Here’s a short piece I wrote about my Ibanez book. It first appeared in Gary Cooper’s iGuitar online guitar magazine in 2013, and it gives a good idea of the feel of the book and some of the areas it covers.
Before I started to write my latest book, The Ibanez Electric Guitar Book, I thought I knew quite a lot about Ibanez. A Spanish-sounding name for a Japanese brand, infamous for early copies that drew the wrath of Gibson, and now, arguably, the finest metal guitar you can buy. What I wasn’t so clear about was exactly how they got from copying to dominating. The answers, as it turned out, were much more interesting than I could have imagined.
Ibanez was the main guitar brand of the Hoshino instruments company of Japan, which started when Matsujirou Hoshino opened a bookshop in Nagoya, adding a musical-instruments section in 1908. Twenty years later, after a tour by the great Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, Hoshino began importing classicals from Salvador Ibáñez in Valencia. When that workshop was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War at the end of the 30s, Hoshino adopted the name, making acoustic guitars in Japan. At first these were branded ‘Ibanez Salvador’ and soon simply ‘Ibanez’.
Aside from those and a few other early efforts, Hoshino has never built instruments. The first electrics appeared around 1957, and from 1970 or so, most were made by the Fujigen factory in Matsumoto, which became a valuable partner to Ibanez. Hoshino’s US operation, set up in 1972, not only gained Ibanez a sales HQ at the heart of the biggest market in the world but also provided invaluable feedback about the kinds of instruments that American guitarists wanted to play.
The copies began in the 60s, and Maurice Summerfield, the UK distributor for Hoshino’s instruments, told me how he, too, provided valuable information to the Japanese. He recommended they add to the line a copy of the Gibson Flying V, the old model recently given a low-key revival by Gibson. Just as with the original Les Pauls, some players were rediscovering the obsolete Vs, finding them to be spectacular instruments. “Hoshino were interested and asked me if I could get one, so I bought a Flying V and sent it off to Japan,” Summerfield recalled, “and soon they started making a copy. Then one of my salesmen said, well, they’ve been making such a good job of the Les Paul – have they thought of doing a twin-neck Gibson? So I bought one of those, too, and sent that to Japan. And it worked very well for them and very well for us.”
Ibanez pressed on with its copies – by 1976 they offered two dozen different Les Pauls, for example – and also had begun to experiment with original designs, including some double-cut solids, starting in 1973, and the wonky-Firebird Iceman, launched in 1975. Gibson lumbered into action, registering a headstock trademark in 1975 and warning Ibanez – who by this time had already started to use another style of headstock. Then in 1977, Gibson filed a complaint in court against Ibanez’s US arm, Elger, claiming … infringement of its headstock trademark. Elger did not want to go to court. It agreed to stop infringing Gibson’s trademarked headstock design – which it had already done. Elger also stopped using Gibson-like model names in its sales literature, including pricelists. An out-of-court settlement meant Gibson’s complaint was closed in February 1978.
By the early 80s, Ibanez was struggling to make a mark. With the focus now entirely on new designs rather than copies, some progress was evident – for example two George Benson jazz guitars (1977), the Alembic-influenced Musician and Studio guitars (1978), and various models in the Artist and Professional series with their elegant carved bodies. Ideas were flowing and Ibanez generally seemed worth watching, if not exactly exciting.
Flavour of the decade was the superstrat, headed by Kramer and Jackson, and Ibanez tried to join the club, at first unsuccessfully (although the Edge locking vibrato system of 1985 showed it could create elegant and improved versions of the required hardware). In general, however, business was poor for Ibanez and its aims remained unfocussed. It had already showed itself willing and open to create signature models with Bob Weir, Paul Stanley, Lee Ritenour, Joe Pass, Steve Lukather, Allan Holdsworth and others. All fine guitarists – but not quite the headline extreme-rocker Ibanez needed to personify the brand.
That was when a lucky series of moves landed Ibanez two of its most important endorsers – Steve Vai and Joe Satriani – who would dramatically change the face of the company. Vai’s JEM of 1987 was an instrument with a unique combination of features that made it look like no other electric guitar. It had a body in one of three striking fluorescent colours, with matching headstock and colourful contrasting pickups and controls. The basswood body itself had a superstrat shape plus a “Monkey Grip” handle-hole, which Vai used for some show-off stage antics. He also figured it gave the guitar an instantly unique look. The Edge locking vibrato system had “Lion’s Claw” furrows behind the bridge – the JEM seemed to have outlandish names for everything – and these aided Vai’s screaming pull-ups. The DiMarzio pickups were in hum/sing/hum formation, probably for the first time on a production guitar.
JEMs have continued to appear with outrageous visuals, including a floral-pattern finish based on the curtains in Vai’s living room and a see-through acrylic body with internal LEDs. But of even greater importance to Ibanez’s new-found success was the RG line, also launched in 1987, a sort of toned-down JEM, aptly described by Ibanez today as “the streamlined, no-nonsense all-time favorite of fast players”.
Joe Satriani first came to our attention in 1987 with his spectacular instrumental album Surfing With The Alien. Like Vai and many other guitarists then and since, Satriani was frustrated with what he saw as the limitations of existing instruments. Shredders, for example, were demanding almost flamenco-like wide, flat fingerboards with big frets, but that seemed to Satriani to homogenise their sound. He’d grown up listening to what he describes as third-generation electric blues players, the architects of rock’n’roll and rock music, many of whom played old Fenders and Gibsons with necks that had unusual profiles and even some extreme radiuses – and for Satriani, that meant you could hear each individual player. “When I played one of those flat necks with the big frets, suddenly I heard more of somebody else than I heard of me. I thought that was really strange, and I figured I had to avoid that at all costs.”
Satriani’s JS models, first seen in 1990, mostly came down to simplicity. He needed a three-way selector, not a five-way, for example, and he liked as few controls as possible, not separate tones and volumes. “A guitar company needs feedback,” he told me, “in the same way that Leo Fender needed to get feedback from those little country swing bands that he would give instruments to. He’d ask them how’s it working, what should I do? It’s an important part of the formula: we as players say yes, you can call this a Joe Satriani guitar, and I will play it everywhere. Then the guitar company comes back to us and says great – now what do you need, how can we make the instrument feel better and respond better? That relationship is so important.”
This piece first appeared in iGuitar magazine in July 2013