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.