The Ibanez JEM had a huge effect on the design of guitars, and picks ups where Eddie Van Halen left off with innovation. Today we look at the beginnings of the Ibanez JEM, and it’s vital legacy.
The Ibanez JEM: An Introduction…
There are two type of people in the world when it comes to instruments, or even the world in general. There are people that are just fine with using what is available and popular, and there is nothing wrong with this mindset of “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. This especially resonates in the guitar community. Plenty of people play Fender Telecasters, and the Tele was the very first solid body guitar to be mass produced. These Fender instruments remain relatively unchanged from the models that people played 60 years ago. If anything, this is a testament to the design…it was perfect the first time, right?
But then there are people that look at something like a classic guitar and they say to themselves: “Hmm, this could definitely be better“. These are the type of people that bring innovation to the table, and toss tradition out the window. There have been many guitarists that designed their own instruments, but one of the most popular was Eddie Van Halen. Eddie didn’t know it at the time, but he started a revolution when it came to guitar design. It would be impossible to talk about the Ibanez JEM without talking about Eddie, since Steve Vai took the same approach when he designed the JEM and the subsequent models that came after.
Eddie Van Halen was famous for modifying his guitars and gear. Eddie’s famous “Franken-Strat” was cobbled together from all kinds of parts from other guitars. You see, Eddie really liked the Stratocaster design, but he needed it to do more for his vision. The original red/white/black guitar that he was famous for playing was made from spare parts, and other guitarists were quick to copy him. Although Eddie kept a tight lip on what equipment he used to get his sound, and even lied in interviews about his gear to throw off the guitarists that might copy him. He made outrageous claims about modifying amps, and special guitar circuitry.
At the end of the day, the real trick was Eddie’s talent, not his gear. Eddie was a huge influence on all of us, whether you know it or not. He was also a big inspiration to Vai and without EVH, we probably wouldn’t have Steve Vai, or the Ibanez JEM. In the late 70’s it was pretty uncommon to modify your guitar, especially in the extreme ways that EVH did. Eddie is just as well known for his guitar/amp inventions and innovations, as he is his playing. I think Steve Vai is just as important to the guitar as an instrument, yet not as appreciated by the general public. Maybe I can change your mind about that today!
I don’t think its any secret that Steve Vai is, without a doubt, my favorite guitarist of all time. His music can be passionately serious just as well as it can be quirky, and it changed the way I looked at guitar. I remember listening to “Passion And Warfare” as a teen and wondering how anyone could possibly be playing guitar like Steve was. But there’s another side to Steve that I also admire. His guitar and amplifier designs bucked every trend in the guitar world at the time, and he continues to innovate to this day. If you play an Ibanez RG, you can thank Vai for that. The same goes for anyone that plays a 7 string guitar.
The Ibanez JEM is the best-selling signature guitar of all time, not counting Les Paul… as the Les Paul is more of a design now. Now the Ibanez JEM certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it was never meant to be. The JEM was only really meant to be loved and appreciated by one person: Steve Vai. But it started a whole new wave of guitar designs, and it was actually considered a preposterous idea for a guitar at the time. But the DNA of the JEM is in so many modern guitars that are marketed towards metal players, even today.
Today, we are going to take a look at what made the Ibanez JEM so special, and talk about the legacy that it has left behind. The influence is seen in all kinds of guitar brands today, but you have to take into account that nothing like the JEM existed in the 1980’s. Let’s take a journey from the beginning, all the way to modern guitars and the features we might take for granted. First, we have to go back in time…
The Ibanez JEM: Beginnings
Most guitarists know that Steve Vai got his start by playing with Frank Zappa. Steve famously almost pestered his way into the band. He started by sending transcriptions of Zappa’s hardest songs to Frank in the mail as a teenager. Frank was immediately interested in this kid that could not only play his music, but write it out…note for note. After a stint at Berklee, Steve finally auditioned for Frank’s band and got the part. Frank would often cite Steve in the liner notes as his “Stunt Guitarist” since even at 20 years old, Vai was on the way to being a virtuoso.
Steve played a 70’s Fender Stratocaster when he started playing shows with Zappa. He was never really happy with the guitar, though. Frank taught Steve how to modify the guitar, telling him that nothing was really “off limits” and Steve should do whatever he wanted to get the sound he needs. Steve spent a lot of time testing out different pickups with Zappa, and circuit switching options for his Strat. There was always something a little “off” though, the guitar never felt right to Steve. He has talked about the dilemma many times in interviews.
“I realized that I didn’t have to be limited to the guitars that people are making and selling in stores, I could change them myself. Frank would take a guitar—or any piece of gear—and squeeze it until it screamed for mercy. Then he’d call the company and say, ‘OK, but can you do this to it so I can make it do this, this, and this?’ He’d do that with any kind of pedal, guitar, musical notation—anything. Frank was this fountain of creativity in all aspects. And it was always done with a joke, too.”Steve Vai
Frank Zappa was notorious for playing his Gibson SG, but he put that guitar through hell and back modifying it. Steve liked the design of the Stratocaster, and the whammy bar system that most Strats have, but he wasn’t a fan of single coil pickups in every position. On the other hand, he liked the sound of the Les Paul with humbuckers, but didn’t get along with the body shape and shorter scale length. While in Zappa, he took his Strat about as far as it could go, adding a humbucker in the bridge. But after seeing what Eddie Van Halen could do with a Floyd Rose, Steve knew that he needed one in his guitar. This is when a whirlwind of events all happened at once.
In 1984, after his tenure with Frank Zappa, Steve recorded his first set of songs as a solo artist in his home studio that he built in California. He had taken the recording techniques and expertise he learned from Zappa to start forming his own vision. He also landed his first high profile gig in a metal band, with Alcatrazz, replacing Yngwie Malmsteen on guitar. For a while he used a Charvel San Dimas with the appointments he wanted, built by Grover Jackson. He dubbed the new guitar “The Green Meanie”, but Steve modified the Charvel even further by having a buddy route out the bridge so it could dive, and pull up. We take trem systems for granted these days, since most come fully floating and routed! He also added a single coil in between the two humbuckers.
As 1986 rolled around, Steve got a call to his dream job. The beginning of 1986 saw Steve joining David Lee Roth’s band, after Roth’s split with Van Halen. During this time, the Green Meanie was still his main guitar. He also had a few custom Jackson guitars, and Tom Anderson from Schecter had also made Steve a custom guitar. These guitars went on tour with the David lee Roth band until 1987, when the band returned home to record their follow up album “Skyscraper”.
Everything was going pretty well for Steve, but he had yet to find the “perfect” guitar. Each one of his guitars had a purpose, but none of them reached his high standards. Companies started to contact Steve, and he had an idea of what he wanted. Prototypes were sent from luthiers all over the world, and Steve provided feedback on all of them. But none of these prototype guitars really fit him as a player. However, on the other side of the world sat a guitar company that needed someone like Vai… desperately.
The Ibanez JEM: First Contact
The beginning of 1986 wasn’t going so well for Ibanez guitars. The company was trying to break into the market of “Super-Strats” that had been popularized by EVH, Steve Vai, and many other prominent guitarists in 80’s metal. Ibanez was known in the 70’s for making copies of Gibson and Fender, and had only found its footing in the beginning of the 80’s after lawsuits regarding the copies. Joe Hoshino was the CEO of Ibanez USA, and he knew that he had to find his own “Eddie Van Halen” to break into the market. Ibanez had a few Super-Strat models, but they just weren’t selling. Kramer and Jackson were leaving Ibanez in the dust according to sales. It may be hard to imagine now, but Ibanez was struggling...big time.
Joe Hoshino called a meeting with the rest of the Ibanez team and asked if they knew anyone with the talent of Eddie Van Halen that could be “the face of Ibanez” and take the company into the modern age. Ibanez had a good roster of artists at the time, but no one of status in the metal category, and metal had been sweeping the Billboard charts. Hoshino told the team of his plans, and asked if they knew of a guitarist that could maybe help promote the company. The entire team said “Steve Vai!” in unison, without hesitation. Hoshino was taken aback by his team all suggesting the same person, and told them to get Steve Vai…no matter what the cost.
At the end of 1986, Rich Lasner from Ibanez USA finally got a private meeting with Vai at a show in New York. He had brought an Ibanez MAXXAS with him, which was the newest Ibanez model, in hopes that Steve would try it out and love it. Steve took the guitar, and said he would try it out at soundcheck and that it looked “really badass”. The first MAXXAS models unfortunately were semi-hollow guitars, and Steve’s rig immediately started to feedback the moment he plugged it in. He told Rich thank you for the offer, but this guitar just isn’t for him and told him about the instant feedback issue.
Ibanez did not stop there, however. Ibanez made a solid-body MAXXAS especially for Vai, that would not have any feedback issues at a show. Rich found Steve’s parent’s phone number in New York, and gave them a call. Rich asked if it would be okay if they sent a guitar to Steve for Christmas, and Steve’s parents agreed. Ibanez painted the guitar neon green, pink, and white snakeskin. They wrapped the guitar up like a Christmas present, and sent it to Steve’s parent’s house right before the holidays. Off the road from touring, Steve returned home with a special gift under the tree from Ibanez.
The day after Christmas, Steve calls Rich and says ” OK, You got my attention, so what do you want?”. Rich explained that Ibanez really wanted to work with Vai, and would be willing to make a guitar for him from the custom shop. Anything he wanted, they could do it. Steve agreed, and said that he had some ideas that they can discuss. Ibanez was delighted, but the company had no idea what was coming next. The Ibanez JEM was just a thought at this point.
The David Lee Roth tour was almost over and at the beginning of 1987, Steve took inventory of his current guitars. Touring in a band can be hard on your gear, and Steve’s Charvel was seeing some serious wear. In fact, it was practically falling apart. On the last night of the tour, the Charvel had issues with the bridge studs that almost stopped the show because it was in such a rough shape. Steve and Billy Sheehan finished the job backstage, breaking the guitar out of frustration. Steve knew it was time for a change, and he started considering the offers that were starting to show up. But Ibanez was definitely persistent.
The Ibanez JEM: Designing A Masterpiece
Steve had a serious interest in an new pedal that Ibanez had designed, the SDR1000 Stereo Delay. He called Rich and asked if he could try one out for the next tour. Rich agreed, and decided to deliver the pedals to Steve in person, where they talked about guitars. Steve explained to Rich that he had several guitars that he liked, but he didn’t love any of them. He liked the neck on one, the body of another, the handle grip on another model. But none of them were exactly what he wanted to play, and it was frustrating as a guitarist. Rich said to make some notes, and maybe draw a design. Steve could mail the notes to Ibanez and they would see what they could do.
Ibanez instead received a large shipment of mostly broken guitars with notes attached to each one. The notes said things like “I like the neck on this one” or “I like the body of this one”. Ibanez was flabbergasted at what Steve had sent them. The mostly conservative Japanese company was dealing with a fast living rock star for the first time. But Steve had been getting calls from other companies as well, because now he had something he never had before: Star Power. Vai had became a big deal playing with David Lee Roth, and he knew it. The offers for guitar endorsements started to pour in as MTV put the DLR band on heavy rotation.
Steve sent the specs and design notes to several different companies other than just Ibanez. His detailed notes went to Kramer, Yamaha, and a myriad of other companies. These other companies took him out to nice dinners, and promised great endorsement deals with money up front. Steve had been weary of endorsements to begin with, thinking they would be limiting at best. Still, he gave the companies a shot…
But when Steve got the guitars they built for him, none of them followed his notes on design. Most companies sent expensive stock models in an attempt to get him interested, but not the specs that he had given them. He had a pile of guitars from other companies that were not at all what he asked for, that just wanted to use his name.
“Ibanez, however, took just three weeks and gave me a guitar that was exactly what I wanted, in fact, it was better than what I wanted.”Steve Vai
Rich Lasner and the Ibanez team was so fast because Rich knew that other companies were approaching Vai daily. Summer NAMM was also approaching, and the only thing that might save Ibanez is a new exciting guitar, backed by a great player. Rich explained to the Ibanez team that Steve Vai was exactly the type of person that they needed, and the team followed Steve’s notes and design ideas precisely. Three weeks later, the two Ibanez JEM prototypes were ready, and they called Vai in to test them out.
The two guitars were set up in a room that was meant for Vai to play, and test the guitars. When Vai arrived, he took a look at both guitars and immediately started to take them apart. He told Rich “Don’t worry, I do this with every guitar I have”. After a full inspection, Steve was very impressed with the work that Ibanez had done. Steve took one guitar home, and left Ibanez with the other one. While not exactly the Ibanez JEM we see today, these guitars were about 95% of the way there. They were only lacking in the striking cosmetics that Vai later added.
Ibanez was getting not only the artist it needed to survive, but also creating a guitar design that is now iconic. The Ibanez JEM was the “Hail Mary” for a failing company. Steve sent his final notes to Ibanez on cosmetic designs, and the Ibanez JEM was finally born. Ibanez had to scramble to make enough models for Summer NAMM, but the team pulled it together just in time for the trade show. But did Ibanez have a winner, or was this all for nothing? The Ibanez JEM 777 was released at NAMM in 1987, and no one expected what came next.
The Ibanez JEM: Release
Rich Lasner was standing at the Ibanez booth at Summer NAMM in Chicago in 1987, with the Ibanez JEM as the main event. This was a guitar that no one had ever seen before, and had features that no other guitar at the time had in a production model. The Ibanez JEM was in a class of its own, but was it too weird for the mainstream audience? Rich was apprehensive that morning before the unveiling, until he noticed the jealous looks coming from other guitar companies.
“You could see all the guys from Kramer, who had been pretty much kicking our ass for the last couple of years with Eddie Van Halen. They were standing there with their arms folded, wondering what on earth’s going on. We dropped the black cloth, and there’s a giant poster of Steve Vai playing the Ibanez JEM. Everybody applauds. I look over at the Kramer guys. Their jaws are on the floor, and then they’re walking away. That to me was a moment of, like, Wow! We actually may have done this. You know? We did something here.”Richard Lasner
The team at Ibanez had stopped everything they were doing to get the Ibanez JEM done. The builders in Japan had such a limited amount of time before Summer NAMM, and they dropped everything to make the JEM happen. The necks were made in one place, the bodies in another. It must have been chaos making the Ibanez JEM. 10 pages of spec sheets faxed back and forth, all within weeks of NAMM.
The Ibanez JEM was in a class of its own, and still is today in many ways. The initial models came in 3 fluorescent colors, focusing on yellow, green, and pink (1987-1989). The trem cavity had the now famous “Lion’s Claw” cutaway so you could move the trem system to dive up or down. The “Monkey Grip” and pickup layout was all totally unique. Perhaps even more interesting, was the proprietary Edge Tremolo System that is made in-house by Ibanez instead of the usual Floyd Rose. The Ibanez JEM was basically from another planet to other guitar manufacturers, and the fact that the team got everything together so quick was miraculous.
Features and Specs:
- Basswood Body
- 1 Piece Maple Neck
- Maple Fretboard
- Pyramid Inlays
- 25.5 Scale
- Frets 21-24 Scalloped
- Dimarzio PAF Pro Humbuckers
- Dimarzio S Single Coil
- Edge Trem Bridge (With Lion Claw Routing)
- Master volume / master tone / 5-way lever pickup selector
- Cosmo Black Hardware
- Gotoh SG53 Tuners
- Loch Ness Green or Shocking Pink Finish
- Black Pickguard
The Ibanez JEM had a HSH set of Dimarzio pickups, and a 5 way switch. This allows the player to switch between the two humbuckers as usual, but the “in between” positions blend the single coil with the humbuckers. This would go on to be a common Ibanez design, but this was the first time anyone had seen this on a metal guitar! The upper frets were scalloped, inspired by Billy Sheehan and his scalloped bass he played on tour with DLR.
The “Monkey Grip” seems silly, but Steve knew that other companies would copy the Ibanez JEM. He knew that other companies would take aspects of the design, and incorporate it into their own guitars. But the Monkey Grip was so silly and strange, that Steve said “No one would ever copy that!”. It is still one of the defining characteristics of the JEM.
The neck was ultra thin, and is what we call the Ibanez Wizard Neck these days. The locking nut, and matching headstock rounded off the Ibanez JEM, features-wise. Rich and the Ibanez team finally had a winner on their hands, and the first batches of the Ibanez JEM sold out almost immediately. The next batch also sold out before Ibanez had even finished making them. Steve Vai was the star that Ibanez needed for success. On the other hand, Steve needed Ibanez just as much, to finally have the perfect guitar.
Ibanez JEM: Legacy
The Ibanez JEM was a huge success, and the initial run lasted from 1987-1997. After this, we saw a redesign of the guitar in white with gold hardware. This model is now the famous “EVO” that Steve plays more than any of his other guitars. The Ibanez JEM is the best-selling signature guitar of all time for a reason, and I believe its because the JEM is constantly evolving. Just like Steve’s playing, each new incarnation of the JEM takes things a little farther down the rabbit hole.
The Ibanez JEM eventually evolved into the Ibanez Universe, a 7 string model. This was the first production 7 string guitar of its kind, and it was used by Steve heavily on his solo albums and with Whitesnake. Steve later abandoned the 7 string in the mid 90’s, but right at the time he was losing interest in 7 string guitars…Korn were buying his signature models to make their own sound. These days, the 7 string guitar is commonplace, but the Ibanez Universe was made first in 1990! Ibanez is still the top seller when it comes to extended range guitars, with Schecter and ESP being a close second. These days, Steve will play a 7 string on occasion, but he mostly sticks to 6 strings.
The Ibanez JEM sold so well, through the first year of production that Ibanez decided to release another version of Ibanez JEM guitar…but just a little less flashy. This is where the Ibanez RG series comes from. Gone are the vine inlays, and Monkey Grip. The stripped-down RG is one of the most popular choices for metal guitarists, and most of them probably have no idea that it spawned form the Ibanez JEM.
The Ibanez JEM was, and still is a custom Made In Japan instrument that costs a good deal of money. The RG Series is a stripped back version of the Ibanez JEM that still retains all of the basic features of the JEM, without the special touches that Steve Vai added, which brings down the cost drastically. The RG was released right after the Ibanez JEM in 1987, as a workhorse guitar for customers that wanted an affordable option. The RG Series is still one of the best-selling guitar styles in the Ibanez catalog, and we see new models added every year to the RG lineup. This also spawned the RGA, and RGD models.
The Ibanez JEM really shook the world of guitar, and it continues to do so to this day. Every few years, Ibanez and Steve will concoct a new version of the JEM as limited runs. They have had anniversary editions, floral patterns, swirl finishes, and even a finish that had Steve’s blood in it called the “Ibanez JEM DNA”. New colors are constantly released as well, and Steve has remained loyal to Ibanez since 1987. When he needs a new guitar, Ibanez is always a phone call away!
This past year saw the introduction of the newest Steve Vai model, the PIA. Named after his wife, this is still a JEM at heart, but the PIA has more rounded edges, more modern features, and a slightly different overall aesthetic that reinvigorates the lineup. Steve is 60 years old now, so to see him take his classic design and make it a little more sophisticated is definitely in his character. Steve is a weird guy, but he is also a great designer that takes playability into account as much as the wild aesthetics.
Ibanez as a company would probably not have the notoriety it does today without the Ibanez JEM. The company was in dire straits when Steve came along, on the verge of collapse. For a company that spent its formative years making copies and clones, it needed something like the Ibanez JEM to make a unique mark in the guitar community. Steve Vai needed Ibanez, and Ibanez needed him, in the end. On top of being best sellers, the bond between the two is genuine, and one of the longest running endorsement relationships in guitar history.
At the beginning, I said that Steve Vai is my favorite guitarist of all time, and I meant it. Not only for his music, but for the innovations he brought to the mainstream. I don’t play Ibanez anymore, but the guitars that I play all have features that Steve would have wanted in a guitar. I’m not sure that we would have the broad choices we have without the path that the Ibanez JEM blazed. I respect Steve a lot, because behind all the flashiness and showmanship is a genuine musician, that has been humbled over the years. I owe a lot to Steve Vai, at the very least…I owe him this article. But we all owe a debt of gratitude as guitarists to the Ibanez JEM.