A Tribute from Steve Vai
“It is with a heavy heart that I announce that Joe ‘Jem’ Despagni had passed away on Tuesday May 29, 2018 in his sleep.
Joe was not only an excellent luthier, he was a brilliantly creative, funny, considerate, and generous person. He was also perhaps my very best friend in this life. When we go through a loss like this, there’s an opportunity for the divine to shine through and I’ve been thinking about him constantly lately and as my mind and heart are filled with so many precious memories of our friendship, I feel great love and appreciation for him and the life we had together, and the amazing person he was. And of course, there’s the great pangs of loss. He will be profoundly missed by those who loved him.
Some of you may know about my relationship with Joe and a bit about him, but here’s a little more. I remember Joe Despagni being in my life as long as I can remember remembering. Around the time I left for Berklee, Joe started to get serious with his guitar building talents and started building guitars instead of just fixing them. We always stayed in contact and saw each other whenever we could.
When I joined David Lee Roth’s band, Joe made me a bunch of guitars, the lightning bolt guitar, swiss cheese guitar, the flame guitar, and a handful of others. His approach to making guitars was similar to his approach to other things which was insightful, bombastic, seemingly haphazard but with a creative panache that captured his personality and intentions. The guitars he made for me were best suited as stage guitars. They were bold and exotic looking in a way only he could muster.
He hand-made me the one and only original “Flame” guitar that I used quite a bit with Roth and Whitesnake. I used the guitars he made me periodically through those years. Several were stolen from a storage locker in Pasadena while I was rehearsing with Roth.
Joe called his guitars “Jems” and one of the reasons I named my signature Ibanez guitar the “Jem” was in hopes to bring some attention to him and his work. The early guitars he made me bore no real resemblance to the Jem I designed for Ibanez, but Joe was the first one I asked to put a monkey grip in one of my guitars.
He made such odd and inventive instruments. I still have some. He even made me a beautiful instrument a few years ago. Making these wild instruments was Joe’s passion and he did it with much joy and brilliance. His specialty was animated type flames. He just had a way of understanding certain things such as electronics, handy crafts, etc. He was just great at it all…