The Ibanez Connection – The Jem, The Universe, and Me
It seemed like in the 1980’s, a thousand different guitar companies introduced a million different guitars for rock guitarists. Now, most of those guitars (and indeed many of the companies) are history, yet the Ibanez Jem guitars have remained as popular and as exciting as ever, 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 historical favorites with visionary advancements.In 1985 Steve Vai had just stepped into the most coveted and perhaps the most highly scrutinized position in the guitar world at that time; guitarist for David Lee Roth, who had just departed from Van Halen. Suddenly thrust into arenas and the spotlight, his equipment needs changed, and it was time to design a new guitar, of which he could have several made to take on tour. Numerous guitar manufacturers were already clamoring 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.
“Basically, every company approached me for endorsements, and a lot of them make very fine 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. What I needed was a supply of these guitars at any time, because live, when 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. I’m always breaking guitars too, it must be my sedate and laid-back style (laughs). And what happens then?”
“So when Ibanez approached me I gave them the 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. And when I walk into any music store and pick up one of these guitars and play it, it feels great. It took a while to perfect it, but every time they send me one it feels just like the others. I have no problem in rehearsal, for example, going from one guitar to another, whether it’s green or blue or yellow or floral or whatever; I know they’re gonna sound basically the same and that the feel is the same on all of them. So that solved the problem of duplicating the one guitar I really like.”
Rich Lasner, who was with Hoshino at the time (now with Modulus Guitars) explains: “Steve sent us his plans based around ideas from all of his favorite guitars. We made two prototypes from these plans. The first was semi-hollow, made from solid maple with a maple neck. The second one was maple/mahogany/maple, a solidbody. Both incorporated the monkey grip, but the actual hole was considerably larger than what’s on the production models. Mace Bailey [who was Ibanez’s resident wood expert] performed the actual construction.”
Both prototypes used DiMarzio pickups, PAF Pro humbuckers in the bridge and neck positions, and a custom-wound single-coil pickup in the middle.
Lasner brought both prototypes to Steve’s home in Los Angeles. “The first thing he did”, Rich recalls, “was disassemble them on the spot. Neck from body, pickguard off, tremolo out… took ’em apart. I was shocked, to say the least. But Steve looked at me nonchalantly and said ‘Relax, I do this all the time’. He wanted to check Mace’s detail and craftsmanship”.
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 major 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 10 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 totally unique. These guitars have since become very collectible.
Other 1987 production Jems included the yellow Jem777DY with pink pickups, the pink Jem777SK with disappearing pyramid inlays, and the Jem 7RB with a transparent “root beer” finish with pink pickups and dot inlays. The floral Jem, the Jem 77FP, debuted in 1988 and became Steve’s favorite of the flock. The floral pattern was achieved by covering the top of the guitar body with material and finishing it. The material perfectly matched the curtains in Steve’s home.
By 1990, the Jem 7 with the root beer finish had been discontinued, though the Jem 7 with the black finish and pyramid inlays remained. The production Jems now also included two yellow Jems, the original yellow with the vine inlays on a rosewood fretboard, and a new yellow Jem with a maple fingerboard and disappearing pyramid inlays. 1990 also saw the introduction of the Ibanez Universe guitars, 7-string versions of the Jem 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 elaborate multicolor swirled finish with pyramid inlays.
Each new year seemed to bring with it a number of changes to the Jem & Universe lines. The black Jem 7P was retired, and in its place was introduced the Jem 77BFP, 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 Jems yet, the Jem 7WH. This Jem was a huge evolutionary step for the Jem. All previous production Jems were made of basswood, but the 7WH had an alder body. The DiMarzio PAF Pro humbucking pickups were replaced in this model by high-output DiMarzio Evolution pickups designed with Steve. The fingerboard was ebony instead of rosewood or maple, and the guitar featured pearl/abalone inlays and gold hardware. The prototype is still Steve’s main guitar over 5 years later, and has been named “Evo”. (For info on Evo and all of Steve’s guitars, you can check out Steve’s Guitar Collection). 1993 also brought the Jem 77GMC, which took its cue from the Universe guitars with its black and green multicolor swirl finish. The original yellow Jem with the rosewood fingerboard was removed from the 1993 catalog, as were the white and green Universe 7-string guitars.
By 1995, the line of Jem & Universe guitars had simplified. The three Jems in the 1995 catalog are the floral Jem 77FP, the yellow Jem 777, 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 Jem 555. Available in a white finish with black hardware or a black finish with a grey pearloid pickguard, these guitars are easily identified by their fretboard inlays, which are vine inlays similar to Jems but they end at the 12th fret, and at the 24th fret is a “Steve Vai” inlay.
In 1996, the Universe 7-string was reinstated due to public demand. The black UV7 was reintroduced. New Jems were introduced as well, including the limited edition 10th Anniversary Jem guitar, a striking instrument with an engraved pickguard and headstock, mother-of-pearl inlays and binding, and DiMarzio Evolution pickups. It was released in a very limited number (less than 900 total), and sold out very quickly. Also new was the Jem7BSB, with its rubbed burned-look finish and Phillips head screwdriver-style fretboard inlays.
1997/1998 were like any other years — the Jem & Universe guitar line continued to evolve and change. The white Jem 7WH and floral Jem 77FP remained popular favorites, but the yellow Jem was retired after many years. The 555 line was continued, but only with the white Jem 555. The big news in 1998 however, was the introduction of the new Universe 777P 7-string guitar, with its mirror pickguard, disappearing mother-of-pearl pyramid inlays and binding, and an abalone Light Without Heat symbol on the body. Also, the Jem 90HAM was introduced to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of Hoshino (the parent company of Ibanez), a limited edition Jem that sold out quickly.
In 1999 we meet the new Jem, the Jem7DBK. . The newest Jem is the Jem2K, a multicolor swirl Jem which mixes paint with Steve’s blood. For obvious reasons, not many of these were made — production was limited to 300 guitars, which despite a hefty price tag were swallowed up by collectors as soon as they were offered.
The Jem & Universe guitars have proven themselves over the years to be incredibly exciting and important rock guitars that will stand the test of time. 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.
In 2022, Steve was asked by the National Guitar Museum to write a bit about the Jem:
“In the mid 80’s I decided to have 4 custom guitars built around specifications that scratched the itch of my guitaristic idiosyncrasies. There was nothing available at the time that had all the elements I was looking for in a guitar, but there was a little guitar shop in Hollywood at that time called “Performance Guitar” owned by a great luthier named Kunio “Kenny” Sugai who for the most part assembled these custom guitars for me. Some of the unique features included…
I was attracted to the shape of the Fender Stratocaster but was interested in giving the form a little more of a sexier look, so I tweaked the curves for an appealing sleekness and also to fit on my body comfortably.
Pick up configuration:
The pick up configuration was unique at the time for a “super-strat” type body. I used hum-buckers in the neck and bridge position and a single coil in the middle. It was the wiring of these pickups and how the 5 position selector effected them that offered a more dimensional tones. When using either of the hum-buckers with the single coil, the pickup selector splits the coil on the hum-bucker making it a single coil. This offered the tubey like clean tone one might find on a Stratocaster.
Having 24 frets on a super-strat style guitar at the time was not common but was something I wanted, and I decided to scallop the top 4 frets so the notes were easier to grab. The deep, unconventional cut-away in the body allows comfortable access to these small frets.
I always wanted to be able to pull up on the whammy bar so the strings would go sharp to at least a perfect 5th. There were no guitars on the market that did anything like this at the time and I noticed that the only thing keeping the guitar from doing this is the wood in back of the bridge, so I had the wood removed and this created a floating bridge that has the ability to pull up on the whammy bar so the notes being played can go much higher than conventional whammy bars.
Conventional input jacks on Les Pauls and Stratocasters at the time were positioned in a way that if you stepped on the guitar cable, it could get pulled out of the input jack, so I had the input jack inserted at an angle that protects from this.
I assumed that there were some practical and innovative designs in this guitar that might be used on guitars by other manufactures, which is fine, that’s kind of how it works. But I did want to add something to the guitar that I didn’t think would be copied and would give the guitar a unique look so I had a “monkey grip” handle carved into the top of the body. My dear friend and luthier Joe Despagni was the first to put a monkey grip in a guitar for me. I also wanted to be able to grab the guitar by the monkey grip whilst wielding it over my head at concerts. This worked great!
Props go to my guitar tech at the time Elwood Patrick Francis who assembled elements on the Jem. Ibanez was the first company to create a signature guitar build on the specs of these original 4 “Jems”, and they have been the most excellent company in manufacturing and supporting this instrument through the decades.
At the time I had no expectations that this guitar would be something that other guitar players might be interested in, but decades later it has become the second longest running and most successful signature guitar to date. Who-da-thunk?
POW! And here it is in a museum for you to enjoy.
The EP7 features a thinline Florentine cutaway body shape with a quilted maple top, back and sides with a low gloss finish. The soundhole is oval with a brass rosette with Vai logos. It has a satin-finished mahogany neck with a 24-fret rosewood fingerboard with green pearl Tree of Life vine inlays. Components include an Ivorex II saddle in a rosewood bridge with ebony pins, an Ivorex II nut and satin gold Grover tuning machines. Electronics consist of a B-Band UST pickup connected to a B-Band A5 preamp with a 9V battery and ¼” endpin output.
Following the Ep7 Ibanez launched the Ep9 and later the thinline EP5 and EP10.
In 2021, the Pia line was extended with the Onyx Black Pia.
For more info, visit Ibanez or stop by your local authorized Ibanez dealer and check them out yourself. You’ll understand why it is called a Jem.
Ibanez Release Timeline
|Jem 777 LNG – Loch Ness Green|
|Jem 777 DY – Dessert Yellow|
|Jem 777 SK – Shocking Pink|
|Jem 777 Vine Dessert Yellow|
|Jem 777 Vine Shocking Pink|
|Jem 777 VBK – Vine Black|
|Jem 77 FP – Floral Pattern|
|Jem 7 Rootbeer|
|Jem 7 Pyramid Black|
|Universe 7 Black|
|Universe 7 Pyramid White|
|Universe 77 Multi Color|
|Jem 77 BFP – Blue Floral Pattern|
|Jem 77 GMC – Green Multi Color|
|Jem 77 PMC – Purple Multi Color|
|Jem 7 VWH – Vine White|
|Jem 555 WH – White|
|Jem 555 BK – Black|
|Jem 7 BSB – Burnt Stained Blue|
|Jem 90HAM – Hoshino Anniversary Model|
|Jem 7 DBK – Dot Black|
|Jem DNA Anniversary|
|Jem 7 Vine Sparkle Blue|
|Jem 333 White|
|Jem 333 Black|
|Jem 333 Walnut|
|Jem 7 Black Rock Mirror|
|Jem 77 Vine Black|
|Jem 7 Earth Awareness Fixed Bridge Black|
|Jem 505 Black|
|Jem 505 White|
|Jem 20th Anniversary|
|Jem 77 Floral Pattern 2|
|Jem 7 Premium Sea Foam Green|
|Jem 7 Vine White 7 String|
|Jem 77 Premium Blue Floral Pattern|
|Jem 77 Premium Wood Charcoal Brown Low Gloss|
|Jem 30th Shocking Pink|
|Jem 30th Dessert Yellow|
|Jem 30th Loch Ness Green|
|Jem Jr Pink|
|Jem Jr Yellow|
|Jem 7 Premium Vine White|
|Pia3761 Stallion White|
|Pia3761 Envy Green|
|Pia3761 Panther Pink|
|Pia3761 Sun Dew Gold|
|Pia3761 Onyx Black|