Jack Sonni Dives Deep into James Tyler Variax Modeling Guitars

Greetings guitarists and fellow travelers on the plank-spankers’ journey. Welcome to the first entry of my deep dive into the James Tyler Variax digital modeling guitar. Over the next few months I invite you to join me as I run the guitar through some real-world paces taking it from studio to stage. But first, a little about me…


From the moment I first heard the words "digital modeling technology" and certainly after getting my first hands-on experience with digital modeling software, I have been a fan of the whole idea. And as an early adopter gear freak and guitarist who has always been driven by an insatiable curiosity about guitars, amps and tone, I have been patiently waiting for the delivery of what the technology has always promised: A modeling guitar.

Now I'm well aware of the previous incarnations – not only the earlier Line 6 version but, because of my early adoption addiction, I've been intimately acquainted with other attempts to open the endless possibilities of technology (including digital modeling) to guitarists.

My tenure with Dire Straits included manning the guitar synthesizer for the parts I recorded on Brothers In Arms. I realize there is a difference between guitar synthesis and digital modeling but the guitar synthesizer was the tool that allowed me to create new sounds and infringe on a world only available to keyboard players. It was also the first glimpse of what lie ahead for guitarists as technology progressed.


From the time I could legally get a job I've worked in music and record stores surrounded by the thing I love: Guitar. My personal quest for tone – to discover the elements and details of how great guitar tone is achieved and to explore how far you could take it – has carried me through a lifetime of experiments and investigations.

I could blame it mostly on my Hendrix fascination and being inspired by his vast tonal experimentations but I have always been driven to experiment with gear. My early career as a guitarist was spent in search of the means of capturing the classic tones of the 60s and 70s, the benchmarks of guitar tones found in blackface Fender® combos, Marshall® Plexis using 60's Strat® and Les Paul guitars. My belief being, in order to explore the outer reaches of the tone galaxy you need a great foundation from which to launch.

What I've learned is that each and every link in the tone chain contributes and impacts the end result. Wood, strings, the materials used in the pickup magnets and amount of windings, tubes, speaker and cabinet sizes and materials, cables, effects boxes and components and yes, as the Eric Johnson legend goes, even the batteries. If you live in the last 3%, where the details and nuances of tone live, you learn to hear the differences.


I bring this all up because one the most fascinating things I learned while chasing the tone muse down the rabbit hole of the guitar synthesizers of the 80s was that regardless of how good, bad or laughable the end result was as far as recreating guitar models, they all were effected for the better by one thing: the quality of the guitar "controller" itself. This may seem obvious but as I became more serious about using a single guitar to recreate the array of classic and “impossible” guitar tones the technology gave me, I discovered each improvement I made to the guitar – a better playing neck, a lighter body wood – greatly improved the end result. I also didn't want to lug a bunch of guitars around with me.


I can get anything I want happening in the suspended animation of my studio where my own impatience is the only ticking clock. If I hear an open G-tuned guitar part, I pick out my fave axe and tune it. Drop D? Same deal. Tune everything down a half step so I can sing the high parts with ease. Why not? If I need a Byrds-esque jangly 12-string part, out comes the Rickenbacker. I'm a Strat® guy but when the ghost of Duane Allman appears and whispers in my ear, out comes the Les Paul.

But I'm not hauling six guitars to a gig just to play a couple hours of my favorite tunes. I want ONE guitar that I can use and love as my main axe that would also enable me to produce all the tones I am constantly chasing. And most importantly I want it to happen live on stage at the flick of a wrist, finger or foot, and available as instantly as I hear it in my head.

This was the promise technology held for me as a guitarist – a restless, easily bored tone maniac just like you. And I want it all and I want it now, just like the damn keyboard player has had for decades.


Well, I must have been a really good boy this past year because when I awoke Christmas morning I found Santa had dropped a Tyler Variax under the tree! So the question that was rattling around my head as I ripped the wrapping off my present was “Had they done it?” Had the joint effort between James Tyler (a luthier I have great respect for) and Line 6 (a company I've worked for and been a vocal evangelist yet equally vocal critic of over the years) finally delivered on the promise? Was I holding in my hand, in one axe, my new guitars?

Follow my posts over the next few months as I chronicle my experience with the James Tyler Variax guitar.

Be well and let it rock.

Known worldwide as "the other guitar player" in Dire Straits during the recording of the band's multi-platinum album Brothers In Arms and supporting world tour, Jack Sonni has performed on stage and in the studio with the icons of rock including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan and Sting.

Jack is a respected tone guru with a deep knowledge of all things guitar – a reputation gained during his tenure as manager of Rudy's Music on NYC's famed 48th Street where his sought-after advice and expertise helped establish the shop as "the place" for guitarists to find the best solutions to their tone problems.

After his time with Dire Straits, Jack has had an acclaimed and influential career in the musical instrument industry. He was involved most notably in marketing and product development at Seymour Duncan, Rivera Amplifiers and Line 6. In 2006, he resigned from his position as Vice President of Advertising at Guitar Center to return to creative pursuits.

Today, while awaiting the publication of his memoir Rock n Rolled: Living the Dream, Surviving Reality he remains a passionate guitarist and gear freak driven by the insatiable quest for tone and seemingly incurable need to acquire cool gear.

For more details about Jack, his book and slant on gear, music, and just about everything else that crosses his mind, visit www.jacksonni.com.