Note: Musicians in general I think, but Guitarists for sure, we like to develop a solid relationship with a reliable, honest vendor. I had that with Axe Music for a time. Alan was a good bloke (although I did later fall out with him), but Matt was a diamond. He was one of those guys who just made you feel really valued, both as a customer, and as a player. Great guy.
1995 - Ibanez Jem 555BK - During '95 (after sessions for the TUT TUT album were complete), I traded my RG360 in at Axe Music and bought a brand new Ibanez Jem 555BK If any Jem fans ever read this, i'll already be in trouble!! as the model generated...let's say 'mixed' reaction in fans of the series.
Just in time for the band's disastrous and terminal 'Breakthrough' gig at the Ipswich Corn Exchange. I'm not going to go into details of that gig here, but suffice to say it ended up being a watershed moment for TUT TUT, from which the band never really recovered. We limped on for a three or four years after that, when really we should have used the time more wisely, but it wasn't the same. Hey ho, you live and learn right? It was also the first time I ever realised the power of the music press (I don't mean to sound too grandiose, sorry), when we were badly mis-represented in various reviews published at the time. It really bothered me and the feeling of impotence and injustice was really frustrating, as we seemingly had no way of getting our side of the story out. Anyway, enough about that.
In those days I was still a religious reader of Guitarist magazine, and felt quite honoured to actually know 'Dr Robert' himself a.k.a Mr. Robbie Gladwell. He's a great guitar player who was 'Guitarist's' resident boffin on all things technical and complicated. Robbie has forgotten more about guitars than i'll ever know. I do not recall if he reviewed the Jem 555 for the magazine, or not, but that review was very influential, as we shall see...
I had been a big fan of Steve Vai since the Dave Lee Roth days in the 80s, and like many other young widdlers; lusted after a proper premier league guitar like one from his original 777 Jem range (the VBK being my favourite back then). As a side note: I was not really a Vai/Satriani generation player per se, or even an Eddie Van Halen generation guy. It would be more accurate I guess to say that I adopted a veneer of this type of approach over a well established bedrock of Hillage, Gilmour and Clapton. More about that another time.
As a second side note: A guitarist friend of mine (Tim Smith - a fantastic player who was playing with Suzi Quatro's touring band last I heard), had an Ibanez Jem 777VBK way back when I had my RG (1992 maybe). It was the Galaxy black model with flouro-green pickups and controls, plus a matching green 'Tree Of Life' inlay all the way up the rosewood fret-board. Unbelievable! This to me was a killer guitar, and the stuff of dreams. He let me play it a few times, and gave me first refusal on it as he was selling (he preferred Stratocasters at the time). Unfortunately, it was worth £1000 or so, and that put it totally beyond my grasp at the time. Shame, but it did help foster my still enormous love of these guitars, and make me more than a little determined to make one my own.
It's a love that has never left me, and when I read the Guitarist review of the new 'Budget' priced affordable Jem555 (they rated it really highly), I set about trying to get one.
At this point, I was offered the chance to buy an older Jem that a friend of our drummer was selling. It was a 9/10 condition 1989 Jem7 PBK - now, if any Jem historians ever read this, they will consider me to have been a total Plebeian, and a Heathen regarding this matter, as I passed up the PBK in order to buy my brand new 555...............I'll let that sink in Jem fans...
A 555 instead of a PBK.....................total madness!!!
"Why Ben?" I hear nobody ask, well I'll tell you.
Put it this way - the PBK was one of two short lived and slightly budget orientated early Jem models (overshadowed in the range at the time by the more flamboyant ones). It is now rightly considered the 'Holy Player Grail' of the early Jems. It had the slimmest neck profile of any Jem, was cool and sober in Galaxy Black with white pickups and white pyramid neck inlays. It was one of only two models that ever sported the large straight 'monkey grip' cutout instead of the now ubiquitous and all conquering contoured version. Perhaps most significantly of all, it was the model that Stave Vai himself most often used personally in his own studio and live (before the introduction of the white Jem7V, and his 'EVO' workhorse of course).
Note: If you ever get a chance to see the 1992 Seville Guitar Expo' on video, you will see a good example of what I mean. When jamming along with Satch, Brian May etc. as part of an ensemble on other people's stuff (i.e. having fun and with no major pressure to perform), Vai plays the then new Green multi-colour swirl Jem (very flash looking and quite rare now). However, when he comes out to play his own set (Greasy Kid's Stuff, For The Love Of God etc.) for the first time in public ever (i.e. lots of pressure to make sure he nails it). He does it all on a PBK. Enough said, yes?
Anyway, the Guitarist review of the cut price 555 was so positive, it was seemingly a no brainer to buy new instead of an instrument that had certainly done a few miles, and felt like it! I was also a sucker for the new 'All Access' neck joint on the 555 (so much so, I still cannot get comfy on any old heel joint Jem). It is also worth holding my hands up and admitting that in those ignorant days of youthful folly; I didn't like the large straight monkey grip that the PBK sported as much (compared to the smaller finger routed version on other Jems inc' the 555). So to cut short this (pretty long) story of how Ben passed up the chance to own a classic PBK (I have never managed to buy one to this day)... I bought the bloody 555. Yes Jem fans, I bare my back for the lashing that will surely and deservedly come.
It was only years later, that I began to realise what a huge 'faux pas' I had made in passing up that PBK. I played a couple of gigs with it, and there's photos to prove it, but alas I let it go. In fairness though, the Guitarist reviewer was not wrong, the 555 mostly had it where it counts (the only corner it cut that really was a bit shit, was the Lo-TRS trem, which for a £1000 guitar, ought to have had a bloody Edge system). Despite this, the 555 proved to be an excellent buy, being reliable, adaptable and solid throughout hundreds and hundreds of gigs in the 90s and beyond. I absolutely loved it, and love it still. Luckily, I still get to hold her occasionally, as my best pal Chris bought her from me in the late 2000's when I finally sorted myself out a pair of full flight Jems (we will get to those).
Crikey!! I still haven't got past 1995, oh well. Till next time then..................