Everybody loves a sequel, right? Well, when it's a good one and lives up to the reputation of the original, the answer is definitely. Enter the Ibanez PIA — less of a follow-up and more of an evolution of the Steve Vai Signature Model (JEM) we've known and loved for over 30 years. Exploding on to the guitar scene back in NAMM, you'd probably have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of its existence, but just how good is it? Here's Lee Wrathe with the full breakdown.
When Ibanez introduced the world of guitar to the JEM back in 1987, it ushered in a new era of performance-driven guitar manufacturing that still resonates to this day. The primary purpose at the inception was to provide the ever-expanding group of fleet-fingered players with an instrument that could keep up with their demands, and arguably no one was doing more to push the limits of guitar playing than the designer of the JEM: Mr Steve Vai. Built to compliment his own idiosyncrasies and flare, the Jem inadvertently delivered the most advanced rock machine the guitar world had ever seen, going on to become the biggest selling signature model of all time too – not counting the Les Paul that is.
The Jem's looks and sheer playability meant that its spin-off range, the eponymous Ibanez RG, took on a life and path all of its own. Forever sealing Ibanez as the kings of pointy guitars and big hair.
Since that date, the Jem has undergone very few fundamental design changes, beyond the plethora of wonderful and at times outrageous finishes and anniversary models. It really hasn't needed to deviate too far from the original design.
Roll forward to 2018/19, and that was still the case when Steve began formulating the ideas for a new signature model, something that would reflect the person he has become and the artist he now is. The Jem didn't need to change, but it was time to do something new.
Enter the Ibanez PIA, launched by Vai himself earlier this year at NAMM and culminating in a fantastic live event at the House of Blues, with Steve absolutely on fire playing his way through fan favourites on various finishes of the new axe. For anyone who attended the show, it was a rare and special moment.
I had the great pleasure of talking to Steve straight after the show regarding the production of a special demo video for Ibanez, and a month later, I received the first sample of the PIA. The guitar used in this review is the very same instrument that I used in the official Ibanez video and remains the only PIA in the UK at the time of writing this review. I say this because what you are reading about (and potentially listening to and watching) is not even the final, perfectly produced article that will end up in the hands of all of us mortals who are lucky enough to purchase one. This is a sample guitar and, as is often the case, sometimes they aren't perfect and are still going through a degree of refinement in the production process. Keep this in mind when you read the next line of this review…
This is the best guitar I've ever played.
I have never uttered those words in a review before, whether during the hundreds of guitars I've reviewed for UK dealers, or even my very own Ibanez AZ prototype that I assisted in the design of. So believe me when I tell you, this guitar (even at a sample stage) is truly wonderful, even with a couple of imperfections in the finish in the PIA Blossom grip (yes, that's what it's called!).
So…let's take a look 'under the hood' at all the specifications.
The PIA comes in "Stallion White" as standard, with three limited edition colour variations also available…all named by Steve. Envy Green, Sundew Gold and Panther Pink.
I recall seeing these PIA models in low-grade images sent over prior to the official public release of the guitar at NAMM (and indeed these very same images were leaked on the internet a week before the show). They were underwhelming to say the least, and I honestly had mixed feelings about them before getting on a plane to La-La Land.
However, when I finally saw the samples at the show, I breathed a sigh of relief! Seeing them up close in person proved to be a game-changer. All the colour finishes are stunning, particularly the Gold one…which I believe is also a favourite of my Guitar Interactive buddy and Legato legend, mr Tom Quayle!
The guitars feature an Alder body in a Jem format which has been contoured to be super comfortable. The Lion Claw recess for the Lo-Pro trem system has remained but Monkey Grip has been replaced by a beautifully considered dual petal recess, names the PIA Blossom. Steve painstakingly slaved over this design and its position on the body. The very same design is echoed throughout the guitar.
I highly recommend that you read Jonathan Graham's (Gi editor) interview with Steve from issue 71, where he goes into detail about the process and his personal thoughts on the guitar. It's a fascinating insight.
The neck is 5-piece Maple, and Walnut with a Rosewood fingerboard adorned with a truly captivating new Tree of Life inlay, featuring the PIA Blossom design, which is also featured on the headstock in place of any naming protocol after the Ibanez logo. 24 Stainless steel frets are earmarked by luminlay side dot inlays that are increasingly becoming a standard for all Ibanez guitars. With this being a new Vai signature you obviously get the last four frets scalloped to aid with vibrato at the 'dusty end' of the board!
The guitar features brand new DiMarzio goodies too, in the form of stunning UtoPIA Humbuckers in the neck and bridge and a single-coil version in the middle position – now typical for many guitars but a configuration that didn't really exist prior to the original Jem.
There's further tonal witchcraft available via a push-pull volume pot that acts as a high pass filter.
The guitar has a natural resonance when unplugged which is in large part due to the Lo-Pro bridge. A staple on Steve's guitars and one that is incredibly responsive, accurate and stable even during heavy abuse. The trem comes with both a standard push in arm and also the ridiculously light and strong Ultraliteversion, favoured by both Steve and his old pal Joe Satriani. It's subjective as to which is 'best' I have read many threads on forums with people politely arguing the case for both – personally I love the graphite version and in practice it tends to allow the trem to gargle for a longer period (if that's your thing) whilst also evading gravity when pushed out of the way.
Tonally the UtoPIAs are superb, offering clarity and bite when required and picking up on a full range of frequencies that really become apparent when playing natural harmonics. Full, thick tones through to scalpel-like treble sounds are all on offer here, adjust to taste!
One of the fantastic things about this guitar is the high pass filter that, when recording with a full band mix, really makes the guitar tone 'pop'. They're very hi-fi sounding, so-to-speak.
One final thing to mention about these pickups is the gorgeously intricate, laser-cut designs, colour matched to the guitar's finish. Similar in style to DiMarzio's Dark Matter pickup design, but less 'Steam punk' and featuring the ever-present PIA Blossom design too.
It wouldn't be a Vai signature without some form of practical innovation. In this case, it's the magnetic backplate. A design that makes you question why it's not already a standard feature on every trem-laden guitar. No more messing about with screws to remove the backplate, a powerful yet tonally inobtrusive magnet holds it in place, and you guessed it; it also has a cut out of the PIA Blossom inlay as a practical way of removing it. Genius!
Gotoh Tuners round the features off and a plush Ibanez hardshell case is also included.
In performance, this guitar truly rips! There's no modern Rock technique that isn't somehow made easier when playing this guitar. The neck is slightly thinker than a standard Jem, but it's a fact that isn't massively noticeable and I would wager that if you weren't already aware of it, you wouldn't notice the difference without paying great attention to it whilst A/B-ing against a Jem. Chords are comfortable, anywhere on the neck. Access to the upper frets is a breeze. Do you personally need the last four frets scalloped? I know I don't, but it makes absolutely no difference either way, and if you're buying a Vai signature model it's a feature I want to see as a fan. I would highly recommend seeing these wonderful pieces of art and craftsmanship in the flesh; they are truly stunning.
I wish I had the Gold one!
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