There’s a very memorable photo in the Ibanez: The Untold Story book of a bunch of executives from another guitar company staring open-mouthed at the newly-unveiled Ibanez Jem at the NAMM show in 1987. It perfectly captures the moment when everything changed for so-called ‘superstrats.’ Steve Vai’s Jem signature line has gone through many changes since then, but the basic design remains the same: monkey grip handle, ‘lion’s claw’ route for pulling back on the whammy bar, 24 frets, now-standard-but-at-the-time-revolutionary pickup selection settings designed by DiMarzio’s Steve Blucher (the 2 and 4 positions split the humbuckers into single coils for Stratocaster sounds)… it’s easy to forget how influential those first Jems were, but they really did ignite a revolution in guitar design.
Jems have, by their nature, always been a costly proposition. For a long time you could buy the JEM555 or ‘Jem Jr,’ a Korean-made instrument which cut costs here and there – bridge, inlays, pots – and was never quite considered a ‘real Jem’ by the snobs who would only accept Japanese-made Jems. In some markets, Ibanez countered counterfeits with the Jem333, an even more stripped-down, low-cost alternative. But Ibanez fans feel a particular affinity for the Fujigen company which produces most of Ibanez’s Japanese output.
Cut to NAMM 2010. Ibanez introduces the Jem505, a real Japanese-made Jem which keeps the price down in a few clever ways without compromising the things that count. For starters, the 505 features Ibanez’s coveted original Edge bridge, Vai’s personal preference (as well as my own). The stud posts upon which the Edge pivots actually lock into the body to prevent movement, thus ensuring tuning stability, and the whole unit just feels very well balanced.
Other standard Jem features include a Jem profile 5-piece neck, a maple fretboard (a rarity on Ibanezes for the last few decades), a basswood body (like the majority of Jems excluding the Jem7VWH and a few others), All-Access Neck Joint (AANJ), monkey grip, lion’s claw, and top quality pots and switches. Only three things really separate it from most of its brothers: the simple dot position markers; the absence of scalloped 21st to 24th frets; and the choice of Ibanez pickups instead of the DiMarzios found on all the other models. The Ibanez pickups are a V8 humbucker in the bridge, an S1 single coil in the middle and a V7 humbucker in the neck position.
By the way, the case candy includes the very handy Prestige Multi Tool, which includes allen wrenches, screwdrivers, a truss rod adjustment tool and even a ruler for setting your string height down to the millimetre.
The 505 plays just like a Jem should. It’s fast – damn fast – but it’s a guitar that rewards careful phrasing too. If you just noodle mindlessly, the Jem will show you up as an impostor, but if you’re a really studied, diligent shredder it’ll present you in your absolute best light. The fret finishing is not quite carried out at the same standard that you’ll find at the top of the range, but they’re not sharp or rough – just not overly finessed.
The Ibanez pickups have tight bass, a musical midrange and a very definite treble kick (accompanied by a carefully voiced treble roll-off that keeps things from sounding too fizzy up there). Some players will love them, especially those whose tastes are more aggressive, while others may want to swap them out for more Vai-like pickups such as his signature Evolution or Breed models (or the PAF Pros of the original Jem release). Give the stock pickups a chance though – they formed the heart and soul of Ibanez’s venerable RG550 and RG570 guitars and are certainly capable of pulling a great tone. They clean up nicely and they’re awesome for shredding lead work or rock rhythm. The neck unit has a great vocal quality which really sings with upper harmonics around the 10th-17th frets, while the bridge pickup screams with bold, clear tone. It responds especially well to palm-muting and legato techniques. Its attack is somewhat similar to the DiMarzio Evolution, but the tone is different. As for the single coil sounds, the quack is there in abundance on positions 2 and 4, and the lone single coil in the middle sounds thin and cutting, in the best possible way, which makes this a very versatile axe.
Whammy lovers such as myself will love the Edge bridge. It feels very sturdy and is great for really zeroing in on specific pitches. You can get a huge amount of up-pull thanks to the lion’s claw rout behind the bridge, and if you whack the bar sharply with the edge of your hand you can nail the famed ‘flutter’ effect, in part thanks to the fine weight balance of the Edge itself, and partially due to a killer factory setup.
The Jem505 is just what many Jem lovers have been begging for – a Japanese-made, Edge-equipped, maple-fretboard Jem that won’t cause tensions in the home when you go to do the budget. Having owned Jems and their sister instruments the 7-string Universe myself I can confidently say that the 505 plays like a Jem – hell, it even smells like a Jem – and it’s a heck of a lot of guitar for the price.