Ibanez Almost Gave Up on 7-String Guitars, and Then Korn Happened: Steve Vai’s First Reaction to Nu Metal Pioneers Playing His Universe Series

Although it wasn’t exactly how he expected them to be used, Steve Vai was pretty impressed with how the guys in Korn utilized his seven-string guitar concept back in the 1990s.

Sure, Steve wasn’t the first one to come up with this idea. However, his collaboration with Ibanez gave birth to the Universe line. It was the first-ever commercially available seven-string guitar on the market, and it had a pretty simple and player-friendly approach to the concept.

However, as Vai revealed in a recent appearance on Ultimate Guitar’s On the Record podcast, Ibanez considered abandoning the concept altogether. And it was essentially nu metal pioneers Korn, with their somewhat unexpected use of these guitars, who brought it into the spotlight.

Steve Vai on Korn, Satriani & 7-string guitars | On The Record

“When I originally designed it, it took 30 seconds,” Steve recalled. “I was sitting with an Ibanez rep, and we were talking about multi-stringed instruments, and he said, ‘I have an eight-string guitar.'”

Now, as the guitar virtuoso further explained, downtuning wasn’t much of a thing back then, at least not as nearly as much as it is today. So, adding a string to the bottom was the obvious next move in the evolution of electric guitar.

Steve already collaborated with Ibanez on his now well-known JEM guitars, fusing the best traits of Fender and Gibson models. But these new guitars, known as the Universe models, were something else.

“In the back of my mind, of course, there was the thought about the potential,” he said while looking back on how he came up with the idea. “And what ran through my mind was — I know there’s going to be kids that are listening to this, and they’re not popular yet, and it’s going to inspire them, and they’re going to see that the potential for the use of the heaviness.”

Steve Vai demonstrates his 7 string guitar

Steve ended up using an Ibanez seven-string on Whitesnake’s “Slip of the Tongue” album. However, as he pointed out, this wasn’t exactly the immensely heavy chugging stuff that we know today. It was just him using the advantages of extended-range guitars in other ways.

“The seven-string came out, and I also thought, if you’re a jazz player, this would be an excellent instrument because you can do walking bass lines,” he explained. “And if you’re a classical player, not that it’s the tone you’re looking for, but you could do counterpoints that you just can’t do with a six-string. So I thought in my mind’s eye back then, I’m sure some people will fool around with that.”

“I thought, if anything happens, if it transcends just being what most people might see as a novelty, I think it’ll have some teeth.”

At first, these guitars were interesting to guitar players out there. However, after a while, it seemed like just another trend that was fading away. He continued:

“Sure enough, the seven-string came out, and it was a bit of a novelty, and it was selling, and then it started to die down.”

In fact, it was getting down to the level where Ibanez was thinking of giving up on them.

“Ibanez was considering discontinuing it,” Steve recalled. “And I said, ‘Just wait a little while, give it another few years, even if you have to make ten per year or something because somebody’s gonna get it.'”

Whitesnake's Steve Vai On 7 String Sorcery for Slip Of The Tongue #whitesnake #slipofthetongue

As it turns out, somebody did get it. But it wasn’t exactly in the walking bass jazz kind of way or the counterpoint classical way either. Instead, it was a couple of young metalheads chugging away on the bottom string.

Recalling the moment he heard Korn for the first time, Steve offered:

“I was driving down the street, and I heard this incredible heavy music on the radio, and I knew it was a seven-string. I pulled the car over, and I listened, and it was what I was expecting, in a way.”

Korn - Blind (Official HD Video)

“The band that was playing was Korn, and it was brilliant,” Vai said. “It was like, yeah, that’s the use of the seven-string that I didn’t do, that I was hoping somebody would do, and they certainly did.”

“Then, from there, it just took off,” the guitar virtuoso added. One thing led to another, and the extended-range downtuned guitar became the everyday thing in metal music.

Although he didn’t come up with the idea of adding more strings to an otherwise six-string instrument, Steve Vai’s concepts were the much-needed sparks that resulted in this passionate fire we have today. He concluded by saying:

“I may be the godfather of the production model seven-string because they existed before I did that, but bands like Korn, Fear Factory, and a bunch of those bands from that period gave it the kick that it needed to start the subculture.”

Ibanez Universe 20th Anniversary Reissue

Photos: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 08), pitpony.photography (Korn Rock Im Park 2016 (10 von 14))

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.