Saturday, August 28, 2010

MusicMan Month: The Ernie Ball Forum

To close out MusicMan month, I thought I would talk a little about the official MusicMan forums. You can find them online at

These forums are sponsored by the Ernie Ball company, and support both the Ernie Ball and MusicMan products. It is an online community of people that are enthusiastic about the products, with the added benefit of factory support. It is divided into strings, guitars, basses as well as a current events section.

If you have a question about your guitar, there is somebody there that can answer questions. Ernie Ball employees monitor the forums, and can help out if you have set-up questions, or want to know when your guitar was built. You can also go there to find guitars and basses for sale, or sell your own guitar.

But, the best part of the forum is the sense of community that you will find there. You can see that the Ernie Ball company really cares about your ownership experience. Sterling Ball and his sons regularly participate in forum discussions and can help explain why their guitars and strings are made the way they are, and even help explain company history and marketing ideas. It is rare to find a company where the people in charge are so willing interact with their customers so regularly and openly.

They also provide sneak peeks of upcoming products and technologies. These insider views are fascinating for people like me (with the side benefit of generating product interest and sales).

Also, there are special events for forum members, most notably being the open houses at the factories in San Luis Obispo and Coachella a few years back. A number of their endorsed artists attend these gatherings and hang out with the unwashed masses, including Tony Levin, Steve Morse, Cliff Hugo and Steve Lukather.

There are also smaller gatherings every now and then, which is a good opportunity to bond with like-minded folks. I am happy to say that I have made a few new friends (not even imaginary ones) through these events.

Anyway, if you get a chance, head on over to the Ernie Ball forums. You will learn something new about their products, and get the chance to meet some great people.

Thank you for your patience during MusicMan month! Next month the blog will be back to the usual variety of instruments, equipment and albums reviews.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

MusicMan Month: The Stingray Bass

MusicMan month is nearing its end, and I realize that I have not written about the instrument that the brand is best known for: the Stingray bass.

The Stingray was designed by Leo Fender, Tom Walker and maybe Sterling Ball (I cannot exactly remember what he said his role in the bass was), and it was introduced in 1976.

It was initially available only as a 4-string with a single humbucker pickup, a two band equalizer, and active electronics. This was one of the earliest productions basses with an active pre-amp, if not the first. This gave it more output and a more aggressive sound than the competition.

The Stingray pretty much has Precision Bass ergonomics, and the neck profiles are very similar between the two.

After Ernie Ball bought the MusicMan brand in the 1980s, there has been a constant improvement in features and options available for the Stingray, including:

- Bodies are now contoured.

- Neck joints have changed from 3-bolt, to 4-bolt, to today’s 6-bolt for improved stability.

- The truss rod adjustment point has been changed from a bullet-style to an easier to use trussrod wheel at the heel of the neck.

- Neck finishes are now available in smooth gunstock oil and wax or durable poly (on the classics only).

- The electronics more varied now, with a 3-band e.q. option, as well as double humbucker, humbucker/single coil and piezo pickup offerings.

Sll of these changes and options are great, and can give a customer and almost Custom Shop-like experience when ordering their Stingray.

The bass pictured here is a 1993 Mary Kay Stingray. It has the original trans white finish with a non-matching headstock, and is very rare. Only 30 Stingrays were made in this color, and only 5 with a 2-band pre-amp. It is in very nice shape with only one scratch by the bridge, and some normal yellowing of the finish.

The neck is a dream. It is true, and the truss rod works freely. This is from the era when they still used birdseye maple, and this one is nicely figured.

The high-quality MusicMan hardware is all present and in great condition. The bass is all original. There have not been any repairs or modifications at all.

It weighs in at 9 pounds, 2 ounces according to my scale, which is super-light for a Stingray.

Most important is that it is put together very well, and is a great sounding and playing bass. I know lots of bass players who have never even considered one of these basses because they are die-hard Fender fans. They are missing out on a good thing...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

MusicMan Month: Sterling by MusicMan

After the demise of the SUB line of instruments in 2006, there was a void of low-priced instruments in the MusicMan line-up.

To fill this void and provide quality instruments to musicians, the Ernie Ball company made a deal with Praxis to sell imported versions of popular MusicMan guitars and basses at an affordable price.

They decided on the brand name “Sterling by MusicMan”, which could be a little confusing as there is already a MusicMan Sterling bass. Anyway, the brand was introduced at the 2009 Winter NAMM convention, and their products have been impressive.

Do not mistake these guitars with the miserable chunks of crap that were sold by OLP a few years back. These are very good instruments. The use nice woods, and good quality hardware and electronics. Best of all, they play very well and sound good too.

The guitars are made in Indonesia (where the weather is warm, and the boys look like girls), and are inspected and set-up by Praxis in Orange, California. They come with nice padded gig bags too.

Sterling by MusicMan instruments have a more basic model line and choice of colors than you will find with MusicMan instruments. They include (with rough street prices):

SB14: single-pickup Sterling bass with a basswood body and a 3-band EQ ($599)

RAY34: 4-string single-pickup Stingray bass with an ash body and a 3-band EQ ($649-$689)

RAY35: 5-string single-pickup Stingray bass with an ash body and a 3-band EQ ($699-$729)

SILO30: 22-fret tremolo HSS Silhouette Special guitar ($499)

SILO20: 24-fret hardtail HSH Silhouette guitar ($399)

AX20: HH hardtail Axis guitar ($499)

AX40: HH tremolo Axis guitar ($549)

JP50: John Petrucci Signature model guitar ($549)

These guitars are a great value, and if you are not hung up on having a “real” MusicMan, you will not be disappointed if you pick up one of these.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

MusicMan Month: SUB Series Guitars and Basses

MusicMan guitars and basses are some of the finest guitars and basses around, but if you head out to buy a new one, it is going to cost you well over $1000. The licensed OLP models were really cheap, but they were not even close in quality to the American-made products, so the folks over at Ernie Ball / MusicMan developed their own SUB series of guitars and basses.

They were introduced at the 2003 Winter NAMM show. The idea was to have an American-made instrument with the same sound and quality for under $1000, and it worked. There were 4 and 5-string Stingrays, Sterling basses, and 1 and 2 pickup guitars.

Of course, some things had to be changed to get the price point down. The bodies were made of poplar, and had no contours. Also, they had a textured finish, which was easier to make and required no polishing. They were available in Black, White, Teal, Red, Blue, Graphite and Cinnamon. The basses originally had a faux diamond plate pickguard that was later changed to matte black.

The necks were made of maple, and were finished in black, so they could use wood that maybe was not so visually appealing.

The hardware was similar to what you would ordinarily find. But (at least on the basses), they were not marked, so I imagine the tuners were not made Schaller, and the bridges were a little different.

The electronics were almost the same with a few exceptions. The Stingray 4 and 5 strings had 2-band equalizers, and could be had in active or PASSIVE models (a first for MusicMan). The Sterlings were only available as an active bass.

The idea worked out well. The instruments played well, and were a great value for the money.

Sadly, high costs and low sales made this product untenable, and production of the SUB line was stopped in 2006.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

MusicMan Month: Silhouette Special Guitar

As MusicMan month continues, you might say to yourself: ”what can they offer me that is like a Stratocaster?” In my opinion, the Silhouette Special would probably be the hot ticket.

The Silhouette was introduced in 1986, and was one of the first new models to be introduced after Ernie Ball bought the company. One question I often hear is: “What is the difference between the Silhouette and the Silhouette Special?”

I could give some specifications from their website, but Pete over at Dubaldo Music in Connecticut (great guy, order your guitars from him) has already summed up the differences very nicely:

”The Silhouette is a 24 fret Hum-Single-Hum guitar, and the Silhouette Special is a 22 fret, SSS or HSS guitar.

”Both guitars are available with or without the Music Man vintage tremolo, with or without piezo, with or without matching headstock, maple or rosewood fretboard. Both guitars have the "silent switching circuit." The Silhouette Special lists at $35 more, given the same options on both guitars.

The neck single coil on the Silhouette Special is located in the "sweet spot" - right about where the 24th fret would be - just like on a Strat. The Silhouette has the neck humbucker pushed back a bit closer to the bridge because of the 24 frets.

IMHO the Silhouette Special SSS sounds like a Fender Strat wishes it could sound, if that makes sense.” End of quote. Thanks a bunch, Pete!

The guitar we are looking at here was made in 2002. According to Dan over at Ernie Ball, this Sparkle Gold Silhouette Special was made for Matchbox 20. I found it in a secondhand store in Lewisville Texas.

It is a hardtail with a Dimarzio PAF and two Dimarzio single coil pickups sunk into the alder body.

It was in pretty much new condition, played well and looked SPECTACULAR. The photos I took do not give this sparkle finish its due. You have to see this one in person to believe it.

I never intended to keep this guitar, I only got it up because I knew a few people that would really like to have it. It ended up going to Glenn on the east coast, who is a lover of all things sparkly.

Friday, August 13, 2010

MusicMan Month: Sterling Bass

Obviously I am a big fan of the Ernie Ball MusicMan guitars and basses. One complaint that I have heard from bass players is that the Stingray bass necks are too fat, and that they wish they had more of a Jazz Bass neck profile. Haven’t these guys ever heard of the MusicMan Sterling bass? I guess not.

The Sterling bass was introduced in 1993, about 10 years after MusicMan was bought by Ernie Ball. These basses have a slightly smaller body than a Stingray, and a Jazz Bass profile neck with a 1.5-inch nut. They use a 5-bolt (instead of 6) to join the neck to the body, so there is a little better access to the higher frets. Who uses those frets, anyway?

The hardware is comparable to that of a Stingray, with Schaller tuners, and the high-mass MusicMan bridge.

With a Sterling you can get almost the same electronics choices as you would with a Stingray: single humbucker, dual humbucker, humbucker/single coil, and a piezo option. They are all ceramic magnet pickups. On difference is that if you get a single humbucker bass, there is a hum cancelling phantom coil underneath the pickup (not that I have ever has a super-hummy Stingray). All of the basses come with a 3-band preamplifier with cut and boost.

The one we have here today is a limited edition. It is finished in Copperhead Bronze with an anodized aluminum scratchplate. These were only available in 2004 from Guitar Center, and you could get a Stingray, Sterling or Stingray 5 in this finish.

This one weighs in at almost 10 pounds, which is a little heavy for my taste. Of course, it played well (like all of their instruments), and the craftsmanship is superb.

By the way, if you do prefer the Stingray shape and tone, but want a thinner neck, you are in luck. Last year they instroduced the SLO special, which will give you a Sterling profile neck on a Stingray body.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

MusicMan Month: Benji Madden Signature Model Guitar

Benji Madden? You are kidding, right? Good Charlotte was a flash in the pan band, and Benji was more famous for who he dated than for his music. But hey, he got a signature axe.

And it is not too bad, either. In 2004 MusicMan produced these guitars, which are a variant of their Silhouette model. The biggest difference was in the electronics, as this was the only MusicMan guitar made with a single humbucker pickup (DiMarzio, in this case).

Other than that, feature-wise these are pretty standard-issue guitars. They have Schaller locking tuners, and string through the body standard bridges. They have the cool trussrod wheel that makes set-ups a breeze, as well as the 5-bolt neck joint.

The bodies on these are alder, and they were available in textured black, white and Madden Green. You could only get maple fretboards on white and green guitars, and rosewood on the black ones. There was an upcharge for the glossy finishes. They also all have the hokey (or cool, depending on how you look at it) brass knuckle inlay at the 12th fret.

They were a bit on the spendy side, though, and did not sell too well. The list price on these was $1599 (with a glossy finish), and the street price was $1199. I picked this one up new for half of that.

It played well and was light (maybe 6 ½ pounds), but it lacked lower end, and eventually moved on to the afterlife of crap that I used to own.

What is Benji doing now? The last I heard he was scheduled for a boxing match against Riki Rachtman. Seriously.

Monday, August 9, 2010

MusicMan Month: Dargie Delight Bongo Bass

MusicMan Bongo basses are perhaps the least well-known basses around. They were designed in conjunction with BMW, and were introduced in 2003.

Obviously, the shape is distinctive. Ergonomically, they are very comfortable to play. The bodies on these are made of basswood (bass wood!), because it gives good tone, and because it is a bit lighter than other woods. This is helpful because the electronics package is pretty heavy.

The pre-amplifier and pickups are where these basses make the biggest impact on me. These can be very aggressive basses. They have an 18-volt pre-amp, and the pickups use neodymium magnets. With the 4-band equalizer, almost any tone can be dialed in. There are plenty of pickup choices, including single humbucker, double humbucker and a Humbucker/single coil combination. You can also throw in a piezo bridge as an option.

These basses are used by gods of the bass community, including Tony Levin, Cliff Hugo and Dave LaRue.

The bass we are looking at today is a very nice California-made 2007 MusicMan Bongo 4 HS Dargie Delight limited edition bass guitar. MusicMan only built 277 instruments with this finish, and this is one of only 5 Bongo 4 HS basses made in this color.

The craftsmanship is exactly what I expect for an instrument that comes from the folks in San Luis Obispo. It is first-rate. As a big plus, this one weighs in at around 8 ½ pounds.

The humbucker/single coil combination is my favorite on the Bongo. The single coil has a very precise tone, and it can be blended with the humbucker to get any kind of tone that I need.

It is a shame that these do not sell very well, because Bongos are some of the best basses around. I guess too many players are stuck in 1960, and cannot get past the whole Precision/Jazz bass mindset.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

MusicMan Month: Rosewood Axis Super Sport Guitar

Hi there! I have always looked at today’s guitar as homage to the rosewood Telecaster that Phillip Kubicki made for George Harrison in 1969.

The Ernie Ball MusicMan Axis Super Sport guitar was a limited edition, and I do not see them very often. They have a very striking appearance, and are a great playing guitar too.

The neck is pure art. It is made of a solid chunk of rosewood, with 22 high-profile frets. There is poly finish only on the headstock. The rest of the neck is coated in gunstock oil and wax, and is a smooth as silk. All models use Schaller locking tuners (with pearly buttons!), so string changes are a snap.

There is a transparent finish over the bookmatched rosewood top, and the rest of the body is ash. The body has a classy cream binding around the top. They are surprisingly light, and the ones I have played have been under 7 pounds.

Rosewood Super Sports were available with either a hardtail bridge that strings through the body, or a Floyd Rose locking tremolo.

The electronics are the same as other Axis models, with volume and tone controls, and a 5-way pickup selector. These control two DiMarzio humbucking pickups or MM90 soapbar pickups.

The list price on these was $2225 when they were new, but they can be had for under $1000 on the used market.

The one pictured here is a hardtail with Dimarzios, and is a real peach. As I said before the neck is the best part, and I feel it gives the guitar a darker tone. It plays as well as any Telecaster I have ever owned, and I have had some really nice ones.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

MusicMan Month: 20th Anniversary Stingray 5

The MusicMan Stingray 5 bass was introduced in 1987. It has to be one of the most popular 5-string basses out there, and it seems like every country band I have ever seen has a bassist that uses one.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of this model, in 2007 MusicMan issued a limited edition anniversary edition. Many consider these to be the finest 5-string basses that the company has ever produced. Only around 335 of these were built.

The 20th Anniversary SR5 was available with a single or double humbuckers, as well as a humbucker/single coil combination. All of the available pickups used alnico magnets. They were also available fretted or fretless, and with maple, rosewood or Pau Ferro (fretless only) fretboards.

Besides the pickup changes, the pre-amp was also voiced differently. And to round out the functional changes, these basses got a mahogany tone block, as well as a slightly different body contour and a five-bolt neck to improve upper fret access. These basses play very well, and have a much deeper sound than a regular Stingray 5.

Visually, these basses are real lookers. They received figured maple tops, and all almost all of them were finished in the translucent California Sunset finish

Of course, everything else on these basses, such as the hardware and craftsmanship, meets the high standards that MusicMan basses have had since Ernie Ball bought them out in the mid-1980s.

These basses came in a custom G&G hard case, complete with a 20th anniversary emblem inside. The list price was around $3000, so they were pretty spendy when they were new. Nowadays, you can find them for pretty reasonable prices on eBay.

This is one that I got from a friend on the Ernie Ball forums. It weighs in at around 10 pounds 5 ounces, and is a joy to play except for one small problem: I do not play 5-string basses. I may never learn this lesson.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

MusicMan Month: Albert Lee Guitar

Today we are looking at an Ernie Ball MusicMan Albert Lee guitar. Albert Lee is a true guitar hero who was born in Britain and relocated to the US, where he plays country, rhythm and blue and rock music. His signature model guitar was introduced in 1993.

The Albert Lee guitar is available in a few different configurations: hardtail or tremolo, and 3-single coil pickups or 3 soapbar pickups, as well as a piezo option.

The guitar we are looking at today is a hardtail with 3 single coil pickups. It was built in 1994 and is finished in the breathtaking Pinkburst finish.

The 10-inch radius neck is made of insanely-figured birdseye maple. You do not see this wood used very much anymore, as the prices have gone up as more auto manufacturers are using it. The neck is finished in gunstock oil, so it darkened a bit over time. Schaller non-locking tuners were used back then, they have since moved on to locking tuners. The fretwork on the medium frets meets MusicMan’s usual standards, which means that it is excellent.

The body is made of ash, and with the hardtail bridge it strings through the body. The factory equipped this one with 3 Seymour Duncan single coil pickups laid out Stratocaster style. The body cavity and the underside of the pickguard are well-shielded, and the wiring is very tidy.

This guitar is really comfortable to play, and to me the neck is the best part. Despite the strat-like appearance, to me this guitar plays more like a Telecaster, which is fine with me. I have always liked the tele necks more.

This one went to live with my buddy Rob in Australia, where these are a little harder to come by. He was tickled pink to get it.