Time to unpack. There’s no gig bag or case, although the cardboard packaging seems sturdy enough. You get the guitar and a goodie bag with AC adapter (“line lump” instead of “wall wart” — yes!), Planet Waves stereo guitar cable, spare cover for the digital communications port, two Allen wrenches for setup, and a small box labeled “XPS-Mini.”
Time to power up. You can run the Variax off six AA cells for 10–12 hours, or a 9V battery for an emergency 1–2 hours; with either, you just plug a mono cable into your amp. A better option is to plug the AC adapter into the XPS-Mini, which then distributes power to the Variax via a stereo cable, and also provides a pass-through from the Variax to your amp. Granted, it’s an extra little box, a stereo instead of mono cable, and some more wires, but I prefer it to batteries.
Time to check out the vibe, the feel, and the setup. Well, it ain’t the high-end Variax 700; this is the low-end, made-in-Indonesia model. But I must say it’s a very playable low-end model. Good stuff: surprisingly comfy maple neck and rosewood fingerboard with a flatter, 12" radius fingerboard compared to the 10" of the 500 and 700. Nice guitar shape for standing or sitting, with an agathis body. The intonation was a bit off for the D string, but the neck relief was just right, and the string height setup was good to go. Overall, the 300 required virtually no tweaking (aside from tuning, of course) to be useable right out of the box — something I seldom find with any guitar. The knobs have a well-oiled feel with a bit of resistance, and the 5-way “pickup” switch snaps into position with authority.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the Variax digital port so that when used with the Vetta II or PODxt Live, changing presets can change guitar models. This is a cool feature and I’m glad they left it in.
Not so good stuff: The model selector knob had a bit of a wobble, but it didn’t seem problematic; I also found the tuning pegs have a somewhat imprecise feel. Finally, string bashers might experience some “creep” in the bridge saddles until they settle into position. None of these are serious deal-breakers.
Now the acid test: how it sounded when played acoustically — because that truth can’t hide behind a sexy model.
Where does the time go? Seems I ended up enjoying just playing the guitar, and sort of forgot I was supposed to be writing about it, let alone plugging it in. For a comparatively inexpensive guitar, the 300 is surprisingly responsive and enjoyable.
Okay, time to get serious. I plugged the XPS-Mini into my digital mixer, and ran into Sonar via a Creamware interface. Why the computer? Several reasons. First, while goofing around, I came up with some riffs I wanted to loop. Second, Sonar lets you hook up a virtual chromatic tuner, and I wanted to see if the Variax held its tuning over several hours. Third, I was curious how the 300 would sound running through amp emulation programs instead of the PODxt. Besides, it’s just so cool to be able to set right next to a computer and get no interference because the 300’s piezo pickups are physically incapable of responding to RF or magnetic fields.
My experience with the 300 was identical to the 500: The models don’t come alive until you put them through an amp (real or virtual). For example, the Tele model didn’t sound like a Tele until I put it through a Vox AC 30 model and pulled back a bit on the volume. Then there it was — that magical twang and bite that I know so well from my ’66 paisley Tele. Ditto the ’61 Les Paul custom, which was suitably chunky, and the Rickenbacker 360 six-string I’ve played on and off over the years, with that hard-to-describe special midrange. I still don’t find the two electric Ric 12-string models totally convincing, but props that they sound as good as they do, given the difficulty of the modeling task.
There are 50 models overall, arranged as 10 rotary switch positions with a five-position “pickup” (read: “model”) selector. Two additional switch positions store your choice of 10 models for instant access. For triple-pickup guitars, these five positions correspond to standard pickup settings. For others, they offer variations of different models, or different guitars altogether . . . and of course, I auditioned them all. In addition to the usual favorites, you’ll find a Gretsch 6120 and Silver Jet, an ES-335, a couple jazz models, five acoustic models (where the tone control basically affects “mic placement”), and some esoterica: Dobro, Coral Sitar, Danelectro 3021 with lipstick pickups, banjo, and the 1928 National Tricone, truly a rare bird. I could tell no significant difference between these models and those in the 500.
However, it’s important to emphasize that the models affect sound. You’re not going to get a maple fingerboard and different body shape when you call up the Tele, or an ebony fingerboard with the Les Paul. As a result, it takes a little getting used to when you try these guitars and they all feel the same, even though the sounds are dead on. Is this a problem? Not for me, but some purists feel somewhat of a disconnect.
Late lunch. Variax gets a break.
Time to record those loops. Tuning was good, and stayed pretty much intact during an over three-hour recording session, notwithstanding the occasional touch up. I monitored through the program and when I bypassed the amp models, was reminded of how much these guitars want an amp to sound their best. This isn’t a knock on the basic guitar sounds: How often do you listen to any guitar straight with no effects whatsoever from amplification?
Time to knock off. Having worked extensively with the Variax 500, using the 300 confirmed that the only significant difference is in the guitar itself. In fact, there are only two real downers to the 300 — no vibrato tailpiece (you’ll need a 700 for that), and no left-handed model (try a left-handed 500). I want to be careful not to mislead anyone into thinking the 300 is a top-drawer guitar, but I also don’t want anyone to discount it based on price, because it is very playable. I never felt it was limiting me, and most of the time, the guitar became a non-issue because I was getting the music and tones I sought.
Having one axe that’s this versatile in is a studio guitarist’s dream come true. I would have killed for this in my days doing session work. And today, when recording, it’s quite a buzz to think “gee, a Ric would be perfect for this part, sure wish I had one” — then realize that even though you don’t have the Ric, you have its sound. Lay it into a track, and I’d wager that few people, if any, could tell the difference.
Sure, you can argue the models aren’t exactly like the real thing. That it’s weird having the sound, but not the look and feel. That their model doesn’t sound like your guitar. If you feel this way, the Variax is not the droid you’re looking for.
But as someone who doubles on guitar and keys, the Variax makes not only perfect sonic sense, but works conceptually. It’s a controller for a bunch of different sounds, just like a keyboard that triggers different synth sounds . . . but without the limitations of MIDI, of course (the Variax is more like a super hex signal processor).
The Variax 500 is not my first-call guitar — the PRS still has that honor — but it’s my second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc. guitar. And the 300 brings that serious versatility and studio flexibility to a wider audience.
The guitar is good enough not to get in the way, and in fact, I enjoyed playing it. If you’ve been holding off on a Variax because of the cost, the 300 is the best argument yet for taking the plunge.