The Ernie Ball Music Man Modern Classic Collection

January 6th, 2016

This is a story from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Rudy Pensa’s world-class collection of fine archtops, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, the vintage and boutique guitars of Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, the wild guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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NEW RAYS OF THE RISING SON: Ernie Ball Music Man Modern Classic Collection
By Richard Bienstock | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta

Ernie Ball Music Man has offered first-rate guitars and basses for three decades now, with a range of instruments that run the gamut from inventive designs like the Axis and Armada to popular signature lines from virtuoso players like John Petrucci, Steve Lukather, and Steve Morse. But before Ernie Ball acquired Music Man in 1984, the company had another past—one intertwined with perhaps the most celebrated electric guitar maker in history: Leo Fender. Music Man was officially formed in January 1974 by a trio of men that included Fender, who had sold his namesake company to CBS in 1965. The guitar great designed instruments for Music Man for a short period spanning roughly from 1976 to 1980, and after leaving the company under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, he started another firm, G&L. But in those four years with Music Man, Fender spearheaded early models, like the StingRay and Sabre, that helped lay the company’s foundation.

Now, Music Man has introduced a new line called the Modern Classic Collection, which resurrects two of Fender’s Music Man guitar designs: the StingRay and Cutlass, the latter produced only in prototype form during the Seventies (although the bass version of the Cutlass made it to production). But while these guitars pay homage to Fender, they are far from faithful reproductions of his work. Rather, Music Man has employed each guitar’s original design and feel as a jumping off point to craft a thoroughly modern instrument. Explains Music Man director of artist relations Derek Brooks, “These particular guitars were really good-looking instruments. Unfortunately, they didn’t sound that great. The pickups were very shrill, tinny, and trebly. Some people think it had to do with the fact that, by that point in time, Leo was a little hard of hearing. As a result, the guitars just didn’t take off.”

“What we tried to do with these models,” adds research and design manager Drew Montell, “was keep the vintage feel but modernize it with new features that actually function and sound much better.”

This meant, for starters, redesigning the guitars’ electronics packages. The original StingRay, Montell says, “had all these switches—for brightness, for playing in series and parallel. No one was a fan of those particular sonic features, so we chose to streamline the new versions.” The updated StingRay is equipped with two custom EBMM vintage-output humbuckers, controlled by master volume and tone knobs and a three-way toggle selector placed on the upper horn, Les Paul-style. The Cutlass, meanwhile, which originally boasted humbucking pickups and its own assortment of phase and bright switches (as well as a graphite neck), now has a trio of custom EBMM mid-Sixties-style staggered-pole single-coil pickups, master volume and tone knobs, and a five-way selector switch. The Cutlass also features a new version of EBMM’s “silent circuit,” “so that unlike on a vintage Strat, you don’t get that 60-cycle hum that’s normally prevalent with single coils,” Brooks says.

The Cutlass has an alder body, while the StingRay sports one of African mahogany. “We made sure both were lightweight,” Brooks says. “In the Seventies, most of Music Man models were very, very heavy. The thinking back then was, ‘the heavier the wood, the better the tone,’ which is not necessarily true. Plus, most people don’t like a boat-anchor guitar.”

Both Modern Classic guitars have a modern “super-smooth” tremolo with vintage bent-steel saddles, stainless-steel frets, and a compensated nut. A set of Schaller M6-IND tuners are installed on Music Man’s characteristic “4 over 2” headstock, which replaces the six-on-a-side design of the original models. “We elongated the headstock slightly, so it is technically a new shape for us,” Montell says. “It still allows for the straight string pull that our ‘4 over 2’ headstocks are known for. There’s still that improved functionality.”

At the end of the day, improved functionality is the ultimate goal with these guitars. “We wanted to marry the classic design of Leo’s instruments to everything we know about making guitars now,” Brooks says. “The Cutlass offers classic single-coil tone for people who love that Clapton-, SRV-type of sound, while the StingRay’s bigger, offset mahogany body and traditional double-humbucking setup provides a thick tone that’s more classic rock. It’s the best of vintage and modern.”

In general, Brooks continues, “the guitars Leo designed for Music Man were so cool. They had a great vibe. We felt like there was some unfinished business, so we decided to bring them back, only we made them a whole heck of a lot better.”

STREET PRICE: $1,499 (each)
Ernie Ball Music Man, music-man.com

This is a story from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Rudy Pensa’s world-class collection of fine archtops, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, the vintage and boutique guitars of Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, the wild guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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