no name headstock
Another burst of guitar stuff activity, precipitated by the acquisition of... more guitar stuff.

04/30/15 - My taste in electric guitars is usually pretty conservative: Solid colors like black, gold, brown, maroon, and standard burst patterns, with rare excursions into novelty materials like aluminum and lucite. Nothing too wild and flashy, and I even avoid fancy figured wood. Ibanez is about as far as I've gone in the direction of flashy, pointy guitars. Even there, my color preference has been black and simple brown wood grain. Now, having reached the gates of geezerhood and senility, it's time to revisit the wild, colorful '80s! (The truth is, I don't really remember much about the '80s...)



Jem Passion and WarfareThe journey begins with a pointy guitar festooned with pyramids, nekkid angels and debbil dudes. You may recognize the guitar's body graphic from Steve Vai's 1990 album, Passion and Warfare. I think it's one of his best albums, but lest you get the wrong impression, sorry... I'm not a rabid Vai fan-- I just liked the graphics. The album is a very listenable orgy of guitar technique, but the style doesn't quite do it for me: It's sort of alien, not as familiar or approachable as Joe Satriani's or Eddie Van Halen's or Andy Timmons' styles. Of course, I wouldn't mind being able to play like him... or any of the others. (Man, these grapes sure are sour!!!)

Do I need yet another guitar? Now that I don't play in a band, most definitely I do. I've got more than enough Strats and Les Pauls that will never see stage time. Rickenbackers? I think I've satisfied my curiosity: Done. Ibbie Jems? Now they've got character. How could I not like a guitar that has an M16/AR15-like carry handle carved into the body? Hell yeah!

However... today's ubiquitous white w/gold Vai "signature" Jem doesn't do much for me, being yet another conservative looker-- pretty, but kind of boring.

On the other hand, a Jem from the late '80s, done up in a metrosexual floral pattern camouflage, did catch my eye. I followed some eBay listings-- most were very pricey, even with various degrees of battle damage (Ibbies are notorious dent & ding magnets). If I was going to get one, it had to be in near-pristine condition and not too expensive (so I could do my own dings & dents without feeling too bad.) I followed a bunch, but none screamed, "buy me!" One day, I came across a listing for Chris Woods' "Passion and Warfare" body, routed for two humbuckers. Good 'nuff. I snapped it up.

Woo hoo! A new project! Once again, I reveled in the joy of ordering parts and waiting for them to arrive in the wrong order. And waiting. And waiting. I found pictures and video of a Chris Woods P&W guitar, complete with a matching graphics headstock and a green Ibanez logo. I liked the look and decided to imitate it as much as I could (without the headstock graphics).

I ordered a Perle "disappearing pyramid" inlaid AANJ neck (but with rosewood fretboard) and some bright green Dimarzio pickups. Gaaaah! Green's not my favorite color, but they seemed to fit the look. If that's what it took, I was willing to give something different a try.

The body arrived, and I was generally pleased with it. The photoshop-rearranged graphic appeared to be printed on a matte film stuck to the face of the body; the sides and back were painted a thick matte black, pebbled with a few blemishes that had been mentioned in the listing. It was overpriced given the amount of workmanship that probably went into it, but as they say (sort of), "it was what it was", and value is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. I wondered if the original artist (Aaron Brown) was cool with this, but that wasn't my cross to bear. I did think the artwork was pretty cool, and nekkid angel gals always jive with my high-falutin' aesthetic sensibilities. However, I did decide that the quasi-spiritual tone would not jive with headstock graphics of a nekkid Coop debbil gal. So I put a sticker of Coop's nekkid whip-wielding nun on the back. I strive to be respectful and classy.

Behind the scene: Symbolizing the tensions of Faith and Flesh, Discipline and Porn, all bound together by the power of The 9-Volt Battery Box.

The Neck I didn't know what to expect when I ordered the neck, but it turned out to be the real gem of this project. When it arrived, the fret ends felt noticeably sharp when running my hand up and down the neck: Not a good sign, but it was a quick and easy fix with a file. It was only after the project was finished enough to string the guitar that I came to appreciate what a good job Perle had done. The playability was fantastic; I only had to adjust the height of the bridge, and the guitar played with very low action, with not a hint of buzzing anywhere, up and down the neck. Few of my other guitars have ever needed so little tweaking. The neck's play feel is very comfortable.

I don't enjoy the process of painting/finishing, but it was going to be necessary, at least for the headstock. I'd decided to paint it black, being a safe and easy choice.

I was undecided as to whether I'd put a logo on, but decided that it would be a bit dishonest since it wasn't a real Ibanez. I have to admit that I thought it would look better with a green Ibanez logo decal... and I'd bought 3 different colored logos to give me a choice. Truth be told, it was laziness that really called the shots. I wanted to be done with the build and play the guitar.

Clearcoating the Body Before the body arrived, I thought that I'd have to clearcoat it to protect the graphics, but once it arrived, the matte film graphics appeared durable and looked good without a gloss coat. Thankfully, since I didn't want to risk screwing up the graphic with a botched clearcoat job. The back and sides were fair game though; it would give me a chance to experiment with a 2-part clearcoat finish (SprayMax)... to see if all the good press was true and justified. I believe it is. My crappy job was due to my impatience and lack of experience with the stuff. I pushed it too far in some cases; it helps to know how it will react to the coat thickness, how long to wait between coats, etc. It was amazingly forgiving, given my overly heavy coats (which ran). It cured hard within a day and my mistakes were mainly fixable. In my defense, the 2-part can has a usable life of about a day; the sooner you get it finished, the better. Due to the weather, I had to start later in the day than I would have liked and had to finish while there was still daylight. I was intimidated enough by what I'd read that I did all my spraying outdoors, wearing a spray mask.

The clearcoat was ready to sand/finish/polish within a couple of days, and it was pretty amazing to see the hazy sanded coat (600-1000-1500-2000 grit) become clear and reflective after some Meguiar's rubbing compound and polishing compound-- it looked like the coating on a store-bought guitar! I left the imperfections for a possible future refinish that I doubt I'll ever do-- guitars that get used tend to acquire "character" over time.

Nix on the Sustainer I'd originally planned to install a Sustainiac sustainer in the guitar. I'd even routed a battery box and drilled two switch mounting holes in the body. As with the Sustainer install in the Ibanez S420, there wasn't much space in the controls cavity. With the S420, I routed an extra section for the circuitboard and made a custom cover plate... something I didn't want to do with this guitar. Without additional routing it was probably do-able, but would have been a very tight fit, especially given the instruction's stern warnings to avoid running such and such wires near such and such wires. Well, I tried... and although it looked like everything was correctly wired, I couldn't get it to work in sustainer mode. Admittedly, I didn't try very hard or for very long. I discovered that I wasn't entirely sold on the idea: If I were, I probably would have stuck with it, but I was accepting of the direction that fate seemed to be nudging me. Not installing the Sustainiac would make playing the guitar simpler. I could avoid flipping switches and worrying about battery consumption. It would let me use both of the green Dimarzio pickups; in the back of my mind I'd felt the funky Sustainiac pickup would compromise the aesthetics. That carried more weight than I'd been willing to admit... but not too surprising since the salient feature of the guitar is its looks. I also like the sound of DiMarzio's Evolution neck pickup.

Piezos are Go I didn't want to let my work installing a battery box and drilling holes go to waste so I installed a Graphtech piezo system. Piezos have a distinctive attack and frequency response that's different than mag pickups. They're commonly found in acoustic guitars-- although they don't really sound like a miked acoustic guitar, they're a familiar sound that's associated with an amplified acoustic guitar. The sound and feel of piezos make me play differently, perhaps from attempting to channel Monte Montgomery? Anyway, I thought that I'd use it more than a Sustainer.

This meant I'd need piezo pickups. It was easy (and cheaper) to buy piezo saddles for my piezo/hexpander Strat; options were more limited (and expensive) for an Ibanez with a Floyd Rose style bridge. At the time, the piezo saddles weren't available, but Graphtech did have the entire bridge fitted with piezos (Ghost LB-63). This was a bit of a gamble because there's very little info out there about installing one in an Ibanez Jem clone body... and given my experience with Ibanez parts that only looked like they should fit, I was a bit wary. It turned out to be easy-peasy; The unit was high-quality, a perfect replacement fit for the Ibanez Lo-Pro bridge, and I didn't even have to swap out the bridge studs/posts. The only nerve-wracking part was keeping the heavy bridge in place (taped down) with the strings off, while snaking the delicate pickup wires through the drilled channel into the controls cavity: I could visualize the bridge falling off and snapping some of those delicate Teflon wires that are impossible to solder.

I bought Graph Tech's basic Acousti-Phonic piezo preamp kit, which fit comfortably within the small control cavity. The 2nd pot was used for the piezo volume and a 2-position (DPDT) mini-switch was installed above it as the bypass/battery-cut switch. The switch below the mag pot is a 3-position (on-off-on) mag/both/piezo circuit selector, plugged into the Ghost board's "Quick Switch" pins. Their basic kit included a spare jumper with plugs on both ends so it was easy to make an alternative to buying their pricey switch pre-wired with the plugs. Plus, my switch has 2 poles, so it could conceivably connect some other mode-dependent circuitry (tone?).

The piezo-equipped LB-63 Floyd Rose bridge works surprisingly well in piezo mode, as long as you're aware of its limitations. Shimmers, dives, and pull-ups work fine as long as you don't go to extremes. Since piezos are like little microphones embedded in the saddles, they pick up bridge noises, like pounding the bridge, fast/hard whammy bar vibratos and fluttering (which makes the whammy bar rattle in the bridge-- see below). Diving is okay, but dumping the strings may cause some transient drop out. These are things you probably wouldn't do in an acoustic mode anyway; if you do things like this, use the mag pickup mode.

In either mode, a natural limitation of the piezo-equipped Floyd Rose bridge should be apparent if you think about it: The bridge plate has six wires coming from it. Sure, they're very flexible wires, but any bridge part besides the two knife edges that contact the body is going to have a dampening effect on the free-floating bridge. Consequently, the flutter/gargling trick doesn't work very well (or at all).

MIDI? I've installed a Graphtech piezo/Hexpander system in a Strat to use Roland's 13-pin cable system with my GR-33 synthesizer. I never liked using the bulky 13-pin cable, and the MIDI tracking of that system is less-than-ideal: It requires immaculate playing technique to keep the accidently-triggered squalks at bay. Therefore, I didn't even consider getting the add-on Hexpander board for this project.

Times have changed; now there's the Fishman TriplePlay pickup that tracks much better and connects wirelessly to a receiver plugged into a MIDI sound module (or your computer) -- No routing for a 13-pin jack, no bulky cable to plug in. I'm interested in this kind of stuff and it's really cool to play around with the bazillions of cool sounds in a MIDI sound module using your guitar. It was an easy addition to this guitar that greatly expanded its sonic palette. I was sorely tempted to get a Fantom rack sound module, or a state-of-the-art Integra 7, but I felt that it would only be an expensive indulgence for me-- for my purposes, the old GR-33 (and antique Roland JV1010) were good enough.

As well as the Fishman tracks, it still hiccups occasionally if your technique isn't up to the task. The bottom line is that I don't find it anywhere near as gratifying as good old analog guitar playing; MIDI guitar is a fun diversion, a breath of fresh air to inspire new ideas, and perhaps useful as a tool to fill holes in a band (which isn't on my horizon). IMO, keyboards remain the best way to trigger a MIDI synth, rightfully rewarding those who are skilled at playing them!

Ibanez Jem Fishman TriplePlay GraphTech Ghost LB-63 bridge
The Fishman fits right behind the GraphTech bridge, leaving only a little bit of room to access the string locking screws. Fortunately, the Fishman is secured by strong magnets, so it pivots out of the way.



Ibanez RG1XXV headstock


Ibanez RG1XXV 07/01/15- This is the guitar to strap on when you're riding a bike at night, or in rainy weather, or whenever visibility is poor. Put this anywhere in your house and it sticks out like a sore thumb. It's soooo fucking bright and gaudy that your eyeballs are instinctively drawn to it, like glimpsing really large breasts before your brain catches up and tells you not to stare. How cool is that? I had to get one.

It's an Ibanez Premium, made in Indonesia. Indonesia seems to have earned a bad reputation in the field of aviation, but that's not relevant here. Popular consensus says that they're reasonably well made, with some nice features and innovations, but with a few rough edges that make them inferior to the Ibanez Prestige line. That's just a broad impression of what I've read... IMO, they're perfectly fine guitars that can be tweaked into great players. That said, I'm perfectly happy with the quality of this guitar... because I've fixed all its shortcomings! Besides, it looks pretty sharp with matching headstock, sharktooth inlays, pickups and controls, and that counts for something. (You can't fix stupid, but you can fix a poorly set up guitar.)

I like the tools-free truss rod adjustment cover: Great idea! It's also nice to be able to adjust the truss rod with a thin allen wrench instead of a bulky special truss rod wrench.

The Edge Zero 2 bridge works well when set up as a floating tremolo. It's low profile, and the fine tuners are out of the way. The ZPS system seems to promise more than it actually delivers and rarely sets up properly with the bridge plate level. Despite that, it does partially stabilize the whammy bar if you like to do double-stop bends, and it's nice to have a spring tension adjustment without removing the back cover plate and using a screwdriver. The main disadvantages, compared to a traditional tremolo are that the block is smaller and you can't attach three+ main springs to it... which means that it limits you to light strings (which is fine by me).

The top-screw locking nut with no string tree works as well as the back-bolt version, simplifies things, and probably makes the neck a little less likely to break at the headstock. I think that's an improvement.

The finish is as good as any solid color body that I've seen and much better than I could do (which isn't saying much though). I have no complaints.

I thought the stock DiMarzio/ibz pickups were a little underwhelming, with moderate output and a bland sonic texture (I think that means they taste like chicken). On the other hand, maybe that was just my excuse to replace them with covers that didn't have "DiMarzio/ibz" printed on them (since I wanted to rotate one of 'em)? At any rate, I replaced the humbuckers with DiMarzio Evolutions (again...) and disconnected/lowered the middle single coil. It came with the black cover mounted and the pink cover in the case; I left it that way. The humbuckers are wired split coil using an Ibanez 5-position HH switch.

The only notable deficiency I encountered was that the neck required more than the usual amount of work (truss rod adjustment and aggressive fret leveling) to get rid of fret buzzing so that it could be adjusted for low action. Without that work, I considered it fairly unplayable (or unpleasant to play). Maybe that's why I got it for a good price?

The frets have nicely finished ends; they're smooth and rounded. Curiously though, I'd occasionally trap the treble 'E' string in a tiny gap between a couple of fret ends and the fretboard. I haven't had this problem with any of my other guitars, but I've read that it can be caused by low humidity causing the fretboard wood to shrink, or by the frets not being seated to exactly match the fretboard radius at the ends. I suspect the latter, and it really shouldn't have left the factory that way. However, I did the easy fix and filled the tiny gaps with epoxy. Problem solved.

I concede that these neck/playability issues shouldn't exist on any guitar priced at more than a couple hundred dollars. The neck finishing should be the most important difference between a budget guitar, a middle-of-the-road guitar, and an expensive, premium quality guitar. Since I usually buy middle-of-the-road guitars, I expect to do some minor work to make a new guitar play right for me. Expensive guitars seem to leave the factory with that sort of work already done for you.

Despite the "Premium" moniker, this is a mid-grade guitar produced for the masses; in that respect, it falls a little short. You can find budget guitars with crappy pots and pickups that play pretty well. With the Ibanez Premium line, the main focus seems to be on looks (fancy finishes, nicely dressed and polished fret ends, for example) instead of the unseen playability things that require skilled labor to fine tune. Given how many guitars are sold over the Internet, it's not surprising that a manufacturer would focus on looks.

Like I said, I'm perfectly happy with this guitar despite those important performance issues. I realize that it's because I'm comfortable with (and enjoy) working on guitars. I almost expect it. However, a person who doesn't enjoy that kind of stuff probably wouldn't have as charitable a view of the guitar.


Ibanez RG1XXV back plate tremolo cover
Snazzy back plate showing that it's a 25th anniversary edition of the RG series, hence its model number, "RG1XXV".



Ibanez Jem 77FP headstock


Ibanez Jem 77FP 07/03/15- The original Jem 77FP is often described as "rare" in eBay listings, and it's true that you can't order a new one online at Sweetwater or Guitar Center because Ibanez stopped making them. However, Ibanez made more than a few Jem 77FPs between 1988 and 2004, when it was discontinued. Consequently, they frequently show up on eBay, and there are hundreds of pictures of them all over the 'net, along with forum discussions covering all the facts that one might possibly want to know about the guitar. The perception of rarity is probably due to the fact that many more humans were produced during that period of time than 77FPs.

Despite its actual unrarity, the 77FP is a holy grail-ish Ibanez for many Ibanez fans like me. It's an iconic Steve Vai signature guitar and sort of vintagy-oldish, especially if you're young enough to not know who the Beatles were.

This 1990 model showed up on eBay with a brief description containing the magic words, " new condition. Guitar is blemish free." It went for a week with no bids until the last day. Just for grins (I certainly didn't need another guitar!), I put in a half-hearted non-sniping bid, fully expecting it to be challenged, but it wasn't. If this had happened a few months earlier, I might not have bothered making my ersatz Jem.

There are a few differences between the issue years and most of them are documented online. Naturally, I did what nerds do and did some research: The year was coded into the neck plate's serial number. This jived with the pickups being mounted on the pickguard and not mounted directly to the body, as they were pre-1990.

I therefore assumed that it was an original Edge bridge, which came with locking studs. I couldn't see or "feel" the grub screws lock down and it felt like I was just twirling the allen wrench in the hole, so I was unsure about this. This was an important thing to know because I wanted to adjust the bridge (change strings, intonate saddles, level the bridge, and lower the action). It turned out that the grub screws were almost fully backed out, so it took a lot of turns to feel them hit bottom.

It's a great-playing guitar, requiring no work other than lowering the bridge slightly to get less than 1.5 mm /2.0 mm clearance of the high and low E strings, right on the cusp of buzzing.

The back of the neck feels almost like bare wood, so it feels a little weird... but smooth, thin, and "fast". I was concerned about whether this made it vulnerable to warpage, but since it had survived the test of time (in Florida) without warping, maybe it's a non-issue?

Despite my preference for the HH pickup configuration, I'll try to leave this one as-is. It's an iconic guitar, so maybe it deserves to remain unmolested? To be honest, I don't really understand the attraction of the HSH configuration. The stark output level difference between switch positions is hard to ignore. Some folks may prefer this, but I don't. I can get around this by using a compressor and living with the loss of dynamics. Unfortunately, a compressor amplifies the noise of the non-humbucking single coil pickup. Then there's the sacred mantra of using 250k pots with single coils and 500k pots with humbuckers: How do you reconcile that? (Maybe it's really not such a big deal?) Finally, there's no easy answer for difficulties with the hybrid picking style. Unlike SSS Strats, HSH Ibbies just don't leave much clear picking room (less than 3/4" on either side of the single coil vs 1-3/4" on a Strat), so you just have to adapt and get used to fingernails occasionally snagging on pole pieces. As far as unique tone goes, you can get a lot of the same with coil-tapped humbuckers, including the clucky #2 position. Just saying... Time will tell whether I'm willing to live with this.

This is also my first Ibbie with PAF Pros; all the rest have Evolutions. There's a subtle difference that I find hard to hear going back and forth between guitars; I think you need to spend some time with the amp cranked up to really appreciate the differences. The PAF Pros seem to have a high output, as they overdrive my preamp similar to the Evos, especially the neck pickup. According to DiMarzio's comparison pages, the PAF Pro is similar to the Evo Neck pickup, but with a slightly higher output (300 vs 294), and a similar Treble/Mid/Bass mix (6/5/5 vs 6.5/6/6). I like them just fine, so they'll stay.

Ibanez Jem 77FP back
The familiar corroded neckplate that seems to afflict all 77FPs of a certain age... the cavity covers still have the original protective films on, but the spring plate looks extra funky; the film has since been removed.