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Ernie Ball Music Man 25th Anniversary Guitar Review

Ernie Ball celebrates the 25th anniversary of acquiring Music Man with an ultra-playable, articulate solidbody.

Looking back upon things, 1984 was a pivotal year in some respects: mullets and spandex reached the pinnacle of fashion for the MTV set, and Eddie Van Halen was playing killer licks from VH’s new hit album 1984—on a synthesizer! For the Ball family, 1984 was a keystone year, as Ernie Ball, Inc. acquired the Music Man trademarks. The company tells us that it was actually Ernie’s son, Sterling, who conceived the idea to buy Music Man from his godfather, former Fender Instrument veteran and Ball business associate Tom Walker. Working with Scotty and Brian Ball, and newly hired luthier Dudley Gimpel, they took the reins as the next generation design team, creating a series of well-regarded guitars and basses from their San Luis Obispo, CA, headquarters. Testimony to their success is a substantial roster of professional endorsees and associated signature models that includes Steve Morse, Albert Lee,Steve Lukather, John Petrucci, and (at one time) Eddie Van Halen. These well-regarded guitar designs have culminated in the 25th Anniversary model guitar, which turned a lot of heads at NAMM 2009 in Anaheim, picking up a “Best in Show” award.

Right out of the case, the 25th Anniversary model is a stunning guitar, with its quilted maple top (flame maple top is standard) and matching quilted headstock finished in a high-gloss polyester Venetian Redburst finish. The body shape resembles that of the Tele-esque Music Man Axis model with some significant differences. The body is slightly larger than the Axis and has a proprietary mahogany center tone block surrounded by a chambered basswood body that features individual oblong oval cutouts—instead of large hollow chambers typically used on chambered guitars. This unique design provides weight relief and added resonance to the instrument. The body is top bound with a strip of flawlessly applied single-ply cream binding and features both a top arm contour and “tummy cut” on the back of the guitar, which is finished in black high-gloss polyester. The guitar has an attractive maple neck with ample birdseye figuring, which is finished with the ever-so-comfortable gunstock oil, handrubbed special wax blend. The neck carve is borrowed from the Silhouette Special model, which is best described as a slightly offset medium C carve. The neck is topped off with a 12" radius fingerboard—a generous cut of beautiful, dark brown rosewood (maple also available) that contrasts nicely with the 22 polished, high-profile, wide nickel frets and mother of pearl dot fret markers. The matching finished headstock features the classic Music Man compact (only 5-7/8" long) 4+2 tuner design, with the added touch of a high-gloss clear finish applied to the back. The truss rod can be easily adjusted at the base of the neck without the need for string removal.

Appointments Aplenty
The appointments and hardware selection for the Anniversary model represent that of an experienced design team. The guitar is voiced with a pair of chrome-covered DiMarzio pickups and feature Alnico V magnets. The proprietary pickups are wired in a clever fashion to a 5-way switch and chrome 2-way series/parallel toggle that together offer a total of 10 distinct sounds: Pos. 5 (Neck Humbucker), Pos. 4 (Inside coils both pickups), Pos. 3 (Both pickups full humbucking), Pos. 2 (Outside coils both pickups), and Pos. 1 (Bridge Humbucker). All positions can be voiced in series or parallel. Equally clever is the design of the 3-point leveling black plastic pickup mounts that allow you to adjust the pickups parallel to the strings. Given the tonal variations available, it would be interesting to add the option of blending various dual pickup combinations with another volume knob. The guitar features well-placed chrome “dome” style volume and tone knobs wired to a 500k pot and .022μF tone capacitor.

The vintage-style, chrome Music Man, bent-saddle tremolo bridge (fixed bridge available) is a two-post variety that is set flush to the body with a protective strip attached under the bridge. This was a smart design decision, as this guitar’s tremolo will see heavy use, given its silky feel and its admirable ability to stay in tune. The chrome strap buttons feature white plastic bushings that match nicely with the chrome input jack. The neck is firmly attached to the body at the 17th fret with the use of a 5-bolt sculpted neck joint with chrome neck plate and provides easy access to the upper frets. The 1-5/8" white melamine nut is finely cut with what appears to be the appropriate tuning offsets with its edges smoothly honed. The pearl-button, locking Schaller M6-IND locking tuners are well seated and add to the guitar’s classy appearance. The control cavity is tidy and coated with a graphite acrylic resin with black aluminum control cover.

Playability Defined
The efforts of the EBMM design team are also apparent in the playability and tone of the 25th Anniversary model. The guitar is lightweight, resonant and balanced in both standing and sitting positions. The neck is very comfortable due to its carve and finish; that along with the excellent fretwork makes this guitar play very “fast.” The selection of tonewoods provides the basis for the guitar’s full tone with a tight low end. The midrange emphasis from the mahogany center block is augmented by the fatness and balanced tonal response that basswood typically provides, and blends well with the snap and clarity on the high end that a maple top can provide. The bolt-on 25.5" scale maple neck adds to the guitar’s articulation and, unlike other chambered guitars, the chambered body does not soften the attack but rather adds to its resonance.

Plugged in, you immediately get the sense of the capabilities of this instrument. Using a vintage blackface Fender Bandmaster driving a 2x10 Music Man cab, the guitar responds with authority: tight, full lows, strong lower mids with just the right amount of snap and high-end definition. The bridge pickup exhibits a strong fundamental tone across the entire frequency range, with a slightly compressed voice that responds very well to pick attack. The neck pickup is bloomy yet articulate, with just a hint of overtones. The dual pickup combinations offered some interesting differentiation, with Fender-esque quack tones to be found in positions 2 and 4 and wonderful, full, clean dual-humbucking tone in position 3. The series/parallel voicing offered a wider differentiation in tonal response. The parallel setting produced a softer tone with additional high-end response at a slightly lower output than the series setting. The substantial sustain and articulation of this guitar was merely enhanced when put through the paces with a Carr Mercury at full tilt. Chords sound huge yet controlled in all positions, with single notes sounding full and clear. Even in high-gain settings, the guitar’s articulation was very impressive.

The Final Mojo
The 25th Anniversary Model is a well-designed instrument that succeeds in joining outstanding playability with an articulate, sustain laden voice in a single offering. Happy Anniversary to the folks at Ernie Ball/Music Man and we look forward to seeing what the next 25 years bring from the team.

Buy if...
You're a Music Man collector or seeking a dual-humbucking guitar that could possibly define playability.
Skip if...
You're on a budget (perfection comes at a price) or seeking true single-coil tones with your humbucking rig.

MSRP $3600 - Ernie Ball/Music Man -