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Steve Vai and the Ibanez Jem thing


Back in the heady days of the mid 1980s, a young virtuoso guitarist named Steve Vai had pretty much all the major guitar companies beating down his door wanting him to become an endorsee. Vai had cut his chops playing with Frank Zappa a few year before, and had now effortlessly stepped into Eddie Van Halen's boots as the 'greatest guitarist in the world' (whatever that may mean), by joining Dave Lee Roth's band, and co-writing and producing the 'Eat 'em and Smile (1985), and Skyscraper (1987) albums, as well as touring extensively with him. Vai was a sensation, and as is the nature of these things; he took Van Halen's baton and ran with it; becoming the poster boy (literally) for 80's guitar extravagance.

So the question of who was going to build this amazing fellow a signature guitar was a pretty hot topic, and he put it quite simply for them:

Make me a guitar with the features/spec I want, and I'll play it.

Of course, the way endorsement deals at Fender, Gibson and the like went then (and still do, make no mistake), meant that they were never going to build Vai the guitar he wanted. His requirements would have been too much of a departure for them. He would have had to settle for playing a modified Strat, or a Tele etc. and be happy just specifying barely anything more involved than the usual hardware and colour/finish options you still see with endorsees of these brands today. In fact, these days; even Ibanez themselves indulge in a massive amount of this exact type of endorsement arrangement. To be fair, in the case of artists who are not at the level Steve Vai was in 1987, getting yourself your own artist signature model consisting of basically an options list RG or something, means you're doing pretty damn well.

One could write an entire piece on the frankly abysmal state of affairs one finds in the endorsement business today, but this is not the forum for it.

Back in 1987 Steve Vai was never going to agree to be an endorsee of a guitar that didn't completely suit his needs, and so the situation remained in limbo until Ibanez came along.

Meanwhile, and speaking of Ibanez; their fortunes were somewhat changeable, or at least lacking focus. They had been hit hard by their infamous lawsuit era guitars, and were struggling to make a new and dynamic impression in the rock guitar market with their now aging range. Don't get me wrong, there were some fine instruments, but bagging a giant game changing artist on the ascendance with something new and exciting was not happening. However, someone at Hoshino knew which way the wind was blowing, and answered the 'Vai' call by doing something somewhat unheard of...actually listening to the artist, and building him a guitar to his spec!!

For the sake of historical accuracy, it must be mentioned that before Ibanez built anything 'new', they sent Steve Vai a Maxxas to assess. The Maxxass project itself is worthy of a blog piece all its own, but seeing as how Vai rejected it immediately, we can move swiftly on.

So the Jem prototype arrived, and it incorporated all the important features that Vai had collated from his many many custom built guitars (the Despagni 'Flame' guitars, and his Green Meanie for example).

It was a superstrat design, but it had a flat and wide 24 fret neck, extended body cutaways allowing vastly improved upper fret access, a fully floating, zero point locking trem unit with a high mass plate and block (the Ibanez designed 'Edge' system), which allowed massive 'up' pull as well as the more common 'dive' motion. It had the now ubiquitous HSH pickup configuration (utilizing DiMarzio PAF Pro humbuckers), with a 5-way switch that split the coils of the humbuckers in position 2 and 5 (again, very common now, but pretty fresh in 1987). The body was made of Basswood, which again is commonplace now, but at the time was a weird choice. Why Basswood you ask? Well, Vai is on record as saying it was to do with Basswood being an exceptionally stable and consistent type of stock i.e. unlike some of the more traditional wood choices (like Ash for example). He wanted to be able to walk into a store anywhere in the world, pick up a Jem and not get any surprises in terms of weight, tone or anything else. You couldn't do that with Ash bodied telecasters for example, and some would argue that this was a good thing, but it wasn't what Steve was after. Of course no mention of the Jem's spec or appearance is complete without mentioning the infamous 'Monkey Grip'. Probably the most crazy and idiosyncratic Vai'ism on the guitar, although surprisingly practical and ergonomic in actuality. This was his way of absolutely stamping his personality and uniqueness on the instrument beyond any shadow of a doubt. I don't know if Vai was aware of the RG project right from the beginning or not, but he was certainly aware that good ideas tend to bleed out into other instruments (and rightly so). The monkey grip ensured then that the Jem would never be wholly subsumed or absorbed into other models.

So, after a lot of prototyping; they not only built Vai his super-eccentric guitar pretty much exactly as he had specified, but they improved on it in key areas too. They also realised that, not only would Mr. Vai's flamboyance, facility, and sky high profile given them a chance to actually make and sell his 'Jem' guitar as an actual production model (which even Vai himself admitted he wasn't sure they would actually do), but that 80% of the design could be applied to a much broader appealing guitar in the form of an all new range of Rock Guitar instruments...

...and 1987 saw the RG range born too, son of Jem. Even more than the Maxxas; the RG is deserving of it's own blog, but I have neither the time nor the energy to write it.

Note: The exact meaning of 'RG' is disputed, and most agree it actually stands for 'Roadstar Guitar', but I prefer the far more logical and straightforward 'Rock Guitar' - as this is exactly what it is.

The initial unit run of 777 Loch Ness Green Ibanez Jems were all signed by Steve Vai and are now especially collectable.

Ibanez launched the Jem at the summer NAMM show with a presentation by Vai himself, after building the hype to fever pitch by releasing only little teaser shots of the guitar. The guitar was an absolute sensation, and the 1987 NAMM became pretty much the Jem show, with everything else looking decidedly old hat at that particular moment.

Once series production began, the aforementioned Loch Ness Green (LNG) models (limited to 777 units as I said), were accompanied by the Shocking Pink (SK), and Desert Sun Yellow (DY) models for a three flavour fluoro assault on the senses.

Those initial three 777 Jem models were joined by many many more in the ensuing years, with some variants staying in production for many years, and others being more fleeting visitors. This writer has owned dozens of Jems over the years, but currently only two grace my stable; neither of which have been in production for at least ten years or more.

This year of course we celebrate 30 years of continuous Jem production, and in honour of that rather impressive milestone; Ibanez are re-issuing the original three 777 Jems in very near* original spec.

*Although it would appear great care and attention to detail has been taken to make these reissues ape the originals as closely as possible, there are a few areas where even a casual comparison reveals a few differences. However, let us not get too bogged down in it here, as it's pretty minor stuff in the great scheme of things.

So to round off this little blog down Jemory lane, yes it is indeed 30 years since Ibanez released the first Jem into feverish little shredder hands the world over and changed the rock guitar landscape in the process. There have been a host of improvements of course, scores of new model variants, and of course the 7 string Universe offshoot. However, the core spec and design philosophy has remained unchanged.

Apart from Gibson's Les Paul (which wins on something of a technicality); the Jem is the longest running artist signature electric guitar in the world (beating Fender's Clapton Strat by one year I believe).

It remains a fantastic instrument with an impeccable pedigree, wonderful build quality and an unshakable place in electric solid body history.

BENJAMIN J. PEGLEY

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