Watch the Gear Talk online guitar lesson by Steve Vai from Alien Guitar Secrets: Passion & Warfare
Hey folks, I'd like to tell you about this guitar that I'm playing, which is an Ibanez Jem.
When I was younger, I was in love with Les Pauls and Strats, I thought they were so great. There were things I liked about each of them, and things I didn't like. For instance, with a Strat, I loved them because they had a whammy bar, and I knew that I was going to need a whammy bar my whole life. But I didn't like the sound, they never sounded rock 'n' roll to me, they were kind of edgy and thin. Les Pauls were very cool and had a rich sound, but they didn't have a whammy bar. I couldn't sit while playing it, they always sat kind of funny.
So when I was working with Frank Zappa, I noticed that if he ever wanted to build something, he just built it. So I wanted to have a guitar that was built around my idiosyncrasies of playing, which was changing and expanding. So I went to a little guitar shop in Hollywood and bought a body, and I had it cut so I could get my hand way up high without it hitting anything. I also wanted 24 frets, which was extremely rare back then, and a sexier looking body than a Les Paul or a Strat. The pickup configuration was very important - I wanted a warm, rich humbucker sound in the neck position, and in the in between position I used a 5-position switch so it splits the coil between the two to give it a "tubey" kind of Strat sound, and the same thing between the middle and back position as well. I moved the volume knob down a little bit, as the conventional one got in my way. I really loved the whammy bar, and I wanted to have something that could go in both directions almost the same amount. At the time, Floyd Rose had just come out with this locking system, which was really helpful for keeping a guitar in tune. I realized you couldn't go higher with it, so I dug out all the wood so I could go both ways with the whammy bar. I changed simple things too, like the input jack, which would get caught on your body on a Les Paul, is now on an angle to make it more comfortable.
When I started playing with David Lee Roth, a lot of guitar companies were interested in what I was playing, and Ibanez came back in three weeks with the perfect guitar. It was amazing - it was a "Jem"! They began to make it as a production model, which I thought was silly, but I was wrong as it's still going 30 years later. In the early 90's, I wanted to something a little different, so I asked them to make a guitar for me just like it with a 7th string, and it became the Universe guitar. I used it right away on Passion and Warfare and on the Whitesnake record I did. I wanted to put something in the guitar that would be embarrassing for another company to copy, so I put in the handle.
This particular guitar has gone through several iterations, right now it has DiMarzio Breed pickups and custom neck frets so I'm able hit notes that are perfectly in tune in every location (that's a little beyond me).
My rig features a great deal of custom gear as well: I have Marshall and Fender amps that I use occasionally, but I wanted something different that was affordable for other people and was built solid, so I went with the Carvin Legacy head. We worked on it together for about a year and a half until it felt right, and it's the main engine behind my tone. The most difficult thing with the Legacy is that it's hard to use anything else - as I travel the world and can't carry gear all the time, I find myself only satisfied when I have a Legacy. The rack systems I use are relatively conventional, the pedal board features several stomp boxes that go in and out. I like a lot of the Boss gear and the Roland stuff, and I never go anywhere without my Digitech whammy pedal. For the past five years or so I've used a Fractal Axe-Fx II, which I use for the effects it offers, and that it sounds authentic without destroying tone.