The 1980s are a difficult era. On one hand this era was awful: tight lycra pants, big hair, the rise of the synthesizer… One the other hand, the 1980s were amazing! Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Winger’s debut album, Metallica’s first string of albums, Megadeth’s first few albums, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms… Timeless bands and albums, written and recorded in the 1980s. I am sure I missed a ‘few’ amazing 1980s acts and albums. The impact the 1980s had on us, guitar players and guitar lovers, is unmistakable and undeniable. Not in the least due to the amazing guitars the 1980s spawned unto the world. In this article I wish to take a look at some common traits of the best 1980s ‘shredstick’ guitars, as well as some neat wiring tricks those guitars had.
Ibanez Jem, 1987
The Ibanez Jem was designed with and for the always amazing Steve Vai. Whether he played with Alcatrazz, Whitesnake or simply his own solo projects, he always demanded and still demands the highest level of craftsmanship, detail, playability and sonic integrity of his guitars. Due to his strenuous needs and broad sonic palette, he was one of the first to utilize the ‘auto coil tap’: two positions on the 5-way blade pickup selector where the bridge or neck humbucker automatically shuts off one coil. This trick would allow him to get more ‘Stratty’ tones without sacrificing his super-fat lead or rhythm humbucker tone.
Charvel San Dimas, 1981
When I started playing, I felt that two humbuckers, one 3-way toggle and a single volume was way too limited. How could you coax enough usable sounds with just those features?! But as time progressed I learned that those three tones are more than enough for the majority of rock tones. Not just 80s shred: almost anything can work just fine with this setup. It’s a ‘must heard to be believed’ story I suppose. You can always add extra features but the strength of this setup is just all the eliminations but no limitations. The only limitation there is, is what you and your fingers can (or cannot!) do. I know this guitar was launched in the 70s but I just had to include this guitar in my list because of it’s significance in rock history. By the way, Charvel has now partnered with Jake E. Lee to create an official signature model based on the guitar you see in this pic.
When Grover Jackson took over the Charvel company, it wasn’t until his huge successes with Randy Rhoads that led him to found Jackson guitars. The Charvel name was to be used on a separate brand, build overseas in Japan. I wouldn’t say they were ‘less’ than their USA Jackson counterpart. They were a bit cheaper, for sure: the amazing quality of Charvels of the mid 1980s still amazes hordes of guitarists, boosting their prices steadily over the last decade. The holy grail, or so it seems, is the Model 6. A Soloist-style neck thru 24-fret guitar with three toggles (one on/off switch per pickup) with a master volume, master tone and a booster circuit and active pickups.
This guitar is a major departure from the 22 fret bolt on ‘no frills’ San Dimas of the late 1970s, but to me the Model 6 (as well as its successor the 650XL) is just as important. It proved to the general public that great guitars could be built in Asia as well and not just that, it cemented their reputation. A reputation that still holds to this day, a 30 odd years later.
This is something different all together than the previous guitars. It’s got a ‘strat style’ triple-pot setup but with two humbuckers instead, coupled with a Floyd Rose. Kramer was the first company to (be allowed to) offer a Floyd Rose on their guitars. For two years the sky was the limit since Kramer was the best selling guitar company in the world during the mid 1980s. As others picked up on the Floyd Rose tremolo, Kramer wasn’t able to cope with the rising demands: quality slipped and Kramer’s sales went on a rapid decline. It wasn’t until this century that Kramer got a major rejuvenating cure by Gibson. They went back to their guitars of their Golden Age. With the immense popularity of Steel Panther, the Kramer Pacer seems to be back and it’s a heavy hitter. Very affordable, very playable and very, very good sounding, the Pacer has major bang for the buck.
How about something completely different? I would definitely say that the Fender Robben Ford signature was an amazing guitar yet completely out of Fender’s comfort zone. A Mahogany back with a set neck, the Robben Ford wasn’t something they generally did (nor have done since), but it’s worth mentioning to me. As we all know, in 1986 Fender split off from CBS after years of mismanagement. Fender needed some high profile artists to boost sales, and fast. Robben Ford was enlisted soon and this guitar was the fruitful result. Loaded with two Seymour Duncan ’59 pickups wired through two volume and two tone pots, the Robben Ford signature guitar was also capped with a Spruce top. Spruce is a common wood for acoustic guitars but not so widely used on electrics, which is a shame since it has such a clean, bright yet soft and sweet tone. This guitar is to me Fender’s return to grace. They were back, were making great guitars and were here to stay. I am very glad to have seen this guitar again during Winter NAMM 2014. Tucked away in a corner of the Custom Shop booth, but very clearly a revisit of this iconic guitar.
Buddy Blaze Shredder
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m a sucker for Dio. Especially Vivian Campbell’s guitar chops on Dio’s first (‘solo’) album, Holy Diver is superb. Every time I hear that sizzling, meaty riff of ‘Caught in the Middle’ I get goosebumps. It can’t be a surprise that as a result I love the Kramer Nightswan designed by Buddy Blaze and Vivian Campbell, originally as the Blaze Shredder before both Vivian and Buddy spent some time with Kramer. It’s a flashy looking guitar with some neat tricks up its tonal sleeve. The bridge pickup is a Full Shred, to ge the most out of Vivian’s picking technique but without having an overly hot sound or by sacrificing dynamics! The middle pickup is also a full humbucker – a JB – just to get more bite out of the traditional neck pickup setting… which is a good thing because there’s nothing where a neck pickup would usually go! The Strat-style shape is sculpted even more to be as ergonomic as possible. Buddy Blaze still crafts these guitars as the Shredder. He even makes a 7-string called the Sevenator if you so desire! Read more about the development of the Shredder and the SH-10 Full Shred in our interview with Vivian Campbell here.
I must have forgotten one or two guitars that were epic, but as far as I am concerned, these guitars are lodged in my mind and if I dare to look around, I guess they’re stuck in the collective guitarists’ mind!