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The ultimate Ibanez signature artist trio discusses guitars and gear
There are a lot of guitar makers in the world, but only a few dare to produce an instrument worthy of visionaries such as Vai, Satriani and Gilbert. Bringing art and science together, Ibanez currently celebrates the 25th anniversary of the RG guitar series. On this occasion, these three long-time signature artists have come together to discuss how the relationship with Ibanez started and the instruments that allow them to do what they do.
Steve Vai's Ibanez JEM model came about in the mid '80s as he landed the gig with David Lee Roth. Vai needed an instrument as close to the custom-made guitar built by luthier Joe Despagni. "It was a hybrid," Vai says. "I was a Strat guy because it had a whammy bar. I preferred the sound of Les Pauls, but I could never sit with a Les Paul. I discovered you can actually have custom guitars made where they'll make exactly what you want. I said I want 24 frets, which was very non-standard at the time for a Strat type. I needed to have a bigger cutaway because I've got such big hands. I always like the sound of humbuckers, but you could never find a humbucker in a Strat style body with a whammy bar until Edward (Van Halen) started doing it. But I also like the single-coil sound, so I came up with pickup configuration that actually split the coils in a certain position. I wanted to be able to pull up on the bar. I just examined the way the tailpiece worked and I realized the only reason you can't really pull up on it is because of the wood that was in the way. So I just chipped away at it with a hammer and a screwdriver."
"Part of the early story of me and Ibanez sort of overlaps with what Steve was saying." Joe Satriani says, explaining how his model got its start around 1988, "There was that thing going around where guitar players had a Les Paul or had a Strat and were caught in between the two. Steve actually gave me a call and he said, 'I might be working with this company called Ibanez. Can I send you a guitar? Tell me what you think.' I checked it out, and since I had been building my own, I was approaching it like a builder. I thought 'Wow – this is great.'"
The history of Paul Gilbert and Ibanez goes back even further, as he says, "I think the very first electric guitar that I ever touched was an Ibanez. My uncle had one. I had been playing a horrible acoustic guitar for a couple of years. It was my first moment of fretting a string and not having it be this huge physical battle to get the thing down because it was an inch off the fretboard. Finally, when I started having some success, I started to be approached by guitar companies. So, I said, 'Can you make something that has…' and then I would list off these certain things that I wanted in an instrument. And they'd all go, 'Well, we don't really make that.' Except for Ibanez, who said, 'Sure, we'll try it.' I don't know if you've ever seen the episode of The Simpsons where Homer Simpson designs the car, but it's like a submarine and it's got 10 horns because he loves honking at people. My first instrument was kind of like that, because I was more of a player than a designer."
As far as Ibanez being adaptable on design, Vai agrees adding, "I sent the prototype out to about five or six companies and I said whoever makes me this guitar is the one that I'll use. And Ibanez just hands down came back with a flawless instrument. That's how the relationship started. It's really a great blessing to have a company like Ibanez behind you."
Satriani elaborates on his first JS1000 model, "It took about a year or so before we figured out all the different things I wanted to change, but I started with the 540. What did we change? The radius of the neck, the frets – I pushed for change of the composition of the vibrato bar system. I was designing pickups for DiMarzio to make them more specific. That actually took a lot of work that wasn't, at the time, intuitive for luthiers. We had to subtly change things and put into normal practice things that people never used to do. But now, of course, it's something that's widely accepted."
For Vai and Satriani, their signature models have evolved, but haven't gone through as much of a change as Paul Gilbert's model. As he explains, "About 10 years ago, I was talking to a really good friend of mine at Ibanez and said, 'Yeah, I've been thinking up some ideas for a new guitar.' And he said, 'Paul, if you could just do one thing for us, just stick with an existing body style. Don't make it in the shape of an elephant or something. Go to the catalog, take something we already make – anything else you can do.' Of course, this immediately set my irreverent mind to work and I took an Ibanez Iceman, which has always been one of my favorite, cool-looking, pointy guitars, and I put it in Photoshop and flipped it upside down. At the time I was sort of having a rediscovery of some of my childhood guitar heroes and one of them was Frank Marino. I went to see Frank Marino and he had an SG with three single-coils in it. I'd never even used single-coils before, so I got together with DiMarzio and they helped me find the single-coil of my dreams. Frank Marino had also angled the pickup backward, sort of like the left-handed Hendrix guitar. I thought maybe there's something to that. So I did that in Photoshop and I thought those would look kind of cool if they went with it. I don't know if it'll sound any good, but it looks cool."
Vai adds, "Isn't that the important thing?" Paul laughs, "Half the battle right there. So it turned out to sound great. Really, almost by accident I came up with a guitar I just really, really love. So, in addition to the PGM, they've been able to evolve into the opposite of the Iceman, the Fireman – a pun in the title, which pleases me no end. And so that is my newest model. I'm digging this one. I've been playing it for almost 10 years now."
The sound of great electric guitarists is only partly from their guitars. The rest comes from amplifiers and outboard effects – as well as their fingers, of course. Although he may seem like a mad scientist at times, Steve Vai's rig is fairly simple. Vai has used some version of the same all-tube head running into a cabinet for a very long time. "You know, to listen to my music you would think that I like things to be very complicated, but really when it comes to my amps and my gear I like it very simple. It's the amp that suits me, just like the JEM." Vai continues, "As far as gear goes, I like a little delay and distortion. I don't care how the delay comes. It can come in a little Boss box. Because delay, it's not, um-" Satriani interrupts, "Can I interest you in a little Vox Time Machine (joking about the Joe Satriani signature delay)?" Vai laughs, "Yes. Give me one of those. Give me two, because I need stereo. But, yeah – I usually use like a digital delay box of sorts. There's always some kind of effects unit that's popular at a particular time, and I usually experiment with that. Then I use a Gemini distortion pedal, which is a pedal that I designed with Ibanez. It's two different distortion pedals. One is more of a DS and one is more of a Tube Screamer type. And that's it."
For amplifiers, Joe Satriani favors Marshall with their current four-channel heads and cabs, as he explains, "You know, the overview of my career in front of people has been playing through Marshall amps. Sometimes just whatever I could find, you know, and other times I'd be lucky enough to hold onto a Marshall head that I really liked. We had this idea in Chickenfoot that since we were a new band we should go out and play really small clubs just to see what we could elicit from the audience. We asked Marshall if they could lend us some amps because we wanted to check them out. They laid out a bunch of amps, and the ones that I started using were the JVM410 and 210 amps. And they wound up being perfect for that band, because Chickenfoot is pretty much a power trio with a lead vocalist in front. I'm doing a lot of big chords and covering a lot of ground. It got me back to Marshalls, which I knew inside and out, which was great. Then we started down that road of designing a signature head. It's a JVM410HJS." Paul Gilbert also chooses Marshall, opting for their Vintage Modern amps. Gilbert remarks on how they work in conjunction with his current Ibanez Fireman, "I like that they work really well with single-coil pickups. I think the first time I got one, I was actually on the G3 tour with Joe. We were doing these jams at the end of the night and I was hearing Joe's tone. I was hearing John Petrucci. I'm going, 'Man, I think I need to do something. I'm getting lost in the mix, here.' Marshall's just famous for being an amp that cuts through the mix. I just went online and looked at what they had available. I thought, 'I want the one with the least knobs.' I've only got so much brainpower. I've got a lot of notes to think about. If I've got to be thinking about a lot of knobs, too, I would be in trouble. I like the Vintage Modern because it had just the right amount of knobs.
All three of these visionary artists should be seen in person to really be appreciated. Luckily, none of them ever take much time off. Vai discusses his current touring schedule, "We have a G3 tour in July in Europe with Steve Morse. Thank you very much, Joe. And right after that I get back and I have about three days of rehearsal and then I go out in the US for an American tour with my band."
Satriani can be seen on the G3 tour Vai mentioned as well as with Chickenfoot, as he says, "We start the six-week Chickenfoot tour, and then roll into Europe on G3, with Steve and Steve. Come back, do some writing at home and then I go to South America with Steve Morse and John Petrucci on another G3 tour. Then I think I'm going to try to find time to start doing a solo record." Paul Gilbert stays slightly closer to home with the Great Guitar Escape Workshop, which he's excited to be a part of. As he explains, "I've been a part of similar things where I've been a clinician invited, but this is the first one that I've organized and it was fun to sort of hand-pick people that I thought were not only great players, but also great teachers and a couple of guys that are not so well-known, but I found on YouTube and I'm really excited to hear them play. In addition to that, I'm also working on a new solo album that's going to be done in about two months."