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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.