USA Custom Shop
Related Links: USA Custom Spec Sheet
The History of the Ibanez "USA Custom Shop"
The introduction of the "improved" RG and new JEM in 1987 set a precedent for Ibanez guitars. Over the next few years Ibanez would add more models, set trends and sign up rock 'n roll heavyweights. It was crystal clear that Ibanez' Japanese guitar factory had shifted into high gear. They were skilled at making bodies, necks, parts, painting and overall assembly. While Ibanez was setting a high standard for those to follow, most of us didn't realize that hot on their trail was a small group of Ibanez employees in America.
In the late 80s, Japan started shipments of Ibanez guitar bodies and necks to the Hoshino USA factory in Bensalem, PA. This supply of guitar parts enabled Hoshino USA to begin the arduous task of learning the business of custom guitar creation. To no surprise, the American team would show itself as a studious apprentice. Sometime in 1988, Hoshino of Japan decided to put their new "resources" to use. They provided the final piece of the puzzle by supplying the Bensalem factory with guitar building equipment. With this turn of events a new division of Ibanez employees would be formed. Internally it would be called "H&S Guitars", the heart and soul of the legendary "Ibanez Custom Shop".
"The concept behind the USA Custom was to build Ibanez Guitars in America and enable individual players to design the instruments of their dreams" (Ibanez 1991 catalog)
H&S Guitars is Born
For the first several months, H&S Guitars received more and more parts from Japan. Stockpiled in the war chest were necks, bodies, and hardware, all the necessary ingredients for guitar manufacturing. Essentially, H&S Guitars was operating as an assembly line at Hoshino USA's factory in Bensalem. H&S would be producing complete guitars to be sold under the Ibanez name. Among the first "made in USA" guitars created were the Pro Custom 540 Guitars in 1988. From this lineup came the 540S, 540P and 540R, all H&S Creations. The Pro Custom would soon evolve into the "USA Custom", an extensive lineup by H&S that could be custom made to order. Certain other guitars such as the RG770 had their pickups installed there before being shipped to Ibanez dealers in America.
At the same time, Ibanez would introduce the upscale "American Master" lineup. In print, Ibanez called this this "it's first American hand made guitar." Released in mid-1989, the American Masters were an Ibanez brand guitar produced by Roger Gresco, a luthier in California. Roger utilized an advanced "topographic" system which actually inlaid the neck in the body. These neck-thru like bodies were gorgeous, albeit with one minor setback. Production was slow and California paint codes were very strict (much more than Japan). As a result it was proving difficult to obtain the trademark "Ibanez" finish we all know and love. Due to these problems and strict environmental laws (for PSI and Material Data), the American Masters production by Gresco would last about eighteen months. Customers were unaware of the situation, and seemed willing to wait out the one year backorder on the American Masters. In the end, two models were made available: the MA2 (Solid Color) and MA3 (Maple Transparent). You can see these in the 1990 Ibanez print catalogs.
Custom Shop ala Carte
With their newfound experience, Ibanez USA set it's sights on loftier goals. They would soon open their "Custom Shop" to customers worldwide. As before, the bodies for these guitars came from Hoshino in Japan. Customers would order their guitar from Ibanez dealers, and Ibanez USA's "custom shop" would build it to their specification. This time however, the bodies came from Japan with only the bridge Humbucker body route. H&S would route each body per order, which allowed any pickup configuration with the use of DiMarzio pickups of your choice. Various neck options were available to customers, including choice of fretboard wood, inlays, neck binding and an optional reversed headstock.
In addition H&S would make available some spectacular graphics and finishes on their guitars. Three artists were used to paint the guitars: Dan Lawrence, Pamelina H. and Pedro Cruz, with perhaps one additional artist.
These folks contributed to create the entire graphic series models of Ibanez guitars, a production feat that is perhaps unmatched today. Pushing the envelope, for 1991 the Custom Shop created the "Metaldesign" guitars, such as the Gray Snake, Serpent and Silver Peacock. These featured a laminated fabric on the body burst over with paint (like the JEM77FP).
"Since the debut of the USA Custom, the striking looks of the Metaldesign series have continued to turn heads. The unique Metaldesign appearance is achieved by applying iridescent fabrics to both sides of top grade basswood bodies. Each piece is then clear finished and polished to a deep, brilliant luster. All are available with USA Customs wide variety of neck, hardware and pickup options." - Ibanez 1991 Catalog
Goin' to California
By early 1990, H&S eventually moved it's production out of Bensalem, PA. They headed west, taking their moving vans and equipment all the way across the States to their destination in California. In conjunction with the relocation, it was decided that H&S would be split into two separate locations. One shop was to be used exclusively for Ibanez endorsed artists, the other to product the "USA Custom" Ibanez guitars for the public who ordered them. The endorser shop was established on Case Ave. in North Hollywood. The customer H&S Custom Shop opened it's doors about 10 blocks north.
Once again, the H&S Customer shop recruited outside help to obtain their supplies and materials. It started to get parts such as bodies and necks made for them, but this time from California, rather than Ibanez in Japan. Necks and Bodies were sent to H&S unpainted. They had a pin router, probably used for modifications. It is said that the standard USA Custom bodies and necks came from Hosono, whose credits include being a leading founder of ESP Guitars. The bodies from Hosono were for the bolt-on neck models USA Customs UCEW models (USA Custom Exotic Wood). These UCEW guitar line featured premium woods and were sold from 1990-1992.
While in California, H&S created neck-through guitars and basses, which were the new "American Master Series". This time the American Master Series guitars were made by Wildwood Guitar in California. Again these used the MA model numbers like MA1FM or MA1QM and are featured in the 91-92 Ibanez catalogs. Not to rest on it's laurels, H&S was also producing the Starfield Guitars, for a small guitar company outside of Ibanez.
Case Ave. Ibanez Endorser Shop
The Ibanez custom shop on Case Ave. was entirely for Endorsers and R&D. The Case Ave. Ibanez shop had a small team featuring three main people, master builders Michael Lipe & Mace Bailey along with Artist Relations Chris Kelly from Texas. The guitars produced here were made exclusively for the Ibanez endorsed artist, none would be resold or made for customers or dealers. They built nearly everything that was on MTV with a reign from 1989-1994. It should be noted that the Case Ave. employees were paid directly from Japan.
The duties of the Case Ave shop were crystal clear... build custom guitars for the endorsee to their liking. They did everything from making the bodies, necks and doing the paint. Once completed, they were also responsible for the upkeep of the artist's guitars, ensuring they would meet their demands with use. If this were not enough, they were also responsible for research and development. This ranged from making the prototypes and modifications for many new Ibanez models, especially the Starfield Project. For example the Burnt Stained Blue JEM was born in the Case Ave shop. In addition, most of Ibanez color samples came from Case Ave.
There were some unsubstantiated reports that the H&S Shop (Ibanez Shop for Customers) was a joint effort between Fender Japan (Hartfield) and Hoshino (Starfield) to assemble and paint guitars in CA. Regardless, it is estimated that H&S had around 12 or 15 workers, maybe less.
It should be noted that for the most part, the two Ibanez Custom Shops (H&S and Case Ave) did not work together. There were times when the shops would would help each other however. For example, when one shp needed wood or more frequently for parts. It should be noted that the Case Ave shop was hired by H&S to paint a run of vintage sunburst RG's or Starfields. This was because the master builder at Case Ave had the most experience in painting.
Behind the Ibanez Endorser
Ibanez tried to seize the market by using the endorser... and it worked. The endorsees were selected by Chris Kelly, Ibanez Artist Relations wonderkind. It is said that sometimes the other Case Ave. employees gave their opinions on potential endorsees. As you would expect, Chris would go after the Artist with the most record sales, popularity of the guitar magazines, or newcomer poised to be "up and coming" to the industry. History shows that Chris "nailed" a lot of endorsers, bringing them into the Ibanez fold.
The Ibanez endorsers were put into catagories A, B or C. The A-endorser would get 3 or 4 custom guitars a year, almost anything they wanted as long as the guitar had an Ibanez headstock. The B-endorser got 2 guitars a year and would also have their choice of what they wanted. This would include shape and radius of neck, fretwire, type of body wood, pickups and color schemes. The special art stuff would besend to Pamelina or Pedro. The C-endorser would get one guitar per year. It would be a stock guitars from inventory, with their choice of pickups.
Once the artist had the finalized agreement, they would be assigned to one of the Case Ave master builders. The assigned builder and would have a spec sheet to discuss and fill out with the endorser, doing their best to explain the technical things about the guitar. This was said to be a "pretty interesting" experience for the Ibanez shop workers. Most of the endorsers were said to know what they wanted but obviously some did not; making working with those somewhat aking to playing Psychiatrist.
It was estimated that each Case Ave worker was responsible for bulding at least 4 or 5 custom guitars each month. As you could imagine, sometimes it would be a hectic and stressful schedule, as often the endorser's tours and travel would be an obstacle. Once completed, Case Ave workers had the additional responsibiity for guitars maintainance, repaire and setup for the endorser!
Shred is Dead?
All good things must come to an end. In fact, music was changing and the grunge wave left the Ibanez Custom Shops in it's wake. Starfield sales were not good and before long the USA factory closed to the public. The endorser "Custom Shop" was yet again moved, this time to a smaller location in North Hollywood where it still remains.
Against improbable odds, Ibanez would take one more step into the USA-made guitar arena. It is said that the Hoshino USA guys learned of another local company, called PBC run by Dave Bunker. Rumor is the Ibanez crew heard a PBC advertisement on the Philadelphia FM rock station WMMR - the rest is history. Their collaboration produced the USRGs (USRG10, 20 and 30) featuring the "tension-free neck" design of PBC. These were sold for almost three years and were manufactured exclusively by PBC for Ibanez. Freeing the USA Custom shop to work exclusively with Ibanez artists, PBC could manufacture the USRG under the Ibanez brand name.
"I started building the Ibanez USRG-10-20 and 30 in 1993 and in 1994 started building the ATK Bass line. These several thousand Ibanez were built in Coopersburg, PA by PBC Guitar technology which was my company at the time. All of these instruments featured our special Tension Free neck and other than the electronics and hardware were built to finish by PBC. We stopped building for Ibanez in late 1996. I learned to have a great respect for this fine Hoshino (Ibanez) company for the quality that they demand and deliver". - Dave Bunker, Pres. Bunker Guitars
As it stands, the USRG serves to bookmark the final chapter of the made-in-USA Ibanez history. Around 1997 the Ibanez J-Custom shop ramped up, in Hoshino's homeland. The Ibanez Japanese Custom shop would create some of their own exotic guitars, upscale instruments with limited production. The J-Customs would be based mostly on RG and S series guitars, catering to the lucrative Japanese marketplace. Only a select few J-Customs (about six so far) have been made available to customers in North America.
The Ibanez USA "Custom Shop" operates today to service only their "endorsed artists". The Custom Shop builds, designs and repairs guitars for those who are endorsed by Ibanez. They are helping design other exclusive guitars for the Japanese market, such as those found at Ishibashi.co.jp. Perhaps someday the USA Custom shop will make available guitars to customers once again. Now that many of the Ibanez Generation are at the age where these instruments can be afforded.
Notable Quotes and References
1991 Ibanez Catalog:
Since it's inception, USA Custom has been - and continues to be - an unqualified success. With the input from a multitude of satisfied owners, USA Custom has expanded considerably to include an even greater choice of woods, finishes, necks and pickups by IBZ/USA, DiMarzio and EMG. This year Ibanez proudly adds basses to the USA Custom line.
Ibanez USA Custom Guitars. Built in America - played the world over. In 1990 the Exotic Wood series added our acclaimed All Access Neck joint, transparent finishes and the choice of a mahogany body to the USA Custom line. In 1991, the Exotic Wood line has been broadened with new neck and inlay options and a wider selection of beautifully figured tops.
1994 Ibanez Catalog:
For 1994, Ibanez proudly introduces a new, American-made rock and roll guitar. With a combination of time-tested RG features and unique USA innovations, the Ibanez USA Custom RG guitars set a new standard in a line that has been the unquestioned benchmark for rock guitars over the last seven years.
USA Custom RG guitars feature highly figured flame maple or curly maple tops on alder backs, and are fitted with direct-mount DiMarzio pickups. USA Custom RG tops are carefully crafted to the right thickness to provide the proper tonal balance between the alder and maple portions of the body. And though we've added a maple top, USA Custom RGs still offer the same comfort cuts that make the RG body style so comfortable to play.
In what has to be termed the perfect marriage, the Ibanez All Access Neck Joint has been combined with PBC's ingenious Tension-Free(r) neck. PBC's unique design relieves the neck of all string tension for easier playing and allows the action to be set to a player's exact preference.
In answer to the increasingly varied needs of today's hard rock players, USA Custom RG's are also available in tremolo and fixed bridge versions. All these features combine to make Ibanez USA Custom RG guitars the finest crafted, best sounding American rock instruments ever made.
USRG Tension Free Neck - Explained by it's Inventor Dave Bunker:
The Tension Free neck puts very little stress on the wood and instead of compressing the neck from one end to the other it just pushes the neck up to forward bow or back to back bow in a simple fulcrum method with the rod being pinned through the neck at the 17th fret and adjusted with a screw at the 22nd plus fret.
My attitude has always been since that truss rod necks are old technology in that while they can put back bow on a neck they do it at considerable tone loss and stress which can cause everything from twisting to constantly being out of tune. This was very graphically shown to me by top Boeing engineers who assisted me in the design of the Tension free neck. All wood is very unstable which makes it very unpredictable when stress is applied to it. - Dave Bunker, Pres. Bunker Guitars
USRG Creation - Working with Ibanez:
Ibanez at first was worried about the Tension Free but after Mr. Hoshino inspected and tested it they went with it. The ATK bass [also made by PBC for Ibanez] won bass of the year in 1994 in the retail/wholesale magazine partly because of the [Tension Free] neck design.
The Tension Free neck was harder to adjust on the USRG20 [and USRG30] guitars because of the locking nut being mounted on the neck end instead of the headstock as is common on Ibanez guitars. I still get lots of calls from customers who bought and play the instruments and in 90+ % of the cases they really like the instruments. The only thing I felt lacked about the Tension Free neck idea was people not fully understandings not only how it worked but how to properly adjust it. If people call me, usually in minutes they have their necks adjusted and are as happy as lambs.
One thing that impressed me at the Bensalem, PA Ibanez facility were the number of standard truss rod type necks which were replaced by Ibanez [Customer Service] because of twist and other reasons. Ibanez I'll state again, is one of the finest company's I have ever had the pleasure to do business with. Their inspection and quality control far surpasses any of the other company's. - Dave Bunker, Pres. Bunker Guitars
I was never a tattoo artist on the Sunset Strip or anywhere in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, I only did tattoos for about a year out of my home to tattoo all my friends who were begging for them. To see what I really do, besides guitars, Harleys, etc. see my website FYI - for the past 10 years I've mainly worked for Fender's Custom Shop. I've painted over 1000 guitars to date for several guitar manufacturers. I've mainly worked for Fender's Custom Shop. - Pamelina H.