Tested By Barry Cleveland
Ibanez has been manufacturing professional quality semi-hollow and hollowbody electric guitars for decades. Artists such as John Scofield, Pat Metheny, George Benson, and Joe Pass have collaborated on signature models that rival the best instruments available anywhere. Those guitars are excellent values, comparatively speaking, but they’ll still run you several thousand dollars.
Then, about two years ago, Ibanez launched a new line of Chinese-manufactured semi-hollow and hollowbody electrics that sell for street prices between $300 and $500. Once people got their hands on these little beauties and put them through their paces, lots of jaws dropped. The Artcore series guitars looked, played, and sounded like instruments previously costing many times more, and GP acknowledged that reality by selecting the Ibanez Artcore AFS75TTRD for an Editors’ Pick Award in the July 2003 issue.
Now, Ibanez has introduced a new line of guitars that span the cost benefit chasm between the bargain-basement Artcore instruments and the top-drawer signature models. The new Artcore United series blurs the distinction between the company’s Japanese and Chinese manufacturing divisions by shipping Chinese-made Artcore maple-laminate bodies to Japan, where Japanese-made necks and Ibanez humbucking pickups are added before the guitars are sent to one of two American facilities for setup and final inspection. The fruits of this global exchange are instruments that play and sound more like full-on Ibanez guitars than the basic Artcore versions, but which still sell for about half to a third of what you’d pay for a top-of-the-line model.
With the exception of body size and shape, the two Artcore United guitars reviewed here are more-or-less identical. Each boasts exceptional craftsmanship and attention to detail, from the abalone and mother-of-pearl lightening bolt inlay on the headstock, to the carved wooden pickup surrounds, to the beautifully book-matched maple top sections.
The three-piece maple/mahogany necks on the two guitars actually are identical—and each neck sports pearl-buttoned Gotoh machine heads, a rosewood fretboard inlaid with large abalone and mother-of-pearl markers, and exquisite binding all around. The nearly flawless fretwork reveals no discernable irregularities, rough edges, or inconsistent surfaces (though the fret ends extend ever so slightly beyond the binding on the AS193AV), and there are no buzzes or dead spots to be found. Comfortably rounded yet not particularly deep, the lightly lacquered necks make for smooth playing, and the medium-height frets and medium-low action contribute to accurate intonation throughout.
Other shared features include a pair of IBZ Super 58 humbuckers, dual volume and tone controls with rubber-coated speed knobs, a 3-way pickup selector, and finely tooled chrome hardware. Both bodies are completely bound, including the f-holes, and finished in an Antique Violin sunburst.
Although Ibanez pitches the Artcore United series guitars as suitable for jazz to punk and everything in-between, I found the two review models to be more specialized, with the AS193AV being the more versatile of the two.
The AS193AV has a semi-hollow body comparable to a Gibson ES-335, and, like that instrument, it has a large wooden block down the center to increase sustain and inhibit feedback. The guitar is very well balanced, and quite comfortable either on a strap or resting on your knee.
I got some nice Scofield-like jazz tones while playing the AS193AV through a mid-’70s Fender Twin Reverb at low volume, whereas throaty mids and biting highs emerged while playing blues licks through a half-cranked Dr. Z Mazerati. Crunchy and searing rock tones poured out of a Rivera Thirty-Twelve when I plugged into the high-gain channel, though attempts at punk sounds were less convincing, and country twang was entirely out of the question. In my estimation, the AS193AV provides a slightly different twist on ES-335 sound, and at a considerably lower price.
The AF195AV is a single-cutaway, hollowbody guitar in the traditional jazz style. Though it has no large internal wooden block, the laminated top greatly reduces unwanted feedback, even at relatively high volumes. The instrument has a moveable rosewood bridge—so you have to be careful not to reposition it while changing strings—and a vintage-style chrome tailpiece with a rosewood overlay.
In spite of its maple top, sides, and back, the AF195AV is not particularly bright sounding—which probably has to do with the fact that the woods are laminates. It produced a wonderfully fat and round tone when using the neck pickup while playing through the Fender Twin Reverb and the clean channel of the Rivera Thirty-Twelve—though the bass tended to get somewhat boomy on the lowest notes, necessitating some adjustment of the amp’s tone controls. The bridge pickup was, of course, considerably brighter than the neck pickup, but it lacked the sort of transparency one might hope for in a fine jazz instrument. I had less luck with distorted sounds, though I was able to coax a little post-war Chicago blues grind and some ’70s Ted Nugent-style Byrdland blasts out of the AF195AV while playing through the Dr. Z Mazerati. Despite the somewhat unfocused low end and lack of high-end transparency, the tones produced by the AF195AV were very good overall—especially for a guitar in this price range.