A world away from the Ibanez solid bodies that more or less rule affordable Metal guitars, and light years distant from its exotic seven and eight stringed models, Ibanez has another, quieter side - its renowned semi-solid Jazz guitars. We gave three of its Expressionist series newcomers to Tom Quayle and told him to play something tasteful. Nice!
During my history as a student of Jazz I've always owned an Ibanez of some kind, from '70s 'lawsuit' copies through to the modern AS-103 that resides in my studio right now. Put your head into any music school Jazz guitar ensemble and you'll likely find at least one Ibanez in the line up. It's no surprise given that their artist roster contains three of the most legendary Jazz guitarists out there: Pat Metheny, George Benson and John Scofield. All three of these guys revolutionized Jazz guitar in their own way and have certainly done no harm to Ibanez's reputation in the Jazz field. The most successful Ibanez 'Jazz-box' range has been the Artcore series and, with the new Expressionist range, Ibanez is looking to start a new chapter in the Artcore story.
Previous iterations of the Artcore series have always been well loved, especially by students looking for a starter Jazz guitar, but unless you went for a top of the range model the pickups tended to be sub-par, even for a guitar in the budget range. Ibanez have listened to criticisms and have upgraded all of the new Expressionist models with their classic Super 58 pickups, much loved by Pat, George and John, plus an army of jazzers around the globe. These are fantastic, dynamic and superbly responsive pickups that really shine for Jazz tones, so this upgrade is worth the price of admission alone. Of course, pickup upgrades wouldn't count for much if these new guitars suffered poor build quality or playability. Ibanez sent us three models to review, all of which sit firmly within the Jazz world being fully hollow bodies with single or dual humbucker configurations.
The AFJ95 features a traditional shaped, 15 ¾" body with lovely flame maple back and sides and a spruce top. The neck is a three-piece mahogany and maple, set-neck design with the classic Artcore headstock shape and chrome tuners. The fretboard is constructed from rosewood, bound all the way round and features pearl block inlays and narrow fretwire and 20 frets for a traditional Jazz feel and design. Ibanez's own ART-W wooden bridge and VT06 metal tailpiece add to this authenticity and are backed up by two Super 58 humbuckers, a three-way switch and independent tone and volume controls.
The AFJ91 is almost identical in its general construction but features a single pickup in the neck and, thus, a single volume and tone control for a simpler more traditional look. Ibanez advertises the AFJ91 as having a wooden bridge but ours came with a metal one, so perhaps this will be dependent on which country you are in.
The AKJ95 is a slightly different design and body shape featuring flame maple top, back and sides but the same neck design as the previous guitars. The cutaway is a more aggressive 'Florentine' shape allowing slightly better access to the upper fretboard range but still imparting a classic look that you'll recognize immediately. In all other respects the AKJ95 is the same spec as the AFJ95 so the differences become purely aesthetic.
Considering the price of these guitars, the build quality is astounding. All three models were beautifully made with no sloppy workmanship on the neck, body or fretboard. The chosen body woods looked resplendent with their flame maple grain adding an expensive feel and the quality binding outlines these classic body shapes very nicely indeed. The hardware also felt great and performed well with no tuning issues, intonation problems or buzzing frets to be found. Ibanez seems to have a knack for making Jazz guitars that play like butter and, even strung with 11-52 flatwound strings, the Expressionist range plays itself thanks to a superb set-up straight from the factory.
Tonally, all three guitars sound impressive, both acoustically and electrically. Obviously we're not talking boutique levels of tone but to have the Super 58 pickups and quality construction at this price point means that almost anybody can afford a good level Jazz guitar with impressive tonal abilities. The neck position Super 58 (let's face it, how often are you actually going to use that bridge pickup?) sounds suitably fat and round but retains great clarity even with the tone control wound all the way off. You can easily go from Scofield-esque tones to darker Jim Hall and Metheny moments with ease and paired with a good clean amp these pickups really inspire you to play with dynamics and to think about your tone.
The Expressionist range is certainly a triumph for Ibanez and I'd have no hesitation in recommending any one of these three guitars to any Jazz student or professional. I can imagine these guitars becoming the staple sight in music colleges and gracing many stages across the world, just as previous Artcore models have. One thing to factor into your mind is that these models don't come with a case so add that into your budget when thinking about buying. Great Jazz guitars from Ibanez - I'm tempted myself.