January 2018 | A rare JEM

When you think of an Ibanez JEM, what do you think of? Of course, Steve Vai’s super-human shred. ‘80s hair metal? Spandex? Neon? The monkey grip handle? Unaltered, it is perfection in its embodiment of the shredding heavy metal guitar solo of the 80s. Due to the Jem's design being close to perfect for the intended use, the majority of owners tend to leave them alone. Even a pickup swap is pretty rare. Whatever your picture of the JEM, I’d bet it doesn’t come close to the unorthodox vision our longtime Sonoma County customer Charlie came up with for his.

Charlie wanted to use his guitar for both slide and fretted playing, not for shredding. To achieve the sound he wanted he had very specific pickups in mind—A clean, jazz toned Lollar Gold Foil pickup in the neck, scrap the middle pickup all together, and a Lollar String-Through Steel pickup in the bridge. Along with this he wanted the upgrades he makes to most of the projects he brings in— jumbo stainless steel fretwire and Titanium bridge hardware.

His interesting vision provided some equally interesting, outside-the-box challenges for us.

We started with a Jescar 57110 Jumbo fretwire stainless steel refret, which Charlie does to all of his guitars. The extra height of the 57110 fretwire, coupled with the glassy smooth finish of the stainless steel, makes bending and vibrato effortless.

Sonoma County Guitarworks JEM Refret

Next we swapped out the Ibanez Edge tremolo unit. Although the Edge is a great double-locking trem, Charlie’s preference is titanium hardware for the saddles and bridge. In this case, he specifically wanted a Titanium Floyd Rose. It took us almost a year and a half to procure the trem as Floyd Rose was out of stock due to a series of production issues. We finally found a NOS (New Old Stock) unit and snatched it up. It’s an amazing piece of hardware! Super light, beautifully machined and absolutely shiny. And just to cap it off, he went with the Black Cherry Hollow Point intonation system,which allows for easy adjustability of the Floyd's intonation. This is typically a bit of a pain, and since Charlie anticipated string and action changes, the Hollow Points would make his life easier when it came time to touch up his intonation.

Jem Floyd Rose install

Installing the new tremolo was fairly easy; however, there was a bit of shaping to do on one corner in order to fit the Ibanez trem route. Additionally, the original trem post bushings would not accept the new TI posts. Typically, we’d dowel and drill the body for the new bushings, but recently I’ve been drilling out the original bushings and then pushing the new bushings into them. (More info here.) It worked out really well, allowing us to maintain the absolute accuracy of the factory drilled holes, while also avoiding the introduction of a dissimilar wood into the body.

Next, some of the more unorthodox modifications were addressed. Charlie didn’t want to hassle with a locking nut (every Floyd trem has one), so I made a new bone nut, and created a rosewood filler to cover the footprint of the locking nut. There were holes in the back of the neck from the locking nut mounting bolts, so they were filled with plastic trim plugs, making sure that all the mods were reversible.

Sonoma County Guitarworks

For pickups, he chose a set of Lollars, using a Gold Foil in the neck, and a String-Through Steel in the bridge. These pickups sound so good! It’s difficult to pin down the sound, exactly – think of the best Chet Atkins recording you’ve heard, but more awesome. Of course, these pups would not fit in the body or the stock pickguard so we had a custom pickguard made with no pickup holes. I created new pickup routs in the body. Then, I measured and cut the correct locations into the pickguard.

JEM Routing for new pickups

JEM New pickguard for two pickups

Since Charlie wanted to be able to play both slide and normal, requiring significantly different string action heights, he needed a fair amount of pickup adjustability. The strings go through the bridge pickup, between the coil and the top plate, so any action adjustment would cause the strings to hit either the coil or the plate. To alleviate this issue, I mounted the pickup on four springs so the adjustment range would accommodate the anticipated string height changes.

In addition to the standard pickup install, Charlie asked for the bridge pickup to be modified to allow for phase reversal between the coils. When you have a two pickup guitar and you flip the phase on one pickup, it sounds very nasally and thin, producing a sound that most players don’t like. In this instance, since the phase was being split within one pickup, it still maintained some warmth, especially when used with the neck pickup. The pickup had to be completely disassembled and modified to make it possible, but it worked out great!

This is definitely one of the most unique requests we’ve had, and I think it'd be safe to bet that it's one of a kind! I’m extremely happy with the way this project turned out. Charlie now has a Jem that fits his unique style as a player, and he loves it, so that's awesome. It’s projects like this that keep my life as a luthier interesting – thanks again, Charlie!