REVIEW: Ibanez RGIR28FE Iron Label 8-string

496-1Ibanez was at the forefront of 7-string guitar development when they launched the Universe more than 20 years ago, and they’ve continued to innovate in extended-range instruments at all price points, from inexpensive GIO 7-strings to J.Custom 8-strings. The Iron Label series of 6, 7 and 8-string guitars includes RG and S models all of which are designed specifically for metal players, yet the styling is clean and neat enough to appeal to, if not every player, then certainly a wide cross-section of the guitar community.

On paper, the RGIR28FE 8-string (I bought mine from Ibanez Guitar Centre) reads pretty similarly to much of the RG line: super-thin neck (in this case a five-piece Maple, Walnut Nitro Wizard-8 profile), Basswood body, Maple neck, Rosewood fretboard and Jumbo frets. It features a chunky Gibraltar Standard-8 bridge with through-body stringing (and when you flip the guitar, you’ll see that the ferrules for the lowest two strings are staggered progressively further back than the rest in order to more easily accommodate proper intonation); a three-way pickup selector switch for the pair of EMG 808 active pickups; and a kill switch for manual stutter effects or just for bringing between-song noise to a quick end. The body is elegantly bound in white, and the four-per-side headstock follows a similar outline to the venerable Iceman headstock, which is a perfect fit for this style, if you ask me. The truss rod cover is one of Ibanez’s newer designs: simply use the edge of a pick to slide the hinged cover out of the way instead of having to deal with screwdrivers awkwardly poised between strings. And the neck joint is, of course, Ibanez’s famous All Access Neck Joint, which provides unfettered access to the highest frets.

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The neck feels very stable – and so it should, thanks to the addition of KTS Titanium rods – and the playing surface is very finger-friendly, especially for those who prefer modern shredder guitars rather than vintage-vibed ones. The fretboard radius is a flat-feeling 400mm (15.75″) and the scale length is 27″. The string gauges are 009, .011, .016, .024, .032, .042, .054 and .065, and the guitar leaves the factory tuned down a half-step from standard: low to high F, A#, D#, G#, C#, F#, A#, D#. Me, I tuned it up to standard, F#, B, E, A, D, G, B, E.

The Iron Label series sits below the Premium series in Ibanez’s Indonesian-made line. As such it doesn’t have the same level of finesse applied to the fret ends, but truth be told, the fretwork here is easily on a par with my beloved 90s Fujigen-made RGs, and noticeably better than my Japanese 2007 RG550MXX Roadflare Red 20th Anniversary model. Sure, it wouldn’t hurt to take it to a trusted tech for a little fretwork overhaul at some point, but there’s no cheese-grater effect here. The only workmanship issues I can see are a few little rough edges in the binding (but even these are less obvious than the binding blemishes on my UV777BK) and a bit of clearcoat overrun on the edges of the headstock.

So how’s it sound? Well, if you’re familiar with EMGs you’ll know that they sound great no matter what guitar you put them in: they always sound very ‘EMG.’ This is perfect for modern metal and Metallica-style thrash, and you probably already know by now if you’re an EMG fan or not. In this case the two pickups are identical to each other, rather than being individual neck and bridge versions, and it’s interesting to compare the two positions and to note the similarities and differences. In the bridge position the 808 sounds fat and compressed, with that famous grainy EMG high-end and smooth spongey quality which helps to even out the dynamics of palm-muted riffs, and makes for great multi-tracking. Power chords sound thick and full, and single notes have plenty of body and harmonic richness as you travel up the neck. As far as the lowest string speaking clearly, I had no problems when using amp sim software but I found that through my Marshall I had to stick to single notes rather than power chords when riffing out on that string. Your mileage may vary depending on what amp you use. I did find that chords played on the middle strings around the region between the 7th and 12th frets with a bass note on the low F# sounded pretty damn good.

492In the neck position, the 808 has more of a singing quality, or perhaps a little flute-like. There’s almost an ‘Ooo’ vowel sound present in sustained notes on the high B and E strings from the 9th fret onwards, and as with the bridge position, the neck pickup sounds quite full and bold on the higher frets, rather than becoming thin and piercing like some pickups can. The killswitch is a cool idea that will be great for some players, but personally I’d prefer a tone control there – surely I’m not the only guy in metal who likes to use one to get some of that honky, almost-like-feedback lead sound?

The clean tones are great for modern metal – that is, rather ‘hi fi’ – and if you’re a fan of super-clean intros, maybe with a little chorus, delay and reverb, these will do the trick very nicely. You’re not going to find old-school classic rock tones or gritty semi-cleans here, but that’s not the aim of either the EMG 808 specifically nor the Iron Label series in general. For the guitar’s stated goal, these pickups do the job very well. Personally, I’ve swapped them out for a Seymour Duncan Pegasus (bridge) and Sentient (neck) with coil splitting just because I’m more of a passive-pickup guy, but I’ve held onto the EMGs in case I need that sound for a specific recording.

Ibanez’s Iron Label series is geared towards heavy metal. This much is obvious just from the most cursory glance at the spec sheet. And this 8-string model in particular would seem purpose-built for aggressive, heady, deep metal. But as I’ve already discovered, it’s capable of more than that. Much more. Do you ever feel frustrated that after a certain point the notes on the guitar just …run out? I know I do. So don’t think of this Iron Label 8-string as a low string with a bunch of superfluous high strings. Think of it as a six-string guitar without the limitations of a six-string guitar. Or, even better, think of it as its own instrument that presents no real inhibitions aside from maybe asking that you warm up your fretting hand a bit more than usual before trying to make those big stretches.
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