New Premium Ibanez Jem Brings Back Ebony Fretboard

The Ibanez JEM7VWH has been Steve Vai’s main instrument since it was released at the time of the Sex & Religion album in 1993. Upon release it had a Lo Pro Edge tremolo, an Ebony fingerboard and Vai’s new DiMarzio Evolution humbucking pickups. Since then the VWH has undergone a few changes, including the switch to an Edge Pro tremolo and then to an original Edge, but by far the biggest change that really riled up the Jem community when it happened was the decision to move from an Ebony fingerboard to a Rosewood one in 2004. Sure, this gave the Jem a slightly warmer tone (which helped to cool down those very aggressive Evolutions) but many players preferred the more direct tone and smooth feel of Ebony. 

Now Ibanez is releasing a Premium version of the JEM7VWH, the JEM7VP, which brings back that sweet sweet Ebony fingerboard. There are a couple of other key differences between this and the Japan-made VWH though: it has Jumbo frets and a 5-piece Maple/Walnut Wizard neck instead of the JEM neck shape and narrow/tall 6105 frets, and the Premium’s fingerboard radius is a little more subtly rounded than the VWH.

I can imagine a lot of players being very happy with this model. A) It’s more affordable than the VWH which is a seriously-priced piece of kit; B) Yay Ebony; C) The smaller frets and flatter radius of the WVH just don’t feel as Ibanezzy to players who are used to the RG neck. One point to note: it does not have scallops on frets 21-24.

This is also pretty smart marketing by Ibanez. It gives players something in between the top-of-the-line JEM7VWH and the budget JEM Jr, a guitar that a lot of folks buy to upgrade to more VWH-like specs. 

I used to have a VWH and while it was a phenomenal guitar, eventually I traded it for a Strat because it just never really felt like ‘mine.’ But I’m certainly tempted to get the JEM7VP because there will always be a place in my heart for the white Jem, and I think I would like this model’s neck a little more. What do you think?

REVIEW: DiMarzio Gravity Storm Steve Vai humbuckers

Steve Vai has used various signature DiMarzio pickups over the years: the Evolution, the Breed, the Blaze, Evolution 7 and Evolution 2 (as well as the set made exclusively for the transparent acrylic 20th Anniversary Jem). And his pickups have something in common with his music: they all seem to be designed to explore and address a specific sonic question. The Evolution is bright, middy and somewhat hyper, for instance, while the Breed is warmer and more vintage. Steve’s new Gravity Storm set comes from a different place to the Evo, Blaze or Breed. Read More …

REVIEW: Carvin Legacy VL100 amp

Steve Vai and Carvin recently announced a second generation Legacy amp, but today I’m looking at the original Legacy, which comes in two configurations, the VL100 head and the VL212 combo. Each version has the same layout – two channels (clean and lead), separate volume, middle, bass and presence controls for each channel, master reverb, switchable 50 or 100 watt output (a definite plus, as thing thing’s volume level is a little on the extreme side), cabinet-voiced line out, effects loop, five 12AX7A tubes, and a bias switch to choose between the supplied EL34 output tubes or, if you prefer to tailor your tone, 5881 or 6L6GC.

There are three matching speaker cabinets to choose from, the C412T 4X12 angled top and C412B straight bottom boxes and the C212E 2X12 extension cab, each loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 60 watt speakers at Mr Vai’s request. Early production models featured 75 watt Celestions but when Vai changed them in his personal cabs, Carvin was quick to adapt the production models to match.

I reviewed the VL100 head, testing it with an Ibanez Jem 7VWH, Vai’s mainstay white workhorse. The Legacy’s clean channel sounds confident and loud, yet with enough dynamic sensitivity to cover everything from twangy country to warm jazz. Of course anyone who plugs a Jem into an amp designed by Vai is probably going to do what I did and launch into “Sisters.” While that track was recorded direct, it says a lot about what Vai looks for in a clean sound, and it’s here in abundance.

The Legacy’s lead channel is darker than its clean-toned buddy. At lower gain settings, vintage tones are within reach – think classic Led Zep or early Sabbath. Gradually nudging the gain up adds further harmonic complexity, until you get just past 6 when the ‘Vai hidden feature’ kicks in, signalling a hefty jump in gain after which the sound gets more and more saturated. The idea behind this is that if you keep the gain around 8, you can use the guitar’s volume knob to bring the gain back down to below-6 levels for rhythm work. Rolling the guitar volume back to about half and switching to single coils cleans up the tone significantly, and even minute changes to picking and fretting techniques are emphasised by the amp’s overall sensitivity and responsiveness.

Back up at full gain, the Legacy is extremely responsive – it’s one of those amps that gives back whatever you put in, and seems to emphasise whatever you do, whether it’s good or bad, so you’d better have your chops together if you want to go up against it. Legato techniques seem to bring out an almost wah-like quality, while complex chords sound huge and defined. Giving in to the temptation to play some Vai licks, I was able to identify a few touchstone tones, like those from “Fever Dream,” “K’m-Pee-Du-Wee,” “Giant Balls of Gold,” and pretty much everything from the “Live At The Astoria” DVD.

Though the Legacy sounds great on its own, it also sinks its teeth into effects like Homer Simpson scarfing shrimp at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. I plugged in my Boss GT8 using the ‘four cable method,’ which allows you to run effects like wah and overdrive before the amp’s preamp as well delays, reverbs or whatever else you choose in the effects loop. Delays and reverbs sounded natural and clear, while wahs and phasers sounded chewy and lively. But harmonizer and Whammy Pedal effects seemed to come into their own with the Legacy, with the dark, thick nature of the amp’s tone doing away with the digital artifacts usually imposed by such effects.

I put the Legacy through its paces at a trio jam. As the only guitarist I need a tone which can cover a lot of sonic ground, and the Legacy fulfilled that requirement admirably. Make no mistake, this thing is LOUD. With the volume on 2, it was powerful enough to cut through the band with ease. Beyond that, hearing protection is a must. At higher volumes the sponginess of the Legacy’s saturated sound is complemented by a more solid attack and more lush harmonics, and low B seven string excursions are clear and punchy. But the biggest surprise was just how much the Legacy loved my custom Telecaster with Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder single coils. The guitar sounded thick and chunky, no mean feat for a Tele, and even minor adjustments to phrasing produced drastic changes in tone.

CLICK HERE to hear Steve Vai demonstrate the Legacy.

If you’re after a high gain metal amp, the Legacy may not be for you. It’s more suited to lead playing, and open, round, dark tones rather than scooped-mid, ultra-distorted mega meltdowns. And despite what you may think if you’re more familiar with Vai’s “Passion & Warfare” album of 1990 than anything that’s come along since, the Legacy doesn’t rely on nor demand effects to get the most out of it. It sounds best in its natural, unadorned state, where it takes whatever you throw into it and spits it back out, enhanced with extreme volume and harmonic sophistication.

CLICK HERE to buy the Legacy direct from Carvin.

CLICK HERE to see Carvin Legacy amps on eBay.

Dual channels (clean & lead)
Separate Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble & Presence for each channel.
Master Reverb for both channels.
50/100W output switch
Bias switch for 5881, 6L6GC or EL34 power tubes (supplied with EL34)
Cabinet voiced line output
4, 8 or 16 ohm speaker impedence switch
Effects Loop
All tube: 4-EL34 matched Groove Tubes 5-12AX7 matched Groove Tubes
Hand crafted 7-ply poplar wood cabinet with black Tolex covering and metal corners
Dimensions: 24.25 inches wide x 10.5 inches high x 9.5 inches deep
Weight: 37 lbs.

INTERVIEW: DiMarzio’s Steve Blucher

If you’re a fan of guitar music (and if you’re not, you’re probably not even reading this website to begin with), go to your CD collection and pull out a random assortment of, say, 10 CDs. You’re probably gonna find Steve Blucher listed in the thank-you section of about 8 of them. As head of research and development for DiMarzio, Blucher is partially responsible for some of the coolest guitar tones ever. Recently I tracked him down and asked a few questions.

I Heart Guitar: How did you get started designing pickups? What were your early experiments like?

Steve Blucher: I originally split my time between playing guitar and working in guitar repair shops in New York, but I knew nothing useful about pickup design until I started working for DiMarzio. I learned from Larry DiMarzio on the job, so to speak. My first experiment (for better or worse) became the X2N pickup.

IHG: Do you get much of a chance to play these days, or are you too busy being a legendary pickup guru?

Blucher: I’ve played since my late teens, and have never stopped. I’ve had a fair amount of experience both live and in studios. I’m sure it’s possible to design pickups without being a player, but, for me, an essential connection would be broken if I couldn’t play. It also feels important to be able to relate to current guitars, amps and effects. Pickups don’t exist in a vacuum.

I don’t feel like a pickup guru, legendary or otherwise. Anyone who has seen my workspace will have an entirely different view of my status, and possibly also of my sanity.

IHG: What styles do you play?

Blucher: My favorite style (if you can call it that) is improvised music with as few restrictions as possible. This may seem very vague, but having lived my entire life in New York City might explain it, in the sense of being exposed to many influences and a musical culture pretty intent on not being caught up in rules.

IHG: With regard to when you said pickups don’t exist in a vacuum, I imagine you seek feedback from various players from different genres when designing a new pickup? For example, Paul Gilbert was featured in an ad for the Tone Zone – did he have any feedback into its development?

Blucher: We sometimes seek opinions from players in different genres, but not when a pickup is being designed for a specific player or style of music. Paul Gilbert didn’t provide any input towards the development of the Tone Zone. The only player who did was Eddie Van Halen, in the course of doing the pickups for the MusicMan EVH guitar. My understanding is that the final choice for the bridge pickup was between the TZ and the pickup he actually chose, and it almost literally came down to a coin toss.

IHG: The wiring scheme for the Ibanez Jem, with the split coils in positions 2 and 4, has become an industry standard. Do you have any other tricks, designs, schemes, etc like that which you’d like to see in wider use?

Blucher: I suppose this is simply a logical offspring of the JEM wiring, but recently I’ve been liking Strats with 3 Area hum cancelling pickups (the middle pickup being reverse-polarity) and a multi-pole 5 way switch to split the pickups in the 2 & 4 positions. This wiring offers the possibility of using relatively warm-sounding pickups in all 3 positions–which many Strat players want–and still having the typical Strat “cluck” in the 2 & 4 positions, which they also want.

IHG: Steve Vai once said that in designing the pickups for the white Jem, he put you through hell and that you probably have a few white hairs that say ‘Vai.’ What’s it like working with someone like Steve Vai, who has such precise ears, and how do you translate the sound from their head into their pickups?

Blucher: I guess “hell” is a relative term in this context. Steve is a perfectionist, and that fact used to make me very nervous because I was afraid of the possible consequences of failure. That said, it is easier in many ways to work with someone who can clearly describe what he or she wants than with someone who has only a general idea of the direction to go in, and Steve has always been very specific about what he’s after. He usually describes what he wants in terms of frequency response. It’s not the way most guitarists visualize sound, but it offers a good idea of what he wants to hear.

IHG: Vai also said that when you were designing pickups for the white Jem, you went through several prototypes named after Harley Davidson engines. Do you remember the others and what they sounded like? And did the Breed have its origins in this period too?

Blucher: The nicknames were panhead, flathead and shovelhead. Most of these directly preceded the Breed models. In terms of performance, they were all intermediate steps between the PAF Pro and the Breed.

IHG: It’s been reported that in addition to the Vai/Harley Davidson prototype names, the FRED was named after Fred Flintstone. Are there any other surprising working titles for your pickups?

Blucher: Yes, but good taste sometimes must be maintained. Some of the names were just silly and would probably cause offense if they saw the light of day.

IHG: A few of my readers wanted me to ask you if there are any plans for a Paul Gilbert signature pickup. It seems to me that Paul likes to use lots of different Dimarzio models for different applications.

Blucher: Your observation is exactly right. It would be difficult to do a pickup for Paul, because he goes between a large number of guitars with different pickups. I don’t think he’d care to be limited to one model. [ed. note: Gilbert now has his own signature pickup, the Injector, and surprisingly it’s a single coil. Read my review here.]

IHG: When 7 string guitars took off again in the late 90s, were you all like, “Alright, now I get to design more 7-string pickups”?

Blucher: I’m afraid not. I reserve that attitude for pedal-steel pickups, which I do for myself. We all have guilty pleasures, I suppose.

IHG: What are the specific challenges of designing 7-string pickups, especially when it’s a version of an existing 6-string pickup?

Blucher: We’ve gotten pretty good at being able to make equivalent 7-string versions of existing 6-string models. We’ve done it for about 12 models, so it’s no longer the exercise in terror that it was in the beginning. Designing a 7-string pickup from the ground up can be fun – the increased length of the bobbins literally offers more room to play around with tone and output.

IHG: Has the advent of digital modelling amps/units had any effect on your work? In other words, do you tend to consider the signal chain a guitarist might be using with a particular pickup, or do you just concentrate on making the best pickup you can?

Blucher: Digital amps have had an effect. As I mentioned, I don’t believe pickups exist in a vacuum, and there cannot be a “best pickup” that we can all agree on. Pickups are one part of the signal chain, and I don’t believe it’s possible to ignore how they affect and are affected by the rest of the chain. Change any part of the chain and the performance of the pickup will change as well. If I know what a players signal chain is, it’s going to have a serious effect on the design of the pickup.