JEM: 30 Years of Steve Vai

The iconic guitar commemorates its 30th Anniversary

It seemed like in the 1980’s, there was a market flooded with differen guitar companies introduced a tonne of different guitars. Now, most of those guitars (and indeed many of the companies) have vanished, yet Ibanez guitars have remained as popular and as exciting as ever. The most iconic guitar from Ibanez, the JEM, is a lasting testament to their imagination, practicality, craftsmanship and design. It is a guitar designed by Steve Vai, to be the ultimate guitar for his personal tastes and idiosyncrasies, and it seems that guitar players all over the world agree that it is the ultimate rock guitar, blending the best features of traditional favourites with visionary advancements.

In 1985 Steve Vai had just stepped into the most coveted and perhaps the most highly scrutinised position in the guitar world at that time. Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Steve’s current guitars didn’t have the appeal, or most importantly the ability to keep up with his upward stardom. Numerous guitar manufacturers were already clamouring for Vai’s endorsement, and Steve sent spec sheets to many of these companies to see who could best suit his needs. Getting a big endorsement deal was not his objective; getting the best guitar was.

Steve explains that “basically, every company approached me for endorsements, and a lot of them make very excellent products. But I had an idea for a guitar that I kinda put together; I had a prototype I was using on tour, three of them actually, that were put together by myself, my guitar tech Elwood, and a friend of mine named Joe Despagni – he owns a company called Jem Guitars that makes custom guitars”, Steve explains further that “What I needed was a supply of these guitars at any time, because when playing live, you start using a lot of different guitars, when you switch the guitars inevitably sound different or feel different or don’t react to the amp in the same way”.

“So when Ibanez approached me I gave them a chance I gave every other company; I handed them my prototype and said ‘Here’s the guitar I want – make me one exactly like it.’ And I got a guitar back in three weeks that was just great. I thought that it would have potential in the marketplace, and they were interested in marketing it. I wasn’t going to make it a Steve Vai guitar, because who’d be interested in buying a Steve Vai guitar unless I actually played it? So I told them that if they made me these guitars and supplied me with them, then they could make them for other people as well. It took a while to perfect it, but every time they send me one it feels just like the others”. 

Rich Lasner, who was with Hoshino at the time explains: “Steve sent us his plans based on ideas from all of his favourite guitars, where we made two prototypes from his plans. The first was semi-hollow, made from solid maple with a maple neck. The second one was maple/mahogany/maple, a solid body. Both incorporated the monkey grip, but the actual hole was considerably larger than what is on the production models. Mace Bailey [who was Ibanez’s resident wood expert] performed the actual construction”.

Both prototypes included, DiMarzio pickups, PAF Pro humbuckers in the bridge and neck positions, and a custom-wound single-coil pickup in the middle. Following production of the prototypes Mace Bailey recalls, “Steve was pretty happy with the job. He sent the maple one back to Ibanez with instructions. First, the 21st through the 24th frets were to be scalloped to give increased access, tone, and volume. He liked the maple necks but felt that rosewood would do better on the fingerboards. And then the significant change was to make the bodies themselves out of basswood, a much lighter wood. I went over to Japan to our factory there and sat down with the craftsmen there, and we started banging on blocks of basswood and hearing how they rang out. We built ten guitars to Steve’s new specifications and sent them over to his place, and that was that. The current production guitars are exactly what we stopped with there. Steve plays these guitars, the production ones".

A limited edition of 777 green Ibanez JEM guitars, known as the Loch Ness Green JEMs, were signed & numbered by Steve, and some of these also include little mystical works of art done by Steve, making each unique. Since production of the original limited edition JEMs, which have now become collectables amongst guitar enthusiasts, adding to the testament that Steve and Ibanez have created. Other 1987 production JEMs included the yellow JEM777DY with pink pickups, the pink JEM777SK with disappearing pyramid inlays, now iconic symbolism associated with Steve and the JEM line. The JEM7RB with a transparent “root beer” finish with pink pickups and dot inlays and floral Jem, the Jem 77FP, debuted in 1988 and became Steve’s favourite of the lineup. 

The production JEMs now also included two yellow models, the original yellow with the vine inlays on a rosewood fretboard, and a new yellow Jem with a maple fingerboard and disappearing pyramid inlays. The 1990s also saw the introduction of the Ibanez Universe guitars, 7-string versions of the guitars sans the monkey grip, featuring DiMarzio Blaze II pickups for 7-string guitar. The Universes were initially available in three finishes; black with green pickups and dot inlays, white with pyramid inlays, or an elegant multicolour swirled finish with pyramid inlays.

Each new year seemed to bring with it some changes to the JEM & Universe lines, creating bold, yet beautiful guitars that will stand the test of time. The black JEM7P was retired, and in its place was introduced the JEM77BFP, a beautiful guitar with a blue floral pattern on the body and a blue vine inlay. Also introduced was a new Universe 7-string, the UV777GR, designed to look like a 7-string Loch Ness Green Jem. 1993 saw the introduction of one of the most popular versions of the guitar yet, the JEM7W. Revolutionary at the time, all previous production of the JEMs were made of basswood, but the 7WH had an alder body, the DiMarzio PAF Pro humbucking pickups were replaced with high output DiMarzio Evolution pickups in collaboration with Steve. The fingerboard was ebony instead of rosewood or maple, and the guitar featured pearl/abalone inlays and gold hardware. 

The three JEMs in the 1995 catalogue are the floral JEM77FP, the yellow JEM777, and the white alder Jem 7WH guitars. The Universe 7-strings were no longer in production, but two less expensive JEMS were released for musicians on a budget; the JEM555. Available in a white finish with black hardware or a black finish with a grey Pearloid pickguard, these models were easily identified by their fretboard inlays. The Ibanez JEM guitars have proven themselves over the past 30 years to be incredibly exciting and important rock guitars. It is a classic in the making, redefining the rules of what a guitar can be and can do. They are guitars that upon their inception railed against any convention and in doing so, rewrote the rules and changed guitar history. Inspiring a number of JEM-dedicated websites and a fiercely loyal and supportive following. The JEMs spawned dozens and perhaps hundreds of imitators, yet have always stood alone at the front of the pack as one of the most successful signature guitar lines ever.

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