So, the time has come at last to tell the full story of my most recently acquired guitar. It is a long story with many trials and tribulations, meandering anecdotes, more guitar nerdery than even Pete Thorn could stand, and even a smattering of crime.

Firstly, you must gaze upon its awesomeness.

Photo of an Ibanez Jem style guitar with a black and white swirly paint job.

(If you find that it is simply too awesome to behold, try using the pinhole camera trick that people use to view solar eclipses, see if that helps. I don’t want you to go blind from awesome.)

Secondly, and some observant listeners may already have spotted this, it is not a genuine Ibanez guitar. It is a clone built to my specs, and more about this process shortly. A lot more, in fact, as this guitar was nine years in the making.

Yes, nine years.

Here are the spec details:

  • Alder Jem-style rear-routed body with all-access neck joint (AANJ), with stunning black and white swirl by someone who shall not be named, for reasons we will come to shortly later
  • Maple 5-piece neck (with wenge fillets), Jem neck profile – 19mm thick at 1st fret, 21mm at 12th fret, 43mm wide at the nut, 56mm at the heel – 430mm radius maple fretboard with black “tree of life” style inlay, reverse goddamn headstock, 24 stainless steel frets, rolled edges, scalloped at top 4 frets, created by ET Guitars (more on this later)
  • Genuine Ibanez hardware in cosmo black, including Lo-Pro Edge trem
  • Bareknuckle pickups – matched set of Silo (Rabea Massaad signature) humbuckers and a Slow Hand single-coil in the middle
  • Pull-push tone pot for coil-splitting and alternative configs (more on this later also)

And thirdly, grab a coffee/beer/whatever and strap in, sit down, and gird your loins, because this is probably going to be a long one.

— ☕️ —

I have been an unashamed Ibanez fanboy for over three decades. My best buddy and I used to finish our shift at the soap factory and then sit on the station platform poring over the 1990 and 1991 Ibanez catalogues to the point where we knew every single detail of every single model in there, up to and including the available colours of every guitar. (Electric guitars, obviously. We couldn’t have cared less about the acoustics or basses.) We were 17, and at the time I played a Fender HM Strat and my buddy played a 1980s Charvel Model 3, but we lusted after the Ibbys constantly. We would go on road trips to Tunbridge Wells where there was an Ibanez distributor (called FCN, if memory serves, though it may not) and gawp at the unattainable objects of desire on the walls, then probably buy a couple of plectrums and drive home again.

However, around this time, my buddy had hatched a plan. He’d found via ads in Guitarist Magazine that you could get Jem necks separately, the idea being presumably that if you had a headstock break, you didn’t want to have to junk the whole guitar (they were around £1500 new, and this was 1991, so that was a lot). He then spotted a JEM777DY body (DY is “Desert Sun Yellow”) boxed on the shelf at FCN, and all the lights went green. He bought the body (for £100), ordered the matching neck to go with it (£230), priced up every spare part he would need using the Ibanez spares catalogue, and began to build his very own Jem at home. Why not? It would surely be cheaper that way, and he would learn a whole ton about guitar assembly on top of his already mad skillz. It all went to plan barring one thing – he waited months or maybe even a year for that neck to become available but it never showed up. But... a neck from a JEM777SK (SK is “Shocking Pink”) did become available – the exact same neck as the neck from a 777DY, except with a pink headstock. So with patience, diligence and not a little money (though roughly half the money it would have been to buy a new Jem off the rack), he finished it.

30 years later he still has it, and here it is:

My friend's self-built JEM777DY, with a pink rather than yellow headstock, against a tasteful backdrop
Please do not adjust your set.

At the same time, I had fallen head-over-heels in love with the Ibanez 540PII-HH (in purple metallic), and was sending FCN about fifty quid every month in instalments. I did that for around a year, and then it became mine. Oh yes. It became mine.

I loved that guitar for a good few years, but then in the mid-90s, in a moment of utter madness, I part-exchanged it for a vastly inferior PGM30, which I then played for many more years. In fact the longest and most intense period of gigging in my life to date was done on that guitar. From the pubs of Eastbourne and Hastings to the nightclubs of Rochester and Gillingham (shudder) that guitar got more live action than any other I’ve owned. Hey-ho, so it goes.

Wind forward a few years, and now I live in London with my girlfriend and work in advertising. I have a nice Ibanez RG750 and have started writing solo music for a possible album. I still fantasise about owning one or more Jems, because they still seem to be the pinnacle of Ibanez rock guitars, and then one day I’m wandering down Denmark Street looking in the windows…

…and there is this gorgeous JEM77FP hanging in the window of Andy’s (which is now Hank’s), and it’s £699. Listener, I bought it.

That became my main guitar for a while, but the lust was not quenched. I joined a forum site focussing on all things Ibanez and it was on there that one day I found my gob to be smacked. You see, the original Jem was of course (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you) designed by Steve Vai, and was released in 1987. The very first model was limited to 777 units, and Vai signed and numbered every one of them (some on the guitar itself, some on the backplate). And one of these original Jems – the JEM777LNG (“Loch Ness Green”) – was up for sale in the forum classifieds, for around 3000 Deutschmarks. It was number 407 of 777.

I bought that too.

Photo of me with my 1987 Ibanez JEM777LNG
Mmmm... original!

The Jem lust was pretty much sated by this incredible guitar, and (unlike the floral one) I still have it and play it loads. When I write with it, I come up with stuff I just don’t on any other guitar. It has very definite “mojo”.

A year after that, someone I knew was getting rid of his battered and beaten old yellow Jem, for not much money, so I took it off his hands and… customised the finish. The chap who hosts that video on his YouTube (thanks James!) still gets hate mail about it, I understand. This was 20 years ago.

Anyway, we reassembled it with it’s new (cosmetic!) customisation, and I still have it and play it. I gigged on it in July this year, as it happens.

Photo of me playing my burned Ibanez JEM777DY with my band, Indigo Down
What a fun gig this was...

At one point I had 6 or 7 very similar Ibanez guitars – all Jem or RG shape, all 6-string, all in standard tuning, all with locking trems. Eventually some rationalisation had to happen and I shed a few, and even branched out into owning a Gibson. Absolute scenes! I played that Gibbo solidly for a few years, in Claytown Troupe and in Little Monkeys, and it’s a great guitar. It’s just over there. *points*

The Ibanez lust never left, though, and in 2011-ish I bagged a JEM90HAM to add to the roster, and maybe a year later I even tracked down a replacement 540PII. You’d think I’d be done there, wouldn’t you? I did. I definitely thought “right, that’s enough now.”

It wasn’t though, and in 2012/2013 I began to cook up an idea.

The idea was, I would assemble (or rather, have assembled for me) a custom Jem clone. I would get the paint job I wanted, the pickups I wanted, the fretboard I wanted, but still make it recognisably a Jem in all but actual lineage. A tribute Jem, if you like.

I workshopped some ideas with that same buddy from all those years ago (who had by now left the country and moved to mainland Europe) and we came up with this image:

Mocked up image of a black and white swirled Ibanez Jem style guitar with a reverse headstock and black tree of life inlay
Bear in mind, this is a mockup image made in 2012.

So, we had the design, all we had to do was make it. The first step was the body and the most crucial part was the swirl, and here is where it gets interesting. The original swirled Ibanez guitars from the 90s were done in America, by one company – About Time Designs – and as far as I know, by one guy, whose name was Darren Johansen. I’m pretty sure he did all the official ones – the JEM77GMC, the JEM77PMC,the UV77MC and the JEM2KDNA. Well, he had hung up his swirling hat by this time, and I found out that his main competitor from back in the day, Herc Fede, was not well and I think no longer swirling (he sadly passed away in 2014, RIP), so I went to the forums to ask about alternative swirlers, and started getting in touch with them.

A few were no longer swirling, a couple gave examples that didn’t impress me enough to go with them, and then I ended up selecting one based on recommendations, price, and the fact that they actually replied to my emails. (I shall not be naming this individual or their company here, for reasons that are about to become apparent. Let’s just call them “M” for now.)

This person’s work looked great, and they could even source the guitar body for me, which saved me some work (and shipping costs), so they did that right away – as soon as I’d paid a deposit, anyway. The body arrived at their workshop in Florida, and for a while everything seemed to be ticking along nicely. They sent me progress reports (photos of the body primed for painting, for example) and meanwhile I set about sourcing other parts for the guitar. I got a neck made in Chicago, I bought pickups and a Lo-Pro Edge tremolo, and I shipped them to Florida all at my own expense, and generally got excited back home in Hertfordshire.

The neck arrived in Florida on 15th July 2013, and the pickups and trem arrived on 15th August 2013. On top of these parts which I had bought myself, I had also paid M $982.90 for their work and time up to this point. Around then I saw photos of the swirled body, and my god it was good. One of the best swirls I’d ever seen. It still needed more clear coats over the top to finish it off, but everything seemed to be on track.

I paid the final invoice of $576.81 (to M’s partner, for some reason) on 17th November 2013, bringing the total paid (to M) to  $1,559.71. With the other items I’d shipped to M, I was out of pocket to a total of around $2,400.

I’m sure a smart woman like you can see where this is going.

Yep, the updates dried up, the emails stopped, and when I emailed M asking for an update on 12th March 2014, I got no reply, just an automated response. Why did I leave it that long? Well, my Mum died in February 2014 and I was a little preoccupied with other things, you dig? My wife was also extremely pregnant and there were a lot more things to sort out than a slow guitar build happening thousands of miles away.

Anyway, nothing. In June 2014, once my son was born and things had settled (slightly) into a new routine, I emailed M again asking what was going on, as I’d heard nothing from them in around 7 months. This time I got a reply, saying that my guitar was “in the top 5 to be assembled soon”. Relieved, I exchanged a couple more emails, dithering about details, but in the end left the spec as it was as I didn’t want to introduce further delay.

All went quiet again until 31st October 2014, when I got—out of the blue—an email saying “I'm sending out several projects these first two weeks in October and yours is one of them!” I didn’t bother to point out that the first two weeks of October had already gone, as I was too excited at the prospect of finally getting my guitar, a year and a half after first booking M for the job. It was coming!

No it wasn’t.

I emailed back in November, and again in January 2015, asking for updates or tracking numbers, to no avail. On 3rd February I demanded that the guitar be sent, whatever state it was in. I got a reply assuring me that M would keep up their end of the deal.

Nope. I tried again in March, demanding that it be sent to my friend in Maryland, USA, to make the shipping simpler, but no response. And I never heard from M again.

(Rumour has it, and I don’t know for sure of course, that M and their partner were a little too fond of recreational drugs, and it is further alleged that this is what led to the downfall of their guitar business, and eventual arrest of M. This is, as I say, unconfirmed.)

In March I contacted the local sheriff’s office nearest to M in Florida but was told that my complaint was civil in nature, and if I thought it was criminal I would need to raise a case with my local law enforcement. Well… I’m in Hertfordshire, and M was in Florida. I didn’t see how that could work.

Dispirited, depressed, stressed, and frankly exhausted, I gave up. That was that.

Or was it? Well, no.

18 months later, in September 2016, I received an email from a name I didn’t recognise, but who it turned out had also commissioned a guitar from M, and been similarly ripped off. This person, this angel, this... avenger—Dave is his name—had taken to the forums and to eBay rather than giving up, and was keeping a keen eye out for his guitars in case they turned up. As far as I know, they never did… but mine did, and Dave spotted it. Or at least, the body did. It was attached to a crappy neck and had crappy hardware and pickups attached, but it was 100% definitely my swirled body. Incredibly, Dave then bought the cut-and-shut guitar (having already informed eBay that it was basically a stolen item, to no avail), and then said he would let me have it purely at cost. Wow. Unfortunately, at this time, I was involved in a very complicated and incredibly stressful house purchase and just had zero time and even less money. It was another 14 months before I could amass the energy, motivation and money to revisit even the thought of this guitar, but it did eventually happen and it got shipped it to my friend in MD in February 2018.

Well. What a turn-up. Now, the body of the guitar (plus some cheapo hardware and pickups) was at my pal’s house. This meant there was light at the end of the (by now, 5-year long) tunnel, but I was still not enthused at the idea of figuring out what to do with a guitar body, nor at replacing the neck, hardware, pickups and trem, all of which were expensive. I agreed with my pal in MD that he would basically remove the neck and then some time in the future we would figure out how to get the body to me, and then I pretty much forgot about it again. My son was nearly 4, my band was on hiatus, I had hardly played in a year or two… there was just too much else going on to worry about it right then.

(Bear with me. I know this is long. But we’re nearly there. Have another coffee/wine/laudanum/mushroom and come back in a minute or two.)

It’s Christmas! Or nearly. In December 2018 I suddenly got a message from my friend in MD saying he was coming over to visit his brother (he’s originally from very near where I live, and his brother is there still), and maybe we could meet up for lunch or a beer? We in fact met for dinner, all three of my family and all four of his, and it was lovely. A great time was had by all, and the subject of the guitar/body didn’t come up even once. We parted ways, and they returned to the US. A few days later, my guitar buddy from earlier in the story, the one who now lives in Europe, came to visit with his family.

They stayed with us for a few days, and then on the morning they were about to leave and return to Europe, my pal in MD sent me a message along the lines of “Oh hey, great to see you the other week. I completely forgot to tell you, I brought your guitar body over with me. It’s at my brother’s place. That’s near you!”

I looked at my buddy, who is a fantastic guitar tweaker, wirer, assembler… just about everything barring actually making the wood itself… and he looked at me. 45 seconds later we were in my car, tearing up the A41.

We met my pal’s brother, we got the guitar body, we tore back down the A41, and my buddy from Europe got into his car with the body (and his family, he didn’t leave them behind) and returned home to Europe. I had it in my actual possession for a total of about an hour, for 50 minutes of which I was driving.

So, we entered 2019 with the body in Europe, the rest of the previous parts long gone, never to be seen again, and so began the process of starting anew.

I sourced a new neck from the very splendid Ernie Taylor of ET Guitars in Australia, who I cannot recommend enough. The neck is absolutely incredible. NB: Ernie supplied it with a paddle headstock, as Ibanez headstocks are trademarked, but we found someone who was happy enough to finish the headstock and apply an Ibanez decal we got from eBay. From there it was merely a question of replacing the (expensive!) pickups and hardware from my end, whereas my buddy had the rather harder job of assembling and wiring everything up. We dithered a bit about whether to have a clear scratchplate on it, like the original swirled Jems do. In the end we did, which I think was the right choice. My friend went to a hell of a lot of effort to get this right over many iterations, and I’m super grateful.

We also dug deep into the wiring. My friend is an absolute wizard at this, and thinks nothing of swapping out sets of pickups during a coffee break, whereas I am the kind of person who needs to give the authorities not less than a month’s notice before picking up a soldering iron. He located a wiring scheme that has 9 different pickup configs (remember the pull-push tone pot mentioned at the start?) all of which sound great.

Here’s the wiring diagram he used – look at all those combinations, and only one duplicate (only position 4 is the same when the knob is up or down):

A wiring diagram for a humbucker-single coil-humbucker guitar with a push-pull tone pot, showing the different pickup configurations it makes available.
Some spaghetti, earlier

This final phase still took a couple of years to finish off, through one thing and another, the pandemic being one of them and geography being another. But thanks to a heroic amount of work from my best friend, it finally got finished in early 2022, and then he and his family came to visit again over Easter. On 19th April 2022, the project Jem arrived home.

And here it is.

Photo of me holding the black and white swirled Jem up to my face and making a manic grin
It's MINE and you CAN'T have it!

Here’s a few minutes of me noodling around on it. Note, for this whole video, I am plugged into the wonderful Archetype: Rabea plugin from Neural DSP, and nothing else, and at no point do I change the settings on the plugin. I picked a high gain patch and left it alone. All the sound variance and control comes from the guitar.

A few minutes of widdling to show how versatile this guitar is.

I’m looking at it right now. In a few minutes I’m going to play it. It is the best guitar I own, and that is saying a lot.

— 🍺 —

I know that was long. I have an unfortunate tendency towards extreme verbosity, which is a typically long-winded way of saying I talk too much. This probably didn’t need to be ~3,700 words long. I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time.

When this was all going on, I started a Tumblr to document the project. It is still up, though as you can guess, it’s a slightly more depressing read than this. There you will, if you really want to, find out the details I have left out of this post. I cannot be bothered to go and edit it now.

Huge, moist, eternal thanks to:

  • Ernie Taylor, for making the best guitar neck I own
  • My buddy in MD, USA, for long term guitar storage service and international parts delivery
  • Dave Miller, the avenging angel who found my guitar body on eBay and saved it from certain death
  • And of course the one who assembled/wired/finished/set-up the whole thing, my guitar brother, my pal in Europe, my six-string-sibling, my Fiasco Twin, my best friend.

It really is a lovely guitar, you know.