Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 10. MADE IN JAPAN
Van Halen’s massive success meant that Eddie’s Frankenstrat would soon be showcased throughout the United States, from arena to arena in the late seventies and eighties. With it came the implied message that the age of Gibson and Fender supremacy had passed, and a new era of guitar-building innovation had arrived. One of the thousands of young, impressionable guitarists who heard Ed’s message loud and clear was an earnest, Fender Stratocaster-playing twenty-year-old named Steve Vai, who was attending Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music.
“It was like a monolith appeared on the planet,” remembers Vai.
Eddie’s impact was very sudden. I was in college when his first album came out. My tone sucked, man. I was just interested in chops. I could play fast and pick all sorts of fast notes, but I spent precious little time on my sound. So when I heard Ed, I realized I needed to raise my own bar. It’s a very select group of people that have really brought the electric guitar to a different level. As far as I’m concerned, Jimi Hendrix did it and Edward did it. That’s it.
Born in the small town of Carle Place, New York, on June 6, 1960, Vai began playing the guitar at the age of thirteen after hearing Jimmy Page’s fast and furious solo in “Heartbreaker” on Led Zeppelin II.
“I went wild when I heard that solo,” said Vai. “I vowed that I would learn to play it—I had to learn how to play it.”
He spent his teens doing just that, taking lessons from another future guitar hero, Joe Satriani, who immediately saw Vai’s potential. Satriani taught him the intricacies of music theory and proper playing technique. “I got a kick out of sitting across from a thirteen-year-old Steve Vai and realizing, ‘This kid is going to be playing better than me,’ ” Satriani recalls. “I just instinctively knew it.”
While many youngsters would’ve bridled at the discipline, Vai took to it with the dedication that would become his calling card. “Joe Satriani set an amazingly high standard and pulled me up to it,” said Vai. “My lessons were the most important thing in my life. They were treasures.”
He was determined to keep pushing the limits of his playing. In 1979, during his stay at Berklee, Vai reached out to the legendary Frank Zappa, perhaps one of the only musicians in the rock world whose standards and workaholism exceeded his own. Zappa, a guitarist and composer of complex, satirical music, had a reputation as a fearsome bandleader who demanded nothing less than perfection from musicians. In an act of sheer chutzpah, Vai mailed Frank a painstakingly accurate transcription he had made of Zappa’s “The Black Page,” an outrageously complicated drum instrumental, along with a tape of his own guitar playing.
Much to Vai’s surprise, Zappa responded. He hired Vai to transcribe a number of the guitar solos that were published in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book in 1982. Zappa also enlisted the guitarist to become a full-fledged band member, often referring to Vai admiringly as his “little Italian virtuoso.” While the gig didn’t exactly make Steve famous—Zappa’s music was too bizarre, his following too underground for that—Vai was immediately put on the short list of “musicians to watch” in the guitar community. To be so young and receive praise by someone as discerning and brilliant as Frank Zappa was no small thing, and people began to take notice. It certainly didn’t hurt Steve’s cause that he was tall, dark, and had the chiseled bone structure of a natural-born rock star.
Big things were in store for Vai, whose chops were beginning to rival anyone’s in the rock and jazz world. But like Van Halen before him, Vai grew restless with the limitations of his store-bought Stratocaster. He began to desire an instrument that would offer more tonal flexibility and better accommodate his wizardry, especially in the upper reaches of his fretboard.
“Choosing a guitar was a little bit of a dilemma for me,” recalled Vai,
because I loved the big, humbucking sound of a Les Paul, but at the same time I instinctively understood the potential of a whammy bar. For that reason I had to have a Strat, but I didn’t like the way Stratocasters sounded. They never really seemed “rock and roll” to me. They were always a little hard to play, and the single-coil pickups were a little thin-sounding. But that was my main axe. I got a maple Strat when I was fifteen or sixteen, and it didn’t sound great, but it had a whammy bar, and I beat that whammy bar to death. I was using this Strat all the way up through my days with Frank.
Then when Van Halen hit the scene and he had a guitar with a whammy bar and a humbucker, that changed a lot of things.
Ed’s guitar grabbed Vai’s attention, but for the next couple of years he persisted with his Fender (despite the fact that Zappa humorously chided his tone as sounding like a “ham sandwich” or “a bunch of buzzing flies”). It wasn’t until the young gun left Frank’s group to join Alcatrazz, a melodic hard rock band based in Hollywood, that he was forced to really rethink his sound.
Alcatrazz demanded a bigger, beefier sound. The group’s keyboardist, Jimmy Waldo, introduced Steve to Grover Jackson, the custom guitar builder who was making guitars for everyone from Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Randy Rhoads to Jeff Beck. Seeing Vai’s potential to become the next big thing, Jackson lent him a brown guitar he had designed for Charvel.
“It was fantastic,” said Vai. “It had a humbucker and a whammy bar, and Grover made one of the closest instruments to what I was looking for, but there were still things about it I wasn’t crazy about.”
Vai recalls having a conversation with Zappa about the Jackson Charvel. What aren’t you crazy about? Zappa asked him. The guitarist gave him a laundry list: it didn’t have enough frets, the cutaway wasn’t right, the body wasn’t sexy enough, and so on.
One of the things I learned, working with Frank—who was the most extraordinary man I ever met—when he would get an idea for something, he would just do it. He would work until he found a solution, whether it was a problem with notation, instrumentation, lyrics, recording techniques, guitars, or guitar effects. So I started experimenting with custom guitar builders, and one of the first ones that I had made was by Valdez Guitar, but it was still more of a Strat. It still didn’t fit my needs. When I was asked to play in the David Lee Roth Band in 1985, I decided I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to stop until I had the guitar of my dreams.
Joining Roth’s group catapulted Vai into the big leagues overnight. The singer had recently shocked the rock world by leaving Van Halen to pursue a solo career, and if Roth was going to form a band that could follow Van Halen, he would need a guitar player brilliant enough to rival Edward, at that time perhaps the most famous guitarist on earth. Vai, whose star had been rising, was an obvious choice. But despite the reverence Vai inspired among musicians, he still didn’t own an instrument he truly loved.
“I was still using the borrowed Charvel, which I had taken the liberty of painting fluorescent green, much to Wayne’s chagrin,” laughed Steve. “It was the main guitar that I used on my first album with Roth, Eat ’Em and Smile. But when it came time to tour, I needed some backups and I wanted to have something made. I went to this little guitar shop in Hollywood called Performance Guitar, and I took the Frank approach. I was going to be relentless until I got what I wanted.”
This was Vai’s chance to really make his mark. Building upon ideas already put in place by Van Halen—a locking-whammy-bar system and humbucking pickups—he expanded the guitar’s design in several key areas. Perhaps his most significant and longest-lasting contribution to guitar design was the idea of a “floating tremolo” or “floating bridge” system. In his words:
I wanted to have a whammy bar that could pull the strings really sharp, not just one tone or half a tone, which is what the conventional systems allowed you to do. I had never seen anything that would do what I wanted, so I just looked at the guitar, looked at it carefully, and I thought, “What’s stopping this tremolo from going really sharp?” It was just the wood in the body that the bridge was sitting on, so I took a hammer and a screwdriver and I banged out the wood, pieces flying everywhere. That was it and then I was able to pull way up and notes would go a fifth, a sixth. I could even snap the strings. That was party time for me.
Vai had luthiers do well what he had done crudely. They carved a “lion’s claw” cavity behind the bridge of his guitar. He made several other requests, including twenty-four frets on the neck (instead of the standard twenty-two), and a deeper cutaway that would allow him to easily access the upper reaches of his strings.
“I never understood the cutaways on most guitars,” said Vai.
It’s pretty uncomfortable to play up high on Strats and Les Pauls. At least with my big hands, you can’t get up there and squeeze those notes without having wood in your way.
And there’s the shape. I liked Stratocasters, but they were visually a little too pedestrian—they weren’t sexy enough. And I couldn’t sit with a Les Paul. They were always off to the side or they hung funny. So I had Performance [Guitar shop] sharpen the edges of a Strat-style guitar a bit, and round off certain areas that I thought would feel good, and the finished body looked great to me. It had a real kind of appeal, had some nice shape to it.
Vai also questioned the configuration of traditional electric guitar pickups. He saw the virtues of the double-humbucker sound found in most Gibson guitars, but also enjoyed certain aspects of his Stratocaster’s three single-coil pickups, and wondered why he couldn’t have the best of both worlds in one guitar. His solution was simple and elegant. He had Performance install two humbuckers, one near the neck and one near the bridge, and a Strat-style single-coil pickup in the middle.
Very little escaped Vai’s intense scrutiny, including something as simple as the instrument’s input jack. As most players will tell you, one of the great hazards of showing off onstage—posing, jumping, or dancing, for instance—is accidently stepping on your chord and yanking it out of your instrument. Vai, who had developed into quite a showman, decided to solve the problem by designing the input on his guitar to go through the body of the guitar at an angle, from the side, which made it “yank proof.”
His coup de grâce, however, was the unorthodox idea of carving a handle, or “monkey grip,” into the top of his guitar, near the upper horn. Like Van Halen’s striped paint job, it was an eye-grabbing detail that nearly overshadowed all the serious ideas that he packed into his innovative custom design.
Vai asked the luthiers at Performance to make four guitars incorporating all of his wishes, and he had them laminated with risqué images, including nudes clipped from the pages of Playboy magazine. As far as Vai was concerned, he had everything he needed.
And it seems he did. Eat ’Em and Smile, Vai’s debut with David Lee Roth, was a huge success, reaching #4 on the Billboard charts, and after appearing quite prominently in several Roth videos on MTV, the guitarist was on his way to becoming a household name. With the attention came covers on all the major guitar magazines, such as Guitar World and Guitar Player. So it was hardly surprising when many of the major six-string manufacturers of the day came calling, asking him to endorse one of their instruments. While he entertained all comers, almost every one disappointed.
“What I got back from most companies were basically guitars with a few little modifications,” said Vai. He had something singular in mind, and though he had lengthy discussions with a number of builders about what he wanted, they failed to deliver anything that met his exacting standards. All of them except one.
NO HISTORY OF the electric guitar would be complete without some discussion of the wonderful, sometimes bizarre world of Japanese imports. During the sixties and seventies, alongside the rise of Gibson and Fender and their ilk, Asian brands such as Teisco, Kawai, Kent, and Guyatone flooded the United States. They usually came in strange shapes, often festooned with a multitude of glittering knobs and pickups (which rarely did more than make the instrument sound worse). Many also had warped necks and were flimsily constructed, leaving them almost impossible to play. But despite their many faults, they had their virtues too—namely, they looked cool and were cheap as hell. Most were purchased by beginners distracted by their cosmetic bells and whistles, or bought as gifts by well-meaning parents who couldn’t differentiate a good guitar from a bad one; but if you ask any guitarist of a certain age, each will likely have a story about an outrageously unplayable Japanese instrument that almost put an end to his or her budding career (both authors of this book included).
That era eventually came to a close in the mid-seventies, when quality Japanese brands such as Yamaha, ESP, and Ibanez emerged. But like the “so bad they’re good” sci-fi films of the fifties, the early imported guitars continue to hold a special, nostalgic place in the hearts of players around the world. So who in Japan made these instruments, and how did they evolve into some of the world’s leading guitar builders?
Much like in America, the story of the electric guitar in Japan started in the thirties, when the country fell temporarily in the thrall of Hawaiian music played on lap steel guitars. Improbably, during those pre-World War II years, Hawaiian-themed clubs sprang up all over Japan, featuring amateur bands doing their best to replicate the Polynesian sound. They even had their very own lap steel virtuoso, a musician named Buckie Shirakata, who triggered a guitar boom that swept the nation. As the demand for lap steels exploded, craftsmen like Mitsuo Matsuki, nicknamed “Guya-san,” or handyman, began building them for local musicians. The fad was short-lived, however; when Japan went to war with the United States in 1941, all forms of Western music were banned.
It was more than a decade before American music would again visit the Land of the Rising Sun, most of it brought over by American servicemen stationed across the island in the postwar years. This time, however, it was the electric Spanish guitar that became the rage, and once again, local craftsmen swung into action.
One of the first and most recognizable companies to embrace guitar manufacturing in Japan was the AOI Sound Co., more commonly known in the United States as Teisco. Founded in 1946 by an ex-Buddhist priest named Doryu Matsuda, the Tokyo business initially produced pickups, electronics, and lap steel guitars. In the fifties they began developing both hollow-body and solid-body electrics, and by the end of the decade they’d begun exporting their work internationally. Some of these instruments were quite good, such as the handmade Teisco T-60, which found its way into the hands of the likes of Glen Campbell, one of California’s top session musicians.
Mitsuo “Guya-san” Matsuki also started making instruments again, after having crafted Japan’s first amplified lap steel guitars in the thirties. Initially he went to work for Teisco as a subcontractor, but soon he left to make his own guitars. By the mid-fifties, “the father of the Japanese electric guitar” had founded Tokyo Sound Laboratory and begun producing his Guyatone instruments, a brand that also became notoriously ubiquitous in the United States in the sixties.
In 1962, Teisco, Guyatone, and newcomer Fujigen manufactured an impressive 20,000 units for the year. Sensing economic opportunity, new guitar companies and factories began sprouting up all over the country, and in 1963 the electric guitar output in Japan soared to roughly 100,000 units, with approximately half of them exported. Japan was just getting started. After the Beatles and the Rolling Stones popularized the notion of the guitar band in 1964, numbers continued to skyrocket. In 1965, 767,000 units were cranked out by twenty-four factories, with 80 percent of them exported.
The Japanese guitar business was on fire, but as sales were peaking so were complaints and returns. Guitar manufacturers, and their often inexperienced designers, were delivering downright shoddy products, which flooded markets all over the world. In a panic, the guitar division of the Japanese National Musical Instruments Manufacturers’ Association called an emergency meeting in June of 1965, gathering in Nagoya City to set up strict guidelines for the improvement of guitar quality.
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done—especially in the United States, where Japanese-made instruments had become a punch line. Sales very quickly cooled off, and by 1969 the production of Japanese electric guitars plummeted to approximately 150,000.
Nonetheless, several companies survived and started building instruments that would eventually compete with the very best the United States had to offer. One such manufacturer was the Hoshino Musical Instrument Company, which would become known in the United States as Ibanez. The musical instrument sales division of the Hoshino Shoten bookstore company was founded in 1908, and Ibanez dated back to 1929, when owner Matsujiro Hoshino began importing Salvador Ibanez nylon string guitars from Spain. By 1935, the demand for the guitars outgrew their supply, so the company, now run by Matsujiro’s son, Yoshitaro, began manufacturing their own.
However, in March 1944, a bombing raid destroyed the Hoshino factory, forcing Yoshitaro to start from scratch. Miraculously, among the few items spared from obliteration was a list of Hoshino’s export customer contracts. To help get the company running again, Hoshino exported tortoiseshell picks. While most companies made picks that replicated the look of tortoiseshell, Hoshino’s were created from the real deal, making them immensely popular. The demand for the picks gave the company enough capital to once again build instruments.
Yoshitaro’s sons picked up the baton and began manufacturing electric guitars around 1957 in response to the success of companies like Teisco and Guyatone. However, unlike many of their competitors, Ibanez adhered to a strict level of quality, and their copies of Gibson, Fender, and Rickenbacker models in the sixties often equaled or exceeded the originals. Spurred on by Philadelphia businessman Harry Rosenbloom, whose Elger Company became the sole U.S. distributor of Ibanez guitars in 1972, the brand continued to improve, creating imaginative original designs like the Iceman and the Roadstar, while picking up an impressive roster of superstar endorsers such as Paul Stanley of Kiss, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, and jazz legend George Benson.
The U.S. division of Ibanez, led by Rosenbloom, also hired a team of smart, aggressive young executives. And it was a good thing, too, because by 1977 Gibson had finally had enough of Ibanez’s nearly identical copies of its Flying V and Les Paul instruments, and filed a suit against Elger/Hoshino that forced them to abandon the strategy of copying now-classic American guitar designs.
Among the sharp Americans enlisted to help Ibanez move forward in the United States was a hustling adman named Jeff Hasselberger, whose tenacity helped Ibanez procure many of their early key endorsers, including Steve Miller, Garcia, and Benson. Another key acquisition was marketer Bill Reim, whose spiky hair and flamboyant punk rock style announced to the world that he was going to keep the company on the cutting edge.
“When I came on board in the early eighties, there was this idea that not only did we need a great guitar aimed at the hard rock community, but it would also need an identity,” said Reim.
We decided the quickest way to build our name in that world was to procure a marquee endorser. We weren’t necessarily looking for the biggest rock star—we wanted the best one. We wanted the most skilled, smartest, and most adventurous guitarist we could find. Executive Director Joe Hoshino came over from Japan and he reinforced the idea of finding a player’s player—someone that would give us not only brand recognition, but also credibility. We all looked at each other and our team almost simultaneously said, “Well, it’s gotta be Steve Vai.” Steve was a little bit under the radar at the time because he was still in Alcatrazz, who were not that popular, but we had admired his playing with Frank Zappa and saw his star potential. Steve was the right guy, at least in our minds.
All that was left was to actually snag him, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Vai was being actively courted by some of the biggest guitar companies in the business, many of which had deep pockets. To make matters worse, the Japanese main office of Ibanez was not particularly supportive of their distant American outpost. They liked to do things their own way, and they were very reluctant to take suggestions or shell out money to develop a new guitar.
“[At present] there are no Americans involved in development or design,” said Reim. “The Americans have been completely excluded from the picture because the Hoshino Corporation wants Ibanez to be a Japanese thing. But what made us successful during the eighties was when you had a few smart people like Joe [Hoshino] who had some interest in collaborating.”
The American team was woefully underfunded and lacking in even the most basic tools to build a prototype worthy of a perfectionist like Vai, but they were determined to give it their best shot. Despite the challenges going it alone presented, in some ways Reim and his coworkers, Rich Lasner, Bill Cummiskey, and Mace Bailey, felt they might actually be better off working without the assistance of Japan. Corporate, they rationalized, would never sign off on some of Vai’s more outlandish ideas.
“It gave us kind of an opportunity to see what we could do with the crappy tools that we had at the time,” laughed Reim. “We really didn’t have anything to work with. It was just stuff we bought at Sears. It was almost a joke. I just remember Lasner saying, ‘Oh, it’s got to be as ugly as possible, too, because that’s what Steve likes.’ So after we finished building a prototype, we painted it to look like green and pink snakeskin.”
Somehow the ragtag team finished an instrument close to Vai’s specs in an astounding three weeks and convinced Vai’s family to put the finished product under their tree for Christmas as a surprise. It was such a crass move—Reim wasn’t sure whether it was going to backfire and piss Steve off or endear them to him. But luckily it worked in their favor. Steve loved the guitar and gave Ibanez the green light to develop a production model.
But before Vai signed off and the Japanese could embrace their new star, there was one remaining matter of diplomacy. Lasner suspected that Ibanez brand pickups were not going to cut it for Steve, and he was right. Vai insisted that he wanted to work with custom pickup designer Larry DiMarzio, leaving little room for the Japanese to argue.
“They didn’t like the idea,” said Reim, who eventually rose to CEO of Hoshino USA. “They wanted to make the pickups themselves, but I often argued that the company you keep can help elevate. In this case partnering with DiMarzio lifted Ibanez a little bit, because his pickups had a pretty good reputation.”
The first Steve Vai guitar, called the JEM, rolled off the assembly line in 1987 and was available in three eye-popping colors: Loch Ness Green, Flamingo Pink, and Desert Yellow. Each featured green and pink pyramid-shaped inlays on the fretboard, light pink pickups, multicolored tone knobs, plus a floating bridge and all the design idiosyncrasies the guitarist demanded (including his distinctive “monkey grip” handle). From our modern perspective, the JEMs appear almost absurdly garish, but in the mid-eighties they were the epitome of cool to kids being fed a steady diet of sticky-sweet hair metal bands like Poison, Cinderella, and Quiet Riot. In many ways, Vai’s JEMs were the apotheosis of a guitar trend that had been building throughout a very experimental and extroverted moment in music.
“I picked those colors because they fit the David Lee Roth show, which was completely like a circus,” said Vai. “Anything else seemed wimpy to me. People mock the eighties for being so outlandish, but it was a really exciting time to be a successful rock musician. The decade was just excess to the bone, man, and we took advantage of everything we could. The clothes were ridiculous and stage shows were gigantic. The groupies, the parties…it was nonstop, over-the-top fun.”
ARGUABLY THE MOST significant musical event of the eighties, and the catalyst for many of the wild fashions of the day, was the August 1, 1981, launch of MTV, a revolutionary twenty-four-hour cable and satellite television channel devoted to playing nothing but music videos. Just as the 1979 hit song by the Buggles eerily predicted, video did indeed “kill the radio star.” Within months, record stores were selling music by newly minted MTV stars like Bow Wow Wow, Stray Cats, and the Human League by the boatload, whether the local FM station played them or not.
Video-oriented pop acts such as Madonna, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Culture Club, and Prince ruled the eighties. But so did a number of hard rock and heavy metal bands like Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe, who shamelessly mugged for the camera in mascara and clothes made of colorful leather and spandex. The dominance of MTV forced most bands to completely rethink how they presented themselves, and for many, that included their instruments.
If Van Halen was the primary reason many guitarists began reconsidering their old guard instruments—those made by Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch—MTV was a close second. If you wanted to stand out and be noticed, a tasteful sunburst Stratocaster or an understated black Les Paul wasn’t going to cut it. Soon players were looking to up-and-coming guitar companies to create something outrageous and new.
One of the earliest and most significant guitar manufacturers to capture the spirit of the time was B.C. Rich. Even though the company was founded back in 1969, they hit their stride in the early eighties when they introduced their over-the-top Warlock series. Looking more like a medieval weapon than a musical instrument, the Warlock expanded on the trend toward pointy guitar shapes that had been initiated with Gibson’s Flying V in 1958 but had become all the rage in the metal community in the eighties. The brand was immediately embraced by Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P., Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, Slayer’s Kerry King, and countless other bad boys determined to make an impression when the video cameras swiveled their way.
Wayne Charvel and Grover Jackson also became key players in the eighties. The duo had become partners in the late seventies and hit pay dirt when Charvel became closely associated with Van Halen’s early Frankenstrat guitars, and Jackson collaborated with Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads on his iconic Concorde Flying V guitars. Soon every guitarist on the West Coast came running to them, and together they created a series of colorful instruments with unforgettable custom paint jobs like the pink and black bull’s-eye guitar for Twisted Sister’s Eddie Ojeda or the elaborate crossed-swords graphics found on Ratt’s lead guitarist Warren DeMartini’s instruments.
While these designers were steering the electric guitar toward the outrageous, there were others taking the opposite tack. In the eighties, Ned Steinberger built and marketed his startlingly minimal, headless Steinberger guitars and basses. Unlike Charvel or B.C. Rich, Steinberger thought the best way forward for the guitar was to completely jettison the past, with its useless tradition and ornamental clutter. He’d begun his career designing office and hospital furniture, and his instruments had the same antiseptic feel. “Functional and clean,” he remarked. “That’s my thing.” His spare, rectangular black guitars made from graphite and carbon fiber were masterpieces of eighties postmodern minimalism. They were undeniably cool in conception and execution, but if hard rock musicians were clamoring for bright, bold, and audacious instruments, who was Steinberger’s target market?
Not every band in the MTV era puked glitter and spandex. Post-punk bands such as Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gang of Four, Devo, Sonic Youth, and Talking Heads—bands that drew inspiration from punk, funk, dub, electronic music, and even disco—rejected the aesthetics of traditional rock. Their ideas, both musically and visually, were often derived from modernist art and literature. In that sense, Ned’s inventions were of a kind with their musical innovations.
A non-musician, Steinberger became aware of the guitar’s design shortcomings when he shared a woodworking space with luthier Stuart Spector. Steinberger was particularly interested in improving electric bass instruments. As he explained:
Traditional basses were neck-heavy, awkward to hold, and had dead spots on them, tonally. And one day it just dawned on me, if I took the tuning machines and put them on the body instead of at the end of the neck, the balance problems would be over. But if you take a bass guitar and chop off its head off, you can’t stop there. It was such a radical move that you had to come up with a whole new concept. So once the head came off, the body pretty much came off too.
Soon top bassists such as Sting of the Police, reggae session legend Robbie Shakespeare, and King Crimson’s Tony Levin were sporting Steinbergers—the perfect “axe” for a new moment in music: a de-mythologized, de-eroticized bass guitar. No phallic headstock. No “womanly” curves. All that was left was tone. The Steinberger guitar and bass were iconoclastic and, in a real way, as visually groundbreaking as any of Steve Vai’s fluorescent JEM guitars.
AS THE DECADE wound down and the nineties began to make subversive plans of their own, Vai had one more significant bit of innovation to offer the guitar world. In 1989, Vai convinced Ibanez to add a seventh string to his JEM. It might’ve seemed like an innocent request, but it was truly a monumental gesture, defying a convention that stretched back to the eighteenth century, when six strings became the guitar norm.
“I just had the thought that it would be cool to have a seventh string on my guitar—an extra lower string for darker rhythms and bigger chord voicings,” said Vai. “I had a very quick conversation with Ibanez about it. Basically, I said, ‘Can you make me a JEM with a seventh string and without the handle?’ ” Given the success of Vai’s guitars, who was Ibanez to argue?
Seven-string guitars weren’t completely unheard-of. They had appeared briefly in Russia in the early nineteenth century, and again in Brazil in the late nineteenth century. In the United States, jazz guitarist George Van Eps had had a seven-string guitar built for him by Epiphone in the late thirties, and several other jazz players such as Howard Alden, John Pizzarelli, and Lenny Breau experimented with the idea. But Vai’s newly christened Universe was one of the very few production-model seven-string electric ever manufactured.
When it was introduced to the public in 1990, most guitarists saw the Universe as more of a curiosity than a necessity. It was expensive, roughly $1,700, and more than a little intimidating to play. But there were perhaps other reasons the Universe didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. As the effervescent eighties were coming to an end, there was evidence that guitarists and music fans were tiring of all the garish colors, flashy costumes, and blistering solos. After binging on too much frosted cake, audiences started pining for music with more substance. The rise of gritty, tattooed bands like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica in the late eighties, and flannel-wearing indie bands such as Seattle’s Soundgarden and Nirvana, was a sign that pop music was undergoing a dramatic sea change.
Within that context, a seven-string guitar painted like an Easter egg felt out of place. The Universe was discontinued in 1994 due to poor sales, and all the wonderfully exciting, innovative instruments created during the MTV era were being sold, shoved under beds, and burned in fireplaces. It looked as though the party was over. But reports of the death of Steve Vai’s seven-stringed guitars would prove premature.
Carlos Santana and his Paul Reed Smith guitar