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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.
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 factory floor:
- 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.”