Japanese Ibanez: A Prestigious History

Today Wired Guitarist is going to give an overview of the rich history of Ibanez Guitars! Specifically their bread and butter Japanese models. How have they fared over the last 30 years, and what state are they in currently? Why are we qualified to speak on the topic? Well, between all of us here at Wired Guitarist, we’ve owned hundreds of Ibanez. I’ve personally owned both Sabers and RGs from the Tilt Joint Era, some of the most revered prestige models of all time like the RG3120 and RG2020X, Mid-2000’s fare like the RG2570, and recent hits like Prestige RGDs. Don’t even get me started on some of my colleagues’ JEM collections. In fact, we love the brand so much that when we launched our store, we made sure to become authorized Ibanez dealers.

For the sake of brevity, Ibanez’s recent history can be divided into 5 categories:

The Tilt Joint Era (1987-1993)

1987 was the turning point for Ibanez. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ibanez primarily produced copies of famous guitar models, such as Les Pauls. These were by and large fantastic, by the way. However, by 1978, a lawsuit against them had settled, and they had to do some rebranding. In this time, they were producing some original models that for the most part were either too experimental or unrefined to catch on. By 1987, however, Steve Vai and Frank Gambale came onboard as endorsers. Vai’s signature JEM, and Ibanez’s flagship RG550 both debuted, with fantastic tremolos, pickups designed in collaboration with and produced by Dimarzio, and fast necks perfect for the shred style skyrocketing in popularity. These guitars are by and large the standard by which all other Ibanezes are measured, and are beloved by collectors and players alike. They play great, sound great, and last a lifetime. Aesthetically, most guitars from this era were very over the top, with neon colors, flashy inlays, and aggressive headstocks. In this time frame, they also further developed their Ibanez Edge tremolo into the famed Lo-Pro Edge. The Dimarzios saw some revisions and improvements, and the first ever large scale 7 string, the Universe, was released.

AANJ, J Customs, and Early Prestige Models (1994-1996)

This was a tumultuous time period for Ibanez. At the time, it seemed as though they were at the height of their fame, and they started to implement changes that not everyone took kindly to. The All Access Neck Joint (AANJ), while a standard today, was originally seen as too great a departure from the popular Tilt Joint. Some less than desirable changes were made to the pickups as well. They experienced growing pains as they implemented these changes, and while there are tons of great Ibanez guitars from this era, this is considered one of the low points of their quality. At this point, Ibanez branding started to cannibalize itself, and left customers confused. In 1996, both the J Custom and Prestige lines were introduced, to symbolize Ibanez’s high quality Japanese manufacturing. Some of the early Prestiges were just carbon copies of Tilt Joint Models with the AANJ and new pickups, and other Japanese models were radically different, such as the offset Talman. Buyers were confused by the J Custom label, and were wondering if “normal” Japanese Ibanezes, or even Prestiges were somehow inferior. As an aside, to put the myth to rest, J Customs are fantastic, have some unique specs, and get priority cuts of wood, but are built to the same standards as Prestiges. Some of them just receive the additional ball-end fret treatment, which is a real treat. At this time, Ibanez was still producing some guitars in the USA, many of which were flashy graphic models. Confusing to read? Imagine trying to decipher this as it came out! In short, buyers had to decide between “normal” Japanese Ibanez, Prestiges, J-Customs, and US Customs. It was sometimes even hard to distinguish Prestiges from other Japanese models in their marketing. Even worse, the first ever Prestige, the RG3070, had a green fretboard. People liked Ibanez, but they knew they didn’t like that. Experimentation and confusion marked this era.

Golden Age Prestiges and Further Innovation (1997-2003)

1997 was the year Ibanez turned it around and began producing some of their most desirable models in their entire history. The RG3120, with its luxurious tone and looks hit the shelves, and took customers by storm. The 3120 borrowed a lot of features from some J Custom models that were then discontinued, and Ibanez successfully branded Prestiges and J Customs as separate entities. Ibanez continued to push the envelope with figured tops, transparent finishes, and a new variety of neck carves. They then began releasing Piezo-equipped models, such as the revered 2020X line. A Lo-Pro Edge with piezo saddles was a total game changer, and to this day these are highly desirable on the used market. Furthermore, amazing non-Universe 7s were released, such as the RG7620 and hardtail variant 7621. The early 2000’s also saw the rerelease of some classic Tilt Joint models like the 570, but with the AANJ.

Identity Crisis (2004-2009)

Guitarists weren’t sure what Ibanez’s goal was in the late 2000’s, and to be honest, I’m not sure if Ibanez did either. Who were they trying to be? They were focusing on more vintage models like semi-hollows and guitars similar to Strats and pushing their non-Japanese import models harder than ever. This allowed them to capture a great deal of marketshare and propel them to where they stand today, but left a lot of their traditional models feeling like watered-down JEMs. Especially in the wake of the many popular JEMs from this era like the 20th Anniversary (JEMs are consistently popular throughout Ibanez’s entire history and are a bit of a separate case), which was acrylic with LEDs and multicolored paint splatter. RGT models, though introduced in 2002, were a large part of this era, and are in fact great guitars, but were relegated to more of a cult following due to their neck thru construction. There were also some mildly successful models like the RG2570E which even had some cool metallic finishes, but for the most part Ibanez didn’t appear to be doing anything new. Beneath the surface, there was more happening, but most of this would be recognized retroactively, such as the RGAs which have become a cult classic in recent years (so much so that Ibanez recently released new models that we reviewed here).To their credit, this time period did see the release of the Edge Zero, which I believe to be criminally underrated. It’s remarkably stable and setup are a breeze, it just met with a mixed response due to its inability to flutter. It’s also important to note that the RG2228 was released in 2007, once again making Ibanez first to the playing field in extended range guitars on a mass scale (many new players today have no idea how hard it was to find quality 8 strings before this), but these became more popular in a widespread capacity in the 2010s. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about this point in Ibanez’s history, but they were definitely spread a bit too thin and felt less iconic.

Reformation & Greatness (2010-Today)

2010 saw the release of the RGD2127Z and RGD2120Z. These stripped down, aggressively beveled, baritone RGs were exactly what modern players were demanding, and the shape has been a staple of their lineup ever since (including the new Iron Label variants you can learn more about in this review!). The 2120Z’s incredible Silver Cobweb finish and 2127Z’s baritone scale length for a 7 string showed guitarists Ibanez meant business again. Ibanez, with 25 years of experience in their modern iteration by then, began to focus on their manufacturing process. What they had learned in their time as a guitar giant, and during parent company Hoshino Gakki’s over one hundred year history, they applied to expanding in sustainable ways. They began releasing models to suit every niche audience, while also improving their quality standards even further. Artisan craftsmanship meets economies of scale. Today you can find in their lineup: both hardtail and tremolo 7 and 8 strings, chameleon and sparkle finishes, variant body and top woods being used more frequently, Seymour Duncan and Bare Knuckle-equipped models, and great signature models both pushing the limits of what defines guitar and distilling what makes Ibanez great to its core. All at some of the best quality we’ve seen in their entire history. On top of innovating, they’re even going out of their way to keep classics like the Lo-Pro Edge in play. Take a cursory scroll through their catalog and check out the RG752LWFXHAB, RG652AHM, TAM100, JBM100, S5570Q, or RGD2127FX just for some cursory examples. Ibanez are at the forefront of design, are constantly seen on stages around the world for all genres, and giving customers exactly what they want. Dedication to high performance instruments always pays off.

I know that may be a lot to take in, but trust me, it was the short version. Maybe we can get extra nerdy with it next time. Always check back at Wired Guitarist for more articles and reviews, like this RG752AHM review.  Once again, we’re officially authorized Ibanez dealers and can order just about anything they offer, check out our in-stock selection here!

This article was written by Kyle Karich, our editor located in Florida.

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