John Petrucci, Albert Lee, and Steve Lukather signature models await final testing at the Ernie Ball Music Man factory in San Luis Obispo, California. Ernie Ball strings are made at the company’s facility in Coachella, California.

Inside Ernie Ball Music Man
Click here to see a factory tour photo gallery.
What comes to mind when you hear the names “Ernie Ball” and “Ernie Ball Music Man”? I asked a bunch of guitar players and here’s what I got: Slinkys, StingRays, four-and-two headstocks, Battle of the Band competitions, and “solid accessories.” They kept going: Silhouettes, Reflexes, “really well-made necks,” Steve Lukather, Albert Lee, John Petrucci, Steve Morse, and Eddie Van Halen. Putting the same question to people in the industry yielded many of the same answers, along with a few items that the greater public is becoming increasingly aware of: crazy costumes, the Ernie Ball Music Man family itself, and an attitude that is sometimes referred to as “maverick.” Looking back on where the company came from, it’s easy to see how these elements fit into the larger picture.

Wardrobe Function
Roll up to the Ernie Ball Music Man display at the annual Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, and there’s no telling what you’ll find. No, really—who you’ll find waiting to show you the company’s latest products is always a complete surprise. Last year, visitors were greeted by astronauts and cosmonauts. The year before, NAMM attendees ran into a slick-suited Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson’s character in the Miami Vice TV show) and a curly-haired, cape-wearing Ralph (akaThe Greatest American Hero). You see, Ernie Ball employees are known for donning theme-related costumes at the big industry trade show. (Keep an eye out for our on-the-floor video demos and product walkthroughs from NAMM on and you’ll see what we mean.)

In an industry where you’re just as likely to have a guy in a suit walk you through the design appointments of a piece of gear at NAMM (not that there’s anything wrong that), EBMM’s annual costume themes are a reminder to dealers, distributors, and journalists that musical instruments are indeed designed to bring pleasure to people’s lives. If you can’t have a little fun with the things you love, what’s the point? Their reps are dead serious when it comes to talking about product design decisions and quality-control tolerances, but the spirit of fun is inescapable. Company founder Sherwood Roland “Ernie” Ball—a talented musician who was known as quite the character until his passing in 2004 at the age of 74—started dressing up and showing off cool cars at his NAMM booth in the ’70s to bring a little levity to the show. And the tradition continues to this day, with planned out themes having been in place since the late ’90s.

Freshly painted guitar and bass bodies dry in a temperature-controlled room. Some models receive up
to 27 layers of base, color, and clear coats, which are then buffed by automation and by hand.

All in the Family
There is no one else quite like Sterling Ball, Ernie’s son and the current head of the company. He has ridiculous chops on both guitar and bass. He tenaciously pursues great tone, while simultaneously being amused at the concept of desiring something so nebulous and subjective. He is a tinkerer. He likes to question why things are done a certain way and whether the process can be improved. He loves a good, raunchy joke. His life has also intersected with much of the history of the electric guitar.

Ernie Ball beta-tested instruments for Leo Fender in the early ’50s. This is Ernie Ball’s official Fender endorsee photo. Photo courtesy of Ernie Ball Music Man

This mid-’70s NAMM photo shows some familiar faces at the Music Man NAMM booth (left to right): Ron Taylor, Leo Fender, Sterling Ball, George Fullerton, unknown, and Jody Carver.
Sterling was surrounded by gear from the day he was born. Father Ernie sought out a guy named Leo Fender to learn everything he could about the steel guitars and the newfangled electric guitars he was making. He also beta-tested Leo’s instruments and became an endorsee.

Sterling, now 55, was putzing around Leo’s workshop at the age of 4, and he really knew his way around that workshop by the time he finished high school. By then, his father had made a run at teaching music lessons for a living and had opened what many believe to be the country’s first electric guitar music store. Shortly afterwards, Ernie pioneered custom-gauge strings as the world of rock ’n’ roll guitar accessories was taking shape.

Sterling’s childhood involved packaging strings and helping musicians find what they were looking for in the family store. Before long, he was going to NAMM shows, gigging around Los Angeles, representing Ernie Ball on the road, managing sales, and beta-testing Leo Fender’s new StingRay bass for the Music Man company—which Ernie bought in 1984. A few months later, a fellow named Dudley Gimpel would land at Music Man after sending over a 6-stringed resume—a Tele-style guitar that showcased his abilities as a luthier. Sterling and Gimpel have been working together ever since.