Back in 1987, a rising virtuoso and an esoteric Japanese guitar maker combined forces to create an instrument that represented one of the first radical changes to the electric guitar since its commercialisation in the late 1950s. Now the longest running signature guitar today – Steve Vai’s JEM series has been emblematic of Ibanez’s rise to one of the premier guitar manufacturers.
As the story goes, the JEM was created out of the sheer frustration Vai had with contemporary instruments not being able to fully complement his eclectic playing style. Steve loved the tremolo system of the Stratocaster but needed a lot more output than what they provided. Vai much preferred the searing tone he could get from a Les Paul but wanted something more ergonomic for his flamboyant performance style. The JEM took the qualities of the guitars that Steve loved and built upon them, culminating in a guitar that featured a monkey grip handle, a lion’s claw tremolo cavity, five-way HSH pickup options, a deep cutaway, partially-scalloped frets and eye-popping fluorescent finishes – all pioneering attributes for a production guitar at the time.
Thirty three successful years later, Steve Vai and Ibanez decided that it was time to polish up the legendary JEM for the next stage of its evolution: The Ibanez PIA.
We even managed to get our first look at the Ibanez PIA earlier this year at the NAMM show.
The Ibanez PIA or Paradise in Art is more than just an ordinary signature guitar to Vai, as it happens to be the namesake of his significant other. While the PIA isn’t a significant departure from its iconic predecessor, it bears refinements and subtle tweaks that elevate the PIA to new heights. While the JEM was more radical and raucous, the PIA is an elegant enchantress with softer finishes, intricate floral motifs, smoother bevels and classy gold hardware.
A paradise of features
The PIA starts with a solid alder body and a multi-piece neck consisting of maple and walnut with a rosewood fretboard. In comparison to the JEM, the PIA includes a deeper rout on the back of the lower horn, a more aggressive forearm contour and slightly larger rolls on all edges of the instrument. The new PIA neck profile is similar to the JEM but has a rounder radius of 15¾” that gives a cozier feel while retaining the fast playability that players enjoy. Ibanez also decided to utilise jumbo stainless steel frets with the Prestige fret-end treatment, a high end feature that’ll last you a lifetime of playing!
The monkey turns floral
The epochal monkey-grip has evolved. But instead of the familiar four “finger” notches, the new design – dubbed the “Petal Grip” – takes over. True to its name, the Petal Grip consists of two laser-cut swoops that resemble the silhouette of petals. It’s also meant to symbolise unity and balance – does Ying and Yang ring a bell?
You’ll find the same dual petal design etched-out on the backplate of the guitar – functioning as the gripping point for the magnetic tremolo cavity plate. The PIA does away with the six screws that hold the back plate down like on most guitars, instead using magnets to keep it in position. This allows you to remove the backplate without whipping out the screwdriver – a godsend for spring adjustments and set-ups on the fly.
Steve Vai and Ibanez have also given the iconic Tree of Life inlays a facelift. The changes to the popular vine-like patterned inlays are slightly modified to follow the PIA’s floral design language. You’ll find the ubiquitous petal motif on the abalone and pearloid inlays, which Vai aptly named the Blossom inlay. The PIA is also Vai’s first signature model to feature Luminlays – fluorescent side dot inlays that glow in the dark for light-deficient performance stages.
Full speed, full power
Steve Vai is one of the masters of the whammy bar. So it’s no surprise the tremolo arm gets an update. The Ultralite Tremolo Arm is a carbon graphite vibrato bar that is significantly lighter and more rigid than conventional metal tremolo arms. The benefits? How about added durability and increased tremolo-arm control – perfect for the type of playing that Vai specialises in. A recurring theme with the PIA is Vai’s commitment to keeping things simple and hassle-free. It’s clear that a lot of genuine thought went into the most minute of details in order to produce a guitar that minimises the barriers of just playing your guitar.
Arguably the headline feature on the PIA is the new and beautifully ornate DiMarzio UtoPIA pickups. This HSH set has been specially voiced by both Vai and DiMarzio to suit his current needs for a modern-voiced tone. Using the Evolution set as the basic platform, the UtoPIA has a higher focus on the low-end response of the guitar while adding body to the top end. Upper midrange frequencies were also dialed back to produce a less aggressive attack and provide more control. DiMarzio have also added a custom, laser cut baroque style cover with gold trims designed by Michael Mesker – Vai’s art director for the past 13 years, perfectly complementing the guitar’s vibrant aesthetic.
The Ibanez PIA is available in four colours: Stallion White , Envy Green, Panther Pink, and Sun Dew Gold. The Stallion White finish will be here to stay for the long run while the latter three variants are only available as limited edition models in commemoration of the series’ launch.
Make no mistake – the PIA range is the culmination of a working relationship between Vai and Ibanez that spans over three decades. Whether you’re the ultimate Vai fan or you appreciate a high performance guitar, look no further – the PIA is a first-class performance instrument in every sense of the phrase.
If you’re looking to pick up this very special signature model, you can check out the collection of PIAs we have right here. The Envy Green and Panther Pink models are making their way over soon. Contact us if you’d like to pre-order these limited models. If you’d like to see the other Steve Vai models we have in stock, click here.
For our full range of Ibanez products, check out our site here!