My wife’s patience with my tendency to acquire gear never fails to amaze me. Last month I finally found one of the guitars that has eluded me for quite some time. Each time a new guitar enters the fold she gently inquires, “how is this one different from the others?” It’s a very fair question and one I feel needs to be answered.
Let’s Be Honest
As for the JEM, I’d be lying if I said that simply having Steve Vai’s guitar didn’t count for something. It does. This is nothing short of flat-out hero-worship. Just like the Les Paul makes me want to play Zeppelin or the Bumblebee makes me want to rock some Van Halen. If we’re being honest with ourselves we’d admit that which guitar we pick is often as much about the image we want to project as it is about tone and ergonomics.
After nearly a month with the JEM I’ve had some time to appreciate it as an instrument separate from its origins. Playing it nearly full-time has given me enough time to really hear and feel the differences between it and other guitars I have in a similar vein.
For years my “number one” has been a mid-80’s Japanese Strat I bought when I was a teenager. In the intervening decades it’s been mutated and modified many many times. It’s indestructible and somehow always ends up being the guitar I experiment on first. I guess you always hurt the ones you love.
Since I’ve played this one guitar more than any other in my life, it is my “home base”—my starting point for comparison to any other guitar. It can be categorized as the archetypal “super-Strat” of the eighties. It has a 22-fret rosewood neck in classic Stratocaster dimensions married with a locking Floyd Rose and a HSH pickup configuration. It is the proverbial “comfortable old jeans” guitar.
In comparison, the JEM is much more in the “shredder” vein. The neck is a tad wider and distinctly thinner than the Strat. I even got out the tape-measure to confirm what I was feeling. Sure enough the JEM is a good 20-30mm wider at each point along the neck. The difference it particularly noticeable on the lower-strings in the upper-frets. My hand has to curl under and around the neck further than my Strat for my fingertips to land in the right spot. This width also makes the “finger-rolling” technique for sweep-picking feel really different.
At first I thought my technique was falling apart, then I realized the neck is different than what I’m used to playing. Because of this, I needed to make some strap-height adjustments. Oh to have the long spindly fingers of Mr. Vai (or Paul Gilbert, for that matter…)
I think all guitarists struggle with dialing-in the perfect strap-height. The iconic rock imagery tells us to sling that sucker down to our knees, but the pain in our wrist tells us to hike it up like a jazzer. Somewhere in-between is probably the right height. Every guitarist’s physique is different so what works for one player won’t necessarily be a good fit for another.
Because of the need for extra reach up the neck, shortening the strap-length by ½-inch or so made all the difference in the world. Otherwise the neck was too low for me to really bend my fretting-hand wrist around the neck.
The JEM also has 24 frets which is a surprisingly bigger deal than I would have imagined. Having played 22-fret guitars for years, I figured a 24-fret model would just be two more frets, right? What’s the big deal?
What I realized is that there’s a point where my eyes find fret-references from the neck pickup instead of from the headstock and nut. The result was occasionally finding myself accidentally playing a whole-step higher than I expected. Mind you, this is all happening fast enough that I’m not counting the frets out, I’m just working off of visual clues that my brain has seen a million times over the past decades. When the neck changed, my pattern-matching needed to adjust along with it.
Another important difference is that this guitar came strung with .009-gauge strings set with extremely low action. I played .009s for years until switching about two years ago to .010s. There was just something about .010s that felt more solid. I can really drive the pick through .010s in a way that I can’t really do with .009s. It seems like a small difference, but it isn’t.
Having played the JEM for a month with .009s (the gauge it’s setup for out of the factory) I can remember the things I like about .009s. Because the JEM has a floating Floyd, switching to .010s is no small task. The balance of the bridge will need to be adjusted as well as the intonation and string-height. With the extra tension on the neck a truss-rod adjustment is a likely requirement too.
The prospect of this work isn’t that terrifying, but it does mean clearing a few hours to work on it uninterrupted until I get it dialed-in just right. Having spent a month getting to know this guitar, I’ll have to go through that courtship process again once the string-gauge is modified and I hope I like the results as much in the end. It’s enough to give me pause…
What About The Sound?
I have a few guitars that match the electronics of the JEM. My beloved “comfy-jeans” Strat got a set of DiMarzio Evolution pickups in it before I acquired the JEM (which has the same pickups). The tone in the electronics isn’t distinctly different from what I already have.
But, the tone that comes from my hands is different. How it feels affects how I play it and that does make a difference in the final sounds from the amp. The difference isn’t one I can necessarily describe verbally, but I’ve internalized it enough to know when I can take advantage of it.
And In The End…
One of the great things about playing different guitars is learning to appreciate the tactile differences between them. I like having some guitars around that are harder to play than others. Some of that difficulty is the result of some incompatibilities between my hands and the instrument itself. But I think more of it has to do with my approach and technique. Having to adjust that technique forces me to really pay attention to the subtle nuances. Increasing your awareness of the connection between your body and your guitar can only improve your playing by enhancing your perception and sensitivity to the differences.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some guitar to play…