Ahhh, the late 1970s… While many vintage guitar enthusiasts disdain the guitars from the “Me Decade” in favor of undeniably cool classics from the 1950s and ’60s, the ’70s was in many ways one of the most innovative eras in guitarmaking. It produced some of the great guitar brands and many superb individual guitars, including this spectacular custom-ordered 1978 Ibanez MC500 Musician.
One might say the vintage guitar phenomenon was created by the success of guitars in the 1960s. Thank GIs returning from WWII (who created the Baby Boom) and John, Paul, George, and Ringo (who sold guitars to them after 1964).
What followed was a symphony of big (sometimes marginally musical) corporations rushing to own guitar companies; Fender, Gretsch, Guild, Valco, Kay, Gibson. The result was something less than perfect, because while guitar guys may not always be the best businessmen, they love guitars. Corporate beancounters, on the other hand, look at things differently.
By the 1970s, the American commitment to quality and innovation had been… well, compromised. This led to the notion of older guitars as first better, and then “vintage.”
But the adverse situation for American guitars meant opportunity for ambitious – and talented – Japanese manufacturers, who hit on a strategy of copying popular historical American designs. They also began innovating, and American companies started sweating.
Long story short, in 1977, Norlin, parent company of Gibson, sued Elger, the American arm of Hoshino/Ibanez, over trademark infringement for copying Gibson headstocks. The end result was an out-of-court settlement, and despite what you read on the internet, this was the only copy-guitar “lawsuit” of the ’70s.
By ’78, the Japanese makers were selling new designs based on evolving tastes. Resorting to lawyers didn’t accomplish anything except to create new areas for Japanese successes!
Ironically, Ibanez, the focal point of the American counterattack because of its growing market share, had already changed its headstocks to look more like – funnily enough – Guild! In any case, the first guitars out of the gate in ’78 for Ibanez were the Performer series, Les Paul-type guitars with a little Tele curve at the upper bout/neck joint. This shape would be used by other Japanese makers, as well, and has been more or less in constant use ever since. If you’ve ever played one, you know how good they are!
The Ibanez Performers went into a easy holding pattern until two new series could be introduced – the Studios and Musicians. Both capitalized on late-’70s predilections for neck-through construction, brass fittings to enhance sustain, and active electronics. Neck-through guitars had gained favor through efforts of companies such as B.C. Rich and Alembic, who also championed active electronics. Travis Bean and Kramer were also pioneering sustain with their aluminum-necked guitars.
The Studios and Musicians were fairly similar, except the Musicians were more upscale. The Studios had set necks, whereas the Musicians (except for the entry-level bolt-neck MC100) were neck-through-body.
As the top of the line, the Ibanez MC500 Musician is a superb piece of guitar art and engineering from Fuji Gen Gakki. Meeting the taste for exotic woods with natural finishes, the MC500 was made using a sandwich of either carved walnut or dark-stained ash with a maple center and walnut or ash back, around a laminated maple and mahogany neck. Only the MC500 had a carved top. Hardware that wasn’t gold-plated was solid brass for enhancing sustain, including the extra-large scalloped tailpiece. As with all instrument series, electronics were more sophisticated as you moved up the line. The MC500 sported active Tri-Sound Super 88 humbuckers with a dizzying array of controls. Two three-way mini-toggles offered regular humbucking mode plus a coil tap and phase reversal for each pickup. A third mini-toggle activated an EQ circuit with volume and tone plus boost and cut controls for a three-band EQ (low, mid, high frequencies). All were controlled by a master volume.
The beauty of the wood, the excellent construction, and the electronic horsepower would be enough to recommend the MC500 to anyone who likes a fine-playing, versatile-sounding guitar, but the original owner wanted this to be something extra special, so he custom ordered the gorgeous mother-of-pearl tree-of-life fingerboard inlay, which Fuji put on some of its showcase models. To make sure his prize was protected, he also got an aluminum flight case!
The Ibanez Musicians were extremely well-received, much to the chagrin of American manufacturers, who had hoped to cramp the style of the Japanese makers with the challenge to copying. Other Japanese companies quickly joined the fray; Aria Pro II debuted its own RS Rev-Sound series and even the Korea-based Cort introduced models clearly following the Musician’s lead. Even Gibson joined the active game with its estimable RD Artist line in 1978, though the timing was probably due more to Zeitgeist than to emulating Ibanez.
All Ibanez Musicians, and especially this MC500 are really nice guitars. They’re fun to play, and if there’s a downside to them, it’s that the search for sustain almost inevitably makes for added weight. Plus, as wonderful as it is to be able to fine-tune your sound with onboard EQ, there’s a powerful streak in many guitar players that likes to keep it simple. That’s the other extreme represented by a young Edward Van Halen, who wanted one pickup and one knob – a volume control! In any case, the rage for brass nuts, sustain blocks, and active electronics eventually passed, as all things do. The original Ibanez Musician line was gone after the 1980 season, replaced briefly by a bolt-neck with passive electronics, as the guitar business began its inevitable drift toward the Stratocaster-style guitars that would come, after a brief flirtation with exotic shapes, to define the decade of the 1980s.
The success of Ibanez Musicians during their brief three-year run means they’re not especially rare birds. The carved-top MC500s were, understandably, less common and prime examples can easily sell today for $1,500. Only 164 were built in 1978, when this custom-ordered guitar was finished, and by the end of 1980, some 1,180 MC500s had left the Fuji factory – enough to make it possible to find one of these beautiful tributes to the search for sustain at the end of the 1970s.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.