Twelve Foot Ninja is a band that defines progressive – at any moment in any song, you could be transported to the Carribean Islands, Mexico, Cuba – and then right back to hell, where metal is the only soundtrack. Style changes and sound texture shifts abound, and with an added layer of complexity of extreme tuning changes mid-song, well, you can’t play just any old guitar in this band. Stevic Mackay and co-guitarist Rohan Hayes have been using the Line 6 Variax guitars for some time now, but they needed something different.
Thus, the Shuriken was born. The soul of a Variax has been reincarnated in the body of a baritone metal axe, with the appointments of a more modern axe that some of the older models have been missing. A 27″ scale, locking tuners, a matte black finish, a real sharp body shape and comfy contours, and a deadly-looking headstock make the Shuriken pop out of the Variax lineup. Although there are no new models or anything in the Variax component of the Shuriken, there is a lot going on to get metal fans of the Line 6 guitar lineup excited.
Despite the ability of the Variax guitars to be detuned with the turn of a knob, having your starting pitch be a lower tuning is always improved with a longer scale, and 27″ is enough to go down to B or A with no problem at all. Aside from just looking the most metal of any of the Variax guitars, the guitar feels pretty metal in that regard as well. A single bridge humbucker typically suggests a guitar with no depth beyond bashing brutality, but it belies the flexibility this guitar hides inside, with sounds from banjos to acoustic guitars to sitars and way more instantly accessible at your fingertips (or feet).
The Variax’s most powerful feature, in my opinion, is the ability to pair patches on the Helix or POD HD500 with your patches on the guitar and change both with a single footswitch. Anytime I find myself onstage having to change both the patch on my amp and my pickup selector is when things tend to go pear-shaped, and with this kind of fast change, the anxiety that comes with that part is lessened. You can also set up your patch changes to be controlled via MIDI from a backing track so you won’t have to do anything at all except play. That sounds pretty nice to me.
Sitting at my studio desk recording the demo song for this review, I was struck with how easy layering of parts became. Suddenly I had not just a bunch of different pickup and body sounds available to layer different tones, I had instant access to octave doubling in either direction. All I had to do was change the tuning and play the part again to get an authentic octave doubling, or, if I was feeling lazy, add a parallel octave string set and play the part once. This makes the Shuriken a pretty valuable studio tool for stuff like Nashville tuning on the fly, so you don’t have to own a whole acoustic guitar just to layer in that tuning.
The limitations of the Variax are no worse than any other Variax – there’s no 7 string model, the available guitar types modeled in the guitar are pretty limited (basically a bunch of dad guitars of various types, nothing particularly metal), some of the modeling sounds can be a little honky and weird at times, and sometimes the tracking on the more extreme tuning changes or parallel octave strings can be a little wonky. This is mostly a symptom of the technology in the Variax components needing to be updated as it’s pretty much the same as it has been since 2010, and although it’s still very good, it’s possible that technology has advanced to allow more possibilities, features, and reliability for this already very flexible guitar.
Stevic Mackay is a smart dude, and he’s designed a very cool guitar around his pretty specific needs, but it’s an instrument that will be useful to a wide variety of players who maybe wouldn’t have considered a Variax due to aesthetic concerns or lack of modernity. I had a great time tinkering with and playing this guitar, and I think it has a universe of potential inside of it, waiting to be unleashed by your creativity.