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editorial guitar models

Premium JEM & Universe Pros & Cons

This post will discuss the pros & cons of the Indonesian-made Prestige JEMs from an objective standpoint. Full disclosure, the author has owned 50+ Ibanez JEM & Universe guitars since 1988 but is not currently interested in buying or owning Ibanez JEM or UVs of any origin.

Some terminology clarifiers:

  • Prestige – Ibanez guitars made in Japan typically by Fujigen
  • Premium – Ibanez guitars made in Jawa Timur Indonesia (part of the Cort factory) in what was termed in 2011 as a joint venture between Hoshino & Fujigen

Pros of Premium JEM/UVs (Made in Indonesia)

(+) Lowered Cost Signature Model

The Premium JEM/UVs offer a significantly lower cost to retailers/customers than Prestige JEM/UVs since they are made in Indonesia not Japan. The Prestige JEM7VWH list price is $4000 whereas the Premium JEM70SPF list price is $2000. Generally speaking these instruments are equivalent in terms of raw materials needed: wood, hardware, inlays & are finished with standard Ibanez paint.

The decreased cost of parts & labor directly translates to a lower customer cost for Premium JEM/UVs. Ibanez does not release sales figures however it’s very likely that the lower price point provides Ibanez additional sales for JEM/UVs. First by means of expanding sales to those who can’t afford the Prestige models JEM/UVs. Next by selling to those who don’t want a less costly Prestige RG but want a JEM or UV. Finally at the lower price, sales of new Ibanez guitars might be from enthusiasts who might purchase a new Premium JEM for a similar or lower price than a used Prestige JEM. Ibanez benefits from new sales only. The lower cost could also be a factor in impulse purchases where less budgeting is required.

(+) Offer an introductory line to the Ibanez JEM/UV Series

The Premiums have acceptable performance & quality that represent Ibanez in a decent manner to today’s guitarists. They fall short of the Prestige models of course but to the intended audience the difference is either moot or does not equate to the price difference.

Ignoring the price and style, objectively speaking the Premium JEMs electric 6-string & UV 7-string guitars have decent hardware, feature set, build quality, DiMarzio pickups, sound… backed by Ibanez warranty available new from authorized dealers.

(+) More Production Model Variety & Choices (at present)

Since the Premiums have been released there are more new Premium Ibanez JEM & Universe guitars available than the Prestige models. Favoring Premium is that the Prestige JEM/UVs production models are stale & basically neglected in favor of limited quantity (ultra expensive) “Anniversary Models”. The only Prestige full production model JEM or UV guitars presently sold are the JEM77FP2 (introduced in 2011), JEM7VWH (sold since in 1993). The JEM7V7 (7-string) introduced in 2013 is not available in 2017.

(+) Displayed by Retailers

Due to the factors above the Premium models are more likely to be stocked at local dealers and displayed in showrooms. This allows players to see & play Ibanez guitars in-person. Ibanez certainly believes this will directly translate into sales.

(+) Not made in China

Premium creates a “mid-range” option where the guitars are neither made in China nor from their best factories in Japan. Ibanez has used the Cort factory in Korea for Roadstars going back to the mid-1980s with varying success of customer satisfaction at that price segment. Applying the same playbook with improved “tooling” and more financial motivation, their Indonesia factory allows Ibanez to further bolster the “alternate to Japan” offerings in the mid-range price point.

Cons of Premium (Indonesian) JEM/UVs (in no specific order)

(-) Lack the real Edge tremolo (except JEM70SFG)

The Sea Foam Green original Indonesian-made JEM featured the Edge tremolo however every Premium JEM/UV model since lacks the original Edge (JEM) or LoProEdge7 (Universe) tremolo. Why the SFG had the original Edge is not specified by Ibanez.

The Edge (LoPro, LoPro Edge 7 and Edge Pro) tremolo is historically reserved for the “Prestige” (made in Japan) Ibanez guitars. The substitution of lesser-quality tremolos is a contentious point. Premium buyers are absolutely slighted by this omission for a few dollars saved by Ibanez on hardware. Clearly the Edge tremolo is used as a cost/feature differentiator removed from the “mid-range” line protecting the features of the Prestige instruments.

The fact that Made-in-Japan RGs featured real Edge tremolos at a much lower cost than Premium JEM/UVs creates a source of conflict if not disappointment. Ibanez methodically altered the body routing so you can’t directly swap an Edge into the Edge Zero II routing of the Premium JEMs without extensive body routing & modification. Ibanez used the same playbook as it did with the old & scorned Korean 555s with TRS-equipped tremolos that did not accept the Edge trems. This is intentional.

(-) Made in Indonesia

Ibanez procured space in the Cort’s newest sweatshop which was established after they fled South Korea due to horrendous labor relations & worker conditions.

The quality of Indonesian labor is far below Fujigen which is the factory that made most of the production “Made in Japan” JEMs that enthusiasts have appreciated since their introduction in 1987 (and Universe enthusiasts have played since 1990).

(-) Overpriced vs other similar non-signature Indonesian guitars (i.e. Indonesian RGs)

Ibanez imposes a rather high “signature model” tax on the Indonesian JEMs. $750 upcharge (50% price increase) vs similar Indonesian RGs. This is where the Premium JEMs becomes questionable in terms of value relative to similar non-signature models.

  • RG950 list price $1,408 vs JEM77PBFP list price $2,133. Both guitars are made in Indonesia with comparable parts/hardware. $750 upcharge for plastic vine inlay,  monkey grip & lion’s claw (removes wood, decreases tone/sustain).

Interjecting subjective commentary to clarify this point, strategically it’s obvious that the arbitrarily high pricing of Indonesian JEMs reflects & drives the desired Ibanez pricing for Prestige (MIJ) JEM/UVs which remain costly in comparison. For Ibanez the result is exactly what is intended… to maintain overall high prices for all Signature JEM/UVs regardless of  where they are made relative to similar non-signature model guitars. This is not only a revenue generator for Ibanez but highly profitable.

(-) Overpriced & lower quality than Fujigen (Made in Japan) Ibanez non-signature guitars.

You are paying more money for a lesser quality guitar when you buy the Premium JEM/UV over a Prestige equivalent RG. Every time. In return you are getting an artist endorsed “Signature Model” for whatever that promotional association is worth.

  • RG655 (Made in Japan) list price $1599 vs JEM77PBFP (made in Indonesia) list price $2133. A $534 upcharge for a Monkey Grip & Lion’s Claw (removes wood, decreases tone/sustain), plastic vine inlays and a piece of paper burst over to replace the “paint” with an inferior tremolo substituted (Edge vs Edge Zero II).
  • RG655 (Made in Japan) list price $1599 vs JEM70SFG (made in Indonesia) list price $2099. $400 upcharge for the Indonesian JEM which is unique with the best pricing and inclusion of the Edge tremolo.
  • For comparison of like-Prestige models the JEM7VWH list price is $4000 vs RG655 list price $1599. This represents a $2,401 upcharge for the tree of life inlays, Monkey Grip, Lion’s Claw, possibly better Rosewood fret board and angled input jack.

Both a Pro & Con (TBD)

(+) (-) Ultimately the more Premiums sold means the less Prestige models Ibanez will be creating

Over the last 10 years, the average price of a guitar has risen by 48%. Unit sales are down 15% over that period of time, but retail sales are up 24.6% overall. Acoustics outsell electrics. The strength of acoustics has pushed its share of the market a full 10 percentage points above electric guitars.

Regrettably, Ibanez has never invested in a guitar factory in its homeland. Each “Made in Japan” guitar comes from an outsourced factory it has business arrangements with. For JEM/UVs this means Fujigen typically with Sugi used for recent pricy anniversary models. Back to Fujigen for the 777 30ths naturally.

As a result ultimately Ibanez does not maintain full control over their luthiers, what they produce nor the production cost. Ibanez controls only the cost of raw materials based on specifications selected (grade of wood, parts, tremolo, etc.) .

On a historical note it should be mentioned that Fujigen stopped creating Acoustic guitars in the mid-80s switching over exclusively to electric guitars. Acoustics of course were the original guitar market entry point for Ibanez outside of Japan.

The situation Ibanez put themselves in is unique. By comparison the big-3 Fender, Gibson & PRS have invested in state-of-the-art production capability for their guitars. Each outsources production for lower-end models to Mexico, Indonesia and/or China while producing “Made in USA” guitars itself with great flexibility. Interestingly enough, Fender, PRS and Gibson sell “Made in the USA” guitars at a lower price than Indonesian JEM & UVs.

Ibanez made a strategic decision in 2011 that will have long-term ramifications. It chose to invest in an Indonesian guitar factory in what they called a “joint venture between Hoshino and Fugijen”. Ibanez has basically procuring a shared space in the Indonesian Cort factory in Jawa Timur. This is a large factory that Cort uses to OEM guitars for other brands (just as it did formerly in Korea and presently does in China too). The terms of the “joint venture” are undisclosed as a Hoshino is a private company with no shareholder obligation. Still it is likely that Ibanez has significant financial motivation short and long-term to build more guitars in Indonesia rather than outsource them to Fugijen. On the other hand, if the Premium experiment and investment fails Ibanez must start again at square-one. That’s unlikely and odds are the bet will be a wash.

By trying to blur the lines between Premium and Prestige instruments over time Ibanez feels it is in a win-win position pushing prices higher for Prestige instruments with limited audience and production capability. The strategy Ibanez is using to solve it’s production problem is the complete opposite of Gibson, Fender & PRS. The long-term ramification of Ibanez’s strategy will play out before our eyes.