Outside of the mainstream of rock and roll musicians, there are virtuosos.
Their music doesn’t get played on iHeart or on the jukeboxes in bars, but they’ll pack an arena. Their talent is undeniable, but it is technical, and they lack the catchy choruses required of mainstream music success.
For guitarists, Steve Vai is one of the most prominent virtuosos. He started transcribing Frank Zappa’s guitar parts. He was so good at that, Zappa offered him a place in his band. He has had an illustrious solo career, as well as doing some more mainstream work with Mary J. Blige, Spinal Tap, and Ozzy Osbourne.
He’s so well-regarded, he has lots of signature equipment with various manufacturers. And among the most prominent signature equipment of this most prominent virtuoso is the JEM guitar from Ibanez.
Vai and Ibanez have been working together since 1987.
Core features and specs
The foremost feature of the JEMJR is that it catches your eye. Look at it! However, looking at it doesn’t count if you’re looking for something to actually play.
|What kind of construction does it have?||Bolt-on neck|
|What’s the body made of?||Mahogany|
|What’s the neck made of?||Maple|
|What’s the fingerboard made of?||Jatoba|
|How many frets does it have?||24, Jumbo|
|What kind of pickups does it have?||Quantum humbuckers at the bridge and neck, and a Quantum single coil in the middle|
I don’t think there’s anything earth-shattering about that specs list. However, I feel there’s a high chance that you’re looking at this guitar because of its looks, because… well, look at it!
Who should play this?
The most obvious answer to this consideration is: Steve Vai fans.
However, even if you’re not a hardcore Vai fan, there’s no doubt that the highly unique design of the JEMJR will appeal to those whose aesthetic preferences lean towards something totally out there.
To be super-realistic for those on a very tight budget, based on the specs list above, you could relatively easily get a very similar instrument for a couple of hundred dollars less, and do some work on it yourself to Vai it up.
I mean, I couldn’t. Especially not that fingerboard inlay. Not with my toolkit at the dining table.
I don’t know what Steve Vai’s cut from the retail price of his signature gear is, but, I’m 100% certain that he won’t be putting his name to garbage. He needs it to sell to get his cut, and shoddy parts won’t help with that.
The guitar feels very light for one claiming to have a solid mahogany body. The thing with mahogany, is that it’s a very popular wood, and comes in all kinds of species, with all kinds of varying densities. Varying densities mean two things for guitars: varying weight, and varying tone.
The JEMJR is not that heavy, and at this price, well, that’s not too much of a surprise. The more dense, more resonant wood will be used on higher end guitars. Sorry if that disappoints you, but I would say it’s far from a dealbreaker, especially with guitars aimed at shredders: y’all go through so many notes so quickly, those notes don’t get the chance to ring out anyway!
The JEMJR is equipped with Quantum pickups. They’re designed and made by Ibanez themselves, and feature on a significant number of their instruments.
As with the weight, we can spot a cost-cutting compromise here. Steve Vai actually has a signature set of pickups, made by DiMarzio, but they’re expensive. If you get the JEMJR to get yourself started on the road to Vai-dom you can upgrade the pickups later.
The JEMJR’s fingerboard is made of Jatoba. There’s a good chance you’re unfamiliar with that kind of wood, and that’s OK.
With the regulations regarding the use of rosewood getting tighter, guitar manufacturers have using an array of alternatives, not all with names on the tip of anyone’s tongue. Jatoba is a particularly hard wood, which makes it ideal for fingerboards, and especially so for the JEMJR, because look at that inlay detail!
If you Google anything about Ibanez construction quality, it’s likely that you’ll see stories about them getting sued by Fender and Gibson in the seventies.
It wasn’t just that Ibanez copied the design, but the main issue was that Ibanez’s copies were better quality than Fender and Gibson’s output at the time. So that’s highly embarrassing for the two biggest brands in their field.
No more than our discussion about the parts used, Steve Vai isn’t going to lap his name on anything poorly constructed. It’s not hard to get a well-made instrument from the east these days – Dean in particular have some belters – so Ibanez have no excuse to have anything short of excellent for such an attention grabbing instrument.
My first port of call when examining the construction of a guitar is the neck joint. I think it sets the mood, and it’s where poor workmanship is most likely to show itself. Everything looks fine on the JEMJR – no glue residue or scratches. All perfectly clean. The neck doesn’t look like it was forced into the joint or anything.
A staple of Steve Vai’s signature model guitars is the monkey handle. Now, I’ve never been in possession of a JEM guitar for that long to start using it religiously without thinking, but it’s not something I’ve ever missed on my Strat or Les Paul. I struggle to think of it as anything more than a gimmick.
In saying that, the curved edges on the grip of the handle to suggest that it was developed with practicality in mind. Obviously, I gave it a little go, and it’s not the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever held. But I’m just not feeling it as a feature.
I’ve alluded to the fancy inlay already, but let’s dwell on it for a second. It’s called the Tree of Life – Did you roll your eyes? Yeah, me too… – but putting the name aside, and taking a close look at the detail that went into it, it really is something special on a guitar of this price. It’s stunning and took some effort to nail. I’m impressed.
Well, it’s all been leading to this…
What do you think this guitar will sound like? As noted in the introduction, Steve Vai’s musical output has been pretty varied, so his guitar needs to be able to handle literally anything that’s expected. Quite frankly, even amidst his most virtuosic work, the sounds varies, so his instrument needs to be able to keep up with that.
The JEMJR certainly endeavors to deliver with this.
Ibanez always try to cram as much tonal variety into their Superstrat guitars anyway, particularly in how they structure their pickup selection options. The selection option goes as follows:
- Bridge pickup
- Middle-side coil of bridge pickup and middle pickup
- Middle pickup
- Middle pickup and middle-side of neck pickup
- Neck pickup
Again, it’s a common configuration for Ibanez, but if you’re not familiar with them, it is unusual and worth noting.
Sadly, I don’t have Vai’s signature model amp to hand, so I’m reviewing through a British-style, 15 watt combo amp. As usual, my standard settings for electric guitar are bass at four, middle at six, and treble also at six. When I have the dirty channel on, drive is at six.
On the clean channel, the JEMJR is OK, and you start to get an idea of the versatility of the instrument. In the bridge position, there’s a nice bright sound that’s crying out for some funk and disco rhythms. In the neck position, the JEMJR on a clean channel is ripe for some of George Harrison’s blues moments. The middle settings have a nice all-round tone, that I couldn’t pinpoint for any particular style.
On the overdrive channel, the versatility continues. On the bridge pickup, I think it’s the closest you’ll get to what Steve Vai is best known for: rock infused virtuoso shredding lead parts. Let it rip!
At the other side of the spectrum, I was surprised by the neck pickup. I couldn’t stop playing fat power chords, and the came out beautifully grungey. I love it! In the middle section, it’s a comfortable blues rock sound. It’s fine, without being exceptional.
So far, so good with the JEMJR. But, what does the discussion so far lead to in terms of a playable instrument?
Well, the bottom line is that it leads to saying that the JEMJR is a very playable instrument.
After admiring the aesthetics of the Tree of Life earlier, I’d like to highlight that it’s also very lovely to play over. The frets are smooth at the edges, and the finish on the fingerboard itself is perfectly smooth too. It’s all perfectly lovely to play. As someone who’s a bit of a traditionalist with guitars, I was surprised with myself by how comfortable I felt playing it.
Add in the Wizard III maple neck, and you can’t help but want to shred, so it’s good for you to know your scales ahead of getting a JEMJR in your hands.
Whether you’re just look for a cool guitar, or if you’re looking to get started in emulating Steve Vai, the JEMJR is certainly a great instrument for either of those options.
It’s easy to be cynical about signature models, and dismiss them as a piece of merchandise, but musicians will want their fans to play their instruments, and that won’t happen if they suck.
If you’re not a Vai fan, that’s OK. But I hope that you could at least appreciate the quality, build, and playability of the JEMJR.