The adventures of a long-time woodworker building his first instrument. Many thanks to Jeff Miller, Roosevelt Walker (MidiRose), and the rest of the gang at the Line 6 Discussion Forum. Also thanks to John Blosser (Coyote) for the name "DulciCaster."
To learn more about the Line 6 Variax guitars, go to www.Line6.com.
Project started July 14, 2007.
Download a full-sized Variax 300 Routing Template
The inspirations for the body style. The first is my main dulcimer that I play on a daily basis. I play over the top instead of flat lap or from underneath like a guitar, so I only needed the teardrop shape on the top of the instrument.
The other should be recognizeable as Prince's guitar from Purple Rain. I've always liked this guitar and thought it was cool looking. Besides, I was in high school/college in the '80s, so Purple Rain was kind of the theme for my generation. I like the narrow look and the reversed horn.
I use the electronics from a Variax 300 because I have 3 of them and, If I make any more in the future, 300s are only $299 a piece. According to what I've read, the electronics are basically the same in the 300/600/700, so I opt for the lesser price.
So, this is the final shape I came up with. My son named it the Shark, so I have to design a headstock that reflects that theme. I traced an exact copy of my teardrop dulcimer on the top so when I play, I won't notice any difference.
Now the hard part! Dulcimers are typically three stringed instruments, or, like mine, a six string in three courses, like a 12-string guitar. I thought about just cutting down the bridge plate from a 300, but the string spacing on a dulcimer is wider. So, after exhaustive searches on the internet for a hardtail plate made for three string dulcimers and coming up empty, I decided to just machine my own from bar stock I have. Here are the rough cuts.
After taking numerous measurements from the Variax 300 hardtail plate, I came up with a hole pattern that works with the dulcimer. Not only did I have to drill holes for the three bridge pieces, but also for the electronic leads to the Variax board underneath the plate. Notice the string holes and the intonation screw holes for the individual piezo elements are wider than the spacing for the electronic leads. Not much, but just a little. The electronics are 10.5 mm apart and my string spacing is 13.5 mm apart.
Had to file out between the holes at the top where the leads go from the bridges pieces to the Variax board. At 2.5 mm wide, it took a very small file and about an hour each hole. Whew!
Not for the faint of heart. At this stage, I just had to jump off the diving board with both feet and assume that, at worst, I was out $300 if this didn't work. Man, I wish you could buy individual components from Line 6. So, since I have only three strings, I only need three of the leads. I desoldered the board and the leads from the Variax hardtail, held my breath and trimmed the un-needed parts off with my band saw. At this moment, I have no idea if my experiment is going to work! If I do many more of these, I'm going to have my own PCB made to do this job.
With the bridge pieces mounted back on.
Now to re-install the works into one of my Variax 300s and test it all out. Guess what -- IT WORKS JUST FINE!!! While here, notice that I have also cut apart the "coffin" box that the Variax 300 electronics come in so I can move around the positioning. Instead of removing the boards from the coffin, I just trimmed the coffin itself to still give me some shielding and something to mount the electronics to. Notice also that the neck I have installed on this guitar has some frets removed to give me a diatonic scale, as a dulcimer. Playing this guitar this way is the direct inspiration for the build. Also, as a lot of you know, the pickguard on the 300 is just plain goofy-looking, so I cut out some flame shapes to go around mine. Looks kinda cool with a white pickguard and black flames.
Don't worry, I'll put regular guts back into this one...
So, since my electronics are working and I have a working bridge plate, I continued with the build. I decided to use Poplar for the main body of the guitar because it is cheap, not too heavy, and available at Home Depot. The only real worry is that it leaves "fuzzies" on the edges when you are working it, no matter how sharp your tools are.
Gluing up the first two boards. I will add a 3/8 thick maple top to this.
Making the different jigs to rout the spots for the electronics. I'll need about 10 different jigs by the time I am done.
Making the main body template...
The additional hole across the top of the jig is to rout out extra wood to lighten the whole thing. With it being a solid body from stem to stern, this thing will be heavy.
Body routed to the master template, the excess wood removed across the top, and the channel for the bridge wiring.
I laminated only the first two 3/4 boards so I could rout out the jack hollow from the top, instead of from the edge. Just seemed easier to me.
Back rout for the main board. You can see the bridge wire channel peeking through the back rout.
Jack rout, bridge wire rout, excess wood rout, and the main board rout (on back).
Decided to make a soundhole in the top a la Richenbachers, so I went ahead and painted the inside of the rout black.
The soundhole cut into the maple top - kind of a jackknife/lightning bolt. I am planning on painting this thing, 'cause I can't stain worth a darn - so, not much pretty figure in the top.
Gluing the top onto the body. Yeah, I know my shop is a mess. I am a stay-at-home dad and don't get as much time out in the shop as I'd like.
The top has been glued and you can see how the soundhole idea is going to work. I'll have to get a little paintbrush and paint the inside of the hole black again by the time I'm done. A closer look at how I cut part of the "coffin" box. This is the bottom to the section that has the knobs.
The knob plate cut to size.
A quick look at how the Shark is shaping up.
Knob and 5-way switch rout in the top. I'll go ahead and mount them on a pickguard like the guitars do, Notice the large hole leading to the main board rout in the back. This is for the ribbon cable that connects the two sections. There is also a hole leading to the jack rout for the big bunch of blue wires that run from the jack to the knob section. I am also moving the 5-way to above the knobs because I use the 5-way more during a performance than the knobs. I use WorkBench to pack my custom tones in batches, so, for every one click of the model knob, I hit the 5-way at least 5 times.
Closer look at how the jack hole turned out. Much easier than trying to rout on the edge of the instrument.
Main board rout in the back looking into the knob rout in the front. You can also see the bridge wire channel at the top.
I used a 3/8 thick top, but, my regular dulcimer has a 1/8 thick top with a little overhang (kind of like a violin) that I have gotten used to using when I play. So, here I rout the top plate to simulate this overhang. I definitely had trouble with the edge grain on this poplar chipping out when I used the 2 inch flush trimmer. If I make any more of these I'll look into a different wood. I see a lot of filler in my near future.
Routed the battery holder and the cover plate ring. There is a small hole leading from the battery section to the mainboard section for the battery lead to run through. Lots of wires leading everywhere in the Variax, so there was a lot of planning ahead. As you can see, I can change the routing jig for the bridge wire and not make the channel quite so long, which would eliminate taking out any more wood than necessary. Well, that's what prototypes are for.
Another "not for the faint of heart." Look at the coffin case for the main board. I cut it to size, then hammered out the bends to make the top of it flat so I still had coverage over the whole board. Ugly, but it works.
Put the main board and the battery holder in to check the fit. That's one thing I like about separating the electronics, you have much more flexibility in placement of the elements. I couldn't place the battery holder near the back like the guitars because it would have interfered with the jack.
Ribbon cable leading from the main board through the hole and into the knob section.
Glued up the laminates for the fretboard. I am using Walnut, because that is what I have in my shop.
Interesting thing to think about... Dulcimers are strung backwards from guitars in that the bass string is on the bottom so, I had to go into the actual wiring for the pickup and flip all the wires around on one end. Otherwise, the modeling software in the Variax expects different signals from the individual strings. I wouldn't have thought it a problem, but when I strung it up to try it out (above), it was especially noticeable on the 12 string and de-tuned models. The Variax software couldn't seem to find the target tones correctly. Not a clear explanation, but I think you get the picture. Sorry this one's so fuzzy, but I couldn't get the darn camera to focus correctly.
Cut apart the glue up for the fretboard. I had the material to make a second fretboard at the same time. Next it's to the jointer and then the planer to get it to thickness. Why the extra width down at the bottom? The dulcimer fretboard itself is going to be 1 1/2 inches wide, but the bridge plate that I made is two inches wide, hence the extra width down near where the hardtail is going to be.
The best ideas sometimes don't work out in real life. I mounted all of the electronics last night to check the fit so far and decided that, no matter what I wanted, the 5-way was going to be right in the way of my strumming hand. After all the discussions recently about the random patch changes on the Variax 300 and the possibility that it might stem from hitting the 5-way switch, I thought it prudent to get it out of the way. So I extended the rout in the top to acommodate the switch underneath the knobs. Oh well, it was a good idea while it lasted.
Got the fretboard cut and planed to size. I originally tried a cool-looking end on the tail of the fretboard (the triangular looking thing), but it didn't work out as well as I had planned. Too angular on an organic shaped instrument.
Got the fret slots sawn using my Stew-Mac miter box. It worked really well, but the goofy template that I got to go with it only goes to 22 frets. A dulcimer has a guitar's equivalent of 31 frets, so I had to do careful measuring and add the last fret placings myself. There was planty of space on the template for Stew-Mac to add up to 29 frets, but I guess we're stuck in Guitar-Land. It would have made sense for Stew-Mac to at least go up to 24 frets, for those of us who might want a full two octaves. I can't really see any reason to just stop at 22. Maybe Stew-Mac can custom make me one for dulcimer. Additionally, the dulcimer has a diatonic fretboard, so I had to be extra careful when I cut so as not to cut the wrong frets.
Trying out how the fretboard will look on the instrument. You can see I went with a rounded end of the fretboard, more like a guitar's.
Made the jig for routing the bridge hole and tried it out a couple of times. Took some fine-tuning to get it just the right size, but not too big.
Another look at how the final electronics look.
Routed the bridge hole in the top of the instrument. You can see that the wiring hole leading to the main electronics worked out perfectly.
Decided to add a body cutout to make the instrument easier to play (and to reduce wieght just that fraction bit more).
Got the fret position markers installed in the side of the fretboard. I won't put any in the top of the fretboard because I can't see it anyway.
Preliminary body filling and a look at how the body cutout turned out.
I have never installed frets before, so I was really nervous, but they turned out really well, I think. You can really see the diatonic scale, now. By the way, when installing frets, use only a spare amount of super-glue. I definitely overdid it, so I have squeezeout on the side of a lot of frets. Anyone have a suggestion for a better way?
Frets installed and cleaned up, and the nut installed and filed out. Yes, I installed a zero fret for a number of reasons. First, this being my first instrument build ever, I didn't trust myself filing out the nut correctly to get good intonation. A number of sites on the web stated that the zero fret's main usage was as an easy way to set intonation. It seemed that the zero fret got a bad rap across the board, so I was feeling guilty and did some more research -- both Chet Atkins and Brian May use zero frets on their guitars, so I figured it couldn't be all bad. I am feeling a little better about myself, now.
Got the peghead drilled for my Planet Waves locking/cutting tuners. Had to make a trip to the hardware store to pick up a drill bit. Who the heck has a 13/32 bit lying around. Sheesh, would it have been too hard to design it for 3/8 or 7/16?
OK, here's where some learning process started to kick in. I had a crack in an area near the jack. I knew when the routing was done that this area was a little thin on wood. But, in my defense, I am not sure it would have cracked it my 3-year old hadn't knocked it off the table where I was sanding. I have been a woodworker for years and fully understand wood movement, etc., and I don't think this crack has anything to do with that. Plus the wood is a good 3/8 thick here. If you look closely, the crack is completely against the grain and actually angles down across the grain. I think that is what hit the floor when it was knocked off the table. But in the future I am going to redesign my jigs and the placement of the elements to allow a bit more wood in this area.
Mistake number two -- DON'T CUT THE HEADSTOCK UNTIL THE FRETBOARD IS ALREADY ON! As you can see, I am going with a Fender style headstock and made the cutaway before the fretboard had been glued on. So, as you can see, my headstock is WAY too deep. Some serious string retainers are in my near future. Hope it works out. Won't make that mistake in the future. In fact, I think my next one will be using an angled headstock, like my acoustics. One good thing is that my strings will not have to wind around my tuners, as I have locking tuners. That's why I am making this prototype - to learn.
Body has been filled and the first coat of primer is on and additional holes are being filled. Now for mistake number three. NEVER LET YOUR 7-YEAR OLD CHOOSE THE PAINT COLOR. So, my 7 year old thought that a flourescent pink dulcimer would look really cool, and, since this is a prototype, I thought, "What the Heck!" Well, to start off, I live outside of Houston where the humidity is like 150%, and I was using enamel-based paint. Even after 4 days, the original primer had apparently not dried enough. Then, when I applied the flourescent pink, everything started melting and sloughing off and never hardened -- sounds like a major incompatibility problem. So, four back-breaking hours of scraping and sanding all the way back to bare wood, I started again from the sealer coat. I've decided on some nice, quick-drying, lacquer-based this time and it is going much smoother. But, you can still see some of the pink in areas I just couldn't get to very easily. I think I'll go with a nice red, like the Variax 300 the guts came from.
The DulciCaster "Shark" model is coming together at last!
Got the top coats on and removed the masking tape. Now to let it sit for a couple of days for the paint to set completely. Then, I'll remask the fretboard and start in on the finish coats. I also have to paint the inside of the soundhole black again, to make the lightning bolt stand out better. You can see some white streaks on the fretboard - another downside to using walnut. When you remove the tape, it pulls up small strips of the walnut, leaving un-dyed spots. I just have to re-dye the fretboard before I seal it with an oil of some kind. I also might spray a thin coat of shellac over just the fretboard for some protection. I know, as a woodworker, that leaving any part unfinished will cause the pieces to dry and shrink/expand at different rates. A thin coat of shellac will help even out the moisture changes. Good look at the full, diatonic fretboard. I'll also paint the insides of all the routs with a shielding paint (also from Stew-Mac). I hate all the waiting. Hmmm... I also need to come up with a design for the pickguard.
If the Lord is willin' and the creek don't rise, I might make it to Kentucky Music Weekend this week, so I might just put on a couple of protective coats of clear and string this baby up in a day or so to try it out. If it works I am going to take it with me.
If I can't get to KMW, I am definitely going to the Manitou Springs, Colorado festival in late August and I'll have it with me, then.
Well, I finally got it finished!!!! The darn thing works and feels like a dream and, after all the electronics were in it ended up balancing the instrument weight almost perfectly. I think I played on this thing for 5 hours last night reprogramming the banks and patches for sounds that work best for the dulcimer. I set up banks with multiple tunings (D-A-D, D-G-D, D-A-A, A-A-D, G-D-G Baritone, Bass) that I can access instantly with a flick of the switch (man I love the WorkBench software). I traveled from dirty Les Pauls to a Mastertone Banjo to a Fender Strat to a Shamisen to multiple acoustic guitars and more -- and back again -- all with a turn of the knob and a flick of the switch.
I will be posting videos here and on YouTube of me playing the instrument in the next day or so, plus I'll put up soundbytes here and on my regular website.
A closeup of the custom bridge and the pickguard. Pickguard is a little rough, but, hey, it's my first time -- be gentle.
Soundbyte #1: First half of "Jessica" from the Allman Brothers
If I can tear myself away from playing with this one, I already have an order for a jalapeno pepper-shaped one! Now that's going to be cool. Given that I can now arrange the electronics in any fashion, pretty much any body style is possible while keeping within the 8.5" x 36" inside dimensions of a standard dulcimer case.
I am having entirely too much fun!
If you have any questions or comments, drop me a line at QuintinStephens@aol.com
Home to www.QuintinStephens.com
A little about the Variax for those of you unfamiliar...
Variax® is the one guitar that is a complete collection of guitars. No more dragging around multiple acoustics and electrics to gigs or recording studios. Variax gives you an endless variety of sounds from classic acoustic and electric tones all the way to sitar and banjo, all in one instrument. Moreover, the absence of magnetic pickups means that every note comes out crystal clear without any unwanted pickup noise. Variax is the only guitar that allows you to plug into a computer and customize your tone or apply alternate tunings to any of the 25 presets. Line 6's exclusive Variax Workbench software lets you fine-tune all the details of each tone, or change your tuning to Open G, DADGAD, D-MODAL, Drop-D, or any tuning you can imagine, without ever needing a tuner. For greater control, Variax integrates seamlessly with POD® XT Live and Vetta™ II - not only powering the guitar but also letting you control the entire signal chain right at your feet. Variax is also the only modeling guitar that can run either on batteries or by the included phantom adapter. Your next guitar could be 25 guitars in one. The guitars that are modeled in Variax aren't just showroom pieces. They have been played to perfection. These guitars have dings, scratches, and, most importantly, unbelievable tone. With one knob and a 5-way switch, Variax will take you through this historic collection of guitars. Variax Models Based On*: 1960 Fender® Telecaster® Custom 1968 Fender® Telecaster® 1968 Fender® Telecaster® Thinline 1959 Fender® Stratocaster® 1958 Gibson® Les Paul® Standard 1952 Gibson® Les Paul® “Goldtop” 1961 Gibson® Les Paul® Custom (3 PU) 1956 Gibson® Les Paul® Junior 1976 Gibson® Firebird V 1955 Gibson® Les Paul® Special 1959 Gretsch® 6120 1956 Gretsch® Silver Jet 1968 Rickenbacker® 360 1966 Rickenbacker® 360-12 1961 Gibson® ES®-335 1967 Epiphone® Casino 1957 Gibson® ES-175 1953 Gibson® Super 400 1959 Martin® D-28 1970 Martin® D 12-28 1967 Martin® O-18 1966 Guild® F212 1995 Gibson® J-200 1935 Dobro® Alumilite Danelectro 3021 Coral/Dano® Electric Sitar Gibson® Mastertone Banjo 1928 National® Style 2 "Tricone"
No, Variax® is a real guitar. All of the sounds available in Variax start
with the actual string vibrations. Then the sound goes through our patented
modeling process to shape the raw signal and replicate the sounds of the modeled
Does Variax only work with Line 6
Variax works with any guitar amp from any manufacturer. For additional
control, Variax integrates seamlessly with POD® XT Live
or the Vetta™ II amp when connected via a VDI (Variax Digital Interface) cable,
however it is not necessary you own either to hear all the tones that come in
How is Variax powered?
Variax runs on 6 AA batteries, a single 9V, or phantom power with the
included XPS A/B Footswitch Direct Box/Power Supply. Additionally Variax
can be powered through PODXT Live or the Vetta II when
connected via a VDI (Variax Digital Interface) cable.
Can I send acoustic models to a dedicated
acoustic output like a separate amplifier?
Variax includes amazingly warm and detailed acoustic models that sound best
when amplified by a full-range system. For this reason, the included XPS
A/B Footswitch Direct Box gives you a convenient way to divert the output to a
PA or acoustic amplifier.
How many guitars are modeled?
There are 25 distinct guitar models that come with Variax.
What tunings are possible?
Any tuning you can imagine can be loaded into your Variax! Open G,
DADGAD, D-Modal, Drop-D, or any crazy tuning you might think up. Using
Line 6 Variax Workbench software, you can radically customize every tone preset: change body types,
pickups or add any imaginable alternate tuning to any preset.
Can I use it with Vetta II, PODXT Live and Variax Workbench?
Yes! All models of Variax are fully compatible with Vetta II and
PODXT Live via the custom RJ-45 digital Variax
What is the purpose of the extra
This "special" jack connects your Variax to our Vetta II amp or PODXT Live. This cable (based on industry-standard CAT 5
Ethernet) provides everything needed to make the most complete guitar system
ever created. Vetta II or PODXT Live provides
power, a direct digital audio connection, and bi-directional control of the
Is Variax upgradeable?
Variax is the only guitar that hooks up to any computer for easy downloads
Find out more on the Line 6 website!