By design, the AZ series is all about function: a tool to do a job.
That said, both the body and neck adopt a more vintage bolt-on guise that’s less pointy, more classic than we’re used to from Ibanez. The body contour here, especially the rib-cage cut, is very deep and although the edge radius is pretty tight these are comfortable, familiar guitars.
All the recently-released AZs, as you’d expect, are based around the classic 648mm (25.5-inch) bolt-on scale length. There are both 22- and 24-fret models in both Prestige and Premium lines: the 22-fret models have an HSS pickup configuration and a Strat-meets-RG-style scratchplate; the 24-fret models have dual direct-mount humbuckers with no scratchplate and rear-mounted electronics. Bridge positions are the same on both 22/24-fret platforms, the 24-fret neck therefore sits slightly deeper into the body and as a result the treble cutaway is slightly deeper, too. Here, we’re looking at the Premium AZ224F-BIG.
The guitar uses the heavily rounded ‘All Access’ body heel with four recessed screws that sit into inset washers; the heel area is slightly thinner in depth than the rest of the body and both cutaways have quite considerable scooping on the back, not the front. High fret access is easy.
Roasted maple is becoming the neck wood of choice for those serious about their bolt-ons. This model uses roasted maple, which has a lighter colour (and on the AZ224F a very vivid grain) that’s still darker than untorrefied wood. Material aside, the necks are spec’d with an ‘oval C’ profile, a standard 305mm (12-inch) Gibson-like radius and jumbo stainless steel frets. Nuts are Graph Tech Tusq XL.
The tuner is Gotoh’s SG381 with both height adjustable posts (HAP) and Magnum Locks. The former allow you set the post heights to maximize the string angle behind the nut although Ibanez still uses a string tree on the top two strings while the locking element self-locks as you wind on the string and unlocks - usually with a little help from a blade or coin in the top notched tip - as you unwind it. Once you get used to ’em they’re fine but both the locking element and setting the post heights can be, well, fiddly at first.
The vibrato bridge is based on Gotoh’s ‘modern classic’ 510 with two height adjustable and lockable pivot posts, plus a new-design knurled collar to tension the push-fit vibrato arm. The Premium’s T1502 uses plated steel saddles and a tapered die-cast FST block, which has deep drilled anchor holes. Spacing is quoted on both as 10.5mm - which should mean an E-to-E string spread of 52.5mm when in fact on all four it measures bang on 52mm at the saddle’s break point. The vibratos sit virtually flush with the guitars’ top face but a recess underneath means travel, especially upbend, is enhanced without having to tilt the unit.
Pickups and Control
Having gone to so much detail it’s little surprise we have a completely new set of AZ-exclusive pickups: Seymour Duncan Hyperion designed collaboratively, we’re told, with Duncan’s Maricela ‘MJ’ Juarez.
This HSS guitar has the dyna-MIX 9 system introduced by a two-way mini-toggle ‘Alter’ switch placed between the master volume and tone controls. In position 1 (towards the tone control) we get the usual selections from the five-way: neck, neck and middle, middle, middle and slug coil of the bridge humbucker and, lastly, the full bridge humbucker. Flip the Alter switch towards the volume control, however, and we get four additional sounds: neck and middle in series, neck and screw coil of the bridge humbucker in parallel, neck and middle in series plus the bridge humbucker added in parallel, the slug coil of the bridge humbucker and, once again, the bridge humbucker.
Another performance consideration is the placement of the output jack - on the guitar’s side, by the lower wide flange strap button, and angled so you thread your lead through your strap to secure it more easily.
Feel and sounds
Ibanez’s RG might rightly be one of the relatively few modern classic designs but its thin-depthed, wide and flat neck isn’t for everyone, not least those of us that like more traditional bolt-ons. While the spec, for example, on the Super Wizard HP - “the neck for shredders,” states Ibanez - offers a 17mm depth at the first fret, 19mm by the 12th with a nut with of 43mm and a ’board radius of 430mm (16.9"), the AZ’s neck is much more conventional measuring between 41.84mm to 42.38mm at the nut, 20.5 to 21mm at the 1st fret and between 23mm and 23.2mm at the 12th.
The ’board radius is rounder too and puts the AZ much more in line with modern Fender or Suhr. Neck relief, as supplied, is minimal. In terms of oil finish, the Premium has a light sealer coat. They don’t feel quite as slinky as, for example, Music Man. A quick rub with a fine Scotch-Brite pad made them feel very satin- smooth.
The modern/vintage vibe certainly continues to the actual sound. This guitar does not have an overly resonant response: it’s quite firm but with oodles of zingy sustaining ring that’s a noticeable contrast to the woodier unplugged response of the more traditional vintage-y bolt-ons we have for comparison.
Getting your head around the sound options takes a little practice. As we said, the ‘standard’ mode is with that two-way Alter switch pointing down towards the tone control and with the bridge humbuckers measuring around 14.8k ohms (the neck ’bucker measures approximately 9k ohms), the single coils just over 10k ohms, these
are far from vintage spec. The humbuckers impart a thick but not overly dark voice; the single coils, despite that overwound reading, sound full but nicely contrasting and well-balanced in context.
This affordable Premium guitar has many of the hallmarks of the recently-reviewed Prestige models, although it does sound a little softer, slightly less percussive and bold especially on those more single coil-y voices. For high gain settings, basswood has its credentials and if that’s your sole sonic aim then you could save yourself a large wedge of cash. But the AZ design is about covering more bases and the alder-bodied Prestige models, to our ears at least, sound more ‘grown-up’.
The vibrato system is impressive. Sure, you can’t deck the vibrato as many prefer but then that falls into more traditional bolt-on territory: don’t forget, this is still an Ibanez guitar through and through.
Hugely interesting, this AZ model might well surprise many players who’ve pigeon-holed Ibanez as shred guitars for the masses. It certainly does that with plenty of potential for Floyd Rose-style whammy tricks (without the hassle of locks) but the Prestige models in particular would get you through a more conservative covers gig, no problem.
In fact, with the expansive switching systems on both the HH and HSS platforms there are plenty of credible sounds for players never intending to hit the high-gain channel. If Ibanez had added a proper tap - perhaps via a pull/push switch on the tone - to pull down the heat of the ’buckers for a more vintage spec voice, it would have created the near perfect hybrid.
But, as is, for the player wanting to cover virtually everything from jazz to shred, well, they’ve pretty much done it. This is a seriously versatile, good-sounding, tidily made instrument that deserves to put Ibanez squarely back into the mainstream.