“It’s like John Scofield took acid”: Steve Vai’s tech shares the story behind the virtuoso’s psychedelic semi-hollow

Steve Vai plays an Ibanez JSM100 in a custom finish
(Image credit: Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

If you’ve been lucky enough to catch Steve Vai live in concert over the past few months, you couldn’t have helped but notice that brightly colored semi-hollow electric guitar the shred icon has been playing during Little Pretty – and if it looks kind of familiar, then that’s because it is – Vai’s tech, Doug MacArthur, has revealed it’s a John Scofield signature guitar.

Futhermore, that custom dipped art finish? It’s by the same artist who turned Vai’s signature PIA into a tribute to the swirl finishes of his JEM and Universe signature models.

MacArthur was giving Premier Guitar a tour of Vai’s live rig, introducing us to some of the most iconic electric guitars in the high-performance era, when he arrived at the semi-hollow. 

Semi-hollow? That's not Vai’s go-to, but then Inviolate was an album on which he really cut loose in the Harmony hut, leaning into spanky single-coil pickups for the bravura joint-shifting of Candlepower, wrestling the triple-necked Hydra, and then picking up a big-box Gretsch hollowbody for Little Pretty. The question was what to take on the road.

“When Steve recorded Little Pretty, which is the song he plays this on, he used a Gretsch to record it, and it’s got a big, fat jangly sound, and he wanted to use a hollowbody live that would be in that same kind of sonic territory,” says MacArthur. “We went through so many hollowbodies in rehearsals: fully hollow ones, ones with center blocks…”

As it turns out, Mike Orrigo, head of artist relations at Ibanez, had just the thing: a John Scofield JSM100. With its robust top and soundblock, it is feedback-resistant, road-worthy, and is just a classy all-round guitar, a jazz guitar that can modulate across the genres, just as Scofield does, just as Vai does on Little Pretty.

“It’s a Scofield. [Mike] brought a Tobacco Sunburst one and we brought that to Europe, and that was the guitar he used on Little Pretty,” says MacArthur.

“Then they gave one to this really interesting artist, this guy David Bonvillain – he dipped it. He’s a fantastic swirl artist, and as a matter of fact we just had a really successful launch of the Bonvillain PIAs that’s all dipped, totally crazy. He did this one in purple and gold and black, and all this pin-striping. It is a beautiful guitar. He did such a great job. It’s like John Scofield took acid.”

But there's more to it than those decadent looks. MacArthur has disconnected the tone controls and “put foam in every facet of that cavity that would accept it” to keep feedback to a minimum. But more impressively, he's made the JSM100's neck feel an awful lot like the svelte numbers Vai is used to.

“I did refret this, mainly so that I could re-radius the ’board on this one,” MacArthur reveals. “I’ve planed it to 16”, just like a JEM – so it just feels like a JEM to him when he picks it up.”

There’s no word on whether we might see as special Bonvillain run of the JSM100 as we did with the PIA last year. And we certainly don’t have Scofield down as a consumer of LSD – there are too many moving parts in a Scofield arrangement for that sort of psychonautic enterprise. 

But we can nonetheless get totally behind a special limited edition run of Scofield’s signature model in swirl finish. One for NAMM 2024? Come on, Ibanez. Make it happen.

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.