How Ernie Ball Music Man Redefined the Artist Series Guitar Phenomenon

July 24th, 2014

This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Mike Campbell of Tome Petty and the Heartbreakers, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Signature Sound: By collaborating closely with a select group of guitarists on entirely original designs, Ernie Ball Music Man redefined the artist signature series guitar phenomenon.

By Richard Bienstock | Photo by Ed Malluk

For 30 years, Ernie Ball Music Man CEO Sterling Ball has run his company by adhering to a simple credo: “We make tools for artists.” He forged that mantra back in 1984 when Ernie Ball purchased Music Man, a brand established a decade earlier to manufacture the first products designed by Leo Fender after he split from the company that bears his surname.

The initial instruments manufactured by Ernie Ball Music Man were an updated version of the StingRay bass, a design first conceived in the mid Seventies by Leo Fender (with input from Sterling Ball and Tom Walker), and the Silhouette, a streamlined yet versatile six-string that was compact enough to fit into an airplane overhead compartment. Despite its sleek curves, easy playability, and bold tone, the Silhouette was not a hot commodity upon its release. “This was the mid Eighties,” Ball recalls. “When we showed the guitar, people laughed because it didn’t have a pointy headstock or a semi-naked girl airbrushed onto it. It was 10 percent smaller than a standard guitar. People thought, How dare you?”

Ball says this with a hint of bemusement, but he’s never let market trends dictate the look and sound of his instruments. Rather, he has remained primarily concerned, as he says, with making tools for artists. For Music Man, this concept has deep and literal meaning. Since the late Eighties, the company, based in San Luis Obispo, California, has produced some of the industry’s most renowned signature-model instruments, designed in conjunction with virtuoso guitarists like Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, Eddie Van Halen, Albert Lee, and John Petrucci. When Music Man builds tools for these artists, it’s with the intention of creating a dream guitar that meets their individual needs. That the instruments have also resonated with the greater guitar-buying public is merely a happy byproduct.

“We don’t consider the public at all when we make a signature guitar,” Ball says, and he means it. But it’s a point that he occasionally has to drive home with his customers. “We get people all the time that say, ‘I want a John Petrucci guitar, but I want it with this modification or that modification. I don’t think it’s fair that you don’t make that.’ And my answer is always, ‘I’m sorry. [Music Man] exists because you buy this product, but we don’t design this product with you in mind. If we make a change that John Petrucci himself didn’t ask for, what you’re buying is no longer a John Petrucci signature guitar.’ ”

Of course, when Petrucci or any Music Man–affiliated artist does ask for a functional or aesthetic change, Ball and his team—headed by longtime designer and director of research and development Dudley Gimpel and lead engineer Drew Montell—do whatever it takes to make it a reality. “The great thing about Music Man is that they will stop at nothing in pursuit of fulfilling an artist’s vision,” says Petrucci, who has been a Music Man signature artist since the late Nineties and has an extensive line of JP model guitars to his name. “Sterling and his guys use all of their expertise and resources and experience to get there.”

By way of example, he points to the Majesty, his newest signature model. “I wanted the top to look like carbon fiber, but I didn’t want it to actually be carbon fiber,” Petrucci explains. “I still wanted to retain the tonal qualities of maple. So we figured out a way to laser-etch a piece of maple with a carbon-fiber pattern, and stain it and sand it down to the point where it looks like carbon fiber. Sterling’s done stuff like that on numerous occasions in order to make an artistic request a reality. Music Man never says no. And the result is the best guitars on the planet.”

Interestingly, back when Music Man was producing only Silhouettes and StingRays, the company had no intention of diving into the signature guitar market. At the time, there wasn’t even much of a signature guitar market to speak of. Music Man’s first artist collaboration, with Dixie Dregs (and now Deep Purple) guitarist Steve Morse, was the result of a friendly relationship more than a business proposition. “We were not a very corporate place back then,” Ball says. “We still aren’t. Steve used Ernie Ball strings, and he was also a friend. At the time he had his FrankenTele [Morse’s famous homemade mongrel guitar, built from a Stratocaster neck and Telecaster body], and it was kind of shot. So we offered to make Steve a guitar.”

This is an excerpt from the all-new July/August 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Mike Campbell of Tome Petty and the Heartbreakers, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, travel and guitar shopping in Tokyo, new gear and more, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

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