Rich Lasner: The Genesis of Steve Vai’s Ibanez Universe 7-String
From December 1984 until February 1989, Rich Lasner held the title of Guitar Department Manager at Ibanez. While at Ibanez, he worked with Steve Vai on creating the Universe 7-string electric guitar. For the past six years, Rich Lasner has been the Vice President of Guitar R&D at VOX, involved in designing, developing, and prototyping all new additions to the VOX Guitar line, as well as building fully custom guitars for VOX artists.
What got you interested in 7- and 8-string guitar?
I played in a three-piece acoustic fusion band, Innersections, with a bass player and a pianist throughout the 1970s and ’80s. When the piano player comped, he could stretch the range of the chord voicing by keeping a low note in the bass and moving the voicing up the keyboard with his right hand. I wanted to capture some of the range and voicings that were impossible to get with a standard guitar. It also allowed for wide interval skips in single-note lines and solos. I was fascinated by the George Van Eps 7-string and the books George wrote on the subject.
How did you come to start working with Steve Vai on a 7-string?
Steve was in my apartment in Philadelphia once after a photo shoot for an Ibanez ad. I had my John Love [Philadelphia-area luthier] acoustic 8-string guitar out on a stand. We started to fool around with it, and Steve mentioned that he wanted to have a guitar with deep low notes, below the range of a regular guitar. We agreed that eight strings were too many for what Steve wanted to do, so we embarked on the concept for the Universe 7-string that night.
What was the process of “seven-izing” a guitar, and how did you prototype one?
The first step was not a 7-string at all. We decided to start by making a pair of 6-string necks that had a longer scale – basically, we added two frets below the open low E to stretch the range down two frets – that allowed the guitar to be tuned a whole-step below the standard guitar pitch. Japan made two necks for us quickly. We installed one on a JEM and got the guitar to work, sending it off to Steve to check out. Though the guitars played and sounded fine, Steve discovered that many of the songs on the David Lee Roth tour he wanted to use the guitar on used open-position chords with open strings in regular tuning. We scrapped that idea and decided we had to build a 7-string from the ground up.
Who did you work with?
The team was Mace Bailey, Steve Blucher at DiMarzio, Fritz Katoh at Hoshino in Japan, the Gotoh company [hardware makers in Japan], Bill Reim [now Ibanez’ President], and myself. I did the conceptual stuff with Bill Reim, Mace set about building the guitar and chopping up existing hardware to make 7-string prototypes of the Edge vibrato and locking nut, while Fritz communicated with Gotoh and our factory about the need to design and cast production 7-string hardware. Steve Blucher made the prototype 7-string pickups by cutting stock humbucker bobbins into sections of 3- and 4-string pieces, and then gluing them together to form 7-string coils.
What were the greatest challenges?
The hardest part of developing the Universe guitars was that no 7-string hardware or pickups existed. We had to hack together any items we needed, never certain of the result.
Did you try a variety of neck widths or materials?
Since the original top lock and vibrato units were made by cutting apart existing 6-string hardware, the string spacing and resulting nut width happened automatically. We were very lucky that the regular spacing, plus one, felt so natural when it was all said and done.
How did you approach getting a 7-string pickup that would sound right?
Once Steve Blucher got over asking us why on earth anyone would need a 7-string guitar, he jumped right into prototyping pickups. We began by using the special DiMarzio JEM pickups as the tonal and output standard, and worked with Steve through many prototypes until we had some that we felt Steve Vai would like. We sent Steve several different combinations of 7-string pickups to test until he found the set that worked for him.
How did you get a 7-string tremolo built?
The first 7-string Edge vibrato and locking nut were made by sawing two Edge 6-string units into a 4-string piece and a 3-string piece. Mace Bailey then figured out how to join the bottom plates of the two pieces together to make one 7-string bridge. We did the same thing with two 6-string nuts: We cut two top locks into a 4-string and a 3-string piece and connected them to make one 7-string nut.
It seems that the whole infrastructure of the guitar would change a bit, including the neck/body balance and the resonance. Did you have to change body woods, electronics, etc.?
The body didn’t change at all. We were careful to ensure that the neck could handle the extra pull of the fat low string, so the neck thickness and shoulder shape changed a bit. It was slightly beefier than its 6-string equivalent.
What modifications did you find necessary once Steve had time to play it?
Very little changed from the prototypes, save for production hardware and pickups. We may have tweaked the final neck shape a bit after Steve got back to us with feedback about the guitar.
If you could change anything about the design after all these years, what would it be?
My thoughts go more towards the original lack of acceptance of the 7-string. If I could change anything, it would be that guitarists would have caught onto the possibilities more quickly – the Universe did not sell well at all until bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit discovered the huge bottom-end push possible using one. In hindsight, I feel players felt that Vai is a virtuoso player, so maybe the 7-string isn’t for them. We could have done more to get the guitar out to more players and show that it was a versatile instrument in many musical styles. If anything could have changed a bit for the Universe 7-string design itself, I would have liked to try stretching the scale length slightly to about 26″ to help the low string speak just a bit better.
A lot of guitarists have been switching over to 7- and even 8-string guitar. Do you think this is a trend or an anomaly?
Van Eps had his going in the ’40s and ’50s, but not many players took up the challenge. I think today more players want to reach the range of sounds they hear in their head and aren’t afraid to add a couple of strings to express themselves. I think that 7- and 8-string guitars will always have a small following of players who have something to say musically that requires an extended- range instrument to express. 6-strings will always be the mainstream instrument, but as long as there are the Charlie Hunters, Tosin Abasis, Phil DeGruys, and Steve Vais of the musical world, guitars like the Universe will always be around.