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Sterling by Music Man AX40 Electric Guitar Review

Sterling by Music Man AX40 Electric Guitar Review

Sterling by Music Man''s AX40 offers Ernie Ball/Music Man quality at an import price tag.

Download Example 1
Blues (neck position)
Download Example 2
Clean (middle position)
Download Example 3
Rock (bridge position)
Clips recorded with a Lava Cable through TomasZewicz 35112 Amp. Guitar volume at 10, recorded with Sony PCM-D50.
Welcome to the Family
Over the years Music Man, a company run by the Ball family for three generations, has earned a solid reputation for producing finely crafted American-made guitar and basses for the $1000+ instrument market. In an effort to bring its highly regarded instrument designs to the sub-$1000 guitar market, the company decided to extend the family business overseas by teaming up with Praxis Musical Instruments to create the Sterling by Music Man guitar and bass line. With the support of Sterling Ball and Music Man master luthier Dudley Gimpel, Music Man supplied Praxis with sample American-made models, CAD drawings and the support from Music Man’s design team to create each Sterling line model, which currently includes four guitar and three basses. Each model features Music Man-designed components fabricated in Korea with assembly taking place in Indonesia. Upon completion, every instrument is inspected and setup at a Praxis facility in Orange, CA to Music Man’s exacting specifications. The result is a welcomed value proposition in today’s environment, as the sample Sterling instruments sent to PG were well-executed versions of their American counterparts.

The model chosen for review, the AX40 is an instantly familiar single-cutaway design based upon the Music Man Axis model. Its rock ‘n’ roll look is captured with a two-piece bookmatched quilted maple veneer top and matching painted headstock, both finished in a Transparent Gold polyester. The quality of the quilt grain on the top may make you think it’s of the “foto flame” variety, but it is indeed a wood veneer top. The body is top-bound with a strip of single-ply cream binding (just a touch of “bleed” evident) and features a tummy cut on the back of the guitar, which is finished in dark black polyester. The guitar has an untinted maple neck, which is finished in a satin polyester (not the gunstock oil, hand-rubbed special wax blend found on its American counterpart) and features the comfortable Music Man asymmetrical neck carve that has an offset medium “C” profile. The neck is topped off with a 16″ radius fingerboard to accommodate the profile of the Floyd Rose style tremolo and features 22 polished, medium-jumbo nickel frets and black micro dot fret markers. The headstock features the classic Music Man compact 4+2 tuner design, with the added touch of a highgloss clear finish applied to the back. The “spoke wheel” at the base of the neck makes truss rod adjustments easy, without the need for string removal.

It appears Praxis did an excellent job overseeing the fabrication of the Music Man-designed hardware for the AX40 model. The guitar is voiced with a pair of Music Man-designed Zebra humbucking pickups that feature Alnico V magnets. The pickups are wired to a 3-way selector switch and single Volume knob like its American counterpart: bridge humbucker, both pickups full humbucking/ parallel, and neck humbucker. I found that the pickup selector was not as tightly seated as I would’ve liked, but it functioned properly. The pickups are mounted directly to the body, which improves the sustain of the instrument through the more efficient transfer of wood vibration through the pickups. The guitar features a well-placed cream Strat-style Volume knob neatly wired to a 500K pot.

The chrome Sterling, Floyd-style double locking tremolo bridge is a two-post variety that is set flush to the body and provides for downward tremolo bending. Some may take exception to the bridge not being recessed routed or set to float. Others, like myself, prefer this design decision, as this type of setup assists with tuning stability (especially when you break a string) and improves the transfer of string vibration through the wood and pickups. The tremolo setup is well executed, and with the help of the well-seated 1-5/8"- wide locking nut and string guide, it stays in tune after heavy use. The chrome strap buttons feature black felt bushings, which is a classy touch, along with the square 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 offers easy access to the upper frets. The Sterling pearl-plastic button chrome tuners add to the guitar’s snazzy appearance.

The guitar not only shares the styling of its American counterpart, but it also shares its playability and tonal characteristics. The guitar has a medium weight, is highly resonant, and has a loud, punchy voice when strummed acoustically. The design traces its roots back to Eddie Van Halen’s Music Man guitar, so it comes as no surprise that this guitar is at home driving the front end of a high-gain amplifier. The neck is very comfortable due to its carve, rolled fingerboard edges and satin finish—that along with the excellent fretwork makes this guitar play quite easily. The selection of tonewoods also provides the basis for the guitar’s tone, which has a strong upper-mid emphasis with a tight low end. The midrange emphasis from maple neck augmented by the fatness and balanced tonal response that basswood typically provides helps give this guitar its rock ‘n’ roll voice. Though the top is merely a veneer, I noticed that the guitar’s voice did possess a certain degree of snap and presence that a maple top often provides. The bolt-on 25.5"″ scale maple neck certainly added to the guitar’s liveliness and overall vibe.

Plugging In
Plugged into a TomasZewicZ TZZ-35112, an EL34-driven 35W combo, the guitar’s rock ‘n’ roll roots become immediately apparent. The pickups lean to the hotter side of classic humbucker offerings and are effective at driving the front end of the amplifier. The bridge pickup is punchy, with a touch of harmonic overtones, and it exhibits an emphasis on the upper mids. I did find at times at higher gain levels that the bridge pickup could lose a degree of articulation, but given its price point it was at an acceptable level. You could get lost for hours shredding away with your favorite axe-wielders of yesteryear. The neck pickup is bloomy yet articulate when used in conjunction with the well-tapered Volume knob. It too seemed to lose some definition and clarity at higher gain settings. The dual pickup combination was a pleasant surprise, as it offered up pleasing Fender-esque quack and chime without the humbuckers being split. Perhaps this is due to parallel wiring of the dual humbucker combination, but I really liked playing this pickup combination clean with a touch of chorus—hey, the ‘80s are hard to leave behind. The substantial sustain and punchiness of this guitar was merely enhanced when put through the dimed drive channel of a modded Marshall JTM 30. As Mr. Van Halen said, “volume equals tone,” and I found manipulating the single Volume knob provided a great deal tonal versatility with this guitar—a very impressive feat for a guitar at any price point, let alone for one that has a street price like this one.

The Final Mojo
The folks at Music Man and Praxis have done an exemplary job recreating faithful reproductions of the classic Music Man designs at an appealing price point. I encourage beginners and pros alike to check out the Sterling line and to welcome them into the Music Man family.
Buy if...
you’re seeking classic Music Man styling at a great price.
Skip if...
“Made in the USA” is the only way to go

Street $549 (heavy-duty gig bag included)
Sterling by Music Man/Praxis Musical Instruments -