Ibanez Artist Series
Positive superlatives all over the place as Dave Blake's rhetoric embraces a couple of Ibanez instruments.
Writing a critical product review is not very pleasant, but it is easy; you just line up your criticisms and explain your reasoning. Writing a virtually uncritical review, on the other hand, is very pleasant and rather more difficult; apart from simple descriptions and a subjective liking for the product in question, there isn't much to say. But here I go:
In the Beginning there were Orville Gibson and Leo Fender, brooding upon the Silence. And They said: Let there be Electric Guitars! And so there were. And Orville and Leo looked and listened and saw that it was Good... And the Electric Axes did multiply upon the Earth, and Gibson and Fender begat Guild and Rickenbacker and Gretsch, and many were their offspring, even unto Europe. And Lo! the people of the Rising Sun did look upon this enormous Market and say among themselves: Let Us Cash In. And many were the Copies, some Good, some Evil. But among the people of the Rising Sun were two tribes who became Dissatisfied with their Lot and did say: We Shall Do Better, and their names were Yamaha and Ibanez. And so it came about, and the Musos quoth: These Eastern Axes are Pretty Good. Thus it was, and so mote it be.
Having got all that out of my system, it should cause no great controversy to say that the first really reckoned Japanese guitar was the Yamaha SG2000, and the second milestone was the Ibanez Artist 2617. The 2617 is the first of the two Ibanez models I propose to discuss here.
Superficially, the 2617 looks like its Yamaha cousin, which is understandable since they are both visual descendants of the Gibson Les Paul Special — that double cutaway solid-body version of the Les Paul which was 'modernized' in 1960 into the SG series. Both cutaways on the 2617 are deep and wide, giving easy access right across the highest (22nd) fret. The body is constructed of solid ash (natural on the review sample, although also available in Brown Sunburst and Antique Violin) with book-matched top slabs. Bookmatching is the process whereby veneers or finishing layers are split from the same plank and laid side by side along a central line such that the grain patterns are mirror-image, suggesting the open pages of a book — or, if you like, from the term 'book' to denote a bundle of veneer leaves cut from the same trunk! The upper edge of the body is bound with a plastic purfling cunningly grained to look like ivory and a central abalone strip — very fetching. Because the top of the body is sculptured to a slight arch (with a negative channel cut around the edge), the binding on the inside curves of the cutaway becomes quite broad, giving the guitar a rather sumptuous look while offering extra protection from sweat-stains.
The neck on the 2617 is rock-maple, laminated vertically of three pieces (five if you count in the peghead edges) and joined to the body with a permanent, and extremely nicely done, flat heel joint. The neck is set and reinforced with a standard-type truss rod which can be adjusted with a small hex spanner — adjustment is under the usual plastic plate above the nut. The fretboard is fully bound, ebony, and position blocks of pearloid and abalone complete the picture. The frets are of the wide-wire type; harder to dress, but longer-wearing than thin wire, and easier on the fingers. The only danger with taking low wide frets to extremes is the 'skin' problem — whether, when bending a string, you can get enough fingertip skin between string and board to hold the bend securely. No problems with the 2617. The nut is bone, but Summerfields, the UK distributors, inform me that all subsequent instruments will feature the half-bone-half-brass nut (as on the 2630) for increased sustain.
The transition from rear neck to rear peghead is interrupted by a violin-type bulge under the nut. This is a feature I used to dislike — I much preferred the feel of the smooth fairing — but I have grown used to the bulge and now appreciate the extra strength it gives the neck where it is normally thinnest and weakest because of the smaller wood cross-section and the truss-rod gouge and (on some guitars) the nut seating.
The machines are Ibanez's own, patterned after the Schallers, and gold-plated as is all the 2617 hardware. The machines are tension-adjustable and every one was smooth and easy, a joy to use. Likewise, the nut was so well cut that there was no string slippage to drop you a semitone in the middle of a tune! The serial number is etched and filled into the top rear peghead — much better than a screw-on plate and even better than a transfer. The face of the peghead is immaculate with the Ibanez logo and a decorative pattern inlaid in mother of pearl into the black lacquer. The top edges of the head are also bound.
The bridge is simple and effective: the bridge-block is similar to the Quann Badass device, with six metal intonation saddles with plenty of travel track, and screw adjustment for action on each side of the bridge. The bridge is screwed down into the body of the guitar with thick pillars into brass bushes. The end-stop is the Ibanez heavy block screwed directly onto the face of the guitar with plenty of block-to-wood contact for sustain. On the 2617, the strings must be threaded through holes; on several other models (including the 2630), the end-stop is slotted for faster changeover.
The pickups and controls are straightforward: two fairly hot Ibanez Super 80s — humbuckers with height adjustment and gold-plated shields bearing an Ibanez butterfly insignia — with passive volume and tone controls for each pickup, and a selector switch on the upper bout. A nice touch here: the 3-way selector switch is surrounded by a thick rubber ring that insulates the body from the switch action and cuts down on that annoying click on pickup changeover. The control knobs are hatbox speed types numbered zero to ten on the aprons, but without any position marking — odd. The controls and selector are accessible via screw-on black plastic plates in the back of the body. The controls are well wired with good screened cable and the top and bottom of the chamber is screened with foil, but the sides are not screened. However, there was no hum or buzz problem, so I can only conclude that the screening is as effective as it needs to be. The mono output is a standard jack socket in a screw-on metal plate on the lower edge of the guitar.
From a design point of view I have almost no niggles: perhaps the upper strap button could be repositioned where it can be screwed into more wood — the point of the cutaway seems a bit precarious, but when I mentioned this to Ed Jones at Chappells (London music store), who very kindly lent me both guitars (and during his sale yet!), he told me there have been no known cases of the button ripping loose. Likewise, two lower buttons would be helpful for standing the guitar upright. I would prefer position markers on the control knobs. And if you think I'm being a mite trivial here, you're right. In almost every respect, the instrument is perfect; its price and the fact that it comes with hard case make it a good example of value for money. The fact that Summerfields offer an original buyer Lifetime Warranty (in writing) on the construction and electronics (although not on cosmetics, fair enough) makes this a star bargain.
And playing it? Also a delight, with plenty of heat from the Super 80 pickups and good balance on the body. It is a heavy beast but, unlike many guitars, it doesn't feel too heavy even after a couple of hours' strumming. In fact, I found the sound slightly over-hot for my tastes, but then I like Strats. Gibbo SG fans will love the snarling treble, and it might even interest a hard-line Tele player or two.
So on to the semi-acoustic 2630. Before I continue, I have to admit to a bias amounting to fanaticism for good semis. Who reluctantly sold his immaculate '64 335 for a ton a few years back and then watched the prices shoot up when Clapton walked onstage a week later for the Cream Farewell Concert with a 335 hanging around his rotten neck? No prizes for correct guesses, unless maybe you fancy a smack on the head with a cold cod. But few musicians would deny that extra warmth of tone available from a semi, although its origins are something of a mystery. Presumably the string vibrations excite wood and air in the small sound chamber, which in turn re-resonate the strings in certain harmonic proportions which are picked up and amplified. In any case, while the advantage of the semi is its warmer tones, the attached disadvantage is a tendency toward feedback howl and whistles. I once spoke to The One True God (B B King) about this, since he is an ardent semi user, and he told me, if memory serves, that he often damped the lower bout with his be-suited forearm when Lucille began to howl. I subsequently tried this method with my 335, and again with this Ibanez. It don't work for me, BB. Sorry. Maybe my suit isn't thick enough.
Still, the 2630 is a lovely instrument and the closest approach to the best old 335s, 345s and 355s I've come across. To look at, the 2630 is almost identical to the Gibson 300 family — the only immediate differences are the peghead design and the end-stop. The rest is all there: large round bottom bouts, double cutaways, F-holes, suspended pickguard, control layout, arch-top and bottom. The body is curly maple and all edges are bound, including the F-holes, which means you can't tell whether the maple is solid or veneered (although a careful look through the holes at the back grain suggests lamination rather than real carving). Since this is primarily an electric guitar, it really doesn't matter, and both top and bottom are beautifully book-matched grain anyway.
The neck is almost exactly similar to the 2617 — maple lamination, bound ebony board with pearl/abalone blocks, smooth heel joint, bulge under the nut, and wide frets. However, the nut is the half-brass-half-bone version which is expensive and therefore cut a bit high at the factory to allow cutting down to individual tastes, and the board is slightly narrower across the nut than on the 2617. The machines too are slightly different; they have pearloid keys with no tension adjustment, although they do have the same gear tension locking as the 2617. Again all machines were smooth, but I found two which were slightly too tight for my tastes.
The pickup and control layout is also different: both pickups are Super 80s, but the treble pickup is wired as a Tri-Sound with an associated switch to select humbucking, single-coil, or antiphase mode. The normal pickup selector switch is on the treble-side upper bout, which I prefer (the Gibbo's selector was usually down on the lower bout with the knobs). The knobs are the same hatbox type as on the 2617, and control tone and volume for each pickup separately.
Very few semis are completely hollow-bodies (as was, for instance, the 330); most are hollow along the sides and bouts, while the pickups are mounted on a solid block extending from the heel joint down to the foot. This block lends strength, sustain (the bridge and end-stop are fixed thereto), and cuts some of the tendency to feedback. But at the same time, this construction means that all cables and control devices are located in the hollow parts which are rarely foil-screened, so that semis are necessarily noisier than solids even when all cables are screened lead. Such is the case with the 2630 — a slight propensity for buzz and whistle when near the amp. There is a cure: stay away from the amp. However, the 2630 balances well thanks to its heavy block, and the combination of semi-acoustic construction, heavy block and bridge hardware, and half-brass nut means particularly good sustain. If you are into the use of feedback and sustain without the screech of a solid, the 2630 might well be the guitar for you.
Like all the other Ibanez guitars I've seen, the 2630 is beautifully finished. This model is available only as Antique Violin Sunburst, but very handsome it looks with the gold-plated hardware, black pickguard with white binding, and cream pickup surrounds. Again, my prejudices are coming out here; I've always felt that, next to a really fine acoustic or jazz guitar, the semi is the most elegant proposition. But apart from being (subjectively) prettier than the 2617, I prefer the 2630 for its sound and for the three major differences to the 2617: first the bridge has a locknut system which is not only more secure, but because it is more massive, gives a better vibration path from the strings into the body; second, the end-stop is the Ibanez Gibraltar model, a bit heavier than the 2617 type, and slotted for faster string changes; and third, the phase switch is something which all Strat players get addicted to, and we tend to look askance at any guitar without it.
To summarise: both the solid 2617 and the semi-acoustic 2630 are excellent instruments from both craftsmanship and sound point of view. They are part of a range — the Ibanez Artist Series — which seems to offer unusual value for money. The fact that both guitars come with case, lead, adjustment keys, manual, and written limited Lifetime Warranty is encouraging for the future, both for Ibanez's place in the market, and for the market in general. And finally, thanks to Ed Jones at Chappells and Maurice Summerfield of Summerfield Bros for help and advice.
Lastly, a free tip: The wear of gold-plating on guitar hardware is never guaranteed, simply because some players have more acid in their perspiration than do others, and people will persist in using abrasive polishes on their instruments. If you want your guitar to look good as the years float by, use only a recommended instrument polish, and make sure you wipe down the guitar with a soft clean, lint-free cloth after every use.
rrp: 2630 £337.08/$620
rrp: 2617 £320.61/$590
Dave Blake is an ex-session musician who has been writing on sound for several years.
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