Evolutionary design makes this accessibly priced shred machine extra appealing and rewarding to play.
Excellent variety of distinct tones. Modern features that are not very common yet on production guitars.
No gigbag or case.
In its current state, Ibanez’s new Axe Design Lab line of guitars seems conceived as a vehicle for unconventional designs. Twenty-seven frets? Fanned frets? Nine strings? If you want a guitar that throws the rule book out the window, the Axe Design Lab probably has it. In fact, the fanned-fret Ibanez SML721, which is reviewed here, looks pretty normal compared to much of the rest of the Axe Design Lab roster. And at $999, the Indonesia-made SML721 strikes a very nice balance between quality, affordability, and outside-the-box design think.
Forward Thinking, Frets Leaning
The SML721’s body is light and made from nyatoh, an increasingly common tonewood. It’s finished in rose gold chameleon, an appropriate and not-at-all hyped name, because depending on the angle from which you look at the guitar and matching headstock, it will actually appear purple, gold, or a root beer color. The gold pickups, bridge, knobs, tuners, strap buttons, logo, and 24 jumbo Jescar EVO Gold frets are complementary, if flashy, accents. Luminescent side dots glow in the dark and make for easy visibility in low-light environments.
The SML721 is clearly designed for speed. A contoured neck heel makes playing in the highest regions of the fretboard comfortable. Its 5-piece, maple-and-walnut, 24-fret “Wizard” neck feels relatively thin (it measures 18 mm thick at the first fret and 20 mm at the 12th). And the flat 15.75" rosewood fretboard makes shredding—and adapting to the slant-fret construction—feel much more effortless. As fanned fret necks go, this one feels relatively natural. The SML721’s mono-rail bridge is staggered in accordance with the guitar’s multi-scale construction, which varies from 25 1/2" on the sixth string to 25"on the first. Consequently, the bass strings feel relatively taut, while strings on the treble side feel slinkier and easy to play. Out of the box (a gigbag is extra), the SML721’s action was low and fret-buzz free.
The SML721 is loaded with a pair of high-output, ceramic Q58 pickups with a 5-way switch. In clean settings, the bridge pickup is perfect for math rock, open-string-laced riffs, or multi-finger tap approaches. There is plenty of clarity and presence to work with, which makes harmonics and percussive clean picking pop. That clarity is evident even in high-gain environments. Precise rhythm figures sound crisp and well-defined, and if you can nail alternate-picked solo licks with pinpoint accuracy, you’ll hear every note ring true. Its sustain is excellent too, and I’d venture that the guitar’s string-through-body construction could be a contributing factor.
I found many interesting and useful sounds—even cool, out-of-phase, funk-ready tones, which probably aren’t the first application you’d associate with the SML721.
Ibanez’s dyna-MIX10 switching system, which consists of the 5-position pickup switch and a 2-position alter switch, enables 10 combinations of full humbucker, coil-split, and coil-tapped sounds. I found many interesting and useful sounds among these options—even cool, out-of-phase, funk-ready tones, which probably aren’t the first application you’d associate with the SML721. The differences among the 10 basic pickup tones aren’t always super obvious. But putting in the time to explore how the various settings work in context of different rigs and gain profiles will reward the creative, curious player. Regardless of where I set the alter switch, though, pickup positions 1, 3, and 5 are slightly louder than 2 and 4, and it’s fun to add drama, intensity, or a slight volume boost by switching between adjacent switch positions.
Ibanez makes some of the world’s most well-regarded shred guitars. Legendary virtuosos Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Paul Gilbert would agree. They’ve all used Ibanez guitars for what seems like forever. I’m a fan too. My mid-’80s Ibanez AH-10 Allan Holdsworth model is a favorite. And though it’s a jazz guitar, my late-’80s Ibanez GB-10 George Benson model has a fantastic neck that would delight any shredder. Essentially, Ibanez knows how to make a great guitar that sounds fat and plays fast.
The accessibly priced SML721 is a lethal, modern vision of a shred machine that fits that tradition. But what some shredders might not expect is just how versatile the SML721 can be. If you’re comfortable with fanned frets, it could become a jack-of-all-trades studio staple. But you shouldn’t be fooled or intimidated by the shreddy essence. Regardless of your stylistic inclination, the SML721’s pickups, switching, and fast, flat neck will compel you to explore new creative horizons, especially if you’re open to its many tone possibilities.