IBANEZ SUPER STRAT


 

 

Ibanez S-series headstock

I like Strats. I'm partial to the look and feel of traditional Stratocasters with their bent steel saddles and their 6-screw fastened tremolos bridges... but for playability, I'm open to novelty, innovation, and change. Back in the '70s, I installed a Dimarzio humbucker and brass nut on my first Strat. I've since owned Strats with factory-furnished non-traditional features, like an '80s Japanese "Contemporary" Strat that had a double-lock tremolo system with roller saddles. I remember hating the locking nut ("Huh? You have to unbolt it to change strings???") so I removed it and used the guitar like a regular Strat with an oddball tremolo bridge. I later mounted a Gibson Widget synthesizer gizmo.

After that guitar was stolen, I bought a '97 Deluxe Plus with a Floyd Rose tremolo, locking tuners and an LSR roller nut. I quickly decided that I didn't like the Fender-Floyd Rose tremolo ("Huh? You have to use tools to change the damn strings???"), so it was removed and eventually replaced with a more traditional bridge with height-adjustable piezo saddles... and a MIDI encoder for synthesizer... and an additional external hex pickup.

After all that, you'd think that I'd "been there, done that" with fancy locking tremolo systems. Well, I believe that opinions shouldn't be set in stone and that some things should be revisited with an open mind. (For example, I used to hate avocados and now I love them... but liver is another story.) I think I'm more receptive to the double-locking tremolo now that I have bunches of guitars. When I had only one guitar, it was an either/or choice and I wanted a simple guitar for fast string changes. If you have backup guitars, you can entertain more options.

G.A.S. Attack I'd never owned an Ibanez guitar before. Back in the day, Ibanez and Greco were considered cheapie copy guitars, and everyone lusted for Fender and Gibson. I don't know what made me even start thinking about them again: Maybe it's because I've been listening to more heavy distorto whammy bar music lately? Ibanez guitars seem to have that heavy distorto whammy bar look.

At any rate, I became convinced that I wanted a "Super Strat", which to me meant a combination of Fender ergonomics and Gibson tone, and with an emphasis on practical playability features. Frankly, I have enough Strats, so I didn't want another one. I didn't want to alter my current Strats either since I've got a traditionalist streak and like the look of 3 single-coil Strat pickups with pole pieces. Specifically, I favored a lightweight ergonomic body, a full-sounding humbucker bridge pickup and a nice selection of pickup sounds, a double locking tremolo system, and a fast, thin neck with a flat radius. I came to the conclusion that the Ibanez guitars seemed to offer a combination of the "best of both worlds", and were reasonably priced.

Ibanez has a huge line of different models, but I was drawn to their S-series. The current lineup features a tremolo that pivots on ball-bearing mountings and a zero-centering spring gizmo that works like the Hipshot Tremsetter that I have installed in my Strats. The ball bearing mount seemed like a sound engineering concept; I thought the Zero Point centering system was a must-have, particularly since I use a lot of double stop string bends. I hate it when bending a string causes another one to go flat. I hate the frustration of tuning a free floating bridge, especially if it's had an all-at-once string swap. The ZPS gizmo allows you to adjust spring tension easily, and to easily convert the zero-point floating tremolo to a free floating tremolo, if that's what you prefer. Basically, I was drawn to the versatility of the S-series guitars.


Ibanez S420 2010 Ibanez S420 I played some Ibanez guitars at the local Guitar Center and got hooked. Although the place did a good impression of what Hell must sound like... and the low-hanging fruit were horribly abused, I climbed the ladder to pluck an S420 from up high, and was impressed by the feel of the neck and by what I could hear of the pickups. Ibanez guitars have great necks if you like thin, 24-fret necks with relatively flat radii fretboards. They feel very "fast", and can be set up for low action with little buzzing or dead spots; it's an easy adjustment to higher action for a blues-bender. The Zero Point System felt remarkably like my Tremsetter-equipped Strats, but more refined and easier to figure out.

Once home, I got to explore the sound of the S420's two humbucker pickups (INF1 and INF2). These are high output pickups, and not surprisingly, have lopped off high frequencies and degenerate into a buzzy sonic fog when you run them through heavy distortion. You can dial in less distortion and they sound pretty good. Nevertheless (and since I was in a spending mood), I replaced the bridge pickup with a Dimarzio Evo2 and the neck pickup with an Evolution; both are high-powered, but have a bit more treble than most humbuckers. (I think I was drawn to something in the direction of a Strat's clarity.)

The 5-position pickup selector produces some interesting sounds via coil tapping of the humbuckers (turning each humbucker into two single coil pickups). The first position is traditional high-output humbucker bridge, two coils connected in series. The second position is one of the bridge pickup's coils connected in parallel with one of the neck pickup's coils; this gives a thinner sound that resembles the "clucky" sound of the 2nd position of a Strat. Position 3 is a traditional parallel blend of the bridge and neck humbuckers, with about the same output as positions 1 and 5. Position 4 is a parallel blend of the neck pickup's two coils. It's a thinner sound and more treble sound than the position 5 series blend. Position 5 is the traditional high-output humbucker neck, both coils wired in series.

The Made-in-Indonesia 2010 S420 is one of, if not the lowest priced S-series models; I bought the boring matte "weathered black" version because I dislike most of the fancy finishes that Ibanez guitars come in (which drove my decision to the S-series). The weathered black ("unfinished") finish seems like it would be easy to remove and turn into a natural tinted wood finish. Maybe some day, when I'm really bored.

Another unusual feature (or cost-cutting measure) of the S420 is the neck's lack of fretboard markers, except for the offset one on the 12th fret. Although it does have small edge marker dots, I'm so used to seeing markers on the fretboard that it's a little disconcerting to do a long jump up the neck and see nothing there! At first I thought that it might be a good thing since it would force me to not look at the markers-- I tend to do that while playing in a sitting position. I saw another good thing about the blank fretboard: It would be much easier to scallop since I wouldn't have to worry about grinding through inlays.

Scalloping the Neck I love the feel of scalloped necks. I'd do it to all my guitars if it didn't destroy their value, or if it weren't impossible to undo if things went badly. That limits it to guitars with bolt-on necks with edge markers that aren't too close to the surface (since they look crappy if you grind through to them). I've even considered doing it to my set-neck Gibson "The Paul" because it was cheap, and it's already beat up.

Since I got the S420 as a "player's guitar" based on its performance features (lightweight, well-designed tremolo, fast, thin neck), it begged to have a fully scalloped neck. Despite the inertia it took to get started (the first gouge to the fretboard is always the hardest), once I got going, the job went quickly: About 2-3 hours with a Dremel and 2 sizes of sanding drums. I didn't take any precautions to protect the frets, and I only had one mishap where I accidentally levered the neck, balanced across my legs, into the sanding drum. (Naturally, it hit the top of a fret, but only put a shallow nick that was easy to buff out.)

Initially, I did have some concerns: The Wizard II neck is awfully thin. Thinning the fretboard with scallops might compromise the neck's rigidity. However, I was reassured when I read of at least one other person who had done it. I only use light gauge strings (.009s), so that would help. I also learned that in combination with tall frets, the scallops don't need to be very deep to keep fingertips off the fretboard.

I'm happy with the job; It's not a craftsman-precise effort and some surfaces could have been hand-sanded to be more uniform, but I was eager to get the guitar back together to play it. There's time to make it pretty later.

Fretboard Inlays With that done, I started thinking about the inlays. I had some 1/4" diameter Mother-of-Pearl dot markers but was unsure of my ability to install them. If the hole you make in the fretboard doesn't fit the marker perfectly, the job looks really crappy. How does one make a perfectly round hole that's not too big or not too little. At this point I started looking at marker sticker/decals... despite thinking that they were really cheesy and a lazy man's way of doing it (sheesh, they even sell faux "F" hole decals!).

Thanks to Google, I found a quick & easy way to install them. The article suggested using a 1/4 inch drill to make a not-too-deep hole, then use a 1/4 inch flathead screwdriver to ream the hole and smooth out the interior. It worked perfectly! Once I glued them in, the only thing left to do was grind them to the contour of the scallops.

scalloped Ibanez Wizard neck

Sustainiac Installation in the S420


Ibanez S5470 scalloped neck 2010 Ibanez S5470 This is the as-seen-on-eBay guitar I wanted from the start. (Pic shows it in modded form with a replacement neck that was later removed.) It looked so purdy with its transparent blackburst finish and 3 pickups. Besides that, it was made in Japan under their "Prestige" banner, emblazoned on the headstock and case (I guess "Prestige" is easier to fit on a headstock than "Ostentatious"). I hate to admit it, but I'm a sucker for that kind of shit. It also included a nice plush case, with a cool Swiss Army Knife-like tool kit, plus a manual and the guitar's hang tags. I only mention this because I bought my S420 off the wall at Guitar Center and was handed the receipt, tremolo arm and guitar... period! (In fairness, I didn't have the patience to wait for the salesdude to dig through a heap of allen wrenches to find some that fit, since I had plenty at home.)

After lusting after the S5470, I decided to buy the S420 instead because it seemed the prudent thing to do-- it was half the price and provided instant gratification. No regrets at all. The reason I got the S5470 was that after buying the S420, I had the eBay listing up on the screen and my wife remarked that it was so purdy. See? It didn't take much prompting at all. Two Ibanezeses within a week.

When it arrived, I was astonished by how perfect every aspect of it was: The case, the beautiful finish, and the playability. Although I like the way the budget S420 feels and plays, there's a perceptible quality difference, in addition to being just a downright purdy guitar. Purdy guitars can aggravate an anal-retentive condition: I made pickguards for these guys because the glossy finish of the S5470 showed light fingernail scuffs from lightly anchoring my fingers as I picked.) I also feel a compulsion to polish the body... I rarely/never polish my other guitars!

Pots & Knobs My first modification was to replace the linear taper volume potentiometer with an audio taper. This should have been a piece of cake; from the S420 I'd learned that CTS pots don't fit in the smaller Ibanez mounting holes (holes have to be reamed larger), and that CTS pots have a really stiff feel. Therefore, I ordered some Ibanez 500K audio pots from Ibanezrules.com. Unfortunately, I discovered that the S5470's special knobs requires solid shaft pots. Normally, knobs that fit solid shafts have a grub screw to lock them in place, but these knobs have a specially milled brass fitting that friction fits a solid shaft. If you press the knob on Ibanez's splined shaft, it feels like it's gripping... but when it's fully seated, the knob spins because the shaft gets thinner close to the body. To me, Ibanez's use of different/incompatible pots and knobs seems like a really dumb and aggravating business decision. It's not just the knobs, either: bunches of locking nut styles, tuners, tremolos, etc. That's probably why it takes forever to get parts from your local dealer (so I've read). That's also a good reason to stock up on spare parts.

The Pickups The S5470 is a 3-pickup model (Humbucker/Single coil/Humbucker) on a 5-position switch: (1) Bridge humbucker, (2) 1 bridge coil+ middle pickup, (3) middle pickup, (4) middle pickup+1 neck coil, (5) Neck humbucker. The "Hot Grinder" humbucker pickups (hmmmmm... sounds like a strip joint thing) are decent-sounding with a sharper edge than the INF pickups. To me, they didn't demand replacement which is good because I wasn't in a spending mood.

I had high hopes for the 3-pickup arrangement, mainly from what I thought I'd heard at the Guitar Center madhouse. I got the impression that the in-between sounds were very Strat-like. However, after evaluating them in a more hearing friendly environment, I wasn't as convinced. The single coil sound is definitely there, but not exactly Strat-like. The reason? The pickups are quite close, so I suspect that there isn't enough distance between for the coils to produce the distinctive Strat "cluck" sound. I rotated the bridge pickup so that the active coil was bridge-side; This increased the distance between the two coils (bridge & middle) in position 2 so that they're similar to the spacing of a Strat. In my opinion, it improves the "cluck/quack".

Another issue (for me): The single coil produces a radically different sound than the humbuckers, and its thinner sound dominates 3 of the center positions on the 5-way switch. Clicking through the selector sounds like you're passing through two separate guitars. That can be a useful feature, but I prefer the more homogeneous and balanced sounds that their two humbucker switching system offers. I first replaced the single coil with a Semour Duncan Hot Rails for Strat; it's a high-output humbucker in a single-coil package. It doesn't have the high frequency output, but it does blend better with the other two pickups... perhaps too well... there was little sonic differentiation between the positions. I then replaced it with a spare noiseless Kinman Blues bridge pickup, which brought back the clarity. The balance was considerably better than the original ST2 pickup. Kinman Strat pickups are great-- even though they're noiseless, they sound very much like single coil Strat pickups and have a low magnetic pull.

After playing both guitars for a few weeks, I decided that I preferred the S420's 2-pickup setup better than the S5470's 3-pickup setup. On a Strat, I don't even notice the middle pickup when I play, but on the Ibby, I did: I removed the single coil pickup and replaced the switch and wiring with an S420 switch.

The Sustain Question Finally, I should mention that in the online world, the S5470 has developed a reputation for having poor sustain. There are opinions on both sides, some saying that it's real, and others saying that theirs doesn't have that problem, or that Ibanez has fixed the problem. Mine's a June 2010 model, but once I noticed this, I couldn't unnotice it. It started to really annoy me: The 14th fret 3rd string "A" seemed to change to an octave harmonic and then die fairly quickly. My S420 didn't do this.

There's speculation about the cause, the most common being that the magnetic field of the single coil pickup is too strong (Ibanez did replace the original ST1 with their improved ST2 pickup, perhaps to address this?). After removing the middle pickup from my S5470, I feel that it makes no appreciable difference. I can also say that replacing the neck (and scalloping the replacement) makes no difference. From my research online, the safest answer seems to be that "it's complicated" and a combination of different factors. In other words, it seemed that no one really knows for sure... It's damn frustrating when you can't Google a solution.

I began to suspect that it was due to the resonant frequency of the body; that it resonated at a narrow frequency and causes the harmonically related strings to vibrate sympathetically (especially strong in the "A" and "D" strings). This transfers some of the original note's vibration energy, decreasing sustain. If that was really the cause, there wasn't much to do about it, short of replacing the body... that purdy body. Without the body, what's left of the S5470? I was bummed out about that. (In retrospect, that turned out to be a dead end, but it was interesting research and seemed to suggest that an acoustically resonant solid body might actually be bad for sustain, despite conventional wisdom. I ain't touching that one though...)

Shortly after I'd ordered a replacement RG-style body (and Edge bridge), I was torturing myself with the defect, and in desperation, jammed a guitar pick between the saddles. Miraculously, the sustain seemed better. I then compared the S420's ZR1 bridge with the S5470's ZR2 bridge... which made me suspect that the saddles weren't coupling very solidly with the bridge plate. The only attachment point was an allen screw at the front of the saddle (near pickup); moving the screw to the 2nd screwhole on the bridge plate (further into the saddle) improved the sustain, presumably by increasing the leverage it created greater downward force onto the bridge plate. Unfortunately, using the 2nd screwhole may not permit proper adjustment of intonation, so that wasn't a real solution.

s5470 sustain problem bridge At that point, I dissected the bridge and removed the saddle, and discovered that there was a strip of rubber running across the bridgeplate, underneath the saddles! Perhaps Ibanez put it there to help keep the saddles from sliding too freely during intonation adjustments, or to keep things from rattling? My intuition told me that the rubber probably dampened the coupling between the saddles and the bridge plate, so I placed a small, thin washer underneath the saddle towards the front and tightened the saddle to the bridge plate: Instant improvement. The string at the fret sustained normally and the oddball harmonic was gone. If that's the main source of the problem... grrrrrr... They pay people to design these things???

I later removed the rubber strip and installed the saddles without the washer-- problem solved.

[Hey, this is what worked for my S5470, but it may not work with yours-- no guarantees! Apparently, this fix doesn't work will all S5470s since the earlier models didn't have rubber strips and had slightly different saddles, and Ibanez may have made other less apparent running changes through the years. Since I don't own one of those early models, it's not my problem, so I don't have any solutions. However, if I were considering buying a used S5470, I'd be wary.]


General Assessments and Comments

Tuning Stability At the top of the article, I mentioned my previously unfavorable opinion about locking tremolos. I've since changed my mind, or rather don't think it's worth whining about as long as you understand the trade-off.

Fact: If you use a tremolo, the locking nut really does keep the guitar in tune better because it reduces the number of things that contribute to a string getting out of tune, such as: Strings binding in the nut, string tree friction, and slipping tuners. Although the locking nut's mechanism requires extra tools, the string path is simplified, so there are fewer problem areas to troubleshoot. With a locking nut, you don't have to worry about the tuning or tuners if you knock the headstock or lean the guitar against something.

It's not all rosy though. Even though it's not a big deal to unclamp the locking nut with an allen wrench, you must have the right one on hand to do the job. Also, you give up the ability to do behind-the-nut bending, which is a cool trick on open strings. Also, with a locking system you probably wouldn't be able to replace a broken string on stage and tune up by the time the solo came around... that's the sort of thing you can brag about! (It's not as much fun to just switch to your backup guitar.)

Another point is that guitar tuning tends to drift over time due to string aging, temperature and humidity (my guess), even if you don't play 'em. It's usually not by much, and can most often be fixed with the fine tuners. A double locking tremolo system isn't going to be immune to this.

Zero Point Centering System This was one of the features of the S-series that sold me. In a standard free-floating tremolo, the centerpoint is wherever the string and spring tensions counterbalance: If you increase spring tension or loosen string tension, the centerpoint shifts backwards, tilting the bridge more parallel with the body and eventually resulting in a "decked", dives-only tremolo, with the bridge plate resting on the face of the body. If you decrease spring tension or increase string tension, the centerpoint moves forward, tilting the bridge at a greater angle to the body, and at the extreme, resulting in a tremolo that can't dive (although no one sets it up that way). In between these extremes, any change in tension changes the centerpoint, which affects the pitch of all the strings. With string bending, it's a brief and temporary change, but noticeable if you're fretting two strings and bending one. If a string breaks, all the strings go out of tune until the original centerpoint is restored. When you're restringing and trying to retune, the centerpoint and counterbalance tension is constantly changing, which means many trips back to adjust previously tuned strings. (Eventually you learn how much to tune the first few strings sharp (or flat) so that they'll be closer in tune by the time you've tuned the other strings.)

With the Zero Point system, an extra pair of springs take the place of a free-floating tremolo's third spring, but act as a divided spring. They add to the main tremolo springs tension up to the centerpoint, which stiffens downwards bends/dives. On the other side of the centerpoint, they're "out of circuit". This creates a more clearly-defined centerpoint by modifying the behavior of the springs in their counterbalance with string tension. It's sort of like modifying the "taper" of the springs (which would normally be linear; some pistols have logarithmic recoil springs, but that's another topic). It helps keep the guitar in tune if you play two notes at the same time while bending one because there's more spring tension to retain the centerpoint and hold the other strings at pitch. It also makes it easier to tune a guitar after replacing strings, since the strings and springs aren't interacting freely. Note that this doesn't solve the problem: It just lessens it. Radically bending a heavy string will cause the others to go flat, but not as much as in a totally free floating tremolo. It's a matter of degree, and it's a trade-off.

The trade-off is that the tremolo has a noticeably stiffer feel for dives and there's a noticeable center point that can "thump" when you go between dives and pull up bends (The Ibanez system is considerably quieter than the Hipshot Tremsetter in this regard). It also dampens the pitch swings around the zero point when you abruptly release the tremolo arm. That means that you can't do the flutter/gargling/warbling sound that's sometimes used as a cool-sounding effect.

The great thing about the Zero Point system is that it's easy to remove the divided spring mechanism and turn it into a free floating tremolo. It does require that the back plate be removed (6 screws), but you don't need any tools to remove the extra springs, and you can adjust the remaining spring tension easily with the thumbwheel- again, no tools. Very cool. Because of this, I've played around with the free-floating mode (all my Strats have Hipshot Tremsetters, which are like the Zero-Point system, but can't be as easily deactivated). It's easy to see why most Ibanez players seem to prefer free-floating tremolos, since they have a much more fluid feel, which is more amenable to the playing style of guitarslingers like Steve Vai. Both setups offer different advantages and disadvantages, so that's something that you'd want to exploit in your style of playing.

Admittedly, restringing and tuning a free-floating tremolo from scratch can be a tedious task, but it's not too bad if you put away your tuner and rough-shape the tuning by ear-- it's much faster. You can tune strings higher, knowing that tuning up other strings will lower their pitch. Once you're fairly close, break out your tuner. Fortunately, the double-locking tremolo system holds tunings well, because it would be miserable having to do this dance with a guitar that didn't (been there, done that).

Because of this, some Strat players prefer to "deck" their tremolo, as mentioned above. In this setup, the main springs are tensioned tightly so that the bridge plate rests flat against the body. This permits only downwards bends, but removes all interaction from string tension changes (bending, broken string, tuning). It's a little problematic to do this with an Ibanez because the bodies are routed so that the bridge end drops below the face of the body, causing an acute break angle for the string at the saddle. To avoid this, you could put a block in the routed space, or in front of the tremolo block to achieve the same effect. Or you could just set it up for floating operation with the Zero Point system...

The Sound Sound is a complicated and hopelessly subjective issue. On a simple level, it's about humbuckers versus single coils, since the "SuperStrat" designation connotes (to me) a Strat-like guitar with a bridge humbucker pickup. Single coil Strats do sound thinner and brighter... however, with overdrive and distortion, it's pretty easy to make single coils sound very full, and quite similar to humbuckers. The difference is the amount of overdrive/distortion that's required to get you there. At a setting that gives a Strat a biting and full sound, the high output humbucker will probably sound like molten cheese. Due to the different starting points and a huge variety of electronic distortion effects, it's easier for a Strat to do high gain than it is for a Les Paul to do clean & jangly. I suppose that's a good argument for Strats and single coils, but humbuckers do have a very warm, full-bodied sound when played with no distortion that's great for Jazz. It's hard for a Strat to do that.

Playing with less distortion reveals much more about the guitar's true sonic signature. At mild overdrive levels, Strats and Les Pauls have distinctive and recognizable sonic signatures. Ibanez guitars seem to have a more generic sound, not quite Fender or Gibson. I attribute the distinctive sounds mainly to the frequency response of the pickups' construction (single coil versus humbuckers) and where they're positioned in the body. The 24-fret S-series Ibanez guitars have shorter bodies due to their extra frets, so by necessity, the neck pickup is closer to the bridge. Consequently, their neck pickup doesn't sound as deep as a Les Paul's, and if replaced by a single coil, wouldn't have the same distinctive timbre as a Strat played around the 12th fret. This affects the in-between sounds as well: The #2 split coil "cluck" position has some of that hollow resonance, but it's not the same as a Strat's.

Ibanez SPS1SC5 switch Pickup Switching Another difference comes from the hybrid split coil mixing options. Standard Strat and Les Paul wiring are very simple: The selection options are either all single coil or all humbucker. Consequently, the output levels and frequency response of the pickups are fairly well matched and blend smoothly and predictably across the pickup selector positions. In the split coil system, the sounds from adjacent selector positions can vary dramatically, from very mid-rangey and loud to a more trebley and thin sound. This gives a wide range of sonic flexibility, but favors a more planned and structured usage than just switching pickups as the mood dictates... probably overkill for the Blues.

It's worth knowing that humbuckers are just two single coils, but how you connect them makes all the difference. Ignoring the noise rejection aspect-- In a traditional humbucker setup, the coils are connected in series to make one long coil with high output and less high frequency content. If you connect them in parallel, it's two shorter coils, each with less output and more higher frequency content. However, since it's two coils, they pick up vibrations at different points along the strings. The output is a combination of these two "sonic pictures" and since the frequency and phase content of each picture differs, you get some wave reinforcement and cancellation across the frequency spectrum. This produces the Strat's "quack". (If the coils are wired in reverse of each other, that introduces even more radical phase interactions, producing an extremely thin and practically unusable tone.) The distance between the coils matters since the sonic pictures vary greatly depending on where the string vibration is being picked up (which is why the bridge pickup sounds different from the neck pickup, even if you use identical pickups).

Note that the output level of parallel single coils is fairly balanced with the output level of a lone single coil. Wiring them in parallel does not increase the output level. Similarly, the output of two traditional humbuckers in parallel in a Les Paul's middle position is pretty well balanced with the neck and bridge position. When you include a mix of series coils and parallel coils on a switch, you get some noticibly different output levels between the positions. Hopefully, this helps explain why the parallel #2 and #4 positions sound weaker than the full series humbucker positions 1, 3 & 5, and why the #2 position has more "quack" than position #4.

Pickup replacement in a split coil setup can be very confusing to do from the standpoint of theory, i.e. if you want to know exactly what you're doing and why it works, or doesn't work. The explanation of how the noise rejection feature of humbuckers work is easy to understand at a surface level, but more opaque when you want to fathom how the wind direction and magnetic orientation apply to how you should install and wire the pickups. The magnetic and electrical polarities are important, not only between both coils in a pickup, but also between pickups. It determines whether the sound is thin and out of phase, and whether two coils connected together work to reduce hum. It's particularly annoying that the color coding of the leads isn't standardized to indicate construction details, and that the pickups have no standard indicator which is the front or back. You can use a compass, an ohmmeter, and untape/disassemble the pickups to figure out how they're joined, but that's risky because the wires are very thin, and a lot of extra work... plus you have to know what it means! You can hear the differences between in and out of phase connections, or whether two coils are working in humbucking mode... but it can be an extra level of complication and frustration when you're trying to make sense of the proprietary switch designs.

The diagram is from an article that I was writing, intending to show how to figure out split-coil wiring/switching diagrams, as it applies to the S420's humbucker-humbucker configuration and their custom switch. I abandoned the article when it became clear that Ibanez didn't color-code their pickups the same, and the added ambiguity made it almost as easy/difficult to do by trial and error, using your ears and making educated guesses. Actually, knowing what the switch is connecting does help with troubleshooting, but it can still be an aggravating experience.

The switches used to make all these connections are custom manufactured by Cort for Ibanez, are highly specialized, quite complicated, and not easy to figure out intuitively. The pin out of their switch doesn't match standard 5-way switches or other superswitches, and they're very low profile to fit in the shallow S-series cavity. To do an easy replacement, you're dependent on Ibanez for the part, assuming that they'll stock it in the future. (I hate these kinds of "gotchas" in products.) You can adapt a Schaller "Megaswitch", but must trim the circuitboard to fit the thin S-series body. Speaking of parts...

Replacement Parts, Compatibility, and Customization (MAJOR GRIPES!) Coming from the world of Fender & Gibson guitars, I was surprised to find out that there are so few online sources for replacement parts for Ibanez guitars (mainly Ibanezrules.com or eBay); Ibanez doesn't actively sell parts direct, but recommends that you get parts through dealerships. This is a major negative if you like to, or need to muck with your guitar.

The problem is actually worse than that. Ibanez produces so many different models with parts that aren't compatible with other models that look the same, or even the same model (22 & 24 fret necks) from years ago. It seems that it would be difficult for a company to support such a diversity of parts over the long-term, and I suspect that certain models will be orphaned. It's certainly not in the spirit of Henry Ford.

This also puts an unreasonable burden on the user to know the exact part number by consulting the part list for the specific model/year. Unfortunately, Ibanez's part number might not be specified in an eBay listing (sometimes eBay's the quickest and most convenient way to get a part).

This makes it very difficult to do the "Partscaster" thing (a Fender expression). In my case, I had ordered a body and tremolo to replace the body of my S5470 with one from an RG-series. It claimed to have an "AANJ" (All Access Neck Joint), except the AANJ Prestige neck doesn't fit-- slightly too wide. I'd even bought the special length screws that were supposed to fit the made-in-Japan Prestige neck. The Edge III tremolo I bought included screw-in mounting posts, but the body inserts wanted a larger diameter screw post. WHAT THE FUCK??? (Yes, I'm annoyed.) Another example of this idiocy is that the back panels of both my S-series guitars are shaped the same, but have a different number of screw holes. Again, WTF and WHY?

Pot Gripes, General While I'm griping... It baffles me that Ibanez (and Gibson) choose to use linear taper potentiometers for volume controls instead of audio taper pots. Audio taper pots were invented and called "audio taper" for a good reason. Who wants the volume to go from 0 to 100% in the first 20 degrees of adjustment? Why? Apparently, some people do, but I'm not one of them. I'm cursed with special hearing that responds logarithmically, so I've had to replace the volume pots in both my Gibbys and Ibanezes. For that matter, why does CTS insist on putting special hard-to-turn magic juice in their pots that makes 'em impossible to tweak with a pinkie? Gripe, gripe, gripe.

The S-Series Guitars - Weight Although the light weight of the "Sabre" series guitars is considered to be a desirable feature, it does come at a cost: The arched top and thinned edges that are responsible for the weight savings make it difficult to customize it with some "universal" gizmos and gadgets, like a standard flat scratchplate, or even a Roland hex pickup. I didn't think of this when buying the S-series models, which is why I was interested in the RG body as a possible solution for the S5470's sustain problem. If nothing else, it seems that a Super Strat needs enough wood so you can install a battery box and some onboard electronics. But that's just me.

S420 versus S5470 The two guitars have never actually battled each other, but I have battled with both. To be honest, I must say that I expected the expensive S5470 Prestige to be my preferred guitar, and the lowly S420 to become the poor bastard child that never got any attention. Looks-wise, it's pretty easy to see why. However, early on, I discovered that because of this, I felt more comfortable/at ease playing the S420: It's a cheaper and a less foo-fooish guitar. I don't think about smudging the finish or giving it a buckle rash. I also didn't think twice about scalloping its neck.

With its scalloped neck, I begrudgingly acknowledged that the S420 had a more comfortable playing feel for me, even though it felt less refined than the Prestige. I couldn't bring myself to scallop the Prestige's original neck, so I bought a spare Prestige neck on eBay (which miraculously fit) and did the deed. That's where my frustrations began... not with the scalloping, but with the setup.

When you replace a neck, you expect to go through all the setup stuff, unless you happen to be very lucky. First, the truss rod adjustment: The lowly S420 has a plastic truss rod cover with a door that you swivel aside to access the adjustment. No tools or screwdrivers needed. The truss rod itself adjustment is done with a simple metric allen wrench; it's thin, it fits between the strings and you turn it one way or another. In contrast, the Prestige model has an aluminum cover secured with 3 screws. Not a big deal. After you take the plate off, you discover that you need the truss rod wrench that's attached to their Swiss Army knife-like tool. A simple socket wrench won't work because the barrel is too fat for the slot. Unlike the S420's allen wrench, the fancy tool is kind of a bitch to fit between the strings and onto the truss rod nut, and cumbersome to turn without worrying about scratching something.

Everything I just mentioned isn't a big deal, and the truss rod thing is identical to what you have to go though with some other guitars. However, Ibanez made both these guitars, and the cheaper one's got a much smarter truss rod adjustment design. While the Swiss Army knife tool looks cool, it's not as practical as having the individual tools, separately. Maybe they could have designed a fancy box or a pouch for standalone tools?

A more serious frustration was in adjusting the bridge height. To do this, you insert an allen wrench in the height adjustment post and turn. Sounds easy, right? I'd done this on my S420, and everything went okay, but on the Prestige model, the posts wouldn't turn... and I ended up stripping the tool and its hole in the post. Great. I ended up taking off the tremolo unit just to lube the posts (which turned easily with the tremolo out). Put it all back together and the posts barely turned. Arrrgh!!! I think the fitting in the body is made of aluminum (?), but at any rate, the metal post that screws into it doesn't have a really smooth and precision mesh even when lubed. It feels to me like the play causes the two parts to lock up when there's lateral force (from the string tension) present. That's unfortunate since you want to be able to adjust the height while the strings are tensioned so you can hear when the amount of fret buzz is acceptable.

I ended up doing exactly what I shouldn't have done, which was to remove the nuts that secure the bridge to the posts... and more importantly, reinforce the post's cylinder. The posts have a fairly thin wall with the nut off and naturally, trying to turn it with the allen wrench guarantees that the thin wall will bulge outward and break. Replacement part time: Thank you IbanezRules.com! Gee Ibanez, have you ever considered using a solid post with a hex or screw head???

I'm not saying that this isn't a problem with the S420. However, it does seem to me that for more than twice the price, you don't get a better designed or better working guitar. Yes, it's prettier, more refined, and has the prestige of being Made-In-Japan by their master craftsmen... but the cheaper, less-refined and Made-In-Indonesia model has it where it counts.

-12/01/10

 

IBANEZ SUPER STRAT, PART 2

GUITAR INDEX