Steve Vai Explains Why He Stuck With Ibanez for So Long, Reveals Why He Didn’t Like Single-Coil Pickups

According to Steve Vai, Ibanez was the only company that could really put his vision into action.

The JEM series of guitars, as we know them today, were initially conceived by Vai as the perfect combination of classic Fender and Gibson traits, along with some other improvements. And before striking a deal with Ibanez, he was in talks with a bunch of other companies who were willing to promote themselves by teaming up with Vai.

But although Steve almost exclusively uses Ibanez guitars to this day, getting to this point wasn’t that simple. Speaking to Ultimate Guitar for their On the Record podcast, he reflected how, back in the 1980s, there were other companies that he pitched his ideas to. And, what’s more, he wasn’t satisfied with Ibanez’s prototype.

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“When you find good people to work with, there’s no need to go anyplace else,” Vai said when asked about why he stuck with Ibanez for so long. But there’s more to than just interpersonal relationships. He added:

“Plus, I’m kind of a specialized player. I’m not very authentic in any particular genre. I’m very authentic at being me. And when I designed the JEM, it was based around my idiosyncrasies as a player.”

“The 24 frets at the time, that was rare, virtually non-existent with humbuckers. Jackson had a neck through the body that had humbuckers that were sort of Strat-shaped. But I just wanted 24 frets, and I wanted a big cutaway that fits my hand perfectly. No other cutaways on any of those guitars are like this. I don’t know why they give you the frets when you can’t play them.”

Interestingly enough, despite being one of the most famous shredders, Vai admits that he wasn’t that fond of single-coil pickups. Although, obviously, using them these days, he felt like they weren’t all that great for his style back in the day.

“And the pickup configuration was exactly what I wanted,” Steve added. “I wanted the humbuckers in these two positions. I didn’t want single coils. I didn’t like them. They didn’t seem rock and roll to me. Of course, now I appreciate the value in them, but still, I’m a double-coil humbucker guy.”

Obviously, he uses them now, usually in the middle position. He continued:

“But I like to have the single coil for certain things and that in-between sound, and this pickup configuration was a very unique development at the time, I was told later. It is very common these days, but back then I was told this was the first of its kind where you go into this position, it splits the coil.”

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Going more into the matter, Steve recalled how many other companies reached out to him for collaboration. Eventually, he stuck with Ibanez. As he explained:

“Back in the day when I was being courted by all of these guitar manufacturing companies, several of them were started by guys who loved the guitar. They had a little bit of business acumen. But they don’t realize that life is a long time, and when you start something, you wanna have momentum and keep it going.”

“So, a lot of these companies started and then lost interest, or they failed. But Ibanez had a history, they had a foundation, they were substantial, and they were very creative, and they build whatever I want.”

“It’s just amazing. Who would have built the Hydra? I don’t know of a company… they would have, but it wouldn’t have come out like that. So that’s why I stick with them. I have no reason to move because it’s worked so great.”

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However, as he revealed further down the interview, he wasn’t all that happy about the first guitar that Ibanez sent to him, which was supposed to be with his specs.

“The first guitar they sent me, was hideous,” he said. “It was nothing like my guitar. It was a weird shape, weird colored, and totally nothing like what I had sent out. Nobody gave me anything that was correct.”

Steve also adds that guitar builder Tom Anderson “was the closest” to getting it but “still wasn’t perfect.” He continued:

“I mean, I had four completed JEMs. They weren’t called JEMs, but they were the prototypes. I had them hand-built. So I knew exactly what I wanted. But most of them sent back their instrument because most signature guitars, like if you play a signature Les Paul by Slash, there are certain things he likes, particular pickups, neck, and frets, but it’s in the body of a Les Paul.”

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“So most signature guitars are the company’s model with accouterments chosen by the artist. The JEM was a complete rebuild, and there are some other new signature guitars that I’ve seen that I thought were really good.”

Photo: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 08)

  • 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, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.