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What further makes this guitar unique is the number of involved artisans from around the globe. Many of the guitar elements (apart from the basic JEM shape) came from my design, of what I envisioned, and then this was realized through the talents of others.
JEM Sublime Custom
logicbdj, on january 31, 2013 1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I think most of us have some degree of captivation with an era, whether it's the 50s, 60s, 70s, or deeper into history with the ART and 'age of enlightenment' of the Renaissance (or Ritchie Blackmore's obsession with the Medieval and Dark Ages). This sense of belonging or interest likely has much to do with the uniqueness of a time and its apparent identity or characteristics with ART and culture.
I have a certain fondness for British Victorian times, both in terms of craft and intellectual stimulation, as well as the decorative Baroque era (I couldn't get enough Vivaldi and Bach in my teen years). However, I mostly appreciated those dark rich dens of wood desks and leather armchairs of the Victorian times and how they co-existed with the naturalist attitude of collecting and studying specimens of nature as Britain expanded its empire and expeditions afar, stimulated greatly by Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos. And it was around that time that Britain was evolving through the industrial age of sweat and steel.
Stephen Casper (of Casper Guitar Technologies out of Florida) created two incredible guitars for me in the not so distant past, and it was time for a third go-around with an axe that offered more 'edge' in appearance and tone than the first EVH-style guitar he built me originally. I also wanted to combine certain Victorian elements (nature and modernistic machinery) into one lavish guitar that also would have a sense of Baroque ornamentation - it would require rich colors, but with an aura of both decorative nature and modern sculptured materials.
The basic design concept was an easy decision. For the past few years I've been longing for a Vai JEM; the overall shape and monkey grip appeared slick and sleek. But rather than buy stock, I decided to go with this custom project since I wanted to take the JEM concept to new heights; also, I wanted more of a personal and customized guitar, including metallic paint, a smaller neck size, custom pickups, and a 'vine of life' inlay that would be stunning and highly decorative. This was to be no ordinary guitar, but a masterpiece that would hold its own against any JEM or other guitar on the market in terms of quality of detail and craftsmanship.
The ebony fingerboard - a wood that out-wears rosewood, holds frets better, and inlays invisibly - showcases beautifully the exquisite detail of the vine of life inlay, courtesy of Luthier Supply. This inlay is made of select shells from around the world, with each piece and each inlay component hand-made by a company in Korea (products sold both in Korea and the Oregon, USA). The founder, Andy DePaule, has been building guitars since 1969 and created this family-run business with his sons.
Having searched the Internet for a vine/tree of life inlay, most were basic and typical of Ibanez origin, but the quality and detail of DePaule's work is second-to-none, and the cost almost ridiculously low! In fact, more cost is in the luthier having to scroll cut the design out of the fingerboard and to inlay the work, but as Buddy Lee DePaule (Andy's son) stated, "all a person needs is little patience and anyone can do it." As well, the selection of fretboard, headstock and pickguard inlays by the DePaule's is enormous, and so I encourage the reader to check out the www.luthiersupply.com website.
Not to be outdone, the autographed/inscribed headstock (Stephen Casper's signature in silver paint) is a beautiful creation itself. The black lacquer paint contrasts beautifully with the metal truss rod cover, with Vai's logo hand engraved by www.eddyshandengraving.com. Stephen Casper fabricated the truss rod cover plate from scratch, from a piece of 16-guage steel, which then was engraved and chromed accordingly.
I had Eddy do one other piece - a chrome trem plate cover on the back of the guitar. Typically these are plastic covers, but this plate is its own work of ART with the luthier's name hand-engraved and surrounded by vines (the jack plate cover also is chromed metal).
The machine heads come from the Gotoh SG510 series, Precision fitting gears with the world's first 1:21 gear ratio. But the upper pegs were removed and replaced with the headstocks most eye-catching feature: solid silver 'leaf' tuner pegs developed by guitarists and metalsmiths Bo Svendson (who trained for seven years working for Georg Jensen / Royal Copenhagen) and Daniel Doucette of www.Argentariis.com. I was so impressed with the uniqueness (the leaf pegs were an obvious match with the vine of life inlay, as though the vine continued up the headstock and sprouted life) and quality of their work that I commissioned Bo Svendson to develop two knobs for the volume and tone controls to further emulate the 'leaf' concept.
Originally I wanted knobs that appeared paisley in shape, but Bo quickly saw how this looked like a leaf, and having it look more leaf-like would complement many aspects of the guitar, including the inlay and tuner pegs. We couldn't stop there - Bo added a Diamond inlay on the top and hand-engraved the knobs with a decorative, Victorian style vine inlay, both of which took customization to a new level.
There are various metals that can be used for both pegs and knobs, but the richness and feel of silver is in a league of its own. Anyone looking for unique hardware has to visit the Argentariis website above or www.boshandengraving.com for currently available guitar hardware or to have pieces custom-made. // 9
Sound: The body is a single piece of mahogany, a wood typical of Gibson Les Pauls and SGs. It is a fairly dense, medium-to-heavy wood that produces a somewhat soft tone, although balanced with good grind and bite. The depth of the sound also is good, but without particularly tight lows or overly-pronounced highs. In effect, together with the pickup choices, this guitar was designed with the idea that it could be implemented in soulful soloing, as well as punchy riffing - all the while not coming off as a 'metal' guitar nor a Traditional 'classic rock' guitar.
The music I compose and play varies, but there certainly are influences that range from classic rock, to jazz to metal. This guitar was developed with the idea of producing new tones not possible in my current guitar collection, and with materials that differ from my collection, e.g., ebony fretboard and mahogany body. Concurrently, it made sense to delve into new pickup territory and break loose of Traditional pickup companies. Sublime Pickups was recommended to me from an Internet forum member, and when I found out this company was from Hungary, deep into Eastern European Prog Metal, I became very curious.
Sublime's Pickups don't follow the usual 'PAF' build pattern - or any Traditional pattern for that matter. The designer, Andras Kurtacs, is after alternative solutions that are distinct and unique in character, with a very broad tonal range that reacts precisely to a player's technique (which means you hear every note clearly, as well as the mistakes!). His hand-wound pickups are exceptionally heavy and well-crafted, using .04 to .071 mm copper wires coated 1-2 times with lacquer-enamel, and with coils impregnated with acrylate-epoxy resin or lacquer. Often he makes his own bobbins, as well as many of the other parts that comprise his products, and chooses only high quality steels and AINiCo5 and N35 neodymium magnets. Most importantly, his pickups are crafted to the specs of the guitarist, based on what tone or sound is desired, together with the materials and shape/structure of the guitar.
The JEM Sublime has a 'mini-monster cal30' center pickup, a single-bucker that gives a nice distortion, but also very good bell-like cleans (and a nice twang) that is useful for legendary and Traditional rock tones. It's very apropos for those thick, chunky (yet clear) rhythms.
The bridge pickup is the 'Deep Ocean Blue', a crossbreed between single and humbucker, bright and vivid with full lows and ringing highs that are a must for solos and achieving an unmistakable bite. This pickup is so unique in that there is a ringing overtone heard over and above the original note that makes soloing utterly distinct. When I compare this to my other guitar's bridge pickups, it's as though the Deep Ocean Blue has a built-in boost pedal.
Andras' latest work is the 'Dirty Wound' in the neck position, which has rich low-mids, but not dull or muddy. It is a typical neck humbucker in many regards, but with some of the lows removed to balance the mahogany body it is cleaner than what I've heard in many neck pickups, yet aggressive and modern sounding.
With my penchant for those signing highs with an aggressive bite, this 'hot, ' yet quiet pickup combination fits the bill incredibly well. When combined with the Pritchard Black Dagger amp, the clarity of the notes is exceptional (which means lots of practice since you cannot hide behind noise or muddiness). Below is a link of a sample sound file:
A few additional points about the pickups include the glow-in-the-dark Sublime logo on the black resin center pickup, as well as the laser engraved images on the chrome-covered pickups (a beautiful complement to the mirror pickguard). Andras did an incredible job on giving me what I wanted as far as tone and appearance; however, what impresses me more is how each pickup position blends so smoothly from neck to bridge - each pickup coordinated in character as though they belong to the same 'family' and were not haphazardly matched. // 9
Action, Fit & Finish: This 24-stainless-steel-fret work-of-art boasts a thin (0.63 inches thick) 'wizard' maple neck that is a beauty to play and particularly if you dislike those thick baseball necks. The fit into the neck pocket is superb and pure precision. After the neck was developed, Stephen sealed and sanded the wood, followed by a light coat of lacquer then wet sanding up to a 1500 grit paper. The final step was a thin coat of lemon oil. The end result is a silky neck without any sticking, no matter how clammy one's palm becomes.
The action is undoubtedly the best I have experienced, as least compared to any of my stock 'high-end' guitars from top manufacturers. This may be expected when having a guitar hand-made with care, but this guitar plays like butter - smooth and silky - and that is due to a combination of the ebony fingerboard, the large amount of shell inlay, and the steel frets.
The quality of the body's paint is far more obvious in person, and it exceeds the standards of any guitar manufacture. It was painted by an award-winning car restoration and detailing company, Rest In Peace Low Rider Club (www.RIPCC.com), which company was featured several times in Low Rider magazine. Painted in a stunning metallic French Roast (think of adding a splash of cream to a cup of rich coffee to give it a coppery appearance), its sparkle makes it obvious that there is far more depth to its character. The paint was finished with two heavy coats of polyurethane (each coat wet sanded then polished) to give the instrument further depth. The interesting thing about metallic fleck paint is that in different lighting it emits different shadings or intensities of the color. In good lighting it resembles a bright shiny penny, but in dim lighting it appears more dark caramel.
The mirrored pickguard's vine inlay was laser-cut and a gold Mylar underlay was added to give more pizzazz and luster to the overall shading, as well as compliment the gold etching on the pickups.
An Oak Grisby Superswitch was used to provide the following pickup settings.
1. Neck pickup
2. Neck + center pickup
3. Center pickup
4. Center + bridge pickup
5. Bridge pickup
The other electronic feature added was a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) from www.snagg.com; a well hidden (within the wood of the body) micro-chip for purposes of theft deterrence and asset recovery, in the event that it is stolen. With this one-of-a-kind hand-made instrument, the RFID was a no-brainer as a very inexpensive add-on.
Initially I was thinking of using an Edge tremolo system, since it is standard fare with many Ibanez guitars. Owning an Ibanez JS2400, I found the Edge system fairly reliable and stable, until I broke a string and the snapping reaction caused some grief in getting it back to proper setup. Because of that, and the luthier's own 'stability' issues when working with the Edge, we decided to duplicate what was used on my first custom guitar, Schaller's version of the Floyd Rose (with locking nut), which Stephen Casper believes is the best sounding and most stable tremolo available, and particularly after he makes his upgrade (with a solid brass block under the trem system, which also improves attacking tone and sustain). I had to concur, since I'm able to use the whammy on my original Casper guitar far more aggressively than any other I've used, and it stays remarkably in-tune for longer.
There was a focus on making this a complete project and playing experience, which meant outfitting the guitar with a strap that was of the highest caliber and had a sense of a Victorian Naturalist element. I wanted something that was out of the ordinary and eye-catching and what I found through AlligatorJakes (sister site OstrichMarket) was almost breath-taking! Made to my specs (but with steel hardware buckle and rivet screws to allow for some adjustment if necessary), the result was a hornback alligator strap dyed dark sport rust for that true Vintage look (chocolate brown may have matched the guitar better, but there's something about that Vintage look of the sport rust that I couldn't resist). The design is reminiscent of two alligator heads on either end of the strap with the hornback ridges representing the raised eye ridges.
This incredible strap is made of three layers. The outer layer is alligator that came from the northern region of the Everglades. It takes two alligator backstraps (the horn section) to make one guitar strap because the back of the neck (the 'medallion') of one Gator is used for each end section of the strap. The underside is burnished cowhide, which adds to the 'finish', rigidity and strength. What I did not expect was the soft inch New Zealand lamb's wool padding along the inside to increase comfort while playing even the heaviest of guitars.
Although photos of the strap were sent to me prior to shipping, I was not prepared for what I saw and felt as it came out of the box. The quality of craftsmanship, the three-dimensional texture, and the depth of color impressed me as much as any quality guitar (custom or stock) that I have seen - yes, I'm comparing the eye-popping appearance of this strap to that of a guitar! As well, I've purchased quality stock guitar straps, and had custom straps made in the past, but Alligator Jakes have taken the meaning of 'custom guitar strap' to a completely different level. Although some may balk at the use of alligator to make a strap, Alligator Jakes use only those gators that are harvested for meat and other products, and are not on the endangered list (this is no different than with cows, for all those leather strap, jacket, boot and purse connoisseurs).
If the guitar was to be adorned with solid silver hardware, it made me think of having a plectrum that would compliment this look. I never tried a silver plectrum, thinking perhaps that it may be too hard or metallic sounding. The highest grade plectrums, as well as the most diverse collection, come from www.Timber-Tones.com. This company is known for its vast array of exotic wood plectrums, such as maple and ebony, but it recently released its Treasure Tone collection - in silver, gold and platinum!
With the silver Treasure Tone in hand, I was amazed at what I heard. The note definition was beyond anything I've experienced before, and I have used picks from many 'custom' shops. It did not produce that clicky, metallic-sound most people would expect from a metal plectrum. In the past I have used a pick with a stainless steel tip (which did give a harsh sound that limited it to harder, heavier music so that the distortion would cover up any ambient noise), whereas the silver Treasure Tone is in a league of its own.
The weight and thickness of the pick makes it obvious between the fingers, but it takes only moments to get used to. In fact, the weight of the plectrum seems to provide balance and guidance in the hand when picking quickly or skipping strings. The curved indentation of the pick makes for a solid grip, but it is the tapered honed edge that allows for quick and rapid pick attack.
The Treasure Tones definitely are more expensive than Traditional picks, because of the precious metal content, but insofar as the silver plectrum is concerned, it is no more costly than an inexpensive pedal. And why do we buy pedals? To alter or enhance a guitar's tone. Consequently, the investment of a silver Treasure Tone is akin to buying a pedal, with improved tone and note definition being the eventual outcome!
Take a standard guitar case and hand it over to an artist, and you have the potential for a one-of-a-kind creation. Previously, Scott Ouderkirk developed a Hendrix case, to coincide with a Hendrix Tribute guitar that Stephen Casper built for me previously, and I knew Scott would do justice to Steve Vai. Not only did he come up with his own creative interpretation, but Scott investigated Vai's background and found out that the virtuoso guitarist enjoyed beekeeping as a hobby. Various sketches developed with a final design that incorporated Vai's two passions - guitar playing and beekeeping - now that is original! I liked the photos Scott sent me, but the detail in the shading really popped out when I saw the case in person, which now is on display in my studio (beside the Hendrix case).
Scott's custom cases typically involve a three-step process. First the case is primed white, thus resulting in a 'drawing' area. Scott then sketches (using both charcoal pencil and fingers) onto the primer, and usually within one sitting to keep his artistic spontaneity intact. (For color paintings, a guiding sketch is drawn and then the paint is applied on top with a brush.) The last step is to seal the drawing with several layers of a clear coating to protect the one-of-a-kind image.
For more information, or to consult with Scott for your unique guitar case, visit: www.ScottOuderkirk.com. // 9
Reliability & Durability: This guitar was made for playing - far more solid in structure (a known commodity with Casper Guitar Technologies) than what could be expected from the big brands. The hardware and pickups resonate an equal quality, and the finish is auto-tough in both paint quality and finish. As sleek and sexy as this guitar may appear, it is a pure workhorse that could go through anything short of a Townshend massacre. This JEM also is beyond the quality of stock JEMs. Steve Vai has his JEMs hand-crafted and detailed, and what you buy in a music store is a lesser copy of the original. Similarly, the JEM Sublime involves details and quality of construction that far surpasses what JEM aficionados have come to expect and accept as 'great guitars.' // 9
Overall Impression: Although Casper Guitar Technologies is able to design and develop guitars that are simple in concept, this guitar was developed with opulence in mind. The first Casper guitar developed for my needs is very much bare-bones in many respects, but it is a brute in construction, meant to be played and to last several lifetimes - it is so easy to play (incredible neck!), and yet extremely solid in its build. The JEM Sublime is of the same quality craftsmanship, made to be played - extremely solid in its construction, yet beautifully elaborate designs and ornamentation almost make it seem fragile to the senses. The tone is gorgeous, as the notes ring clear through the custom Sublime pickups. Stock 'relics' and other stock 'boutique' guitars cost as much, and sometimes more than the JEM Sublime with its decked-out decor and custom electronics, but why have something stock when you can have a unique instrument that no other person on the planet has? Stephen Casper's decades of expertise and work demonstrates how he can take a popular concept (e.g., the JEM), and create a masterpiece that exceeds the quality and playability of what a JEM owner would come to expect.
What further makes this guitar unique is the number of involved artisans from around the globe. Many of the guitar elements (apart from the basic JEM shape) came from my design, of what I envisioned, and then this was realized through the talents of others. The guitar body and neck was made in Florida, the pickups from Hungary, the fretboard inlay from Korea, the silver knobs and tuner pegs from British Columbia (via Sweden). And then there are the accessories: An alligator strap from Florida, a silver pick from the UK, and a hand-designed case from New York. This package is one-of-a-kind not only in design, but in the collaborative efforts of skilled artisans who have a passion for music and quality instrument creation.
Only partially completed in detail, you can see a video of this guitar in action: