I first wrote this review on February 19, 2007. I sold that first SZ520 to a guy just starting out. It has had a great second life. Six years later, I’ve found another one in the used bins and have re-made it with EMGs, Grovers, and excellent wiring… It’s a real player and is a joy to hear. Solid, sustaining, wide-open. Kind of like a Stratty Les Paul-y with a set-neck smooth-heel at the body/neck. Great!
Ibanez SZ520QM BBL Electric Guitar Review
When I was first looking for an electric guitar that I could use as a recording guitar and as a way for my son to cut his guitar-chops, I searched high and wide. I had a severely limited budget at the time I began playing again… and had to get some of the features I knew that I liked in a guitar from my early days.
I wanted a guitar that was tough enough to handle hard rock guitar but that didn’t fold on me over time. I also wanted an instrument with lots of sustain, plenty of output, and a nice neck.
I ended up settling on an Ibanez SZ520 for a number of reasons. For sure, though, the SZ520 is a remarkable instrument – one that is not given its true kudos in the world of guitars. It is an unsung hero and an excellent instrument.
Quick Opinion: The Ibanez SZ line of electric guitars (and, to an extent, the Ibanez S line of guitars) are excellent instruments. They have the quick feel of a rocker’s guitar, fairly good quality, and excellent features.
These guitars have excellent playability, great sound, and a price that puts them at the mid range between less-expensive set-necks, and inexpensive top-brands. SZs are not bargain-basement guitars – rather, they are at the top of their range. Whether or not to purchase an SZ will depend very highly on your personal feature interests, and your particular desire for a given sound. Let’s take a look at this fine instrument – with some comparisons along the way. Update: now that these are no longer in manufacture, they can be had affordably on the used market. I’ve bought one through online store used inventory, and of course, there’s always Craigslist and eBay.
Playability: Several things strike you immediately when you first pick up and play the SZ520. The neck is a dream – and lacks a big heel. The staggered, string-through design rings with sustain. The body is very nicely balanced and is of medium to medium-heavy weight. The fretboard is comfortable. Think of an Epiphone Les Paul with a little less weight and a double cut-away, plus a tummy cut.
The neck on the SZ520 is nearly ideal for chord players, shredders, and slide playing. It strikes a nice, medium-width balance against just a deep-enough “C” shape to get a grip on it when you’re running up and down the neck. The neck back is painted to match the body, and has a nice, hard, smooth finish. The neck-to-body join is superb on this instrument – few electrics get anywhere close to this nice of a join. The heel-less feels fantastic when you’re flitting around above the 14th fret. I truly wish most Gibsons and Epis had this type of neck join on their electric guitars.
The body balance is above average, if not pretty close to excellent. After playing the SZ for several hours, you don’t feel like you’re struggling with an unruly animal. It just feels good where it is – especially since the weight is medium in the spectrum. A Fender Stratocaster is significantly lighter in feel, and a Les Paul is a bit heavier in feel.
The fretboard, string-spacing, and fret size are an interesting combination – almost unique when compared to the other manufacturer’s view on fretboards. The fretboard is subtly different from most any other instrument out there. For those who are familiar with Fenders: it is thinner than a Strat and wider than a Tele – very similar to the superb and underrated Fender TC-90. For you Gibson and Epi fans out there, the SZ is much more like an Epiphone SG with respect to its neck. The fretboard is extremely similar to the Epi G400s I’ve played.
Fingerstyle players or players who use a modified pick hand (like myself) will find the strings a bit close together. However, this is balanced out by overall comfort, and the ease of gripping chords. It’s a little wider “feeling” than a Telecaster, but more like a narrow 60’s Les Paul neck.
In order to get great sounds out of the SZ in slide, the strings had to be at least 10s with thicker middle strings (and better, 11s or 12s). Extra-light strings sound muddy and don’t tune well when applied to the SZ. Also, the tone and sustain are robbed with very-light-gauge strings. These days (2012), I like to play Ernie Ball Slinkys on these, either the coated variety or the regular variety. I’ve been waiting for availability of the new Cobalt Slinkys! Can’t wait to try them on necks like these!
The fretwork of the SZ I owned was superb in almost any respect. The current one is great, as well The frets are medium to jumbo in overall size and height, and the ends were reasonably well-dressed. The nut was well-worked and had no issues at all.
The bridge does a nice job of intonation variance. It’s as easy to adjust as a Tune-O-Matic, but sits differently on the guitar. Here’s my current guitar
Features: The Ibanez SZ520QM (QM stands for “quilted maple” cap) is a high-feature guitar made in Korea. It has a gorgeous quilted maple cap on a warm and medium-thick mahogany body. The tuners are OK (not great), but the neck inlay is beautiful (my guitar got the name “blue flame” because of its 12th fret inlay). The finish on the guitar is deep and lustrous.
The heel-less neck feature is worth mentioning again. Feel it for yourself – most folks will absolutely love it.
The binding is light-cream, and is superbly done. I only felt the “edge” of the binding in one or two places on the front of the body, and none on the neck. My second SZ520 binding looks like natural wood. I don’t know what it is made of, but the (now 7-year-old) binding has mellowed out in a major way. I love it.
The Duncan/Ibanez open-face humbuckers are a nice feature. They strike a nice balance between being able to play stronger, more assertive music – and music that is marginally mellower. These guys were the precursors to the current (2012) “Duncan Designed” humbuckers on mid-priced models made in Asia these days. They’re excellent pickups for the money. My current guitar had terrible shorts in the electronics (moisture exposure), so I’ve changed mine out for a set of active EMG 81/60 pickups. Another article someday?
The string-end design is string through. The staggered string holes are of varied lengths from the bridge and its saddles. Unlike many string-throughs, there is no tailpiece – the strings feed directly from the bridge to the holes in the body.
The Gibralter III bridge makes intonation a fairly easy task, and is completely buzz-free. It is stud-mounted to the top of the guitar, so lots of sound emanates through the bridge very nicely into the guitar body.
Sound: The SZ520QM sounds wonderful. It has tons of sustain (although an Epi or Gibson Les Paul still have a longer and warmer sustain – the SZ is more like a set-neck SG in sound and sustain). The pickups and electronics are clean and noise-free. Sonically, the SZ is a good crossover guitar – from harder music to classic rock.
I found the pickups to be not as high on the output scale (sound-wise – I didn’t pull them and put them on a multi-meter) as you get with EMGs or more aggressive Seymour Duncan humbuckers. They are louder than my first Epiphone Les Paul’s original open-face humbuckers, but they are not as rich and creamy.
The pickup-selection-and-tone part of the guitar is pretty good. The SZ has the often-used Tone-Volume-Volume plus pickup switch hardware setup. With the SZ520QM, there is one master tone knob, the middle knob controls the bridge pickup volume, and the knob closest to the neck controls the volume of the neck pickup. The SZ also uses a fairly standard (but extremely well-made) pickup selector toggle switch.
Value: Value for the money is where the SZ is not quite a clear winner. I don’t think the guitar is terribly over-priced, but it is not a bargain in any sense (at 2006-2007 prices, mind you). The Fender TC-90 (albeit with Black Dove P90 pickups) and the Epiphone Explorer and Epiphone Flying V are much better performers – yet they all cost less. A similarly-equipped ESP, Jackson, or Schecter is generally a better bargain for sound and price. (UPDATE 2012 – now that these are on the used market almost expressly, they are about the same price as their competitors… things have equalized in the favor of the player – snag one: they’re a bargain!)
As I said in 2006=2007 dollars: “With that said, and in all fairness, the SZ520 does have a great feel, and does a decent enough job for the sound. I am a fan of Ibanez guitars, and there are many models that are great… I just think the SZ 520 should be a little lower in price. – or should have higher-end Seymour Duncans to bring up the value.”
Wishes: Some nickel-covered and upgraded Seymour Duncans would be great (or, even better, some EMG HZ passive pickups, perhaps H4s). I really think Ibanez should choose to use some nice Grovers as tuners, or at least some locking tuner/locking nut offerings on this guitar.