Ibanez

USA Custom UCMD1SK

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Early Years...

The Hoshino family established a musical instrument store in Nagoya near Tokyo in the early 1900s, and started importing classical guitars in the 1930s from Spanish guitar maker Salvador Ibáñez. After his death, they branded their own company as Ibanez and started making acoustic guitars in Japan. It was only in 1957, when rock ‘n’ roll started catching on in Japan, that Ibanez ventured into making and selling electric guitars. Initially, most of their Western distributors wanted their own brand name on the guitars, but slowly “Ibanez” branded guitars found their way into the budding / beginner guitarist market. The popularity of the electric guitar started soaring in Japan as more and more western bands visited for concerts, and Ibanez endeavoured to meet this demand by outsourcing production to other factories - one of which is the famous Fujigen Gakki factory and its Matsumoto outlet that have delivered some of our favourite Made in Japan (MIJ) guitars under various brand names. It is at this time, and through the early ‘70s that Ibanez guitars started becoming faithful copies of Fender and mostly Gibson models. With the help of an American musical retailer and distributor, Ibanez entered the US market and positioned their replicas as value for money. They cleverly brought back the designs of the early 60s and 50s that were suddenly becoming popular amongst guitarists that were unhappy with the modern models being made available by the big brands. Ibanez was very perceptive of this change in trend and capitalised on it in the 1970s before the big brands themselves realized and began making reissues.

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1971-73 Ibanez catalouges presenting popular Gibson and Fender replicas

Pic Credit: http://s93105080.onlinehome.us/Ibanez-Catalogs/

The ES, Flying V, Tele, Les Paul, Strat, and SG replicas, among many other other models, were all part of the Ibanez offering. These guitars sold for about half or less than half the price of the big brands’ offerings! Eventually, Gibson was offended enough to take legal action in 1977. Ibanez and it’s American partner did not want to fight a legal battle and settled outside court with Gibson. This incident turned Ibanez's focus towards original designs. Slowly, they established a network of popular guitarists that would start endorsing their models, starting with Paul Stanley of KISS and moving on to the likes of Paul Gilbert, Joe Stariani, and many more. Most significantly, in the 1980s, Ibanez was looking for a guitarist that could compete with Eddie Van Halen and his endorsement of Kramer guitars. They found their man in Steve Vai! Ibanez went out of its way to incorporate all of Vai’s design requests and iterations. Together they conceived the distinctive JEM model and it is doing well till date! Ibanez’s work with Vai inspired many design elements of the RG series too that went on to becoming one of the most popular guitar models in history.

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1990 Ibanez catalouge

Pic Credit: http://s93105080.onlinehome.us/Ibanez-Catalogs/

The Custom Shop USA

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1991 Ibanez catalouge

Pic Credit: http://s93105080.onlinehome.us/Ibanez-Catalogs/

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Ibanez launched the USA Custom guitar line in 1989, around the same time that Fender (1987) and Gibson (1993) started their own Custom Shops. The Ibanez Custom line guitars were either completely USA-made guitars or made for parts in Japan and assemled in the US. Customers could visit an Ibanez dealer in the US and choose from a variety of colours and finishes, pickup layouts, fingerboard materials, headstock types, inlay, etc. There were Custom Graphic models finished by renowned artists with very interesting artwork, Exotic Woods models with beautiful and rare woods as the name suggests, and the Metal Design models that used fabrics with metallic and iridiscient finishes.

My UCMD1SK model is from the Metal Design series. It is based on the Roadstar Guitar (RG series) that were introduced in the late 1980s and have gone on to become one of the most popular SuperStrat guitars ever made! My guitar was based on the highest-end RG 7xx model with the fretboard bindings, sharktooth inlay, etc.

Dating

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This UCMD1SK was made in 1989 at the FujiGen factory in Japan, as per the serial sticker on the neck "F927171". The neck plate has a North Hollywood engraving where the home of the Custom USA shop might have been. As per catalogues and other websites that feature this guitar, it seems this model was only distributed for one year - 1991. It is not uncommon for Ibanez guitars at the time to have an earlier production date and a later distribution date because of the time it would take from the factory in Japan to marketing and distribution in the USA. 

Price

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The price of the guitar in 1991 was USD $1350, which would be about $2800 adjusted for inflation in 2022. This was clearly positioned to be a top-of-the-line offering at the time!

Shape

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The UCMD1SK sports the "SuperStrat" shape - a cutaway design which is quite similar to the contoured Strat but with pointier ends and easier access to the larger number of lower frets. Also, SuperStrats often have humbuckers along wth single coils. Eddie Van Halen designed what probably became the most popular SuperStrat in the '70s - the "Frankenstrat". It was a combination of the the Strat shape with a Gibson humbucker in the bridge and it started catching on in the rock and heavy metal scene.

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EVH playing his SuperStrat

Pic Credit: METmuseum.org

Wood & Colour

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The UCMD1SK has a basswood body, and weights a relatively light 3.6 kg (7.9 lbs) - somewhere in between a typical Strat and Les Paul. The colour is really what makes this guitar special! A 1991 Ibanez catalogue explains that "The unique Metaldesign appearance is achieved by applying iridescent fabrics to both sides of top grade basswood bodies. Each piece is then clear finished and polished to a deep, brilliant lustre". My guitar has the Silver Peacock colour!

Bridge & Tuners

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The UCDM1SK has the typical RG series Floyd Rose inspired floating double-locking tremelo bridge. Gotoh in Japan manufactured the bridge after Ibanez purchased a license from Floyd Rose for using their technology which had locks at the nut and bridge to ensure that the strings would stay firmly in tune no matter the tremelo abuse it is put through! Changing strings and setting the Floyd bridge is an art that requires much patience and practice :) But once it is set-up this guitar will stay in tune forever! Mine has the original Edge bridge in Cosmo Black colour, not the Lo-Pro Edge that was introduced from 1992 onwards. It is called the Edge because Ibanez customized Floyd's design a little by making one side have a "knife edge" that provides clear visual pesrpective while setting up the guitar (in terms of bridge height set up and tilt). The bridge was made in die cast which was considered an improvement over the original Floyd Rose. As you can see in the picture though, this one hasn't aged very well! 

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The UCMD1SK has Gotoh SG38 tuners, that began production in around 1987. Apart from the flaking Cosmo Black paint, they are in pretty good shape for being as old as they are. 

Neck & Fretboard

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The USA Custom line presented a variety of neck options incuding reverse headstocks, binding or no binding, maple or rosewood fingerboard, and many inlay options. Mine is a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard on top, regular headstock, and beautiful binding on the sides! The necks also came in two options of widths and thickness - the Ultra or Wizard. Mine is the Ultra with a 43mm nut, 17-inch fretboard radius, 24 jumbo frets, and with a very comfortable thin C type neck. It came with plastic white sharktooth inlays, but I swapped them out for gorgeous abalone pearl inlays that I took more than 20 hours to replace myself! I find the abalone to be mesmerizing!

Pickups

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1991 Catalogue showing the X2N and FRED pickups that are in my guitar

Pic Credit: http://s93105080.onlinehome.us/Ibanez-Catalogs/

The Custom USA line allowed the customer to choose any type of pickup configuration they wish. Mine is a H-S-H i.e. a humbucker in the neck and bridge, and a single coil in the middle position. Many pickup options were provided as can be seen fro the advertisement. Mine came with The X2N in the bridge that produces a blistering 15k ohm resistance! It was advertised as DiMarzio's highest voltage pick up with high gain and sustain. The neck has the FRED, producing 8.2k ohm similar to the typical Gibson PAFs. This was Joe Satriani's signature pickup at the time and was sonically modeled after the original PAFs. The Middle pickup is a Schaeller single coil that dates to the early 1990s. It produces about 6.2k ohm, close to what vintage Strats typically present. The original owner must have had a very specific sound in mind to swap out the factory pickup for this one. But, I have to say its a really beautiful vintage single coil - I never use the middle pick up except on this guitar!

Control Knobs & Switch

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The control knobs were some kind of wood, but they broke and so I swapped them for knurled metal knobs. I think they match the look of the guitar quite well. The switch is a typical 5-way selector. 

Nut

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The nut measures 43 mm in width, and it keeps the strings remarkably in tune when locked! I can't quite tell for sure if the nut is made of brass or steel - I think its the latter because there is very little wear and I'd expect softer brass to have worn out considerably over the 30+ years of this guitar's life.

Bibliography 

 

  1. ibanez.fandom.com (link)

  2. Bacon, T. (2013), The Ibanez Electric Guitar Book: A Complete History of Ibanez Electric Guitars (link)