These are incredible times for guitar players.
Whether your tastes run to a cool PRS, the amazing
high-tech offerings from Line 6, Gibson, and
Roland, a traditional Strat or Les Paul, or any of the
latest creative efforts from companies like Ibanez,
you’re covered. Tubes are back if you’re into tubes,
analog effects have regained their rightful place
alongside multi-effects, amps keep pumping up the
volume, MIDI guitar continues to evolve, and amp
sims—aided by more powerful computers and more
precise algorithms—are reaching new heights in
authenticity, tone, and cost-effectiveness.
This roundup takes a look at some of the latest
goodies for guitarists, and there are certainly
plenty. So keep reading, keep picking, and keep up
your quest for the ultimate tone. Given all of the
options, you know it’s out there somewhere!
|You can’t tell by this picture, but you could probably drop this pedal multiple times, and it would still survive.
$449 MSRP, $400 street
The Backstory The electric guitarist’s
quest is the quest for tone—the elusive quality
that ties wood, pickups, strings, amp, and
speakers into a cohesive whole. When the
electric guitar was born, tubes went along
for the ride as they contributed warmth, an
emphasis on second-harmonic distortion,
and the ability to distort with elegance when
you wanted to get gritty.
Then the Great Tube Drought hit, as
the world of electronics went solid-state.
Products like Tech 21’s SansAmp and
Peavey’s TransTube amps showed that
it was possible to get pretty tube-y with
solid-state, but they also showed there
were definite advantages to silicon: portability,
stability, consistency, ruggedness,
compactness, and energy efficiency. So
when Chinese and Russian tubes eventually
found their way back into the hands
of guitarists, the search continued for a
solid-state equivalent—leading to further
refinements in existing technologies, DSP-based
modeling, amp sims, and now HALO:
“Harmonic Amp-Like Overdrive.”
HALO, designed by Alex Aguilar (yes, that
Aguilar), is an all-metal—as in construction,
not musical genre—dual overdrive pedal
that’s designed to put tube sound in your
gig bag. It runs off a 9V battery (one of the
footswitch LEDs indicates battery strength),
but can also run off external DC negative-tip
power supplies from 9-18V. The intention is
for you to get your overdrive tone in HALO,
feed whatever modulation/delay/reverb etc.
effects you want, then go into anything—
from a clean tube amp to a P.A. system to
a solid-state amp—with a tone will sound
how you expect it to sound. HALO does that,
but the question then becomes whether the
sound is that of a “real” tube amp, or at least
something with equivalent tone.
The Special Sauce HALO emphasizes the
second- and even-order harmonics—a key
characteristic of tube distortion—and adds
considerable versatility so you can tweak the
sound in multiple ways.
HALO consists of two similar overdrives (the
second one is designed for "heavier" sounds),
which range from clean to super-saturated. A
footswitch switches between them (another
footswitch performs enable/bypass), so it’s like
having a two-channel amp—especially as each
overdrive has its own gain and output level
controls. A three-position switch chooses among
clean boost and two distortion characters: Asymmetrical
is dark and complex, while symmetrical
has more presence and bite.
A Saturation toggle switches in a stage that
follows both overdrive sections, or only the
second section (the Saturation stage can also be
bypassed), to increase distortion and sustain.
HALO offers several tone-shaping options.
The two channels share a Tone knob, which
provides treble boost and cut so you can dial in
an edge, or mellow it out. Three additional knobs
control Bass, Contour, and Presence. Contour is
basically a midrange scoop/boost (scooping
sounds more modern, while boosting adds
more of a vintage beef ); Presence covers the
upper mids. These controls provide a wide
range of control over the basic HALO qualities—
distortion, sustain, and tone.
The Summary $400 street for an overdrive
pedal seems excessive—until you put the box
through its paces. You’d need to get at least
two, and probably more, overdrives to come
up with a similar sonic variety. Even then,
there’s no guarantee you’d get that sweet,
second harmonic-heavy distortion. Besides,
it has some nice extras—you can replace
the battery without tools, and drive
long cables thanks to a low-impedance out.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s a
great “feel” and sense of dynamics; your
guitar doesn’t get obscured by a sea of
sludge, because if anything, HALO enhances
your guitar’s definition even while
saturating it. In a world that’s not suffering
from a shortage of overdrive pedals, HALO
|The Control Room Pro Module is included in the software upgrade.
Guitar Rig 5 Pro
The Backstory Guitar Rig, which is also
part of the Komplete software bundle, was
introduced in 2004 and has never ceased
evolving over that time. The evolution has
led to better, more detailed amp models
with each new version, improved convolution
technology with the cabinets, more
effects, and a cleaner UI.
The Special Sauce Version 5 marks
a major change in Guitar Rig Pro—it’s now
positioned not just for guitar, but as a general-purpose
signal processing rack. NI has introduced
several optional-at-extra-cost modules
designed specifically for studio applications
(although of course, they can be used with
guitar), and created Guitar Rig Player, a free
host version that lets you can run these modules
without having to buy the full Guitar Rig
Pro program. However, even the free version
includes several useful modules: “Jump” amp
and cabinet, Skreamer distortion, chorus/
flanger, reverb, delay, parallel delays, parametric
EQ, lowpass synth filter,
control, compressor, and noise reduction. It
offers multiple modulation options—LFO, envelope,
step sequencer, analog sequencer, and
envelope follower. It even includes “utilities”
like split to create parallel signal paths, crossover,
and “container”—very much like Reason’s
Combinator, or Sonar’s FX Chains. Given that
the Player is free and has no performance
limitations, I can’t think of any reason not
to download it.
|This screen shot displays the scope of modules available in Guitar Rig 5 Pro.
Meanwhile, Guitar Rig 5 Pro itself has
several new components. The two new amps,
Van 51 and Hot Solo+, demonstrate that NI’s
emulation chops continue to produce evermore
realistic results; the Container module
is ideal when you use particular combinations
of effects, and don’t want to load and set them
all individually. It also lets you bring particular
parameters to front-panel controls, which
of course can also be driven via external
Version 5 features six new effects,
including an improved Control Room that
provides up to eight virtual cabinets, mics,
and miking positions. The other effects
provide some unusual options like Resochord
(resonant delays that recall NI’s
Spektral Delay plug-in), Filterbank, Little
Reflektor (a more CPU-friendly version
of the included Reflektor reverb), Stereo
Tune (an imaging/spreading plug-in),
Vintage Verb, and Fast Comp—this is particularly
useful for clamping peaks when
The Summary If you liked Guitar Rig
before, Guitar Rig 5 Pro adds goodies,
presets, and flexibility to run other, studio-oriented
plug-ins. (Note these will not
work outside the GR host.) I’m particularly
impressed with running the new amps
through the Control Room Pro module,
which lets you create meaty, versatile,
and especially, rich tones. If you haven’t
checked out Guitar Rig yet, download the
free Player version to get a taste . . . if you
like what you hear, the Pro version delivers
a whole lot more.
|The middle rack section is new in version 2.0; the upgrade has numerous other
tweaks, particularly to the presets.
The Backstory In last year’s high-tech
guitar roundup, I reviewed Scuffham Amps’
S-Gear (from the designer behind Marshall’s
JMP-1 amp) debut amp sim, and closed the
review with “This is one dark horse that I
predict will still be around for next year’s
roundup.” And they were kind enough to make
me look prescient!
S-Gear 2.0 is now available for Mac
(stand-alone and AU) as well as Windows
(stand-alone and VST). Compared to last
year, it’s a true 64-bit plug-in for Windows,
although of course, you can still install it as a
32-bit plug. While it’s hard for any new amp
sim to gain traction, Scuffham has amassed
a vocal following from those who appreciate
the ease of use, low price, and authentic,
The Special Sauce Version 2.0 introduces
a rack with removable modules you can drag-and-drop into whatever order you want.
The original version’s Delay Thing and Pro
Convolver have been joined by Mod Thing, a
straight-ahead Chorus/Flanger—like the Delay,
it has an unusually musical tone to it. Rumor
has it a reverb is next, so clearly, Scuffham
plans to continue to develop the effects aspect
The Summary There’s not much to add to
last year’s review. A free trial version is still
available—good move, because you won’t
grasp how good this sounds, particularly
in terms of dynamic response and lack of
“brittleness,” until you try it yourself. Also,
the presets deserve props. You don’t need to
be a tweaker to use S-Gear 2.0; just dial up
presets until you find something you like—
and it probably won’t take many presets
before you do.
Even if you already have a favorite amp
sim, given its low cost and quality sound,
S-Gear 2.0 adds some wonderful options to
your virtual collection of amps and effects.
Download the free trial, install it, and see
what you think. Frankly, I continue to be
impressed with S-Gear, and Version 2 hints
of even more to come.
|It looks like a game controller—and it could be. But its “secret identity” is as a stealth MIDI guitar controller.
You Rock Guitar
$229 MSRP, $139 street
The Backstory What is this, some kind
of joke? The YRG-1000 looks like a toy that’s
auditioning for Guitar Hero. Yet for accessing
MIDI synthesizers while using guitar techniques
and voicings, it’s not only inexpensive,
it’s surprisingly accurate—but only when
tweaked properly, which is crucial.
The Special Sauce The neck’s “frets” and
“strings” are raised plastic, although they do feel
quite comfortable and string-like. As there’s no
need to detect string pitch, there’s no significant
latency. To trigger the notes, you pluck six short,
“real” strings; you can’t bend string pitch or do
natural vibrato, but there’s a vibrato tailpiece
that’s a guitarist’s version of a keyboard synth’s
pitchbend wheel, and a joystick that fulfills the
function of a synth’s mod wheel.
It sounds simple enough, but if you check
out user comments on the web, you’ll find
everything from “it sucks” to “this is incredible.”
Why the disparity? Although some people
just won’t be able to get past the fact that it’s
not really a guitar, there’s more to it than that.
The YRG is quite sophisticated, and there are
multiple adjustments that let you customize the
response to your playing style. As a result, sorry—
you’re going to have to read the manual. It’ll
take you an hour or two of trial-and-error to get
these settings right, but editing them properly
can make the difference between frustrating
triggering problems and near-perfect response.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of
getting these tweaks right, but once they’re set,
you won’t need to adjust them again.
Another important element is setting up
your external synthesizer, whether soft synth
or hardware tone module (the YRG can output
MIDI over USB—ideal for computers, and also
powers the guitar so you don’t have to use the
four AA internal batteries—or a standard 5-pin
DIN connector for triggering hardware synthesizers).
YRG has four Mono mode presets,
where each string transmits over its own MIDI
channel. These can be channels 1–6 or 7–12, or
the reverse (i.e., channel 1 or channel 7 can be
either the first or sixth string).
There are two mono mode advantages.
First, you can assign a separate synthesizer
sound to each string, like bass for the lower
strings, and piano for the upper strings. Second,
if you can restrict each sound to allow
only one note at a time (like a real guitar string,
but not all synths let you do this), the result is a
more guitar-like feel and better tracking.
The limitation of YRG’s Mono mode is
that the virtual whammy bar doesn’t send
pitchbend data over all six channels at once,
although hopefully a planned firmware update
will address this. But as YRG can save presets,
you can create some Mono mode presets for
instruments like piano, vibes, and pads where
you tend to play chords without bending,
then create other presets that send all data
over channel 1 (with pitchbend messages) for
solo instruments like wind, brass, and the like
where pitch-bending is an important part of
the playing style.
Also note that because the “frets” and
“strings” are essentially switches, the YRG-
1000 is ideal for tapping techniques. I don’t
just mean EVH-style tapping, as you can trigger
drum parts and the like. There are adjustments
for optimizing this as well.
The Summary If you’re into MIDI guitar—
or want to be—the YRG-1000 occupies the
sweet spot between affordability and accuracy.
No, it’s not a guitar, and yes, you might
get a few snickers when you strap it on. But
if there’s an easier way to get into triggering
MIDI instruments with guitar-like technique,
I’m not aware of it—and no one else seems to
BREAKing news: Gen 2 firmware is slated
to be available this month. Features include
tracking and playability improvements,
improved onboard sound library with new
samples and presets (I didn’t mention that
previously because in the original version,
it’s not a compelling reason to get into the
YRG), layering and zoning of sounds, monophonic
synth mode, improved slides, better
pickup design, and the top seven frets on
all strings can be configured as Ableton or
DAW control surface switches.
|The JTV-59, which follows the Les Paul paradigm, is one of six James Tyler Variax models.
JTV-59 James Tyler Variax
$1,399.99 MSRP, $1,000 street
$2,099.99 MSRP, $1,500 street
$699.99 MSRP, $500 street
The Backstory This isn’t a “Dream Rig”
because 1+1+1 = 3. With Line 6’s system-oriented
approach, it’s more like 1+1+1 =
6. The Variax talks to the POD HD500,
which in turns talks to the DT25 amp; and
with Line 6 Link capabilities, the POD
HD500 can talk to more than just the DT.
Although this review covers the JTV-59
Variax, DT25 amp, and HD500, variations
on the Dream Rig theme include five other
Variax models, as well as the heftier DT50
amp and POD HD300 or HD400.
The Special Sauce, Part 1 The original
Variax got high marks for technology, but the
relaunch under James Tyler’s imprimatur signifies
an emphasis on the guitar itself. There are six
models; three standard series guitars range from
$1,500 to $1,300 (street). The most costly model
is the $1,500 single-cutaway/dual-humbucker
JTV-59 (which follows the Les Paul paradigm),
followed by the $1,400 Strat-like JTV-69 (vibrato
tailpiece, bolt-on heck, and 25-1/2" scale length),
and finally the JTV-89 ($1,300), which features
tuners in a reversed six-in-line design, two
humbuckers, 25-1/2" scale length, and 24 frets.
The custom-shop guitars are made in the USA
and are more than twice as expensive as the
standard series models. They’re fantastic guitars,
but frankly, the less expensive models are finely-crafted, highly playable, and definitely do justice
to the electronics.
|The POD HD500 doesn’t just update the sound quality, but combines both stage and studio orientations.
These guitars also up the ante for innovation.
They offer 28 onboard guitar emulations: 18
vintage types (Les Paul, ES-335, Strat, Tele, Rick,
Gretsch, etc.), five acoustic models (which were
updated even while I was writing this review)
including two 12-strings, and five “none-of-the-
above”—Coral sitar, banjo, Danelectro with
Lipstick pickups, Tricone resonator, and Dobro.
Eleven alternate tunings are instantly accessible;
you have the option to make your own, as well
as customize the selection of sounds and tunings
(e.g., you can create a bank with five Rickenbacker
360 12-strings, each with an alternate tuning).
The excellent Variax Workbench software—basically,
a virtual custom shop that lets you change
pickups and electronics sans soldering iron and
swap out neck and body without a woodshop—is
still a part of the package.
Unlike the original Variax, the James Tyler
models have standard pickups and can work as
regular electric guitars that do not require batteries.
Bottom line: You played the original Variax because
that was the only way to get the technology; you
play the new Variax because you like to play it.
|The DT25 amp achieves multiple characters—not through digital modeling, but via clever analog circuitry changes.
The Special Sauce, Part 2 Although HD
technology represented a significant upgrade
over the original POD, there’s more to the POD
HD500. It has the look and feel (and rugged
construction, including the footpedal) of stage
gear, but also includes studio-friendly extras,
including S/PDIF out that can be used for
recording the processed signal or a direct, digital
dry connection to your DAW, which is ideal for
re-amping—while you do zero-latency monitoring
of the HD500’s processed sound. You’ll also
find USB 2.0, editing software with POD Farm 2's
graphic look (but of course, not its audio editing
capabilities) at its core, a digital Variax input, and
the L6 Link option. (More on that later.)
The effects loop can drive guitar- or line-level
processors, and three “trim switches” accommodate
various interfacing scenarios—guitar input
pad on/off, XLR ground lift or normal, and 1/4"
output, switchable between line and amp level.
Two parallel effects chains can provide separate
amps and cabs for the left and right channels;
compared to earlier PODs, the modeling is more
detailed, and the BREAKup from dry to distorted is
smoother and more gradated.
The companion software is a straightforward
editor/librarian that greatly simplifies patch creation
and storage, but it can remain active while
recording so you can tweak and record without
having to open and close programs.
Two cautions: First, the knobs are hard to
tweak without obscuring the display, although
you’ll likely use the editing software
for any serious programming. Second, many
presets seem intended to impress on the
music store floor—stripping a preset down to
amp with a carefully selected cabinet and mic,
along with maybe EQ and one other effect, often
produced more “musical” results for me.
Remember that it’s highly unlikely that the
presets were programmed with someone who
uses the same setup as you—I usually need to
pull back on the drive, because I use heavier-
gauge strings and a thumbpick. A little
tweaking can make the difference between a
preset that you’d pass by, or one that sounds
phenomenal for your style.
The Special Sauce, Part 3 The 1x12
DT25, co-designed with Bogner, BREAKs the
tube amp paradigm. Traditional amps have
one character, and you can change the sound
within the limits of that character—but the
DT25 lets you change the amp’s essential character
itself. It has two footswitchable channels
with traditional controls, but you can also tailor
the voicing/feedback topology in four ways
ways (American Clean, British Crunch, Class
A Chime, or Modern High-Gain), choose Class
A (10W) or Class AB (25W) operation, and
select pentode or triode tube characteristics.
I/O includes a transformer-coupled direct out
with cabinet simulation, effects loop, a “low
volume” mode that preserves tone at lower
levels, MIDI, and the L6 Link.
Overall, this is a wonderful amp (especially
for recording), not just because it sounds good,
but because it offers so many different sonic
characters. Just as the Variax emulates different
guitar sounds, the DT25 can emulate different
amp sounds. But that’s not the coup de grâce. . . .
The Special Sauce, Part 4 The synergy is
the big deal. Because the HD500 has a Variax
input, you can store the Variax settings with
a preset . . . or not. The L6 Link allows for bidirectional
control and one-way digital audio,
and communication between the HD500 and
up to four DT-family amps using a single XLR
cable (up to about 20 feet, but longer with an
AES/EBU cable). For example, if you call up a
particular amp model on the HD500, the DT
amp automatically reconfigures itself in the analog
domain to reflect the characteristics of the
chosen amp. Seriously. You can save amp settings
in an HD500 preset, place the HD500 within
the DT25 effects loop, tweak settings on the
HD500 with the DT25 updating automatically
(or vice-versa), or edit an HD500 preset by turning
the DT25’s knobs. You can even process the
magnetic pickup and Variax outputs separately
within the HD500, and blend them in real time
with a footpedal and/or the Variax tone knob.
Really, the “dream” aspect of the dream
rig has two components. The first is the ability to
achieve a near-infinite variety of tones that include
modeled guitar, standard pickups, modeled amps,
real amps, DSP, tubes . . . you name it. If only I’d had
this when I was doing studio work back in the
’70s, I could have taken over the world.
The second component is convenience. If
you had to swap guitars to use an alternate
tuning, or avoided alternate tunings because of
the inconvenience, now they’re just a rotary-switch
click or so away. Ditto for loading in
sounds and tunings so you can step through
them during a performance, and unifying
Variax, DT25, and HD500 settings into a single
POD HD500 preset.
Sure, the individual components are exceptional.
But put them all together, and you have . . .
well, a dream rig.