Just as you can’t discuss the strings made at
the Ernie Ball facility in Coachella, California,
without mentioning Ernie Ball himself, you
cannot discuss the Ernie Ball Music Man instruments
made in San Luis Obispo, California,
without noting Gimpel’s hands-on design role
in the company. Take a tour through the company’s
vault of historic prototypes and production
models, and Gimpel can tell you about
every spec and nuance you could possibly ask
about—right down to exact dates and thousandths
of a millimeter—because he is the guy
who handmade, oversaw the production of, or
dissected everything in there at some point. He
can explain the pickup pole piece positioning
of “Old Smoothie”—the first StingRay that Leo
made in 1976—and why prototype #19 of Eddie
Van Halen’s signature guitar has a Schaller Floyd
Rose tremolo on it. If there is anything that can
be explained about Ernie Ball Music Man gear,
Gimpel can explain it.
Ernie Ball Music Man began offering “roasted” maple necks as a Ball Family Reserve option in August 2010. The company says that, in addition to drawing
out the character of figured maple, the roasting process makes necks stronger and more resonant by changing the wood’s microstructure.
The family element of Music Man is pervasive.
While Gimpel is an example of how the
EBMM “family” isn’t necessary all blood-related,
some other people in key positions are indeed
bound by DNA. A third generation of Ball family
members in the business includes Sterling’s
sons Brian, 30, and Scotty, 32, who both wear a
number of hats but are officially involved with
marketing and sales, respectively. According to
Derek Brooks, who also wears many hats but is
heavily involved with artist relations, Brian and
Scotty are responsible for everything from new
products to new versions of products to new
ideas that are setting the tone for the future.
The EBMM family of products is as diverse
as any real family, too—with Ball Family Reserve
guitars representing the top of the heap and the
Sterling by Music Man line offering more affordable
versions of Ernie Ball Music Man instruments
that are still set up and inspected in the US.
The first electronic test is conducted on a Reflex Bass after pickup installation. Note the temporary
handle attached to the neck joint. This allows the bass body to float above the workbench during
sub-assembly, eliminating the possibility of scratching from loose accessories, tools and debris.
While Ernie Ball Music Man’s connection to Leo
Fender is significant and continues to serve an
inspirational role in a number of ways, it doesn’t
define the company. In a fairly crowded industry
that often doesn’t seem to change much—the
basic guitar shapes, electronics, and sounds that
sell the most units haven’t changed that much in
50 years—EBMM has carved a niche somewhere
between the extremes of tradition and innovation.
For example, the company is proud to be known
for the StingRay, but enjoys pushing the envelope
with instruments like the Bongo bass. Introduced
in 2003, the Bongo comes in single-humbucker,
dual-humbucker, or humbucker-and-single-coil
configurations (and with optional neodymium-magnet
pickups and/or a piezo-equipped bridge),
and an 18-volt, 4-band (two-pickup models) or
3-band active EQ. On the guitar side, some fairly
traditional EBMM axes have won favor with
many players worldwide, but folks at the company
are excited about the early-2011 release of a
new guitar they say is quite innovative.
As for how
these guitars and basses are made,
the 50 to 100 instruments that come out of the
San Luis Obispo factory every day show the precision
and consistency of CNC machines, as well
as the careful attention and nuanced handwork
of dozens of people who rely on old-fashioned
tools and elbow grease to make each guitar and
bass pass muster with working musicians.
Scotty Ball shows off a new gold-sparkle StingRay that will be unveiled at NAMM 2011.