STEVE VAI has been closely identified with Ibanez electric guitars for decades. But unlike the many players whose signature models are little more than endorsements of someone else's design, Vai has Ibanez build the guitars that bear his name to his own specifications. It is perhaps ironic that when the company introduced the EP7 in 2004, Vai, the shred king, became the first artist honored with an Ibanez signature acoustic. While the new EP9 is similar in many ways to its predecessor, there are some significant changes in design, along with upgraded materials and some advanced digital electronics.
One difference between the two models is that the EP7 is constructed of laminates, while the new guitar is built of solid wood: mahogany for the back, sides and neck; Engelmann spruce for the top. The EP9 also features an Ibanez-designed bracing system that allows for a thinner top, which in turn increases the guitar's resonance. And this baby sang like a bird from the moment I removed it from its shipping box.
The guitar is quite handsome, a beautiful fusion of the understated (the low gloss "root beer" finish; the amber hue of the mahogany) and the baroque (the "Tree of Life" inlay that traverses the length of the 25 1/2-inch, two-octave rosewood fingerboard-the same design that adorns some of Vai's Ibanez electrics). More pretty things: the oval soundhole is ringed by a tasteful hieroglyphic rosette, and the elegant satin gold Grover tuners, which look especially fine on the relatively simple black headstock.
The rosewood bridge houses an Ivorex saddle-the same low-friction synthetic used for the nut. There's even more eye candy-a tasteful cream binding and a patterned stripe on the back and near the endpin. Yet, for all the glitz, the guitar has an unvarnished, wholesome look and feel about it. The rounded bouts lend the EP9 a nice geometrical flow. There's a visual warmth to this signature instrument that is somehow at odds with the image of Vai, a guitarist who plays harmonics with his tongue. On the other hand, the way the fingerboard's 24th fret slices into the soundhole gives you the unmistakable sense that the EP9 was designed to meet the needs of players who spend much of their time way up the neck.
The EP9 comes equipped with a relatively traditional Fishman Acoustic Matrix bridge pickup that is augmented by a customized version of the company's powerful Aura digital guitar modeling system. The Aura emulates the sound of the guitar when played through various classic microphones; think of it as a pickup/mic hybrid. The Aura's tweaking controls include rotary Volume, Image Select (to choose one of six microphone models), a three-band EQ and a Blend slider that balances the Aura and the bridge-mounted piezo.
There's also an onboard tuner, a phase switch and an on/off toggle for the built-in anti-feedback control. You can adjust Aura settings and store them for later recall-not bad for a batterypowered device no larger than a typical on-board preamp. Overall, the Matrix pickup and Aura combination is a very good system that affords you lots of tonal options. Players who are fond of Steve Vai's work will find the Aura's modeling capabilities especially appealing.
The Bottom Line
The EP is a pleasure to play. The action was a little high coming from the factory, but that's an easy tweak. The neck is nicely proportioned, the fretwork clean and the body dimensions comfortable. The cutaway allows for exceptional access to higher frets, though the short-fingered will have to stretch to hit the highest E. Any player who hungers to express a range of emotions in a variety of styles with speed, tone, clarity and power should put the EP9 on his or her "must play" list.