The Variax: Many Sounds from One Guitar

A guitar that can sound like 16 different instruments? Day to Day contributor, jazz critic, golfer and musician David Was reviews the new high-tech Variax guitar, which features electronics that change the sound with the twist of a dial.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now a word from contributor and musician David Was about a new, very high-tech guitar.

DAVID WAS reporting:

The digital revolution has stirred up quite a bit of controversy in the music world, where you'll still find passionate devotees of old analog gear, who insist that magnetic tape and ribbon microphones do a better job at capturing voices and violins than sound cards and hard disks.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Analog purists never liked digital synthesizers either, despite their uncanny ability to imitate the wave forms of trumpets and tubas and kettledrums. Well, now the Luddites have a new enemy of the state to vilify, the Variax Acoustic 700 guitar made by a company called Line 6, which for years now has been briskly selling digital modeling amplifiers that mimic the sonic characteristics of venerable guitar amps. Flip a switch, and your gnarly Marshall Stack becomes an intimate and crisp Fender amp and with no heavy lifting.

(Soundbite of guitar)

WAS: The Variax guitars go even further and have the digital hardware inside the body itself. And, indeed, all it takes is a twist of a knob to go from a six-string Martin to a 12-string Guild or even a Gibson banjo.

(Soundbite of banjo)

WAS: How, pray tell? Designers of the instrument placed two mikes in front of an assortment of stringed instruments and then, quote, "processed the signals through software algorithms that captured the physical properties of the guitars that we've modeled."

(Soundbite of classical guitar)

WAS: In all, you get 16 guitars for the price of one good one, just north of a thousand bucks. For the gigging musician, this could be an excellent investment, especially if your set list calls for the sound of a nylon classical guitar on one song and an electric sitar on another.

(Soundbite of electric sitar)

WAS: Not only that, but if you push the button instead of twist it, the Variax can deliver alternate tunings or play in a different octave, all without boring the audience to tears as you sit and retune your strings.

(Soundbite of guitar)

WAS: Some of the sounds are better than others, and the differences between several of the models are difficult to discern. But given a bit of tweaking with a series of sliders that simulate mike placement and compression, the Variax becomes the Rich Little of the guitar world and does convincing impressions of instruments that might set you back 20 grand if you had to buy them all separately. Now if I could just insert a Jimi Hendrix microchip in my brain, I'd be good to go.

(Soundbite of guitar)

BRAND: The guitar is called the Variax. Our reviewer is David Was. Thanks also to songwriter John Keller for additional guitar licks.

(Credits)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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