Walking around this year’s NAMM show, I noticed a number of manufacturers introducing 24-fret guitars. There are a number of reasons for and against this trend. Of course, the extra frets give you more notes, but you also have limited access to those frets unless you modify the cutaway. The neck pickup placement is typically at the node where the 24th fret needs to be and that position creates the cool tone that we’re all used to. Moving the neck pickup to accommodate the extra frets changes its tone and harmonics. It’s a challenge to keep the neck pickup’s unique vibe on a 24-fret instrument.
A few years ago, Joe Satriani and his gang transformed his 22-fret Ibanez JS guitar to a 24-fret model. Because I was part of the transformation, I thought I would talk about the process. It started with the prototype designed by Joe and Ibanez. The first neck pickup started as a mini humbucker-style, the idea being that it was smaller and might retain more of a “Straty” sound while giving that big full tone Joe wanted. After he played it for a while, the two big challenges were still the tone and the upper-fret access. I noticed that after the 24th fret there was more fretboard overhang than necessary. I sanded off as much fingerboard after the 24th fret as possible and DiMarzio’s Steve Blucher made Joe a few pickups that would get that big, classic neck tone. We also took the prototype and slowly carved away the upper cutaway until it had enough room to reach the high notes while still keeping a natural look to the body.
The first instruments consisted of the same basswood bodies, maple necks, and rosewood fretboards as the 22-fret guitars. This became the first model. But Joe wanted to experiment with a second sound, and he found that alder tightened up the low end and had a bit more forceful midrange. He also went back to adding a bubinga stripe to the back of the neck that not only tightened up the low mids, but also stiffened the neck and added some stability. This became the next model, the 2410.
Not able to leave well enough alone, Joe wanted to include the Sustainiac that was on the original 22-fret on the new model. We ended up adding that to a few of his guitars. Luckily enough, the neck pickup/driver that comes with the Sustainiac circuit sounded good and we were able to add the circuit with very little physical modifications. The tone pot became a push/pull to turn it on and we just had to add a single mini 3-way to select the harmonic settings.
It took a lot of thought and trials to arrive at this next-generation Joe Satriani signature Ibanez, especially because we wanted to keep the look and vibe as close as possible to the original. And for Joe, the tone is totally key. As he said in his January 2012 cover story, “I’ve never liked the neck pickup sound of guitars when they moved the neck pickup. No one knew how little fretboard you needed to support that last fret. We basically put that pickup right where a Les Paul’s humbucker is supposed to be. I think that’s why it functions so well for me. I really like the tone of it.”
Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.