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One of the most famous guitar brands in the world owned by the Hoshino Gakki company, located in the city of Nagoya, Japan. It might be the first Japanese company producing musical instruments which managed to succeed loudly in the United States. Instruments Ibanez are valued for their price/quality ratio, as well as for the shape peculiarities, innovation and quality assembly.

Brief history/technical and technological achievements:

The history of Ibanez - the world leader in the production of guitars - began in Japan. The company was founded in the 19th century by Hoshino’s family. Initially family members were involved in the delivery of textbooks and had their own bookstore. In 1908 the assortment of the bookshop was expanded – funny but it was expanded by guitars which appeared on the counter. One of the family members whose name was Yoshitaro Hoshino (at that time he was only 23 years old) was assigned to deal with the supplies. It was him who began to create the first client base.

Right after he took up his post the sale of musical instruments has grown significantly which allowed him to expand the department from the bookstore into a full-fledged wholesale company. However the name Ibanez didn’t appear immediately, the first guitars were called Salvador Ibanez. Now the story takes us from the country of the rising sun to Spain – the guitar workshop was opened there. It was founded long before the establishing of the Hoshino family’s guitar department - in 1875. The workshop was founded by Salvador Ibáñez but by the 20th century a small guitar workshop had given way to a full-fledged factory producing guitars. Salvador Ibáñez died in 1920 and after his death his business was passed to his sons, becoming a family one.

The Salvador Ibanez guitars were simple but beautiful instruments featuring metal strings or gut strings. They grew instantly successful among professional Japanese musicians who were attracted by anything new and unique and by 1935 the demand for guitars had exceeded Salvador Ibanez production. Hoshino Musical Instrument Company, now headed by Yoshitaro Hoshino, Matsujiro’s son, responded with independent production of instruments. Thirty craftsmen carefully assembled the first guitars branded Ibanez working at the first factory in Hoshino, located in the Yasuda Dori area, Showa-ku, the city of Nagoya. By the end of the decade the company had exported small batches of instruments to Korea, Northeast China, Russia, to the South Asian island states and also to the USA.

However the successful period didn’t last long. The World War II practically destroyed the factory of Hoshino when the government suspended the production of all goods not of prime necessity. Yoshitaro had to manufacture other products including wooden handles for bags. When the four Hoshino’s sons went to the front he took a painful decision to close the family business. During the bombardment in March 1944 the factory in Showa-ku was destroyed to its foundations. Although it turned out that Yoshitaro lost everything, he was incredibly lucky that all four of his sons returned home safe and in 1948 he did what every successful entrepreneur does when faces the defeat - he started all over again.

According to Ronald S. Binstock, a former company’s legal adviser in the USA in the mid-1980s the history of Ibanez was, in fact, the story of the personal victories of the Hoshino family.

Among a small number of things not destroyed during the war years, was a list of contacts of Hoshino’s foreign customers. This made him competitive again putting the company in a favorable position and the brand began to flourish. One of the first successful attempts to establish exports to the United States was the supply of guitar picks. While most picks only imitated the tortoise shell, the picks supplied by Hoshino were made of natural material (that is the tortoise shell) which made them very popular. The demand for the picks allowed the company to earn enough money to focus again on the string instruments release.

Satriani recalled that in the early 1980s the demand for certain types of guitars was changing. While working in a guitar store he could see it all from the inside. Old guitars used to be sold out very quickly. The Japanese would come to them and bought instruments priced at a few thousand dollars. At the same time they received a lot of Japanese copies of American models. Japanese guitars were very affordable but many of them actually were not of very good quality. But some copies were quite good, and it seemed like some Japanese manufacturers put a lot of labor into their instruments improving quality, and it was wonderful.

The era of "copies", especially regarding Japanese models that flooded the United States, began in the mid-1960s. Like other Japanese guitar manufacturers, Hoshino reacted to the influence of the Beatles and the advent of the rock and roll epoch with the release of electric guitars series. Hoshino company after the death of Yoshitaro in 1963 supervised by his sons Ryohei, Jumpei, Masao and Yoshihiro began producing bad copies of American models. Soon, however, the company started to produce high-quality replicas of guitars many of which had been already discontinued.

It didn’t take long for customers to notice that the quality of many of these copies excelled the quality of the originals. For example, Harry Rosenblum was one of the first who paid attention to this fact. In addition to owning an incredibly popular musical instrument store called Medley Music, located in Philadelphia suburbs, Rosenblum acquired a woodworking factory and began to produce guitars. His company called Elger produced thousands of hand-made guitars. In 1970 under the influence of the market Rosenblum began to import Japanese guitars many of which were made at the Hoshino factory.

Rosenblum was so impressed by Hoshino, while Hoshino – by Rosenblum, that they began talking about cooperation. Rosenblum, who was familiar with production, distribution and sale of guitars, gave representatives of the Hoshino company tremendous advice on how to conquer the American market: making better guitars. According to Rosenblum people were willing to pay a few extra dollars for a really great instrument that would be properly configured and could be used straight away.

The representatives of the Hoshino took Rosenblum’s words close to heart – now they were free. Those days when the words "Made in Japan" meant a low price but not quality went into oblivion. The new way of development played a decisive role. For years, Japanese manufacturers had been ordered to cut prices but no one ever told them make a better mousetrap. Today it sounds so simple and obvious but back in the day this proposal was considered radical.

Hoshino began producing the best guitars which withstood the negative impact of climate and travel changes and combined the highest performing qualities – you could play them at the professional level straight after you bought them. Unbelievable but the company could make it happen while keeping the price low. Rosenblum was encouraged by the success and on September 1, 1972, Elger became the exclusive distributor of Ibanez guitars in the United States.

However the entire history of Hoshino/Ibanez/Elger companies geared down its development growth. Many very talented and far-sighted managers came to the company but none of them played a decisive role in the success of Ibanez guitars. Anyway everything changed when Jeff Hasselberger arrived.

An advertising agent, Hasselberger was also actively interested in development, marketing, and relations with artists - he was obsessed with getting influential musicians to play the guitars of Ibanez. His ever-presence behind the scenes in Civic Center and Spectrum Philadelphia concert halls got him in anywhere with no need to actually check in.

Hasselberger's tenacity was rewarded: Steve Miller, one of the most famous artists in the seventies, appeared on the cover of the Ibanez catalog in 1977 holding his own Ibanez 2622 Artist model. The other major endorsers were Paul Stanley, Randy Scruggs, Carl Perkins, Cub Koda and Jerry Garcia with Bob Weir (both - Grateful Dead).

Being a rocker deep in his soul, Hasselberger however turned his attention to artists of other genres. In George Benson he saw a guitarist with incomparable taste and skill. Benson, who influenced rock, jazz and pop, was very demanding, and he considered Jeff Hasselberger to be the one who really listened to his ideas. Benson took out a sheet of paper and drew a guitar which later would become his personal model called GB10. This guitar had a sound board made of maple and spruce, two "floating" pickups and a special two-level string holder which Benson could adjust during the performance. Moreover as a guitar player who was constantly on tour he needed the guitar body to be 14.5 inches wide so that he could put the instrument on the luggage shelf in the plane cabin.

While Ibanez began to pay attention to original design instruments the company's bread winner as an incredibly popular series of replicas. According to Hasselberger it wasn’t enough just to make "exact copies" of American models; Ibanez guitars should attract buyers by the fact that the instruments were perfectly assembled but weren’t complete original rip-offs. Hasselberger used to say that if you offered people more than just an exact copy they would appreciate it.

Gibson company didn’t appreciate it though. The respected guitar manufacturer wasn’t thrilled with almost exact copies of its famous models Fling V, SG and Les Paul by Ibanez, and on June 28, 1977, Gibson officially filed a lawsuit against Elger company.

“In many ways the Gibson lawsuit helped Ibanez”, says Paul Specht, Ibanez’s current director of communications. “By focusing so much attention on the quality of the Ibanez line, Gibson gave us what is now referred to as an ”unintended tribute”. The cat was out of the bag: people knew how good Ibanez guitars were; the retailers at the NAMM shows knew; and by that point we were well on our way to completely original designs. Did the lawsuit give Ibanez that extra push? Of course. But the plot was already in motion anyway.”

To forsee the future of art and commerce wouldn’t be easy even for an inveterate debater, and Hoshino USA (a new name since September 1981) also made a number of mistakes: the Digital Revolution, which was proudly proclaimed in 1984, would have been over by 1985, and it was clear to anyone thanks to the advertisement of Ibanez MIDI guitar (which featured the photo of Eddie Martinez and Steve Howe (Yes)). "The MIDI guitar", sighs Bill Reim, the current president Hoshino U.S.A. company. “Yeah, that wasn’t such a hot idea although it seemed at the time it was." Reim, a drummer with a glaring appearance, was Jeff Hasselberger's assistant until 1982, when Hasselberger left the company to open his own advertising agency. Reim participated and was the initiator of numerous promotions and instruments upgrades. "Most of the time it was pretty smooth sailing," says Reim, "but we hit a few bumps. The Japanese tend to be a bit more conservative than we are, and that’s okay; it’s their money. But in my mind, and those of the people I was working with, we had to establish an identity that didn’t rely on copies, and that meant making a 180-degree turnaround. It was fun; it was like a covert operation. Rich Lasner (designer) and Mace Bailey (prototype builder) would work on shapes and designs, and I would come in and go, ‘Hmmm, that looks cool, but how about making the body do this? How about cleaning that up a bit?’ Their faces would tremble a little ‘cause they were thinking about what the Japanese would say, but at the same time they were excited too. Good times.”

The most notable of all the introductions incited by Reim was the development of tremolo for Roadstar model. The original tremolo system of Hard Rocker was replaced with the Edge tremolo which was superseded by the famous Floyd Rose system. Thanks to all these changes Roadstar model became one of the first "shred" guitars which were worldly recognized. “At this point it was of vital importance that Japanese guitars had the cool American features,” explains attorney Bienstock. “That meant being able to perform dive bombs with the whammy bar. If you couldn’t do the cool dive bombs on your guitar, sorry, you were out. When the Roadstar came equipped with the Floyd Rose tremolo, not to mention DiMarzio pickups, that was when the young metal guitar players walked into a music store and knew what they wanted.”

And still the successful history of Ibanez company was missing one component - a person. In 1986 Reim spoke with the new employees of the company Rich Lasner, Jim Donahue and Mace Bailey trying to decide who among the players was cool enough to put Ibanez up to the new quality level. “It was unanimous,” remembers Reim. “The minute Steve Vai’s name came up, that was it. We had to have him.”
To get him or at least to get access to him was not an easy one - the very idea of being a guitar endorser Vai considered to be a curse. This guitar player had already become a legend among serious musicians when David Lee Roth invited him to join the band - this honor given to Steve elevated his status to the level of the player who had previously played with David - Eddie Van Halen.

“The minute I got the Roth gig, everybody started climbing all over me,” says Vai. “I understand why; I was, in essence, “the guy walking in Eddie’s footsteps”. I took that role very seriously, too, but I was ridiculously specific about the kind of guitar I wanted to play. In my mind, nobody could build what I needed.”

Vai tried to make a guitar himself so that it would meet all his needs. “I had this hideous green Charvel body that I chopped up. I changed the cutaway so that it joined the neck at the 17th fret. I have big hands; what can I say? I changed the whammy bar, too, I didn’t want to play conventional whammies. I always thought, why does a person always want to whammy the strings flat? I want to pull them sharp!” And Steve Vai turned this green monster into a guitar that more or less met his requirements – all by himself. “It was as good as I was going to get to the guitar that suited me.”

Every guitar manufacturer, including Ibanez, sent Vai guitars for testing but nothing pleased him. “Finally I outlined all of my specifications and told them all that if they could build a guitar like this, then maybe we’d have something to talk about. I wasn’t trying to be a dick about it; in a way I was trying to get everybody off my back. But I didn’t think for a minute that anybody would come through.”

Ibanez not only literally fulfilled the dream of Vai but did it within three weeks. As a result a modified model of Maxxas, from Ibanez Ultrathin series, eventually became a popular Saber model - or simply "S". The new instrument had a 24-fret bar, two DiMarzio humbuckers and one single-coil pickup and – making Vai’s wish come true - a custom Floyd Rose tremolo which could be pulled sharp as Steve wanted (they’ve put special Lion’s Claw cavity on top).

Ibanez had some more tricks up its sleeve to get Vai – Day-Glo green-pink snakeskin paintjob. A new guitar was waiting Steve under the Christmas tree (thanks to his mother), and it looked nice in festive decoration of the room. When Steve took the guitar and began to play his heart trembled. “I was stunned,” he says with a smile. “Every other company sent me their standard guitars with a few little changes but Ibanez looked into my mind and saw what I saw. I couldn’t believe it.”

Vai’s endorsement of Ibanez was kept secret in anticipation of NAMM show (1987) which took place in Chicago. Then both sides made a statement together “taking off the coverlet” from Steve Vai's new guitar called JEM.

“The JEM guitar is really something of a miracle,” says Vai. “I wanted to create something bigger and more important than me. The JEM guitar is just that. Working with Rich Lasner and Bill Reim, I was able to unleash all of my creativity. The guitar was made of basswood, which nobody else could or would do. Plus there is the [Lion’s Claw] tremolo cavity, the five-way pickup switch, 24 frets, the green-and-floral patterns and, of course, the Monkey Grip.”

Yes, that “infamous” grip. Vai seriously imagined the guitar with its own handle. “Actually that was just me being me,” laughed Steve. “I’m kind of weird. I just thought, why not? Although it is sort of practical. It’s nice to be able to swing the guitar onstage around by the grip. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Reim was happy to comment on Vai's contribution and his importance to Ibanez. “He put us on the map. Steve’s involvement with Ibanez, starting with the JEM and continuing through the years with his seven-string RG models, has been exciting, influential, inspirational… There’s no way you can calculate how highly he’s regarded across the board. The JEMs and the RGs are works of art, and they could only spring from the mind of Steve Vai.”

So what kind of brain could devise the seventh string for a guitar and for what reason? Vai laughed at this but avoided being direct. “That’s like asking, ‘Why two arms? Why two legs?’ Who’s to say a guitar can’t have eight strings or 14? I do like the sound of seven strings but I could just as easily like the sound of three. Maybe I’m just not a fan of even numbers.”

The same year that Steve Vai signed a contract with Ibanez, Joe Satriani also visited the office of Hoshino U.S.A. in Bensalem, PA. “I have to admit, I was skeptical at first,” says Satriani. “But once I started touring for [his 1987 album] Surfing with the Alien, I realized I couldn’t take all of my prized vintage guitars on the road with me. The good thing about being successful is people start giving you free things – of course, where are they when you’re broke, right? But once I began playing what Ibanez had to offer, I realized, Okay, I can play any free guitar I want, but what I really want to play are these guitars.”

Like Vai, Satriani got the keys to the candy shop. His signature guitar has undergone significant changes; first it was a modified body of Radius model which later turned into a completely black JS1BK (also known as the "Black Dog"), into a chromed JS2 (which, despite numerous attempts to achieve an ideal silver coating, was released only as a small pre-series batch), in JS3-JS5 models with their maddening coloring, as well as into an acrylic “transparent” JS2K Crystal Planet guitar. “It not only looks cool as hell,” says Satriani, “but it sounds remarkable. The sustain is just as good as – if not better than – that of any wood body I’ve played.”

The success of Ibanez grew at an incredible pace but in the early 90's the company faced a force that for some time reduced the popularity of its instruments: it was the Seattle grunge wave. Suddenly (“I think it was literally overnight, on a Tuesday,” says still amused Satriani) everything which was associated with shred and metal, including spandex pants, manes of hair, sharp-edged guitars and membership in the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) became unacceptable for a new class of rockers in flannel shirts including Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana. “It’s not that we stopped selling,” says Reim. “We might have plateaued during the grunge era but we never took a financial loss as a result. I won’t say Nirvana necessarily helped us though.”

Was it some kind of a stagnation or not but many of the seven-string RG series models were gathering dust in stores during the heyday of the grunge and, consequently, alternative rock. But as soon as this movement came to naught, a new kind of metal that connected rap and the guitar attack of grindcore came to replace it, headed by the sound of seven-stringed guitars – low-tuned. There’s no better example than “this little band from Orange County called Korn,” says Reim. “God bless their souls.”

The original sound of Korn is largely due to the hooligan voice of vocalist Jonathan Davis and the guitars James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian "Head" Welch. It was very difficult to break through the roar of Davis with a six-stringed guitar but when Monkey and Head discovered the RG model with the “bottom” B string (which they reconstructed into the incredibly low A line), they realized that this is the guitar which should go all the way.

“Having that extra low string opened up a shitload of new sonic possibilities,” explains Munky. “We always wanted that heavy, aggressive sound of a detuned guitar without sounding like Carcass or those other death-metal bands. As soon as I saw an Ibanez seven-string guitar, I just knew I had to have one.”

Reim keeps his mouth shut when it comes to Ibanez's plans for the future, but he's optimistic about the direction of the company's development, “We have yet to make the ultimate guitar. I know that sounds weird, but consider this: every other guitar manufacturer made its last great guitar 40 or 50 years ago, and each has been struggling to replicate that success ever since. We’re not encumbered by that old mindset. Music changes and we change right along with it; we inspire the players and they inspire us. It’s a lot more fun that way.”