On a recent guided tour of the factory,
Sterling Ball made a point of emphasizing the
company’s guiding principles. “We’re passion
driven,” he said. “We respect the niche.” The
mantras kept coming as we snaked backwards
through the building, beginning with finished
guitars and ending with solid blocks of wood.
“It’s the details, baby. The devil’s in the details,”
Sterling beamed at a setup bench where he had
just played a funky song that allowed him to test
every single fret on a sparkle-blue StingRay. “The
difference between a good guitar and a great guitar?
About 100 details—we hope we know what
they are after almost 30 years.”
Despite selling guitars in 86 countries, Ernie
Ball Music Man still operates much like a small
factory: It doesn’t create inventory at will—a customer
or a dealer has ordered every instrument
in progress at the shop. Even so, the company is
successful enough that Sterling has to spend a lot of
time with “damn accountants and attorneys” at this
stage of the game. That explains why, when he’s on
the factory floor, he races around like an inside dog
who has just been turned loose in the backyard.
He’s been tweaking his guitar-making operation for
nearly 30 years and is excited to show anyone and
everyone what makes his guitars different.
These Reflexes in progress show the basswood body’s routed chamber pattern before the guitar’s
mahogany tone block and maple top are assembled.
“Success is being able to identify where the
handwork and the machine work are necessary,”
he pointed out as he stood between “Ursula,” a
buffing robot, and an employee with 26 years of
experience who was handbuffing the curves and
tight spots that Ursula can’t buff as well. “That
gives you a guitar with a little bit of soul.”
One of the secrets of Ernie Ball Music Man’s
famously comfortable necks is a process that
involves warping them on purpose after the fretboard
has been glued on. They crank the truss rod
to intentionally create a back bow of 7–8 thousandths
of an inch. Attached to a swinging hinge
over a belt sander, the back bow is then sanded
off the fretboard according to the desired radius,
and then the truss-rod tension is released. The
process may have its naysayers, but for a company
known for its necks, it certainly helps the company
distinguish itself. Other neck innovations worth
mentioning include the gun-stock-oil-and-wax
treatment that started with the Van Halen guitars
and is now standard on most EBMM models, and
their new “roasted” neck treatment that turns maple
an alluring shade of brown—like a well-done chocolate-
chip cookie. The latter process has a stunning
effects on bird’s-eye maple and other figured woods.
Some other atypical things you’ll notice on the
The binding process. Instead of gluing and
wrapping plastic binding, they pour it in liquid
form into mold-supported body routes
to custom fit each guitar.
Frets. Plek machines are not used. Fret jobs
take about 45 minutes, because the frets are
cut so that there is a gap on each side of the
neck rather than extra fret wire that has to
be clipped. That gap is filled by hand with
lacquer and a soldering machine.
Respect the body! Temporary handles are
fastened to neck joints before the necks are
put on, and then they are secured to vices at
each sub-assembly bench so that the body
remains in a hovering position when the
electronics are installed. This prevents the
bodies from getting ganked and scratched by
screws, tools, or other debris on the benches.
Wood treatment. Despite buying already-dried
and treated wood, EBMM uses real
heat from kilns (that is, not ultraviolet light)
to draw more water out of their wood. It
takes four days to cure a guitar body.
Striped chambers. Reflex guitars are chambered
by routing parallel grooves into the bodies.
Guitar and bass bodies wait in line for their time with Ursula. Note the oval-shaped tags in the electronics cavities. These tags use radio waves to help
Ursula identify which buffi ng patterns are needed for each body.
Another big difference between Ernie Ball Music
Man and other companies is their approach to artists.
As Brooks put it, they aren’t focused on converting
up-and-coming players by the masses. Rather,
they prefer to let the instruments win true fans of the
brand. A point of pride for the company is the fact
that their artists often show up empty-handed to in-store
events. “When Steve Lukather is in a store that
sells our gear, he knows that every guitar on the wall
is set up to his high standards,” Brooks said.
As for the previously mentioned “maverick”
description, Sterling embraces it. This is evidenced
in the shock he expresses over people buying guitars
that need to be set up after they’re purchased. He
also shows a bit of frustration over the fact that
musicians can be slow to accept new innovations.
“I think it’d be nice if the guitar and the bass could
move forward a little bit,” he says. “There’s a lot of
technology out there that could be applied. The
challenge is to come up with better ways of making
new, more flexible instruments that are intuitive.”