There were many great guitarists who were changing the style of popular rock and metal music in the late 1970s, and Steve Vai was one of the most prominent of them. Vai became a professional musician at the young age of 18, and he did so in the employee of one of the most demanding men in all of America, Frank Zappa. The tales of Vai's audition with Zappa, and how it became a gladiatorial sort of test are the stuff of legend.
Steve Vai is a close associate of the surviving Zappa entourage still, but he's done a lot more in his musical career. Vai is a very different person from Edward Van Halen, and his style of play is also very different; but it is telling that when David Lee Roth became a solo act, it was Steve Vai who was chosen to play guitar next to the back flipping showman and singer. Steve's early career was that of taking the hardest professional guitar playing jobs imaginable.
My first memories of Steve Vai were from Hollywood. Steve had played the devil's guitarist, 'Jack Butler' in the film Crossroads. We're not talking about fine cinema here, but just pure entertainment. I was twelve years old and only beginning to be able to play major chords. Vai played impossible guitar parts in the film, impossible guitar parts are what makes him Steven Vai. When you're twelve years old, or even if you're forty two, one could imagine you'd have to trade off the immortal soul to the dark one to be able to play so well.
Becoming one of the world's most impressive six string monster's wasn't by accident. Vai says he knew from the age of six he'd be a guitarist. His family is Italian and from New York. Steve studied with another master guitarist of the same extraction and location, Joe Satriani. He famously established a ten hour per day practice regimen. Some days he worked on guitar playing for fifteen hours. It's important people realize what kind of work ethic one must have to be able to get the kind of jobs Vai got, and to make the kind of music he'd make.
Eddie Van Halen has said many times the famous guitar solo Jimmy Page did in the song Heartbreaker helped him to see how the guitar could be pushed in new directions as a soloing instrument. Vai also experienced something powerful when hearing that tune. While Page would never have the sort of technical mastery Vai would become famous for, he exuded the vibe that he was pushing things as far as he could, as though he was having a contest against himself.
Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, and Al Di Meola would prove to be important influences; and as playing speeds, elements of classical music, and an increased demand for technical proficiency were the norm, shred guitar was being born. Steve's The Attitude Song would become something which inspired the same sort of awe among guitarists as Eddie Van Halen's Eruption had. His first solo record was insightful into his quirky and highly individualistic personality.
Neoclassical shred was coming to prominence in guitar circles due to the influence of Randy Rhoads and Yngwie J. Malmsteen. When Malmsteen left the band 'Alcatraz,' Vai would replace him, but leave once offered the more prestigious position with David Lee Roth. The editor of Guitar World magazine was so impressed with Vai's work with Roth he famously said had Vai lived at an earlier time, he'd have been burned as a witch. It was during this time Steve designed the guitar known as the JEM.
The Ibanez JEM has been in production now for thirty years. The guitar has probably had the longest run of any superstrat model ever produced. What is a superstrat? Superstrats are guitars which have either Stratocaster bodies, or bodies based on the shape of the Stratocaster, as a JEM does, but which have additional features making them more conducive to shred style guitar playing.
More often than not people think of Edward Van Halen's Frankenstein guitar as being the first superstrat. Steve Vail thinks very differently, he's sure his famous Green Meanie was the first. Well, I'm cool with either idea. It doesn't matter. The Green Meanie was so modified it became unstable, and had to be retired to a museum. So Steve sought out someone to based on his most desired specifications, and he wound up choosing Ibanez.
The JEM models are always instantly recognizable for the inclusion in the body of a handle. Such a thing as a handle built into the body of the guitar had never before been done. it is really somewhat heretical in the eyes of guitar builders and owners, or was, until the great Steve Vai changed things.
To be clear, the Ibanez JEM guitars come in different build quality standards. There are student level guitars, intermediate level guitars, and then the full on professional quality. There is also a seven string version available, but this article is concerning the 2017 30th anniversary Ibanez JEM.
The body is of basswood, and this wood is very popular for the style of instrument we know and love as superstrats. Basswood is noted for a fat, yet well balanced tonal character. The neck of this guitar is going to be as stable and near to indestructible as a guitar neck will ever likely be. It is five pieces, the layering adds strength, and the layers are of maple and walnut.
Our fretboard here is of maple with what is called disappearing pyramid fingerboard positioning marker inlays. The fretboard is 24 frets, for extended range. What is exceptionally unique here is the frets are scalloped between the 20st and 24th frets. You're simply not going to find another guitar with that sort of fingerboard.
All three pickups used are Steve Vai's own design. The pickups are by well respected DiMarzio, and are Vai's Evolution variety. You've a humbucker at the bridge and neck position with a single coil pup in between.
The double action and with locking nut tremolo or whammy bar is by Ibanez. It is known as an Ibanez Edge. Obviously, we are discussing something very much the same as a Floyd Rose system. The Ibanez Edge is built to be just as tough, but lighter weight. This guitar comes, of course, with a hard shell case. It also comes with special picks. The guitar is available in Desert Sun Yellow, Loch Ness Green, and Shocking Pink.
If you want one of these you best have a seat while I tell you about that price, it's a thirty five hundred dollar guitar. Well, it's highly collectible, and there are absolutely enough folks out there who want these that we can expect it to appreciate in value as the years go by. This is a great guitar created by and for an amazing shred guitarist. For more information, check out Five Great Superstrat Guitars Created By, and For Shred Guitarists.