The Ibanez JEM-JR is fantastic low budget alternative for guitarists wishing to get the look of Steve Vai’s iconic JEM guitar, as well as an approximation of the feel. It is relatively reliable for its price range, but requires servicing slightly more frequently than expected for its double locking tremolo system to remain stable. Essentially, to create this guitar, Ibanez took the shape of the JEM and sourced cheaper materials for construction. So, no gold hardware or DiMarzio Evolution pickups found here as you would on the high-end JEM. And definitely no prestige fret edge treatment.
With a C-contoured maple neck and a 15.7-inch rosewood fretboard, this guitar is extremely comfortable in the average person’s hand. The mahogany body is resonant and clear but lacks a distinct bass response. Whilst sufficient for a good tone it is perhaps inferior to the alder wood that is used in the construction on the high-end version. The 25.5-inch scale length and Jumbo frets will allow comfortable playing in confined spaces.
2 humbucking pickups and one single-coil which all run from a 5-way toggle switch will give players that classic Stratocaster configuration with a twist. All of the pickups are passive as well so no battery needed at all in this guitar.
This guitar features a double-locking Floyd Rose style tremolo system. The whammy bar is comfortable and being able to use it to raise the pitch of notes as well as lower them is always a welcome addition to any tremolo system. However even when screwed in as tight possible the bar still feels like it has a little bit of wiggle room. This means that using the bar isn’t always 100% responsive as it feels like it moves around a tiny bit in its bridge socket.
As a result of having a Floyd Rose style bridge, a design trait added is some indentation underneath the said bridge called the “Lions claw.” This feature is entirely aesthetic and completely unnecessary. It does look very nice though. Similar to this body trait there is a handle shape cut out of the upper half of the body which is called the “Monkey grip.” This one at least serves a purpose as it is gives you a handle to hold the guitar from. Whether you’re just moving it, lifting it above your head, or catching it when your strap inevitably comes flying off.
The most beautiful feature of this guitar however is without a doubt the “Tree of Life” inlay that adorns the entire fretboard. It is visually stunning whilst still being functional in the way it flares out larger on frets 3,5,7,9,12, etc. Just as regular inlays would.
Tone and Reliability
The tone of this guitar is acceptable but leaves a fair bit to be desired. The humbuckers in the bridge and neck position have a clear enough tone, albeit it slightly buzzier then a humbucker should be. However, they entirely lack dynamic response and limit the guitars tonal possibilities. The middle pickup on the other hand, has a muddy and overall fairly unpleasant tone. On top of this, it has a far lower inherent volume than the other two, so that when switching between them without touching the volume knob, it feels like you have indeed dialed back the volume.
As far as reliability, the only real issue it has is it’s tuning. Being a double locking tremolo system, you would expect supreme tuning stability, and whilst it is relatively stable, it is (obviously) not quite up to par with systems that are built in to higher-end guitars.
If budget doesn’t allow you to purchase one of the true JEM guitars, then the JEM-JR is still a fantastic option to give you most of what you need. And the thing to remember is that it is always open to upgrades later on down the track as your budget allows it. First and foremost, switching the stock pickups for Vai’s signature DiMarzio Evolution pickups would be the first port of call. Followed closely by upgrading the hardware to the standard of its high-end version. These upgrades will essentially give you a guitar that is very close to what Steve himself uses. The only difference being the mahogany body as opposed to the alder body.