Paul Gilbert’s first Ibanez Fireman was a custom model which he designed by flipping over the beloved Iceman (Fireman, geddit?). It was available in two configurations – rare and super rare – and they were pretty damn pricey guitars. But the fans loved ’em, and when Paul appeared on the cover of his Fuzz Universe album with a shiny new red Fireman, fans went understandably nuts. What was this beautiful guitar, and could we get our hands on one? Affordably? Please?
That day has come! The FRM100 is a Chinese-made version of Paul’s red Fireman. It features a solid mahogany body (if you look close you can see where separate pieces of wood are joined together, but this is pretty much standard practice). The three-piece neck is made of two pieces of mahogany flanking a slice of maple, with a rosewood fretboard featuring simple, elegant pearl dot position markers. The neck shape is huge if you’re used to more shred-friendly designs: 22mm at the first fret and 24mm at the 12th. The frets are tall mediums, which works well with the chunky neck profile. The fretboard radius is 305mm. The neck meets the body with an intriguing joint which looks a lot like an Ibanez All-Access Neck Join (AANJ), but minus the bolts.
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The bridge is Ibanez’s Tight Tune model, which is designed for maximum transfer of string vibration to the body. The saddles and the studs all lock down, even further enhancing vibrational transfer and boosting the tuning stability even further.
Electronics consist of a trio of DiMarzio single coils: Paul’s signature Injector models in the bridge and neck positions (read my review of them here) and an Area ’67 in the middle. All three are hum-cancelling pickups with Alnico magnets. Controls are a five-way pickup selector, master Volume and master Tone. The output jack is of the ‘mounted to a metal plate which is screwed to the body’ variety rather than a slightly-harder-to-build inset variant. The headstock is gloriously oversized in the great Iceman tradition, and the pickguard is a hypnotic tortiseshell material which reminds me of one of my earliest guitar plectrums. I get nostalgic about discovering how awesome guitars are just thinking about tortiseshell. The finish of the body and neck is called simply Transparent Red, but it’s a fine cherry hue.
So how’s the build quality? Pretty good! There are a few file marks on the fretboard around the higher frets, and a little of what looks like buffing compound on the fretboard right where it terminates at the body end. The finish isn’t the most evenly-applied I’ve seen, but it’s not too bad. And the fret ends might look a bit sharp but they don’t feel like it! I personally don’t like Paul’s choice to have the volume knob located all the way down near the bottom corner, but that’s his decision and it’s his signature guitar. If this was my axe I would swap the Volume and Tone controls around pretty quickly.
Playability-wise, the Fireman might present a bit of a confronting shock to players used to Ibanez’s spectacular Wizard and Jem neck profiles. It’s big and beefy, and the frets are particularly unforgiving. You can really grab notes by the balls for bending, but if you’re used to the somewhat compressed attack of more shred-oriented guitars you’ll need to take some time to get used to the snappier attack and decent amount of resistance that characterise the FRM100 playing experience. The upshot is that there’s plenty of scope for different levels of dynamic expression, especially when you plug in and give those DiMarzios a good cranking, which I did via a Jet City JCA50 50-watt head and matching 2X12 cabinet with custom Eminence speakers, and a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb pedal with Paul’s own TonePrint setting.
The bridge Injector sounds a lot fatter than most single coils, yet still with a bit of a trebly edge, and it’s very low on the hum. The neck pickup sounds a little warmer, and the Area ’67 in the middle is a bit punchier in the mids, with a more immediate attack. The in-between positions sound great, with lots of ‘string zing.’ And when you select the bridge/middle combination and roll the volume control down you’ll get a killer ‘woman tone’ a la Eric Clapton. But even before you touch the tone control, the sheer range of sounds available by simply varying the volume level and flipping the pickup selector is staggering. There are country and blues tones lurking in here as well as hard rock and vintage metal. At first it may seem like sacrilege playing heavier styles with single coils, but then, Iron Maiden have done it for years! It’s especially addictive to dial in a satisfyingly crunchy overdrive tone, then use your pick attack to go from dirty to clean and back again. This is not just a guitar for super-speed arpeggio-flingers: in fact the FRM100 seems at least equally happy playing chords and bluesy double-stops, maybe even moreso. It puts up a bit of a fight if you’re not used to a fatter neck and higher frets, but it’s worth it for the tone and the dynamics.
The FRM100 is a fine guitar indeed, one that I was sad to part with when it was time for it to go back home with its rightful owner. Although I already own a guitar with an Injector/Area ’67/Injector pickup configuration, the FRM100 is much more than its pickups. It’s a unique playing experience with a kind of coolness that’s all its own.
Thanks to Kirby for letting me check out the FRM100. You rock, bro!