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Ibanez JEMJR JEM/UV Steve Vai Signature 6-String Electric Guitar (White) - JEMJRWH

Steve Vai's signature guitars have become almost as iconic as the player himself, and now that mojo is more attainable than ever with the Ibanez JEMJR Steve Vai Signature solid body electric guitar. From the acrylic vine inlay to the instantly-recognizable "monkey grip" handle, there's no doubt where the JEMJR Steve Vai Signature came from.

For tonal tenacity, you get two Quantum humbuckers and one Quantum single-coil pickup complete with five-way switching. Factor in the double-locking tremolo bridge, and the Ibanez JEMJR Steve Vai Signature is ready to wail.

One of Ibanez's fastest necks to date, the Wizard III neck on the JEMJR Steve Vai Signature guitar is an absolute pleasure to play. This slim and super-comfortable neck lets you pull off lighting-fast runs and arpeggios with ease, but still gives you the substance you need for grabbing chords when you need to. From the first time you put your hands on the JEMJR's Wizard III neck, you'll know you've got a guitar that was built with performance in mind.

The JEMJR Steve Vai Signature packs Ibanez's standard double-locking bridge, which helps you maintain your tuning stability even after heavy pitch bends.

Tree-of-life Inlay

The JEMJR features a rosewood fretboard with a Tree of Life inlay.

Monkey Grip

One of JEM's most recognizable features: Steve Vai's signature monkey grip. Crank your amp up, grab that baby and hold on for dear life.


Steve Vai JEM Guitars

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Ibanez Steve Vai JEM JR Electric Guitar

The iconic body style of the JEMJR guitar is carved from mahogany, and features the JEM trademark “monkey grip” cut near the upper horn, along with a white finish. Steve Vai prefers the metal industry standard H-S-H schematic for maximized tonal versatility. The JEMJR features a trio of Ibanez Quantum pickups. The humbuckers in the neck and bridge positions feature ceramic magnets that reproduce more harmonic overtones than conventional humbucking pickups. The single coil pickup in the middle delivers a more traditional tone.  The simplified controls include a master volume, master tone, and a 5-way switch providing endless tonal variations and slabs of explosive tone.

The Ibanez JEMJR also gives you an ultra-thin fast-playing maple neck, carved to Mr. Vai’s exacting specs. Steve Vai has always been partial to slim neck profiles that maximize ease of playability and enable him to play at blazing velocity. The 24-fret JEM neck boasts an extremely flat 15.74” radius, and a rosewood fretboard adorned with Steve Vai’s “Tree of Life” inlay.

The Ibanez double-locking  tremolo system makes tuning easier and faster as well as providing stable tuning that will withstand long performances, all while maintaining smooth tremolo playing. Loss of tuning is kept to a minimum, even through aggressive dive-bomb licks or when a string breaks.  Case not included.

Get your Ibanez Steve Vai JEMJR Electric Guitar  from Sam Ash Direct today with the security of our 45/60 day return/price protection policy and take advantage of our fast, free shipping.

Steve Vai introduces the Ibanez JEM-EVO

Steve Vai


Steve Vai is a virtuoso guitarist, visionary composer, and consummate producer who sculpts musical sound with infinite creativity and technical mastery. At age 12, he started taking guitar lessons from Joe Satriani. At 18, he began his professional musical career transcribing for, and then playing with, the legendary Frank Zappa. More than three decades, 15-million in album sales, and three GRAMMY Awards later, Vai has proven himself, in his own right, one of music's true originals.

Vai's work has been recognized with a long list of awards, including an even dozen from Guitar Player. Most recently, the TEC Foundation honored him with the prestigious Les Paul Award, created in 1991 to salute those who have set the highest standard of excellence in the creative application of technology. Past winners include Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Herbie Hancock, Steely Dan, and Bob Clearmountain. In bestowing it on Vai, TEC noted, "Steve Vai's sheer breathtaking facility on the guitar is acclaimed in the rock world and beyond… Vai has dedicated his talents to creatively advance the language of music. While many artists fit easily into a single category, Steve Vai remains unclassifiable. He is a musical alchemist of the highest order."

The latest product of Vai's alchemy is 2012's The Story of Light, his 16th solo album. It follows up the 2009 live tour de force Where the Wild Things Are, and was released on Favored Nations Entertainment, founded by Vai in 1999 to present works by musicians who have "attained the highest performance level on their chosen instruments." The label's roster features artists including Tommy Emmanuel, Steve Lukather, Eric Johnson, Billy Sheehan, and Larry Carlton, and more than 70 releases.

Vai's full discography encompasses more than 60 albums, including many with Zappa, others from his stints with David Lee Roth (just after he left Van Halen) and Whitesnake-at the peak of its popularity-live releases, collaborations, compilations, and orchestral works. Highlights include 1990's groundbreaking Passion and Warfare, and 2007's Sound Theories Vol. 1 & 2, performed with the Netherlands' Metropole Orkest. Vai's other orchestral compositions include "The Middle of Everywhere," which had its world premiere in 2011 with the Noord Nederlands Orkest, whose director Marcel Mandos said, "Steve Vai's music can easily compete with that of famous contemporary composers."

The Story of Light follows the cosmic journey of a man driven mad by grief, intertwining tragedy, revelation, enlightenment, and redemption. It continues a narrative arc begun on Vai's 2005 album Real Illusions: Reflections (his last solo studio release). Largely instrumental, The Story of Light spotlights guest vocalists including singer-songwriter Aimee Mann-dueting with Vai on "No More Amsterdam," which she also co-wrote-and Beverly McClellan, a season one finalist on The Voice, appearing on "John the Revelator." The track was inspired by a vintage recording of blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, whose acid-soaked vocals are sampled in the mix as well.

Throughout, Vai's lead guitar lines bend sounds and listeners' minds in equal measure. Looking ahead, he envisions a third set of songs that will unravel the mysteries and reveal truths woven through The Story of Light and its predecessor. The completed trilogy, envisioned as cinematic-even operatic-in scope, will include lyrics, narration, and visuals.

Vai's signature instruments include the Ibanez JEM guitar, which he designed in 1985 with first-of-its-kind features including the floating tremolo and the monkey grip. The JEM is now one of the longest running, most successful signature series guitars in history, and for over a decade its sister model-the RG-is second in worldwide sales only to the Fender Stratocaster. Also for Ibanez, Vai designed "The Universe," the first commercial 7-string electric guitar. This instrument inspired a revolutionary metal subculture that started in the mid '90s. Among his many other innovative collaborations with equipment manufacturers, he designed the Steve Vai Legacy V3 series of all-tube amplifiers with Carvin Corporation.

In the film realm, Vai has credits including Executive Producer for the acclaimed 2008 Hank Garland biopic Crazy, in which he also appears as Hank Williams. In the 1986 feature Crossroads, inspired by the legend of blues icon Robert Johnson, he appears as Jack Butler, "the devil's guitarist"-and collaborated with Ry Cooder on the music scenes.

In 1998, Vai established (with Ruta Sepetys) the Make a Noise Foundation to provide instruments and music education to young musicians without means. "Music educates the whole person as an integrated individual. It educates the mind, the senses, and the emotions," says Vai. "Those interested in music should not have to sacrifice their ability to develop important skills and express emotions due to limited financial resources." A Steve Vai Guitar Scholarship will be awarded in 2012 as part of a collaboration between Make A Noise and the Musicians Institute College of Contemporary Music.


Gem steve vai

We’re all familiar with the iconic image of rock guitarists playing guitar faster than anybody really should, all with spotlights and magnificent heads of hair.

Those interested enough have names for those iconic people, and foremost among those names is Steve Vai. Vai started his career transcribing Frank Zappa’s work, then joined Zappa’s band, and has since worked with everybody from Mary J. Blige to Spinal Tap to Ozzy Osbourne, and well as being foremost among celebrated, instrumental, solo guitarists.

Ibanez has been putting out Jem Steve Vai signature models since 1987. The original designs were a collaboration between Vai and his friend and luthier, Joe “Jem” Despagni, after whom the guitar was named.

Let’s see what it does!

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.


Bolt-on neck








24, Jumbo


A Quantum humbucker each at the bridge and neck, and a Quantum single coil in between them

So far, so good. I’m sure I’ve noted on reviews before though, that some guitars aren’t sold for their parts, they’re sold on their looks. The thing about that is that the more interesting aspects aren’t necessarily the parts.

This will work well for…

Vai fans on a budget.

Or anybody looking for a wild looking guitar with the basic premise of a Superstrat, on a budget.

Let’s be fair, it’ll mainly be the former I think. You can get similar parts on many, many other Superstrat guitars, and be mindful that whatever this costs you, Mr. Vai will be getting some of that. So you can probably get as good a guitar, at a lower cost, that you can add your own degree of wildness too.

And I will give money to anybody who can emulate that fingerboard inlay, at home, who hasn’t had training in such skills.

Does it do what it should?

Let’s consider this question in the context of the core premise of this guitar: making a noise like Steve Vai.

Yes, of course, it does. You think Steve Vai would put his name to it otherwise? Let’s take a look at the parts involved in achieving this though.

As mahogany bodies go, this actually feels pretty light. As previously noted on guitars in this price range, there’s mahogany, and there’s mahogany. And the mahogany on a $500 guitar will be less dense and therefore less heavy than mahogany in a $1,500 guitar. It’s not done or die overall, but something to be mindful of.

The Quantum pickups aboard the JEMJR are made by Ibanez. They’re fairly stock ones for the brand, featuring on multiple models… but not the higher end Steve Vai ones – they’ll have his signature DiMarzio Evolution ones.

Jatoba may be an unfamiliar name in guitar materials. In a time when regulations regarding rosewood are getting increasingly tighter, especially for guitars being made in the east, that need to be imported to the US market, it’s easier and cheaper to find alternatives these days. Jatoba is a really good option for fingerboards because it’s a very hard wood, which will help protect the JEMJR’s magnificent inlay.


Ibanez has always been a key brand in terms of construction quality. Hey, they were part of the lawsuit-era for making copies of Gibsons and Fenders that were better than Gibsons and Fenders! And again, Steve Vai is not going to attach his name to a poorly made instrument. Whatever you think of the parts that go into it, a shoddily constructed instrument – in an era when you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a great guitar – is just inexcusable.

Thankfully, it’s not an issue here. The neck is cleanly attached at the neck: no scratches or glue residue around the joint, or scrapes from over-screwing. All the hardware looks solidly attached. But let’s finally talk about the JEMJR’s glaringly obvious unique design aspects. Starting with the monkey handle. It’s a hallmark of Vai’s JEM guitars. It’s… interesting… but I’m not convinced of the practicality, especially on a budget model like this.

So, yes, it’s a handle. The grip is curved on the edges, so it’s not that uncomfortable, but I still don’t see myself holding a guitar there for long periods of time. I don’t own any such guitars all the time, and I’ve certainly never missed having such a handle on my Strat or 335.

The other thing to look at is that inlay referred to as the Tree of Life. Ignoring the pretentious name, you can’t help but respect the craftsmanship that went into it. Is it necessary? No, not even for a second. Does it look badass? Clearly!


Steve Vai has worked with a lot of different people in different styles. His guitar needs to be able to do whatever’s required at the time, whether it’s gentle clean rhythms, squealing solos, or monster riffs.

The JEMJR is built with plenty of selections to try and achieve this. The pickup selector is a five-way and goes from bridge, to middle-side coil of the bridge humbucker and middle, to middle, to middle and middle-side coil of the neck humbucker, to neck. It’s not an unusual feature of Ibanez Superstrats, but still worth remembering.

If you’re going for full-on Vai-like accuracy, you’ll, of course, want Vai’s signature model Carvin amp. For this interview, we’re using a British-style, 15-watt valve combo amp, because that’s what’s available. My go-to settings are bass at four, with middle and treble both at six. Drive, when required, will be at six.

Starting with clean sounds, the JEMJR is perfectly pleasant. The single coil in the middle is my favorite for an all-round sound that could do anything. But, you can push it towards the bridge side for funkier sounds, or over towards the neck for something a bit bluesier.

On the overdrive channel, things are as you’d expect really. The bridge side of the electronics will 100% deliver on searing leads that’ll cut through the rest of your band. The middle pickup is cool for some pronounced blues notes, while over at the neck, you have full capacity for some fat riffs. All good!

Read More: How to find the Best Electric Guitar


The parts, construction, and tones of the JEMJR all add up to it being an incredibly playable instrument.

Let’s talk about the neck and fingerboard because that Tree of Life inlay needs to be discussed. Except there’s not a lot to say about it, because it’s a perfectly smooth playing experience. I’m a straightforward dot inlays kind of guy, so I have a natural tendency to approach such ornate examples with skepticism.

But I can’t fault this. On top of the slender Wizard III maple neck, you can’t help but feel an ounce of bravado in your playing, so you go faster, tighter, more melodic. Unfortunately, I’m not a shredder, and I just wanted to play Wonderwall, because it’s a ridiculous guitar for playing Wonderwall on.



  • You get to look like Steve Vai!

  • Wild looks even if you’re not much of a Vai fan

  • Incredibly affordable

  • God parts, great looks, and a good selection of tones

  • You probably can’t play as well as Steve Vai

  • It’s not a particularly weighty guitar, which will bother some players

  • You can probably get a similar spec guitar for less money


If you think the JEMJR is in the right ballpark, but not quite it, there are plenty of guitars in a similar vein that you can consider.

Let’s start with another Vai signature. This one is more of the real deal: it’s the JEM7V. And it costs $2999.99. So that’s significantly more than the JR!

Remember when I was mentioning all the things that kept the cost of the JR down? Well, the 7V includes them. First off, Ibanez makes very clear that this guitar is made in Japan. That alone has jacked the price up. Ibanez keeps their Japanese manufacturer for their most premium models.

Secondly, unlike the JR, the 7V has those signature Steve Vai Dimarzio Evolution pickups that I mentioned. Again, that jacks the price up just for being a signature model, on a signature model! You’ll also notice that the 7V has shiny gold hardware. Additionally, it’s had Ibanez’s Prestige fret edge treatment, which allegedly helps with playing faster.

Oh, and guitars this expensive come with a hard case.

For $100 less than the JEMJR, you can get an Ibanez RG450DXB. The RG range was Ibanez’s original moneymaker original design, and now they make them at price points to cater for everyone. The spec list is identical to the JEMJR for less money: mahogany body, Quantum pickups, Jatoba fingerboard… I did say you could get similar specs for a lower price.

If you’re looking for Vai sounds on a budget, and you’re more focused on tone than Tree of Life inlays, this RG is definitely worth checking out.


So there you have it. How to look and sound like Steve Vai without completely breaking the bank. Or if you just want a cool looking guitar.

It’s important to remember that signature model guitars are essentially an extension of an artist’s merchandise offering. It’s still going to take practice to sound like them, especially in the case of Steve Vai.

Even if you’re not a fan of the man himself, there’s no denying that the JEMJR is a great guitar, well constructed, with tones to suit a variety of styles. It’s hard to complain about that!

Further read:

Top Ten Best Ibanez Guitars On The Market Today

Ibanez Iron Label RGIT20FE: The Ultimate Review

guitar playing

Danny Trent

Danny grew up playing anything that looked like a guitar. Since some kids just don’t know how to grow up, he continues to write about guitars because you can do that these days.

Ibanez Steve Vai Signature Guitars Overview

Steve Vai tells the story of the Ibanez JEM

By Henry Yates ( Guitarist )

"I had no expectations. I thought I was just designing a guitar for myself"


Back in 1987, an esoteric Japanese luthier and a frustrated LA virtuoso created the shred guitar that shook the world. Three decades later, Steve Vai explains why the Ibanez JEM “was just a killer machine”.

Backstage at Charleston Music Hall, South Carolina, Steve Vai is surveying a battle-scarred electric guitar. The instrument has plainly seen better days. The chipped white finish reveals the ravaged alder beneath. The neck has already been replaced twice.

This is Evo, the model that Vai fans will crane their necks for in an hour

Ostensibly, it’s an unlikely choice for Vai: a multi-platinum star whose website lists a 138-strong guitar collection. But to those who know, this is Evo, the model that Vai fans will crane their necks for in an hour, and the most famous member of the Ibanez JEM family. “It’s beat to shit,” Vai informs us, “but I’ll be playing it again tonight.”

If Evo’s lifespan is astonishing, so too is the apparent immortality of the JEM series. Thirty years have passed since news of Vai’s signature model raced through the 1987 NAMM show. 

Over that same period, 1,000 vanity-project guitars have been created for transient rock stars, then discontinued when their fortunes faded. And yet, through every fashion and fad, the JEM has flourished, its lean double-cut styling, borderline-garish finishes and inimitable monkey grip now icons of the gear landscape. 

“I’m stunned by it all,” says Vai of the model’s three-decade reign. “I had no expectations. It was very innocent. Back then, I thought I was just designing a guitar for myself.”

Zappa zip

Rewind to 1985, and Vai’s glittering career as sideman to David Lee Roth belied his frustration. Raised on the 70s rock heavyweights, he had tried to embrace the classic guitar designs. 

Frank was innovative in virtually everything he did, and I saw how he would attack guitars, change necks, add electronics

“I knew I had to play a guitar with a whammy bar, but I didn’t like the way Strats sounded: it just didn’t seem rock ’n’ roll to me. And although I liked the humbuckers in the Les Paul, I wasn’t crazy about the way they were shaped. I stuck with the Strat all the way up to the Zappa years, basically. 

“Frank was innovative in virtually everything he did, and I saw how he would attack guitars, change necks, add electronics. Then the Superstrats started to emerge with the likes of Edward [Van Halen]. And that’s when I realised that, y’know, you could have anything you wanted.”

Inspired, Vai headed to a Hollywood repair shop to breathe life into his fantasy spec sheet. “I wanted a 24-fret neck,” he reflects of the four resulting proto-JEM models. “This was rare at the time. The last four frets were scalloped, because, as Yngwie Malmsteen would say, you can really grab notes by the balls. 

“I liked the Strat body, but it always looked kinda pedestrian, lacking some sexiness. So I put on more edges. And I couldn’t understand why conventional guitars never gave you clear access to the top frets. I made sure the cutaway perfectly fit my hand, so I could reach the 24th fret.”

Double whammy

By the mid-80s, with the shred scene at its lurid peak, the Floyd Rose was industry standard. Now, Vai hatched a bolder plan, born of exasperation that the dominant tremolo unit’s fine-tuners prohibited upward bends.

I took a hammer and a screwdriver, and I just banged down all the wood. Next thing I know, I have a floating tremolo system that was really floating

“I’ve always had a love affair with the whammy bar,” he explains. “But the Floyd wasn’t doing enough for me. Y’know, the Floyd had come along, and in the beginning, it wasn’t quite there. You could never pull up, just because the wood that the tailpiece rested on was in the way. 

“So I took a hammer and a screwdriver, and I just banged down all the wood. Next thing I know, I have a floating tremolo system that was really floating. And they tell me this was the first one.”

The mix-and-match line-up of DiMarzios was another accidental revolution. “I was a PAF-head,” Vai recalls. “But I wanted to accomplish a sound with some bearing on what the Les Paul delivered, but also like a Strat’s in-between single coils, which was just a beautiful sound to me. So I came up with this design. 

“I used the DiMarzio X2N on some of those original JEMs, with a five-way selector that split the humbuckers. For a guy like me, this was like, oh happy day. I was told later this was a unique pickup design. But none of that mattered to me. I just wanted a sound. And I got it.”


Vai completed his original design with a few practical flourishes, removing one tone control, relocating the volume and angling the input jack (“because on Strats and Les Pauls, if you step on your cable, it comes out”). 

It might have ended there. But with the guitar manufacturers of California clamouring for association with the Roth band, the guitarist sensed an opportunity.

They delivered me a guitar that was just perfect, within three weeks, exactly to my specs

“I always felt weird doing endorsements. And I had already made the [custom] guitar. But they were still interested. So I figured, ‘Well, if somebody can make these for me for free, why not? I know that it works for me, so maybe it’ll work for other people, too.’

“So I sent the design out to a bunch of companies that I probably shouldn’t mention. But all the majors, y’know? And what I got back was basically their guitar with a couple of tweaks. None of them were what I wanted. 

“I was getting wined and dined, and I had to just tell these companies, ‘No, this isn’t it. It’s like I’m asking you for the colour red and you’re giving me tutti-frutti. Or actually, I’m asking for tutti-frutti and you’re giving me red.’”

Circa 1986, it was a stretch to describe Ibanez as a ‘major’. Established in the late 50s, the Japanese manufacturer was now attempting to shake off its reputation as a skilled purveyor of copies. 

Heading up the American Artists Relations Centre, Rich Lasner earmarked Vai as a potential endorser, while resident timber expert Mace Bailey crafted a speculative guitar that anticipated the virtuoso’s tastes. 

“That first model really had nothing to do with my design,” Vai recalls. “So I gave them my prototype and said, ‘No, make this guitar.’ And they did. They delivered me a guitar that was just perfect, within three weeks, exactly to my specs. That was the guitar. It was just a killer machine.”

All in the detail

It was true: the original JEM 777 models were serious artillery. Finished in Loch Ness Green, Shocking Pink or Desert Sun Yellow, the body was constructed from a resonant US basswood that cut the weight down to 3.6kg. 

The maple neck offered both speed and substance, with a 19mm depth at the nut and a slender feel that ensured seamless position shifts. 

I decided to do one thing that no company would copy, because it would just be a blatant rip-off. So I put on the monkey grip

DiMarzio’s PAF Pros roared in neck and bridge positions, combined with a custom-wound single coil in the middle. The Ibanez Edge tremolo and lion’s claw recess represented a refined take on Vai’s crude carpentry, bolstered by stud lock posts and a push-in bar that didn’t spin maddeningly out of reach like its Strat forebear. 

“The JEM,” nods Vai, “gained a reputation and a personality as being a shredder guitar. It was built for speed.”

Style was a factor, too. “I had an instinct,” reflects Vai, “that there were some very practical elements that would probably be borrowed by other companies once the JEM was a production model. But I decided to do one thing that no company would copy, because it would just be a blatant rip-off. So I put on the monkey grip. 

“I also requested day-glo colours. So this went against everything that Ibanez was hoping for. They thought I was crazy. But I just thought, ‘Well, I have nothing to lose, I don’t care. This is what I want.’ And they did it. So this odd bird of a guitar came out…”

Back in NAMM

An instant hit upon its debut at NAMM in June 1987, perhaps it’s understandable that Vai has been reluctant to stray too far from the JEM’s winning blueprint. 

I’ve considered, ‘What can I do to this guitar to change it?’” he reflects. “And really, the answer is, ‘Don’t f***ing touch it.’

“I’ve considered, ‘What can I do to this guitar to change it?’” he reflects. “And really, the answer is, ‘Don’t fucking touch it.’ It’s fine the way it is. It’s like, nobody’s sawing the horn off a Strat. This thing, it was born, and it is what it is, so I’m not gonna mess with it. I could, but I really don’t feel compelled to.”

In reality, the JEM has undergone a fistful of judicious tweaks since its inception. Most overt are the finish options, which span from the JEM2KDNA (featuring Vai’s own blood mixed with the paint) to the memorable floral-finish JEM77FP that launched in 1988. 

“That pattern was actually some curtain fabric that I had,” reflects the guitarist. “We bought all there was in the world. And for some reason, that model for me is the best-sounding JEM. I think it’s some kind of mixture between the basswood and the fabric that creates this really tight sound.”


More significant were the spec advances made to the JEM over the decades. “We switched to the All Access neck joint,” explains Vai, “and then we went to an alder body in 1993, with the white JEM7V, which is the longest-running model. 

“The necks are much stronger, because now they’re five-piece maple/walnut with a volute. And y’know, the pickups change…” Indeed, while the earliest JEMs had featured stock DiMarzios, in 1993, Vai elected to create his own. 

The pickups I designed as the JEM evolved were more compressed, not so many spikes, a little friendlier on the ear

“It wasn’t until the Evolution pickup came along that I started working with Larry [DiMarzio] on custom signature pickups,” he reflects. “In the 80s, you were always looking for the biggest, fattest, widest, warmest tone, because I was doing rhythm work behind a singer. That’s why things like PAFs worked well. 

“But when I started to gravitate towards solo work, y’know, if you’re playing melodies and solos, you gotta be careful with the tone. So the pickups I designed as the JEM evolved were more compressed, not so many spikes, a little friendlier on the ear, a smoother top end. And I like a tight bottom end - who doesn’t?

“For the Evolution pickup,” he continues, “I had five white JEMs with five different sets of pickups. I couldn’t tell the guitars apart, they all looked identical. At the time, I had seven Harley-Davidsons - it was one of my explosions of freedom - so I named the pickups after various historical Harley engines and wrote the abbreviations on the bodies. 

“The first one was the Flathead, so I wrote ‘Flatty’ on the guitar. Then there was the Knucklehead, the Panhead, the Shovelhead - and then the latest engine Harley had at the time, which was called the Evolution. And the guitar that I called Evo - which stood for Evolution - was the one I liked best. And that’s actually the guitar that I still play today. I’m looking at it right now.”

(Image credit: IBL/REX/Shutterstock)

The theory of Evo

What’s so special about Evo? “Well, the magic in a guitar is based on the perspective of the player. 

“Guitar players develop emotional attachments to an instrument. And then they create an identity for the instrument in their own head. And I’m very guilty of that. 

Evo is not the easiest JEM to play and it’s not the best-sounding one, but there’s something about it that I’m just attracted to

“When I got Evo, it felt like the right guitar, so I started playing it. Now, I’m not a fan of new guitars. They feel weird to me. They don’t have my DNA in them yet. They need to be assimilated into your personality, and I just started doing that with Evo and developed a relationship with it as my go-to instrument. 

“It’s like, I’ve been touring for 36 years, and I’ve slept in many different kinds of beds. Some of them were really comfortable, some of them were basically lounge chairs. But my bed at home is my favourite. It’s similar with Evo. It’s not the easiest JEM to play and it’s not the best-sounding one, but there’s something about it that I’m just attracted to.”

Practical psychology

Without the JEM, stresses Vai, he’d be a very different player. 

“These guitars, I think it’s part psychological, but mostly it’s just practicality. The idiosyncrasies of my playing, I’m capable of them because of the way the JEM is built. And if you ever heard me play another guitar, if you know my playing, I’m out of my comfort zone, because I’ve just been so forensic with the JEM. I use it on virtually everything. 

“On [latest album] Modern Primitive, there might be the occasional Les Paul or Strat, but really, when I’ve tried to do solos on other guitars, a lot of times, I just end up going back to the JEM. 

Probably the best way to describe how I feel about it would be stunned and grateful

“There’s a bonus track on the 25th anniversary release of Passion And Warfare called Lovely Elixir. I did something very daring, at least for me, and I recorded that with a Gibson ES-330. And it was a fight. 

“The JEM, to me, is like a smooth rollercoaster ride. And other guitars are like the Colossus - y’know, those old wooden rollercoasters where you’re lucky if you come out of it with your teeth?”

In the Charleston dressing room, Vai runs a hand over Evo as he attempts to sum up the JEM phenomenon. “Probably the best way to describe how I feel about it would be stunned and grateful,” he decides. “Y’know, the JEM has been a consistent seller for 30 years. We also made a lower-end version - the RG - and that’s gone on to be the metal guitar of choice. 

“Just speaking pure numbers on a worldwide basis, the Strat is the biggest-selling guitar and then the second-biggest for many years has been a toss-up between the Les Paul and the RG. And then, some years after the JEM came out, I designed the seven-string Universe. And we all know what that ended up doing: it created a sub-culture. 

“So the JEM was such a great project. And the fact that it’s so successful is just a stunner and a surprise and a delight…”

These guitars are from the collection of the late Jeff Pumfrett - many thanks to World Guitars for making them available. 

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NAMM 2020: Ibanez unveils its spectacular new Steve Vai signature model - and it's not a JEM

NAMM 2020: In a move that could be described as saving the best until last, Ibanez has launched its latest collaboration with Steve Vai, the Paradise In Art.

An ornate, avant-garde S-style that looks very much like a more evolutionary advanced JEM, the Paradise In Art (PIA) has a solid alder body, a five-piece maple and walnut neck, with a rosewood fretboard emblazoned with multi-colored blossom inlay.

The PIA also features an all-new DiMarzio HSH pickup set that’s yet to be named, 24 jumbo stainless steel frets with Prestige edge treatment, gold hardware, and a Floyd Rose Edge tremolo. The finish options all have great names and comprise Stallion White, Envy Green, Panther Pink and Sun Dew Gold.

Speaking to Guitar World ahead of our March 2020 cover story, Steve Vai said that the PIA is created in much the same spirit as the JEM: it's a player's guitar.

“Just like the JEM, it’s a very sleek, very kind of ‘metal machine,’" he said. "It’s built for tone, for speed, for intonation, for real performance. The way it sits on me, the way it sounds, the way it plays…it just feels like home. The minute I got my hands on it, I instantly felt a deep connection to the instrument.”

The petals signify the bond that two people have when they resonate together, and this is represented in the art of the guitar

But the big news is the Petal Grip, which replaces the time-honored Monkey Grip looks kind of like a TMNT domino mask but of course reprises the foliage theme. Again, very thoughtful of Vai and Ibanez to design a guitar with a carry handle, but, as Vai explains, the design is more than just a practical appointment.

“The petals signify the bond that two people have when they resonate together, and this is represented in the art of the guitar,” explained Vai in a statement.

“The petals are also reminiscent of the Yin and Yang sign which is thought of as complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts. The petals are also the most beautiful and attractive part of a flower and intended to signify a message of unity and companionship. It is the ethos that guided the artistic design of the guitar.” 

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Well, that artistic design is certainly stunning, and proof, if needed, that there are few, if any, more fruitful partnerships between guitarist and manufacturer than that between Steve Vai and Ibanez. There are no prices for the PIA just yet. More details as and when we have them.

For all the hottest gear news, see our NAMM 2020 hub.

For the full story from Vai himself, pick up the March 2020 issue of Guitar World, on sale January 28. Better still, save yourself some money and subscribe here.


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