s Friend.]
Line 6 has always been a leader in digital amp and effects innovation, and in 2003 they broke new ground when they released the original Variax, their first instrument sporting onboard modeling. The original was hailed as a technological marvel, providing realistic emulations of different guitars with various pickup configurations. For the latest evolution of the Variax, Line 6 partnered with established luthier James Tyler to create an instrument that is first and foremost a guitar—playable on a pro level, sonically authentic, and beautifully built.
While retaining all the technological innovation of the originals (and sporting improvements to the battery, processor, and hex pickups), the JTV-59, JTV-69, and JTV-89 are more traditional in their physical design than their predecessors, and—very important—are stunning examples of guitarmaking, worthy of bearing the name of the revered southern California luthier.
My review unit was the JTV-59, the single-cutaway, two-humbucker solidbody with a mahogany body, carved maple top, and a set mahogany neck (24-9/16" scale-length) with a 22-fret rosewood fretboard. Courtesy of the rounded Tyler ’59 neck profile and well-shaped neck heel, the JTV-59 feels and plays like the high-quality guitar it is. There are four knobs, two being dedicated Tone and Master Volume knobs, and when using just the magnetic pickups (ignoring for a moment the modeling aspects), the three-way pickup switch operates in the usual scheme. So “normal” is this guitar that you could swap out the pickups with your favorite aftermarket brand without messing up the modeling functions.
Two additional knobs control the modeling functions, and that’s where the magic lies. The Guitar Model Selector accesses the 25 onboard models, while the Alternate Tuning knob allows you to choose among 11 different tunings—with just the flick of a knob. The JTV comes preloaded with a variety of classic models (acoustic and electric) and common alternate tunings, and through Variax Workbench software, you can create and store your own. More on that later.
Turning the Model Selector allows you to go instantly from a vintage 1960 Telecaster to a ’59 Strat to a ’57 Les Paul to a ’59 Gretsch 6120. It’s important to understand these iconic model names are not used casually as mere approximations or descriptions; these were the actual guitars Line 6 used to capture all the qualities of not just how different guitars sounded, but how they behaved. They measured the complex interactions of vibrating strings, pickups, and resonant bodies, then placed them inside a really killer guitar. It’s an inspiration to be offered such diverse tonal choices from the same guitar.
The modeled guitars go beyond six-string electrics too. Some of the onboard sounds include 12-string guitars. Line 6 doesn’t provide just a generic electric and acoustic 12-string, but a 1966 Rickenbacker 360-12 (with two pickup selections), a 1970 D12-28, and a 1966 Guild F212 jumbo. Folk and traditional instruments, such as a 1935 Dobro Model 32, a Coral Sitar, and a 1928 National Tricone, are also included.
A key difference between the JTVs and earlier models is that you now have your alternate tuning selections available right on the guitar. The guitar comes with 11 tunings preloaded, including Drop D, Open D, Open G, DADGAD, 1/2-Step Down (great for Hendrix and S.R.V.!), Whole Step Down, Baritone (a fourth down), and more.
Having alternate tunings so readily available is extremely useful. Here are just a few ways to use them: Change keys quickly to suit your voice. Provide a low single-note riff in Baritone guitar mode. Use the “virtual capo” approach to create and preserve idiomatic figures in one key while the band plays in another. Go from standard tuning in the chorus to Open E or Open A for a slide solo. Play an Open D acoustic 12-string intro before switching to standard-tuned Les Paul for the verse. And if you’re not quite sure whether a fingerstyle arrangement will lay better in DADGAD, G Modal, or Open D, the JTV lets you flip effortlessly among several tunings to find the best one.
It’s all about connections
All Line 6 products have excellent connectivity and computer support, and the JTV is no exception. An onboard network-style port and included VDI cable allow you to hook up any JTV to a POD HD series multi-effects pedal, allowing you to change both effects settings and guitar models/tunings with one press of a footswitch. If you also own a Line 6 DT25 or DT50 amp, you can connect the guitar, multi-effects, and amp, so that one stomp changes setups on all three—including the analog tube audio path in the amplifier!
The Variax Workbench software allows you to custom design your own instruments and tunings, choosing from 28 body styles (including solidbodies, semis, hollows, acoustics, resonators, and 12-strings, both acoustic and electric), 32 pickups, seven volume knob resistance settings (in ohms), eight capacitance values (in farads), and two volume tapers (linear and audio). It’s great to be able to conjure up a “dream guitar,” and then swap out, say, a Lester Custom Bridge for a Mini Humbucker Bridge.
In the James Tyler Variax guitars, Line 6 has presented a line of guitars that are first and foremost pro-level guitars—capable of meeting the demands of the most exacting player, in playability, tone, and aesthetics. Add to that the modeling and tuning features, and you have a powerful sonic tool, all in a single instrument. If you’re a multi-style guitarist or are in a situation where different sonic textures are called for, the JTV-59 is the single and indispensable guitar for you.
For a pro-level guitar that sports the best in modeling and alternate-tuning technology, check out the James Tyler Variax guitars from Line 6. Order today from Musician’s Friend and get our 45-Day Total Satisfaction and Lowest Price Guarantees.