Steve Vai’s prototype Hamer JEM – one of many models built before the virtuoso partnered with Ibanez – goes up for auction

Steve Vai's Hamer pre-JEM prototype
(Image credit: Gotta Have Rock and Roll)

A prototype Hamer JEM that was built at the behest of Steve Vai while the electric guitar virtuoso was auditioning potential brand partners has gone up for auction.

As the history goes, in the ‘80s – a decade in which Vai worked as Frank Zappa’s guitarist and kickstarted his solo career – many major guitar brands approached Vai with an eye on having him endorse and use their guitars. 

Such was the volume of prospective partners knocking on his door, Vai devised a de facto guitar-building audition, sending said brands a list of desired specs in an effort to find who could best bring to life his first custom guitar, and a model that would later become synonymous with Vai himself: the JEM.

As we all know, Ibanez would be the company to land Vai’s endorsement, having presented him with an instrument that surpassed his expectations in the form of the JEM777, which debuted at the 1987 NAMM Show.

Before ‘87, though, Vai received a number of other JEM prototypes, one of which was the Hamer attempt that has just gone up for auction over at Gotta Have Rock and Roll.

To look at, it certainly carries the JEM vibe, thanks mostly to the handle cut-out and Floyd Rose tremolo, but a few notable differences can be discerned. Firstly, it doesn’t offer the neck humbucker that eventually made the cut on the ‘87 model, and that radically angled headstock was swapped for a more classic Ibanez alternative.

The basic controls are the same, but the layout is different, and so too is the overall body shape: the JEM is slightly sharper, a tad more menacing, in comparison to the softer, Strat-style dimensions of the Hamer.

Owing to the role it played in helping Vai test run and perfect the JEM blueprint, the Hamer prototype is estimated to go for up to $60,000, with a minimum bid – that’s yet to be placed, notably – of $20,000.

The guitar comes with a letter of authenticity signed by Vai, and arrives in its original travel case.

Steve Vai's Hamer pre-JEM prototype

(Image credit: Gotta Have Rock and Roll)

Another attempt that joined the Hamer JEM on the cutting room floor was a six-string designed by Charvel, which ultimately became the now-standard Green Meanie model.

Speaking to Guitarist, Vai traced the history of the JEM and recalled how all the models from the audition pile, bar Ibanez, ultimately “fucking flopped”.

“I sent the schematics to a whole handful of the big companies that were interested [in making the guitar] and they all fucking flopped,” Vai said. “They sent me their guitar with my name on it and some little tiny adjustments and I’m scratching my head going, ‘Why are you sending me this?’ 

“Except for Ibanez. In three weeks, man, they made a JEM and they made it exactly the way I wanted. And that was it. I said yes.”

Head over to Gotta Have Rock and Roll for the full Hamer JEM listing.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.