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With an artist roster stacked to the gills with the shred world’s elite—Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Meshuggah, and Paul Gilbert, among many, many others—Ibanez has established itself as perennial contender for the crown of the de facto metal and hard-rock axe. The company’s long-running and ultra-popular RG series is among its most recognizable and iconic offerings. It debuted in the late ’80s at the height of the shred craze, and it now comprises a broad range of instruments from entry-level models to the flagship J Custom line. The new Iron Label RGIR20FE, which is built in Indonesia and goes for $599 street, straddles the line between the most affordable and higher-end guitars—but it has the feel of a professional grade instrument that you won’t have to break the bank to buy, nor treat with kid gloves when you’re moshing onstage.
With its understated white finish (a sleek black finish is also available), black body binding, and position-marker-free fretboard, our test model exudes a no-frills metal attitude without the aid of corny-looking flames or skulls. The RGIR20FE is constructed from a basswood body and a 3-piece maple neck with a bubinga middle stripe, which the company says puts it on par with 5-piece necks in terms of stability and sustain—and Ibanez has extensive experience with bubinga from the drum side of their business.
Off to Shred the Wizard
Our test model came with a Gibraltar fixed bridge, but if your style depends on whammy madness, an alternate model, the RGIR20E comes with an Edge-Zero II locking tremolo. Regardless of which you choose, one of the major draws of the guitar is its fast Nitro Wizard neck. The 25.5" scale and 15.75"-radius, 24-fret rosewood fretboard are perfect for legato, three-notes-per-string runs or multi-octave arpeggio flurries. A slight surprise was that the RGIR20FE we tested came strung with a set of .010s rather than .009s, which made it a little harder to play fast (and I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way)—though the benefits were a less plinky feel, a beefier tone, and better tuning stability for dropped tunings.
The American-made EMG 60 neck and 81 bridge pickups are a perfect match for the Iron Label. There are usually two camps when it comes to active pickups—those who love them and those who loathe them. A common complaint among the naysayers is that active pickups can sound sterile, but I definitely found the contrary to be true with this guitar. To my ears, the RGIR20FE sounded quite warm, and the active pickups seemed to impart a string-to-string evenness and a very commanding presence. The EMGs also give the guitar a ton of volume—it was significantly louder than several of the passive-pickup guitars I A/B’d it with. If active pickups aren’t your thing or you don’t want to deal with a battery, Ibanez also offers Iron Label S-series guitars with American-made DiMarzio passive pickups.
Killer with a Kill Switch
With a Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb combo on the opposite end of the cable and the overdrive channel engaged, the RGIR20FE generated near infinite sustain and a liquid sound and feel that’s ideal for shred workouts. It’s also more than up for the task of rhythm work. With a scooped-mid amp tone, I summoned a hellacious grind that felt massive enough to rattle an arena, especially when using dropped tunings—which is where this guitar excels. I even liked the RGIR20FE for pop/rock playing—both in clean and dirty settings. If it weren’t for the fact that the pickups aren’t splittable, you couldn’t be blamed for believing this guitar could cover virtually any conventional style of music.
The quality-to-price ratio of Ibanez’s Iron Label RGIR20FE is almost astoundingly high. A decade or two ago, a similarly outfitted guitar would have retailed for north of a grand. But for about 600 bucks, the RGIR20FE delivers on just about every imaginable count: The craftsmanship is excellent—there were no finish or playability issues—and after a minor intonation tweak, the guitar was ready for action.
Ibanez’s press materials refer to the guitar’s design as built “with metal and nothing but metal in mind,” but truth be told, there is absolutely no reason it couldn’t be used effectively in other styles of music including pop, soul, or as a studio guitar. It’s got a lot more versatility than its styling projects, which makes it an even better value than the already impressive bargain it is out of the box.