The history of the JEM has been discussed in various sites online. Each version has an interesting twist - some fact and surely some fiction. After some of research, thought and time, I've put together my spin on it. Where necessary the info has been verified for accuracy... enjoy.
Superstars for Sales
Perhaps it started when free-agent guitarist, Eric Clapton was paid 7-figures by Fender to put down his Gibson SG and play their guitars exclusively. A decade later various manufacturers were again searching for artists to use & advertise their product. Obviously the hopes are that consumers will purchase the guitars that are being played by their "idol". Steve Vai was a highly coveted property during the guitar craze in the early 80's. Not only for his extraordinary musicianship (w/ Berklee schooling, Zappa roots and extraordinary Flex-Able guitar cuts) as the competition heated up for his brand name "endorsement". It was a no-brainer... Steve made for a great endorsement. He had the Rock 'n Roll look, musical roots, showmanship & chops all rolled into a smart & stable package.
Ibanez clearly wanted to get their slice of the "player's guitar" pie. Of course the Super-Strat guitar concept was pioneered by players like Eddie Van Halen, and a lesser extent Brian May, who hand built their own guitars instead of playing the classic Strat or Les Paul. The LA Hair Bands fueled the Super-Strat fire as players flocked to Charvel /Jackson & Kramer guitars. With the modified strat shape body, players-neck, humbuckers and the mandatory locking tremolo "Floyd Rose" bridge the Les Paul was left for dead?
Ibanez, like it's other Japanese competitors, needed to find it's niche, as the "lawsuit models" & "copy guitars" were not going to carry Ibanez into the next decade. Magazines from 10/86 (and perhaps earlier) show Ibanez advertisements for their "Pro Line" super-strats with Edge tremolo (non-recessed), shark inlayed neck and extended cutaway. It was crystal clear that Ibanez was trying to create a "super-strat" style guitar. Yes, they were still advertising MIDI guitar junk, but they would soon strike pay dirt! Change or die.
So Close and Yet So Far
At this time Steve was playing axes handbuilt by Performance Guitar, Charvel & Jackson. Add childhood friend and fellow Long Island native Joe Despagni into the mix, who assembled, modified & routed Steve's custom guitars. Joe and others would assemble parts into a customized super-strat for Steve, with Joe D. creating some wild creations (see Photo Gallery for pictures and info). The custom guitar pace began to pick up, with luthier Tom Anderson joining the fray late in the game. Sometime in-between the first two DLR albums Anderson hand-built at least one guitar for Vai. You would have to conclude Steve liked the guitar, as he used it to record most of the demos and solos for Skyscraper while crediting the guitar in the Guitar Extravaganza TAB book. Steve offers these comments on the Anderson guitar...
"For most of the [Skyscraper] album, I used the Ibanez JEM 777, but when I did the demos, I didn't have the JEM guitars. The solos that were flown onto the master tape were done with a Tom Anderson guitar. Tom is a real fine custom guitar builder in LA, and he built me a great one. I used it a little bit on the road last year, but it was too bottom-endy - a little too much for live playing. But in the studio, it was good." (GP - 5/88)
For guitars on the new LP [Skyscraper] I was using my Ibanez, like for most of the record; the only things that aren't the Ibanez are things that were flown in from the demo, which were from before I was working with Ibanez. For those I was using a Tom Anderson guitar; he's a LA guitar builder. He build this for me after my old green monster, which I used out on the road last year until it died. I was pulling on the whammy bar and ripped the bar right out of the guitar [laughs]; it was actually ripped out before the show as Madison Square Garden. I was dying. So I started using Tom's guitar as my main guitar for the rest of the tour, and I really like it because it has a very heavy sound to it. So I took the best of the sounds from that guitar and had them incorporated into the Ibanez. (GW - 5/88)
Rich Beerman provides this information which was obtained with a discussion with Tom Anderson Guitars: "I was talking w/ a customer service rep at Anderson about building me a custom guitar and asked about Vai's relationship w/ them. I was told Vai was the only person that was ever given a Tom Anderson guitar free of charge... Vai loved the guitar very much and used it on a lot on his early DLR music. The Anderson employee told me they were absolutely crushed when Vai announced the endorsement deal w/ Ibanez. From memory, the Anderson guitar they gave him was also green w/ maple neck. He also said they could build the exact guitar they gave to Steve Vai."
Narrowing it down
The exact manufacturers who courted Steve is unconfirmed, but it is safe to say that in addition to Tom Anderson, Steve had his share of major guitar deals to hand-pick from. In all honesty Vai probably realized Anderson was too small to realistically compete with the major companies. Remember that Vai had two hand built Guild guitars stolen from the rehearsal space that were given to him by the owner of Guild. In retrospect it seems likely that these guitars were ones that Guild built for Steve while trying to procure an endorsement deal. Few know the specifics but here is how Steve puts it:
"I asked Ibanez if they would build me one. A bunch of different companies approached me - all good companies - but nobody really delivered exactly what I wanted, and Ibanez did. Then we talked about mass-producing it, and I didn't want to put my name on it, because who wants to buy a Steve Vai guitar? What is it going to be in 20 years? It's better that the guitar actually speaks for itself. It's a very fine instrument that will transcend my popularity as a guitarist. As time goes on and other great guitar players some along, I don't think the guitar will bow out, because it's a good guitar and it should live on." (GP - 5/88)
Steve elaborates in another interview:
"Basically every company approached me for endorsements, and a lot of them make very fine products. But I had an idea for a guitar that I kinda put together; I had a prototype I was using on tour, three of them, actually, that my guitar tech Elwood from last year, and a friend of mine named Joe Despagni - he owns a company called JEM Guitars that makes custom guitars. What I needed was a supply of these guitars at any time, because live, when you start using a lot of different guitars - and I'm constantly going out of tune, or breaking a string or something that means I've got to switch guitars - when you switch, the guitars inevitably sound different, feel different, don't react to the amp the same way, even if they're supposed to be exactly the same. I'm always breaking guitars too - it must be my sedate and laid-back style [laughs] - and what happens then? (GW - 5/88)
A New World
Interesting quotes, but it doesn't specify whether or not Vai contacted Ibanez and requested these guitars first, or if Ibanez courted Steve, who was giving them an chance to produce. Ibanez' perspective adds an interesting twist so decipher it as you will.
'We'd read up on what his tastes in guitars were' says Bill Cummiskey, Dept Coordinator of Hoshino US. 'We built him one of our Maxxas guitars with the pickup configuration he uses, a palm rest for the tremolo and wild red and grey snakeskin finish. Then we sent it, all wrapped up, to his parents' house for Christmas '
Hoshino spent two weeks anxious for Vai's response - when it came, his reaction was so positive that within three months he and the Hoshino team had completed a new model, designed from the ground up.
The CourtshipFive months after Hoshino sent Vai a 'Christmas' guitar, the company had completed the first production samples of the new model in Japan. The JEM guitar, and the RG range - a lower priced derivative - were launched at the NAMM industry trade show in June  to instant acclaim. (The Electric Guitar An Illustrated History - by Paul Trynka)
Steve Vai elaborates on the birth of the JEM:
So when Ibanez approached me I gave them the chance I gave every other company: handed them my prototype and said 'here's the guitar I want - make me one exactly like it' And I got a guitar back in three weeks that was just great. I thought that it would have potential in the marketplace, and they were interested in marketing it; I wasn't gonna make it a Steve Vai guitar, 'cause who'd be interested in buying a Steve Vai guitar unless I actually played it? So I told them that if they made me these guitars and supplied me with them, then they could make them for other people as well. And so when I walk into any music store and pick up one of these guitars and play it, it feels great. It took a while to perfect it, but every time they send me one it feels just like all the others. I have no problem going from one guitar to another, whether it's green or blue or yellow or floral or whatever; I know they're gonna sound basically the same, with their DiMarzio pickups, that the feel is the same on all of them. So that solved the problem of duplicating the one guitar I really like. (GW- 5/88)
Mace Bailey of at Hoshino USA with 777LNG Prototype. Note dark green color, rosewood fretboard, non-recessed tremolo, old-style pickguard and larger monkey grip. "The green on the proto is not florescent, (we didn't have any color's like that around yet)" says Mace!
Trial and error usually accompany most guitar designs but in the case of Ibanez' JEM777 guitar, Steve Vai's initial idea reflected more of a Chinese menu approach, that is to say "one from column A, one from column B..."
Ibanez Turns the CornerRich Lasner of Hoshino [currently president of Modulus Guitars] explained. "Steve sent us his plans based around ideas from all of his favorite guitars. We made two prototypes from these plans. The first was a semi-hallow, made out of solid-maple, with a maple neck. This was pretty heavy. The second one was maple/mahogany/maple, a solid-body. Both incorporated the 'monkey-grip', but the actual hole was considerably larger than what's on the production models. Mace Bailey, our resident woodworking expert, performed the actual construction." Both prototypes housed two DiMarzio PAF Pro 151 humbucking pickups and one DiMarzio custom-wound single-coil.
Lasner brought both prototypes to Steve's home in LA. "The first thing he did" Rich explains, "was disassemble them on the spot. Neck from body, pickguard off, tremolo out... took 'em apart. I was shocked, to say the least. But Steve looked at me nonchalantly and said, 'Relax, I do this all the time'. He wanted to check Mace's detail and craftsmanship."
Mace Bailey picks up: "Well, Steve was pretty happy with the job. He sent the maple one back to Hoshino with the instructions. First off, the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th frets were to be scalloped, to give increased access, tone and volume. He liked the maple necks, but felt that rosewood would do better on the fingerboards. And then the major change was to make the bodies themselves out of basswood, a much lighter wood.
No problem. I went over to Japan, to our factory there, and sat down with the craftsmen there, and we started banging on blocks of basswood and hearing how they rang out. We built 10 guitars to Steve's new specifications and sent them over to his place, and that was that. The current production guitars are exactly what we stopped with there. Steve plays these guitars, the production ones." (GW- 5/88)
So the birthday of the JEM was around 5/87, when Ibanez created the first "production samples". It appears that Summer NAMM 1987 was a huge turning point for Ibanez. Along with the more affordable RG line, the JEM777DY (Desert Sun Yellow), JEM777SK (Shocking Pink) and JEM777LNG (Loch Ness Green) were introduced as production guitars. If anyone has the NAMM press releases, etc. please e-mail.
The JEM777 featured Vai trademarks such as florescent colors, pyramid inlays, monkey grips & deep tremolo routing along with matching color schemes like never before seen. Of course the Loch Ness Green was a tribute to Vai's "Green Meanie" which was his favorite guitar just prior to the Ibanez deal. Vai's impressive collection of custom made guitars had been retired... replaced by the JEM.
To further differentiate the LNG as a special collectable, Ibanez limited the JEM777LNG to only 777 production pieces. Each LNG was hand signed by Steve on the rear body of the guitar, along with the production number (1-777) and occasionally some Vai-ish hieroglyphic type markings. To further differentiate the special edition, each LNG shipped in a standard pink-lined JEM hard-shell case but with an added bonus. A "commemorative pyramid plaque" engraved with the production number (1-777) was glued to the outside of the case.
A limited edition of green guitars (Steve's trademark color) were signed by Vai himself, but other custom colors include Shocking Pink, Desert Sun Yellow and a special floral pattern that is a duplicate of the material used for Steve's draperies. "These ones", Lasner states, "have become Steve's main guitars of late. He likes the off-the-wall look of them, I guess." (GW - 5/88)
Jim McCloskey from Hoshino USA adds this information on 10/97 - "The JEM guitars do not appear in any Ibanez price lists until 1988 - though we often show prototypes and 1/2-year models (witness the AJ307CE, AF207, and a few others from this year) at the summer NAMM show, and these aren't in our price lists (usually). My guitar guy here says "yes, that sounds about right" regarding the summer NAMM intro of the JEMs." Jim has also confirmed the JEM777LNG as a 1987 model.
An interesting side note is that the JEM10 (10th anniversary JEM) was officially an 1996 model. You are probably thinking that this is nine years after the introduction and production of the first JEM777 guitars. You are correct, however Ibanez has taken the liberty of celebrating their "tenth year anniversary of their collaboration with Steve Vai, which was 1986". Maybe they were celebrating their well received "Christmas gift" to him which directly lead to the JEM777.
Almost one year after the introduction of the JEM777, Steve Vai summarizes the new JEM guitars for Guitar Player magazine:
"The JEM guitars - I don't know what I did without them all these years [laughs]. The guitars that I use are exactly like the ones right off the shelf. That was the concept behind doing the deal with Ibanez. I wanted a guitar that was suited to me, that had all my little ideas and idiosyncrasies, such as having 24-frets and having it dug out so the Floyd Rose is recessed into the body. I wanted to be able to pull up on the bar, and not have it go out of tune when you rest your wrist on the tremolo. I wanted to have the volume pots in a certain place and be able to reach high up with the cutaway." (GP - 5/88)
The rest is history as they say. Ibanez has released over a dozen JEM models since 1987 with the current lineup going strong. The JEM, along with the RG, was a major stepping stone for Ibanez, as well as the guitar industry as a whole. The fine craftsmanship, unique features and use of custom USA made parts like DiMarzio pickups and later hand painted swirl finishes upped the ante considerably. It appears that the JEM will flourish for years!
Original JEM Body Blueprint
(large - high res)
Possible JEM777LNG Prototype
note lions claw missing & odd shaped pickguard
Real Audio required