If you have been on the fence about digital technology and the next generation of guitar amps but not yet convinced to go all-in with an amp modeller, maybe Devin Townsend will be the one to persuade you.
Framus and Warwick have just shot a rig tour with the Canadian progressive metal guitar virtuoso in which he not only reveals the gear that he’ll be taking with him on his Lightwork European Tour 2023, but offers as strong an endorsement that you’ll hear from anyone of the Fractal Axe-Fx, and how its processing power is a metaphorical sandbox for tone that allows him to write using the sounds he’ll track with in the studio, and then take those exact same sounds out with him on tour.
In short, the Axe-Fx is his favourite amp, and he’s bamboozled why that is kind of uncool to admit in guitar culture.
“I’ve always thought that it is interesting how you are allowed to say that your favourite amp in the world is a Dumble or something,” he says. “Or like a 1971 Super Bass 100, but with a certain type of [capacitor]. But my favourite amps are digital. I think they’re fucking awesome.”
Backstage at a venue in Europe, he reveals that he has three Axe-Fx units in the rack, and that’s that as far as his and session guitarist Mike Keneally’s main amp sounds go. Another unit from his studio is in the rack as a spare.
“I write my records with the Axe-Fx and have for many years. I have got their Axe-Edit up on one screen while I am in the studio, so as I am writing, composing, I make sounds that go along with the songs, and so when I come to play live I’ve got the exact same sounds.
“I shoot my own IR cabinets for them because if you use digital you will probably agree that scrolling through 9,000 cabs is just a total pain in the sack, so I make my own. I just found an old cab… It was an old Marshall or something, and it sounds killer to me."
“The Axe-Fx is just such an amazing piece of gear," he continues. "Again, you’re not allowed to say that [laughs]… But as someone who loves the idea of sound and being able to manipulate things, effects, all this, to be able to create my sounds in the studio with unlimited creative freedom.
“Basically the editor, when you open up these Axe-Fx, is like a blank slate that I can say, ‘Okay, I want to put a wah in front of a certain type of amp, and then I’ll split the signal, then after the wah and it goes into an effects chain that in another scene it mutes the input of that effects chain and engages a rotary on another. ”
The possibilities are endless. But Townsend doesn’t restrict himself to the Axe-Fx. While those units will handle most of the core sounds for the tour, and are more than capable of producing all of the sounds he needs, he deploys a Line 6 Helix for ambient parts, simply because it is his idea of a good time.
“Axe-Fx can do anything, man,” he says. “This thing is an incredible powerhouse. But Line 6 created their floorboard in a way that was just so fun. It’s so much fun, man! [Laughs] Like, all the updates with the echoes and everything make it such a fun, tactile experience for me that I really love using that.”
• Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III
Other, more affordable units will probably scratch the itch for most players, but if you simply, positively have to have the best road-ready modeller in the world, then accept no substitutes.
• Devin Townsend's top 5 tips for guitarists
"The reason I play weird arpeggios or phrases is just because I couldn’t do it the way Jason Becker did it. I can’t do Paul Gilbert picking or any wicked sweeps; I just know four shapes… but in different tunings, they became totally different tonalities."
This rig tour is fascinating not so much for what Townsend uses, but how he uses it and why. There will be few surprises for fans looking for something altogether new here.
Electric guitars include his custom built Framus Stormbender signature guitars, his number one being the opulent, rainbow finish model with “the dick extension lights” and a body of solid maple, quilted maple top and koa centre block. There are also his headless Keisels that he uses for ambient sounds, and Aristides T-styles made out of “goo’’.
“Aristides makes really, really cool stuff,” says Townsend. “Like the attention to detail, and the OCD that goes into it really appeals to me, because it is not made out of wood. It is made out of a kind of injection-moulded goo.”
There is also a signature cutaway acoustic guitar from Canadian boutique builder Prestige on the boat, which comprises a solid Adirondack spruce top and mahogany back and sides, and contouring to enhance the ergonomics.
If Townsend is the quintessential prog-metal player of the 21st-century, then this rig is the quintessential 21st-century guitar rig. Maybe this is why it lacks the cultural resonance of a backline of Dumbles or Tweed Fenders, or even a classic high-gain head such as a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIC+. With the Axe-Fx, all the magic is inside the box, out of sight, out of mind.
“Fortunately I never had to do that thing where I toured with a 20 space rack full of [Eventide] H3000s and ADAs and all that sort of stuff,” says Townsend. “I mean, it was super-romantic in the ‘8os to think that one day maybe I would do that, but for me, this is my favourite amp. I just love ‘em.”