Sick Riff preset through a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV head and Marshall 1X12 cab
Line 6 Variax modeling guitars are a cool application of modeling technology. They offer models of popular guitars, but also other stringed instruments, like banjo, resonator, and sitar. The latest Line 6 Variax is the Shuriken, an extended-range guitar designed with Steve “Stevic” MacKay of Australian band Twelve Foot Ninja.
The Variax Shuriken’s wicked body shape and reverse headstock scream “metal.” It comes in a matte black finish over an alder body with all-black hardware, apart from the silver LR Baggs piezo saddles. The guitar’s control panel consists of four knobs—volume, tone, guitar model selector, and tuning selector. The indented model-selector and tuning knobs are embossed with names of specific models and tunings. To select, you turn to the desired preset and push the knob. An LED indicates when the setting is active.
There’s also a 5-way pickup selector switch, which lets you access five models from the chosen guitar bank or five pickup choices (if the bank only consists of one guitar type, as with the S-style and T-style models). On the model selector knob are labels for Users I to IV, which enable access to the 20 banks that MacKay uses. These banks require the guitar be tuned to dropped D, and they feature unique guitar models and esoteric tunings. If you’re not interested in McKay’s sounds, you can use the same banks to store your own presets.
A Ninja’s Quest
I tested the Variax Shuriken through a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV and started with some of MacKay’s unique presets. These presets are great for the curious guitarist, and can inspire you to go places you’d rarely go otherwise. That’s definitely the case with the Sick Riff preset, which is tuned to A-E-A-E-F#-B. The lowest four open strings make up two A5 power chords an octave apart. The tuning prompted cool call-and-response riffs between the 6th-string root power chords and the octave-up 4th-string root versions. I also mixed in some massive chord sounds by combing both sets of power chords. I probably wouldn’t have explored these ideas were the alternate tuning not so easily and immediately available.
Another really cool feature of the Variax Shuriken is the ability to mute specific strings. The Post Modern Spank preset, for example, is D-A-D-G-B-E with the two lowest strings muted, and Collateral is A-E-E-E-E-E with the 5th string muted. Interestingly, on my test, the muted strings weren’t actually muted, but were much lower in volume (you could hear them clearly in isolation) and sort of swelled in with no attack. The banjo preset called Tumbi, which uses D-A-D-G-B-A tuning and has all but the 1st string muted, leaves all muted strings totally silent.
MacKay’s presets are only part of the Variax Shuriken’s capabilities. The Lester model (based on a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special, and 1976 Gibson Firebird V) is great. With a little dirt, the Les Paul bridge and neck pickups sounded beefy with slightly more focused attack than my actual Gibson Les Paul Standard. Played clean, there was more acoustic-like clarity and depth, which sounded great to my ears. Les Paul purists may like these minor deviations less, but I thought they were excellent.
“Spank” (based on a 1959 Fender Stratocaster) sounds slightly meatier and brawnier than my actual Stratocaster, which lent presence in some situations. One weird thing was that on positions 2 and 4, which both offered a nice quack, the 1st and 2nd strings were distinctly lower in volume than the other strings. This was fairly noticeable when I played clean, but less so with a little gain in the mix.
The acoustic models will probably be used a lot by jack-of-all-trades gigging musicians. The 1 position is based on a 1959 Martin D-28 and was surprisingly robust. I expected to hear the harsh, metallic sound that some piezos produce, so it was a wonder to hear such a thick sound come out of a solidbody. It also picked up the timbral nuances from my various picking approaches.
The 4 and 2 positions of the acoustic bank are 12-string models, based on a 1966 Guild F212 and a 1970 Martin D12-28, respectively. Not surprisingly, acoustic models were the fullest sounding on open-position chords. It was a blast going between the modeled 12-strings (for chords) to modeled 6-string for mood shifts within a song.
On the Fast Track
A 27" extended scale length is used on Variax Shuriken to capture the low-tuned notes favored by many modern metal musicians. The C-shaped maple neck features 24 medium jumbo frets on a 12" radius rosewood fretboard, and was fairly comfortable to play, though it took some getting used to.
Tracking is flawless, regardless of how wacky and low the tuning. Even the speediest, EVH-style taps emerged instantaneously, and every lightning-fast nuance of thrash-style, low-string 16th-note riffs was perfectly articulated.
One thing to account for, if you go back and forth a lot through settings in real time, is that there are distinct changes in volume when switching between certain banks. But you can control these details, create tunings, and control properties of individual strings like volume and tuning (as far up or down as an octave) by connecting to Line 6’s custom Variax software Workbench—which lets you customize and save instruments, tunings, and settings. You can also connect to a device like Line 6’s Helix and have the ability to store up to eight snapshots—guitars, tunings, effects—that can be instantaneously recalled with precise volume levels between changes.
The Variax Shuriken is a great sounding axe that could change the landscape of modern metal in performance. But if you’re not a metal head and are dissuaded by the guitar’s metal persona, don’t be. No matter what style of music you play, if you exploit the full capabilities of Variax Shuriken, the sky really is the limit.