Lee Wrathe explains how Ibanez restored its mojo with a new kind of high-performance solidbody electric designed to entice YouTube-savvy virtuosos. The result was the AZ family of guitars: less ‘pointy’ but just as powerful
Ibanez made its name in the shred era with what were then cuttingedge guitars such as the JEM and RG Series. In recent times, the Japanese company realised that the tastes of YouTube-celebrity guitarists such as Mateus Asato were driving a new trend in guitar design – a fusion of vintage looks with next-generation playability and tonal versatility. Concerned that RG-style guitars were being left out in the cold by this new generation of eclectic but virtuosic players, Ibanez asked some of the world’s best guitarists playing across multiple genres what they wanted from a guitar, including superb British guitarist and online star Lee Wrathe.
Apart from his formidable and eclectic solo work, Lee is also a long-standing demonstrator of Ibanez instruments online, making him a natural choice to help Ibanez develop its new range. Here, Lee joins us to explain how Ibanez got its mojo back with the AZ Series of electrics, which excite and surprise with their versatile, slick blend of classic and progressive features.
How did the AZ Series first take shape?
“By hook or by crook, I was one of the people that they wanted to talk to, as a longterm Ibanez player, about what I found difficult about the RG Series – your typical pointy guitars – when playing my YouTube versions of jazz, fusion, country and all of that sort of stuff. So off the back of Guthrie Govan playing all these different styles of music and popularising that, there were characters like myself who were just doing that anyway – just like Guthrie does but obviously to a hugely different degree.
“That’s where the AZ guitars sprung from: a movement of ‘player’s players’ [who found an audience online], if you like. Not that I’d put myself in that bracket, but you’ve got people like Tom Quayle and Martin Miller, and these characters who are famous within that niche world of YouTube and famous among guitar players. So why aren’t they using a high-end, Japanese-made RG to play those styles of music?
“To try to find out, [Ibanez] asked a variety of relevant players and we gave them our thoughts on the matter, about why we wouldn’t use a Floyd Rose, for example, in those musical situations. The look and vibe of the guitar would also need to change so you don’t feel the mojo has gone; when you have a pointy guitar and play some country, it just doesn’t seem to work. The output of the pickups also needs to be different, lower powered than your standard DiMarzio, so something a little bit more traditional. And then they came up with this switching system to allow you to get everything from traditional Strat and Tele tones through to your heavy rock kind of tones. They listened to us and then they also looked to the market as well and went, ‘Okay, so what do Suhr do? Suhr has found these people. Everybody seems to want
“Ibanez asked a variety of players about the difficulty of the RG Series then made the guitar that everybody told them to make” LEE WRATHE
“[With the AZN variant], Ibanez has created a blueprint for a really great workhorse guitar, a little bit like the RG in the 80s” LEE WRATHE
to play Suhr. Why is that?’ So they took all of the elements of those and, in their ultimate humility, just made the guitar that everybody told them to make, so you have these lovely appointments to them – and that became the standard AZ.
“And at that moment as well, you’ve also got characters like Mateus Asato on Instagram, basically playing beaten-up old Telecasters, or his versions of that style of guitar, and recording these beautiful little renditions – perfect renditions – of things. They’re études more than anything else. It’s very traditional music, it wasn’t avantgarde, wasn’t breaking new boundaries, but it was that kind of neo-soul movement, which really carried players to dizzying heights on Instagram. It made them household names – within our world, anyway. So off the back of that, you’ve got Ibanez going, ‘Okay, well, we’ll make a single-cut version of the AZ because it was so successful.’ So then they made the AZS [T-style single-cut]. There are two different versions of that, plus you’ve got the Signature, which is a different spin-off from it, but they’re almost the same guitars.”
How about the AZN? That seems more traditional still than the twin-humbucker AZ variants.
“They realised that people will still want the traditional – really traditional – elements of a Strat, so they made the AZN, which uses a different set of pickups, [Seymour Duncan] Fortuna pickups, and a different neck profile, compound radius neck, all that kind of stuff. What they’ve done is they’ve created a blueprint for a really great workhorse guitar, a little bit like the RG in the 80s. In very, very recent times, they’ve gone, ‘Okay, how do we make our ‘Squier’ version of that, the superaffordable one that helps people into the market but has those appointments and those kinds of vibes?’ And there you have AZES, which is Essentials.
“They’re masters of thinking and talking to people properly. They’re creating a great design, but they’re running with that design and branching off when it’s popular, like the RGs and now with the AZs. They’re going to be around for a long time.”
Find more on Ibanez’s latest innovations at www.ibanez.com/eu