Ask – How is the Line 6 Variax for Synth Sounds?

I want to branch out from my trusty Strat
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I want to branch out from my trusty Strat
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Roland VG-99

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I want to branch out from my trusty Strat and get into some of the new high-tech guitar varia - tions. I’ve heard great things about the Line 6 Variax, but people tell me Roland has really gotten their MIDI guitar synth thing together. How is the Variax for synth sounds?

K. G. Petersen
San Diego, CA
via email

It’s apples and oranges. A MIDI/ synth guitar uses a hex pickup to convert each string’s audio into control signals that send pitch and dynamics data to MIDI synthesizers (either onboard, or external). Limitations are tracking—the accuracy with which the conversion process follows your playing— and latency, as it takes time to analyze a note before generating a control signal. MIDI guitars let you play instruments like piano, saxophone, etc. from your guitar, although it requires practice to play cleanly enough to get good triggering. Guitar synth latency can be as much as several dozen milliseconds for the lower strings.

The Line 6 Variax is a modeling guitar. It also uses a hex pickup, but applies sophisticated signal processing to emulate a variety of classic guitar sounds. There are no tracking issues, as it works on the string signal itself, and latency is not an issue. Unlike MIDI guitar, the Variax can accept any playing style, and handles techniques like hammer-ons or different picking angles. Roland and Fender collaborated on a modeling guitar, the VG-Strat; it’s considerably simpler than the Variax, offering five basic sounds (normal and four models) and six alternate tunings.

If your priority is emulating a wide variety of guitar sounds in a self-contained instrument that nails those emulations, the Variax is ideal. For synth sounds, you want either a Roland synth guitar system, or their stellar VG-99—which provides MIDI and/ or modeling with any Roland-compatible pickup or guitar.