Do you remember the Bond Electraglide’s “stepped” fret design or the Gittler guitar’s lack of a fingerboard? No? You’re not alone. There’s a reason that Strats and Les Pauls continue to sell well in the guitar marketplace. Despite the music they sometimes play, by and large, guitarists are pretty conservative when it comes to guitar innovation.
While innovation is typically expensive (and guitarists are often broke) when coupled with perceived value, innovative ideas can thrive in the marketplace. Line 6 is a great example of a company that has found success in making cutting edge products and marketing them to guitarists and home recordists. For example, if you purchase a POD, you get a box with multiple guitar amps, cabinets and effects in it and it’s substantially cheaper than trying to buy all of the original gear it’s based on.
In 2003, Line 6 decided to adapt the modeling approach to electric guitar and create a guitar that could reproduce the sounds of multiple acoustic and electric instruments. They called that instrument the Variax and developed a software platform called Workbench that allowed Variax users to further develop the sound out the guitar by being able to select various body types and virtually swapping out pickups and placing them anywhere on the string path.
But guitars aren’t the same thing as amps or effects and guitarists typically have completely different emotional connections to them. (BB King might name his guitar “Lucille” but he probably doesn’t have a name for him amp). Getting guitarists to make the switch to a new guitar is a much trickier thing. So Line 6 teamed up with luthier James Tyler to create three new guitars: the JTV-59, the JTV-69 and the JTV-89 (and three US made models of the same guitars the JTV-59US, the JTV-69US and the JTV-89US).
Line 6’s Rich Renken was one of the key people behind the new Variax line. (You can see many of his posts about the Variax on the Tyler Variax site.) Additionally, Rich has been a truly tireless (and on more than one occasion – thick skinned) liaison between Line 6 and the general public. If you’ve ever been to a modeling forum with a question, it’s likely that you’ve seen Rich Renken there dispelling myths, answering questions and generally helping people however he can. In an example of proactive research, Rich’s connection to the online community brought about many design suggestions that ultimately made their way into the final models. I asked Rich to sit down even longer at his well worn keyboard to answer some questions about the Variax launch and good sport that he is, Rich happily obliged. Here then are:
10 Questions With Line 6’s Rich Renken
1. Rich, thank you so much for your time. I know you can’t talk about any unreleased products right now but since you wear a lot of hats over at Line 6 for the record, what is your title there and what are you currently working on?
Currently I work in Marcom. My official title is Artist Relations/Customer Advocate. I work with artists but also spend more than half my time out in forums helping out customers with questions and concerns, helping to give them a direct voice to the folks at Line 6. I am also still the in-house luthier and spend time helping with the new James Tyler Variax.
2. From a player’s standpoint – why modeling?
In a word – convenience. On many levels our gear helps you get more done faster and lighter. With the new JTV guitars you can bring one guitar to a gig that can cover for the 4-6 guitars that you may have taken. You don’t have to bring and acoustic for instance. Or you can play the dobro part and not have to decide if you want to bring one or not. But, when you go beyond this, modeling and the variety it brings starts opening up doors to be creative in ways that you may not have thought of before or that were not possible. One example of that would be what a buddy of mine did. He ran the parlor acoustic guitar model into a distortion pedal into a Morgan Amp and created a killer, different, strange and wonderful guitar sound for a track he was producing.
3. To take the idea of modeling and apply it to guitar as was done with the Variax is an example of completely out of the box thinking to me. From the initial release in 2003, there were a number of other electric designs (the 300, 600, and 700) as well as acoustic models (300 steel/nylon and 700 AC) and 2 bass models. With this revision, there’s clearly an emphasis in updating both the technological as well as the aesthetic elements of the instrument. Can you talk a little about how you got involved in the re-design of the Variax and the goals behind creating the new guitars?
I started with Line 6 in 2005 as a Product Manager. My first product was the LowDown bass amps. Then Spider III, Spider Valve, M13. Around the time of the M13 development time, our guitar guru, Rich Lasner, left to start his own business. He was a killer luthier and left big boots to fill. My boss approached me and asked if I would be interesting in being the Product Manager for guitars. Honestly, after building guitars with Tyler Guitars for 7 years and then working for Fernandes Guitars/Hiwatt Amplification for 10 years, I was tired of guitars (or more precisely I was really enjoying being involved in amps and effects). Well, after much thinking, I decided to go for it.
My goals were somewhat different than the direction that we were headed at the time. There were some things that were on deck, like pickups. But other things I had to fight for. An example would be the three different models to cover the different “feels” that different guitar players need.
Another thing we thought of immediately was to do another partnership with a boutique cat. The partnership with Reinhold Bogner had been such a smashing success with Spider Valve that it seemed a smart way to go with guitar. That is when we came to work with world renowned luthier, James Tyler.
4. Well, that leads into my next question about how James Tyler got involved in the Variax guitars, but also what characteristics did James bring that you were looking for in a design partner?
Well, as I said above, I worked for Jim for 7 years building guitars. I am good friends with many of the boutique luthiers. I talked to some of them. But at the end of the day what sold it for Line 6 was what I felt about Tyler. He has always pushed the envelope. He has morphed and changed his designs and electronics many times. Always in response to what his artist wanted. What did they want? New and different tones. Even his crazy finishes are almost a way to say, “who cares about AAAA maple tops, tone is the deal”. So we picked him and he has been great. He pushed us to go farther than we would have went on our own. So we are grateful.
5. One thing that really bowled me over about the Variax re-design was that you actively went to forums to get feedback and input on what users wanted from the new models. Can you talk about what you learned from process and how you were able to integrate some of those ideas into the instrument?
When we launched the M13, we announced it early. The picture and description went out into cyberspace and the forums came alive with excitement. Well, guys started posting about what they would like to see and suggestions about functionality for M13 and it really helped me make it a great product. In fact, it was the forum guys who said, make a smaller version too. Boom! M9.
So when I started thinking and defining what the new Variax would become, I thought, “man, I should just ask guys to comment on where we had been with Variax and where we should go”. I started a thread on Line 6 forums that shot up to 100,000 views in a very short time. I learned a lot from that. It really opened my eyes and thoughts to read what guys who own Variax wished as well as why guys skipped the original Variax. Many of the things were things I was already on but a lot of their thoughts really helped steer my thoughts.
6. So there are six new models. Essentially three models are manufactured by World Musical Instruments, and then the same three models are available at a higher price point as an American made build. Can you talk about the reason behind the two sets of models and a little bit about the differences and similarities between the two (for example, in terms of attention to setup, I understand the Korean made guitars are set up in the factory and then gone over again in the US?)
The main reason for the two sets is to cover a range of guitarists. Obviously, the most sales are the Korean. We went with World as our partner after I flew and visited a bunch of factories in China and Korea and even talked about Indonesia. When I walked into World, there was no question. They were true lovers of guitar. Every employee looked like they were holding something that someone would buy and cherish. The US guitar is for customers who just love US made boutique style guitars. They have all the accoutrements that you would expect from a boutique guitar.
The guts and everything that makes up the sound of the models are exactly the same. For a rundown on the differences go to www.tylervariax.com.
You are also correct; every Korean guitar gets a decent set up right at the factory but is then (also) set up at three different locations around the world before they ship out to the dealers. We want these to be a notch above.
7. These guitars seem like truly collaborative models in terms of the different companies that have come together to help manufacture them. For example, the very close collaboration between Line 6 and LR Baggs in creating the Radiance Hex Pickup which (with some programming on the Line 6 side) addressed clang-tone. Additionally, the pickups that were wound by World Musical Instruments to James Tyler’s specs worked so well that they’re now standard on the American build of the guitar as well. Can you talk about the different collaborative efforts that went into the new models?
You have covered it pretty well. All the collaborations really grew from Line 6 seeing what it was good at and where we needed someone else’s expertise. Starting with a boutique luthier in James Tyler. Then, as you said, working closely with L.R. Baggs to make a piezo that helped us get the best signal for our modeling. Picking World to be a partner and not just a factory. Picking Tim Wilson to not only build the US guitars but to help us with his years of experience and willingness to do it the Tyler way. Oh, and all this collaboration was born, as you pointed out at the start of the interview, with collaborating the customer first by hearing their voice.
They are about covering the feel and look of the big three. Bolt on, set neck and shred guitars. The look really follows feel. Again, for a real comparison of the spec differences, go to our website.
As you point out the 59 has a scale length of 24 9/16 which is Jim Tyler’s own preference. He has built amazing bolt-ons for years but in his own personal playing he is a set neck player and so we went with his favorite. It sounds odd but it is actually a fairly popular set neck scale length.
9. A challenge with any new design is in enlisting the support of people who are attached to the previous design. There are some people who absolutely love the 700 model for example and were up in arms when it was discontinued. What steps were taken to address their concerns?
They were up in arms until the new guitars started getting in their hands. No doubt there will be some guys who love and will continue to love the 700. But this is a fresh break, new look and direction for Line 6 and Variax and we aren’t going to look back. You have to hit the largest amount of customers. We missed a lot of guys because of the lack of pickups and battery life/looking for power adapters issues. We had to go in a different direction. So far, since the guitars started shipping, I haven’t seen the request to bring back the 700. Going forward we have lots of fun stuff coming though.
10. What’s the current wait time for Korean and US Models?
Korean guitars are shipping worldwide. As of right now, Aug 2, 2011, we are getting close to catching up with the massive back orders we have. Hopefully by the end of the year, beginning of next year, there will be guitars hanging in stores for guys to be able to go play and check out.
The US guitars right now are back ordered into next year. The US guitar will always be back ordered like most boutique companies experience. You may find them in stores occasionally but most will be custom made for specific customers.
There’s a great video circulating now of a TEDx talk with Marcus Ryle of Line 6 that details the science of sound. It’s an extremely informative overview of the evolution of electric guitar tone and technology and a must see for those of you interested in modeling, guitar technology and/or Line 6.