Fender's launch of its VG Stratocaster - with electronics designed by Roland - back in 2007 was expected to eclipse the pioneering work of Line 6's Variax. It didn't. And since then, Line 6 has employed top boutique guitar maker James Tyler to redesign the Variax with essentially the same digital models, but this time accompanied by new shapes, magnetic pickups, a new vibrato and a new camera-style rechargeable battery, plus altered tunings onboard.
Fender/Roland's response finally came earlier this year with the launch of the G-5 VG Stratocaster. This time around, however, the guitar's marketing is being handled by Roland, not Fender, presumably because it was felt the latter's increasingly guitar-literate, hi-tech consumers would be more interested in the product than your average Fender fan.
"This time, we have what appears to be a Mexican-made Standard with more basic appointments"
Slightly cheaper than the original's £1,539 retail price, the G-5 still uses a proper Fender Stratocaster as its chassis. The original was based around the USA-made American Series Strat.
This time, we have what appears to be a Mexican-made Standard with more basic appointments such as a vintage-style six-screw pivot vibrato, standard not staggered height tuners and a standard four-screw neck fixing without micro-tilt adjustment. Our sample is heavier, too - frankly, it's a little overweight for a good traditional Strat.
Straight from the gigbag, it does therefore feel a little lower in quality than a regular Strat, and in need of a good setup. At least we have a modern 241mm (9.5-inch) fingerboard radius and chunkier gauge frets, but colours and options are limited: just three-tone sunburst with rosewood fingerboard, as here, or black with a maple 'board.
Along with the usual three single coils (no info is given as to what type) and five-way pickup selector, we have a master volume control and master tone control. Between the bridge pickup and the vibrato is a GK-style hexaphonic model, which passes the string information into the digital realm to voice the Roland COSM technology. Then we have two smaller-knobbed (this time they're black, not white) rotary switches, which give you two more options: tuning and mode.
The mode switch offers five modes: normal magnetic operation, modelled Stratocaster, modelled Telecaster, modelled humbucking pickups, and acoustic. In each of the four digital modes, the five-way pickup selector lever switch voices either the different pickup positions or, in acoustic, five different models: steel-string acoustic one and two, nylon-string, electric sitar and jazz.
In this mode, the magnetic pickups' tone control functions as a reverb control on the first three acoustic voices, as more of a filter on the electric sitar and, for the jazz sound - like the other electric models - as a regular tone knob.
In the Tele mode, we have two bridge and two neck pickups - Wide Range (positions one and five) and standard (two and four). It's the same in humbucking mode, with bright humbucker (positions one and five) and standard (two and four).
"The six-position tuning switch offers normal, drop D, open G, D modal, baritone and 12-string tuning options"
The centre positions combine bridge and neck pickups as you'd expect, although we're not told which ones. The six-position tuning switch, which obviously only works on the digital models, offers normal, drop D, open G, D modal, baritone and 12-string tuning options.
Powering comes from four AA-sized batteries in a rear-placed flip-top compartment, and just above the master volume and tone we have a blue LED power indicator. Mind you, with only six hours' quoted continuous use with standard alkalines, you'll definitely be better off going down the rechargeable route. It's worth remembering that, should the batteries fail, the guitar will still work in its standard analogue magnetic mode; there's no phantom powering and just the one mono output.
The acoustic resonance is lively and - obviously - very Strat- like and bouncy. The magnetic tones reflect that but remain as five sounds we've heard thousands of times before. They are replicated in the first digital mode, although the virtual version is louder until we adjust the height of the magnetics to get things closer. The digital version is slightly brighter... or are the magnetics just a little duller than we're used to hearing?
Switching to the Tele mode, there's a subtle difference between positions one and two (bridge pickup) and four and five (neck pickup). The position one and five sounds are just a little brighter; positions two and four sound as if you've knocked the tone back a little.
The louder bridge pickups capture a honkier, nastier tone; the lower output neck pickup models have more softness to the attack compared to either the magnetic or digital Strat neck pickups. The middle mixed position is our first disappointment: it sounds a little choked in the high-end and there's a rather honky resonance on the A string around the 7th fret - it just sounds a little unnatural.
Humbucking mode doesn't provide the volume jump from the single-coil sounds that you might expect; consequently, he tonal difference is quite subtle, but with a smoother humbucking character. Again, the inner positions two and four sound a little darker than the outer one and five options, and, again, the mix has a little falseness to it.
Via an acoustic amp, we listen to the acoustic bank. In 'bridge' position (position one) on the five-way, we are presented with a fairly generic bright and zingy 'acoustic', which sounds more like the piezo bridge sound on a medium-price magnetic/piezo hybrid solidbody. Yes, it's acoustic-y, but, again, there's some falseness and a slight metallic-ness to certain notes.
Position two scoops out some mids and we hear more resonator-like character - honkier, almost a little phase-y and not immediately usable. Position three is supposed to be a nylon-string sound, but doesn't remotely sound like any nylon string - acoustic or electro - that this writer has ever heard. Moving swiftly on, the electric sitar sound certainly has that zinging phase-y vibe but is far from essential.
Finally, we get to the 'jazz' sound: a muted dark voice that gets more muffled as you reduce the tone control. It's a terrible cliché, and we find much better jazz sounds from any of the neck pickups with a little tone reduction: a waste.
"The pitch-shifted tuning modes exhibit no delay, and sound more realistic than the latest Variax"
The pitch-shifted tuning modes - which work on all the digital modes - exhibit no delay, and sound (perhaps with the exception of the lower baritone, B to B) more realistic than those on the latest Variax. So, drop D, open G (DGDGBD) and D modal (DADGAD) are very usable indeed. Likewise, the 12-string, especially with the clean Strat sounds, but also the first acoustic voice and even the electric sitar.
Many of our gripes with this Strat could be easily solved with some basic maintenance. It was poorly set up out of the box, and using heavier strings than the 0.009s the guitar came with would surely help the acoustic models sound fuller.
Indeed, most of the digitally modelled sounds are realistic, especially mixed in a track or in a band environment, even if they do lack some of the character and realism of the Variax's more specific modelling. That said, while the Strat, Tele and humbucking models are mostly very usable, the acoustic bank seems more of a mixed bag.
But, where the G-5 scores over the Variax is in the tuning mode: for the most part, the instant altered tunings sound remarkably realistic. It's just a shame you can't add more via external software.
It has its flaws, but there's a lot to like here, especially if you want to explore altered and open tunings (albeit in a limited number) and really don't want the hassle of lugging extra guitars to a gig.