“Ernie Ball Music Man” flows off the tongue like it’s always been there. Ernie Ball has owned Music Man for 35 of the company’s 45-year history. The Ball family and Fender have had a close history long before the birth of Music Man. In a very real way, Ernie Ball has always been a part of Music Man instruments. The story of Music Man is two separate but interwoven tales, with characters so large and colorful, they defy fiction. If Mount Rushmore featured men that shaped the electric guitar revolution, men from this tale would be immortalized in stone. Names like Leo Fender, George Fullerton, Ernie and Sterling Ball, Forrest White, Grover Jackson, Wayne Charvel and Tom Walker all play roles in what has become a defining force electric guitars and basses: Ernie Ball Music Man. The short story is Leo and team return to the musical instrument business for the first time since the sale of Fender in 1965. The story worth knowing is how Leo’s abandoned but stout foundation was built into the game changing answer to the modern players call – Ernie Ball Music Man.
Music Man CLF Era
Nobody needs to know what Leo Fender was doing from the late 40s through 1965, unless you’ve been living under a moss-covered bridge. What does an idle mind like Leo’s do without direction? Leo invested in real-estate, and spent time watching the clock run down on his non-competition clause with Fender. Leo formed a consulting company ‘CLF’ (Clarence Leo Fender), as an outlet for his creative ideas.
At the same time Fender’s ‘Leo’ era shop manager Forrest White, and amp designer and ex-Fender sales rep Tom Walker founded Tri-Sonix co. Leo and CLF lend some startup money, and became a silent partner. Tri-Sonix will be renamed ‘Music Man’ by Leo. Revolutionary amps were in production in 1974, and silent partner Leo Fender is named president in 1975, the moment his non-competition clause expires. Music Man is two separate companies under one name. Original Tri-Sonix partners Forrest White and Tom Walker were to build amps and receive guitar and bass shipments at the Music Man factory. Instruments are to be designed and built by Leo Fender and trusted old pal George Fullerton. Guitars and basses were manufactured at Leo’s CLF’s new factory, custom fit and tooled for the “built from scratch”, new design Music Man instruments.
By all accounts, Leo and George did things the way they did back in the 50s: Listen to what musicians of the day wanted. Well aware that times have changed, Leo’s Basses and guitars looked a bit like classic Fender, but designed for the radically changed expectations of Rock players. Everything had to be made from scratch, including some of the machinery needed to wind pickups, and woodworking tasks unique to musical instrument manufacture. Music Man instruments are intended as advancement to vintage designs, while satisfying those seeking older Fender guitars.
The Stingray bass guitar has a new 3 plus 1 headstock shape. It’s unique and sharp looking, but it’s not just a pretty face. The straight on string alignment and shorter length provide more efficient tuning, and less “dead spots” on the fretboard. A set of stainless-steel bridge saddles give the bass a sharp, bright edge that helps the Stingray cut through a distorted wall of guitars. Active electronics, and in-house design preamp add to the power and versatility of the classic looking design. The stingray is well suited for slapping, funk, and soloing. The bass is no longer just for laying foundation, as it was in the early 50s. The Music Man Stingray’s active electronics boosts the electric bass out of the background, into the soloist’s spotlight. The first Music Man instruments are the Stingray I and II Basses and Guitars. They are a product of Leo and George Fullerton’s experience and as always carefully considered feedback from real players, not “yes” men.
One such tester, critic and friend of Leo Fender was a young Sterling Ball. Sterling proved pivotal on many key aspects and tweaks made to the StingRay model (the only Music Man instrument to remain in production from the dawn of Music Man till today). Sterling is the son of musical instrument entrepreneur, and forward thing player, Mr. Ernie Ball.
Music Man basses were received with acclaim, but the guitars are not a runaway hit (StingRay and Saber I &II). In retrospect, the guitars of CLF Music Man were pretty good designs, but guitar players were not ready for an active preamp. The clunky chrome control cover was awkward, and truthfully, about as attractive as a coin operated washing machine. The cosmetics certainly helped defeat the advancements. Finish problems on the guitar’s and bass’s polyester finishes tendency to flake off before they even dried was a big problem for the fledgling company. A backlog in production while the finish problem was corrected led to slacking sales. Tom Walker wanted guitar production under his control, and access to the factory Leo and George Fullerton built. Leo wasn’t having any of that.
Tensions between the Amp building/distribution “Music Man” factory, and Leo’s “CLF” instrument making part of the team divided the company to irreconcilable differences. A complete breakdown of communication developed between the two sides of Music Man, just a few years after it was founded. Leo and George felt it was time to take their ball (The new CLF factory) and go home. By the end of 1979, Music Man was in the rear-view mirror, and G&L lie ahead.
Music Man enlisted the help of Grover Jackson and Wayne Charvel to oversee production, and assemble back ordered instruments with refinished polyester bodies, and left-over necks. The Cutlass guitars had graphite necks made by Modulus, partially for the unique design, and partially to fulfill orders. Music Man stayed afloat through the early 80s, but without Leo and George, the ship was sinking fast. Music Man was very close to closing its doors forever by 1983. Tom Walker and Forest White put Music Man up for sale. Was Music Man worth trying to save? Would it be possible to patch up the sinking ship?
Ernie Ball thought so, and put his money down in 1984.
“Ernie Ball” The Man
Ernie Ball bought the dying Music Man brand on its last breath. Pre Ernie-Ball instruments were quite good, but not quite finished. Mr. Ball had an eye for detail, and brought fresh life to a company fraught with bickering between its divisions, and slumping sales. Ernie Ball was no wealthy baseball team owner wanting a piece of the Rock and Roll market. Ball is a dyed in wool guitar man, from his first lap steel, to the first dedicated shop that catered exclusively to the Guitarist, in 1958 (a waste of time and money, Ball was told).
Ball, very much like Fender was focused on giving the player what they wanted. The secret advantage the American guitar players had was making a custom set of light gauge strings. British players wondered how American players could bend the heavy wound G string. “The American advantage” was simply moving every string up one slot, discarding the lowest string and replacing the high E string with a super light Banjo string. This make shift stroke of genius, made string bending possible without the need for a hydraulic powered left hand. Ernie Ball shopped the custom gauge idea to Gibson and Fender, but generated no interest. Ball went ahead and made his own custom sets, and sold them in his shop. A colorful label, with fun graphics done by a Disney animator went up for sale. The first sets of Ernie Ball Slinkys were born.
To say Ernie Ball slinky strings were a runaway hit is an understatement. The guitar centric shop that would never make it, has made the big time. Ernie Ball custom slinky sets are what the cool guys played. Someone else may have eventually filled the whole in the market, but Ball was far and away the first. Ball saw potential. Potential became profit. Profit became an empire. Ernie Ball strings, accessories are in touch with the younger players. At the time, those youngsters are Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and a who’s who of Rock guitar gods.
When Music Man went up for sale, Ball saw the potential that lay wasting. In 1984, Ernie Ball bought Music Man. It created no conflict with George Fullerton and Leo Fender, who have already moved CLF on to make G&L guitars.
Leo’s active electronic basses need just some TLC, quality control, model diversity, a few tweaks and a facelift. The active electronics guitars inherited by Ball needed a bit more help.
As they say in the restoration biz: “It’s a basket case, but everything you’ll need is there”.
Ernie Ball, The Music Man
CLF Music Man had all the right stuff, but none of the in-tune nature of Ernie and Sterling Ball. The Ball family’s new acquisition of Music Man is quite a bit like a larger scale version of Ernie Ball’s custom gauge strings. Keep what works, and improve or replace what doesn’t. I don’t imagine Ball wanted to dominate the Guitar and bass market, or create an ‘all things for all people’ brand. The goal is to make high quality electric guitars and basses for the dedicated player. You won’t find Ernie ball ‘player packs’, faux boutique pedals, or 25k limited artist editions.
At Ernie Ball Music Man, you will find no nonsense, functional, up-to-date instruments, built to ‘custom shop’ levels of excellence and un-challenged quality control. Ernie Ball Music Man is for the up and coming, as well as the establishment. Tradition is made, not recalled.
The StingRay bass is a holdover from the days of Leo (and some help from Sterling Ball) but every model to follow is uniquely Ernie Ball. The first task at hand is to redesign, and create a buzz around Music Man 6 string guitars. CLF Music Man guitars were good, but left a lackluster impression on players of the day. Ernie and his son Sterling got it right the first time around, Music Man guitars? Give us just a sec….
1986: The Silhouette guitar puts Music Man guitars in the spotlight. It has a small, easy to look at modern offset body, 4 plus 2-string line headstock. An extra-long upper horn helps the 24-fret guitar balanced perfectly. It strikes a perfect crossover between vintage and new school guitars. Keith Richards calls it the ‘best guitar to come out in 20 years’ and the ONLY modern classic. The Silhouette grabs the attention of the world. Music Man guitars are on the map. Keef, Albert Lee, Steve Morse and more take notice.
1987: Steve Morse Signature – Ernie Ball signature 4 plus 2 headstock Two humbuckers (neck ands Bridge) and two single coils in-between. Special switching system makes the most of the 4 pick up arrangement.
1991: The Ernie Ball Music Man EVH – Being in touch with the Players, styles and needs of the day is one Ernie Ball Music Man’s greatest strengths. The best guitars in the world will go un-noticed without proper promotion, and appeal that is in line with up-to the minute styles. The EVH Music Man is an instantly desirable, playable, and collectable high-profile guitar of the era. The most sought-after production guitar with the EVH name started like many things at Ernie Ball: Custom made EVH 5150 strings. The EVH signature and relationship with Van Halen was short but potent. The EVH guitar was available in a rainbow of hand rubbed finishes, over beautiful quilt tops, and an ‘unfinished feel’ neck, protected by a thin coat of gun oil. With or without EVH’s name, it’s clear that Ernie Ball Music Man make top shelf guitars. Capable of classic tone, cutting edge performance, and beautiful designs that don’t belong in decades past.
1993: Albert Lee – Already a Music Man amp supporter from the pre-Ernie Ball days, and a fan and player of the Silhouette, all time great Albert Lee is immortalized with his own signature model: The radical looking, but classic featured guitar was destined to become the ‘Axis’ model. Albert Lee got a look at a prototype and fell in love. Sterling Ball gifted the guitar to Albert. It is still in production with various pickup variations, as the Albert Lee signature. The Axis names? Music Man will find something to do with it!
1994: ‘Luke’ (now called Luke I) Music Man – An offset classic body style, with a Floyd Rose locking trem, and active EMG HSS set up, controlled by a 5-way blade, and single volume. The Luke II follows in ’98, and Luke III in 2012. From Toto to Michael Jackson sessions, Steve Lukather and his specified collaboration with Sterling Ball, Music Man R&D is a guitar than covers just about any sonic landscape you’ll encounter.
1995: Marking the end of EVH’s relationship with Music Man, the Axis name is used for EVH style signature models. The Axis(flame maple top, locking trem), Axis sport (toned down resin finish, and classic style Music Man trem) Axis models remain favorite’s today.
1997: Ernie Ball Music Man has always has its sights set on what the new generations of players want. In an effort to stay in touch, and give back to the life blood of the industry: The live players and unknown starts of the future, Ernie Ball Music Man set up a ‘battle of the bands’ giving a chance and exposure to new artists and styles, and player needs and wants. Grand prizes are 15k in gear, studio time, 2 weeks on the infamous Warped tour, and selected Ernie Ball Music Man instruments and strings.
2001: The John Petrucci ‘Music Man JP-6’ is presented. The Petrucci has the modern shredding virtuoso guitar players needs well covered, from piezo loaded acoustic bridge, slim tapper neck profile, and of course, Music Man’s light weight, manageable body size and balance. Iridescent finishes and non-traditional fishes help define the looks.
Ernie Ball Music Man Today
In the last few years Ernie Ball Music Man has expanded its guitar line to a reimagined John Petrucci model (The Majesty), multi-switching capable ‘Reflex’ Game Changer model, classic CLF era instruments have been revamped and improved, like the short-lived (’78-’82) Cutlass, StingRay guitar. Brand new body styles and models have recently been added to the growing Ernie Ball line up, like the fatter neck profile Mariposa, St. Vincent, James Valentine and Armanda.
Following the death of founder, Father, and Patriarch Ernie Ball in 2004, Music Man remains a family business, in the capable hands of Sterling Ball: The man who in his boyhood years was a valued and trusted assistant to Leo Fender in the original design on the world favorite Music Man StingRay. The original and final prototile “old Smoothie” remains at the Ernie Ball Music Man factory, including handwritten note of thanks to Sterling, from Leo, hidden away in the neck pocket.
Ernie Ball Music Man is the source for modern designed guitars, with elements that made the classic “Classic’.
Without the help of press, quotes from Music Man, or slogans found in ads or catalogs, it should be clear to the most casual observer that Ernie Ball remains true to the principals it was founded on: Staying in touch with the desires of Guitar and Bass players of today, producing instruments with the care of a small custom shop. Constant imprudent and innovation, and nearly impossible quality control standards are set, and achieved.
Ernie Ball Music Man is no tiny company, but has managed to behave like one. Workmanship, quality and features are rarely achieved at Music Man’s price point and popularity.
BFR Music Man Guitars and Basses
So, the million-dollar question, what is an Ernie Ball Music Man BFR? The question is a simple one, but the answer isn’t so simple. BFR is simply a unique set of features, not found on production runs. B.F.R stands for Ball Family Reserve. Ball Family Reserve is sometimes a hand selected exotic woods package, special color (like the cocktail olive-green finish, Martini glass inlay Dargie Delight), special electronics, unique binding package, or any combination of custom appointments. Some BFR are long running favorites, and others are one offs. One thing is for sure, BFR instruments are like a custom shop within a custom shop, and not to be missed. Sam Ash Music currently has a small number of Ernie Ball Music Man BFR demo models offered at a special price. These demos are in top shape, complete and blemish free. Never miss an opportunity to save on the BFR you’ve dreamed on for so long.
Ernie Ball Music Man didn’t invent the 7-string guitar, but is one of the few major manufacturers to build an in house, USA made, pro-level 7-string guitar. The motor that drives Ernie Ball is change, innovation, and alignment with needs of today and tomorrows players. For a company like Ernie Ball Music Man, “Tradition” means looking forward.
Take advantage of these top shelf 7-string Demo/open box models, at special discounted pricing. All are in new condition, complete, unaltered, and blemish free. There are even a few BFR 7 string guitars in the assortment of savings.