Ernie Ball Music Man Kaizen Review
An evolutionary guitar, built in cooperation with a revolutionary player.
An almost perfectly executed modern instrument. Super smooth playability. Versatile pickups.
Ernie Ball Music Man Kaizen
Ernie Ball Music Man’s instruments have a way of attracting virtuosos. Annie Clark, John Petrucci, Steve Morse, and even Eddie Van Halen lent their names to models that became instrumental in their creative process, and big parts of their musical and visual identity, too. Over the course of the pandemic, fellow virtuoso Tosin Abasi had time to try a few EBMM guitars, including a Goldie (St. Vincent signature model) and Valentine (James Valentine signature model). He came away impressed.
While Abasi has his own line of boutique guitars called Abasi Concepts, he knows resources from a big, established company can bring a lot of cool ideas to life. Abasi also likes the company’s bold embrace of unusual body shapes. Abasi and EBMM started talking, and, by NAMM 2022, Abasi and EBMM’s collaboration, the Kaizen, was real. The Kaizen is a unique 7-string with a load of evolutionary player-oriented features and a high but justifiable price tag. A 6-string version is in the works for those that prefer a more traditional instrument. But little about the Kaizen, in any form, feels traditional.
The Kaizen’s very 21st century profile is a progressive move in design terms. This ain’t your uncle’s Tele. Our test model is finished in Apollo black, decked out in all black hardware, and looks quite like something out of The Matrix. As wild as it looks, the guitar’s body shape is just the first in a long list of modern elements.
The Kaizen’s roasted flame maple neck is a marvel. It has a multi-scale setup—25.65" on the high E string to 25.5" on the low B string. On the bottom side, the longer scale length gives you a tighter feel and better tuning stability (even if you drop the low B further in pitch), and on the top end, the shorter scale length gives you a slinky feel for shredding and bending. The Kaizen’s ebony fretboard is fitted with 24 medium-jumbo stainless-steel frets in a fanned configuration.
Eschewing conventional tuners, the Kaizen features Steinberger gearless locking tuners (similar to those on the discontinued Steinberger GS) with a 40:1 ratio that facilitate smooth, super-accurate tuning. Aesthetically, it’s very hip and the low profile of the tuners add to the guitar’s almost aerodynamic appearance.
Optimized for Speed
Ernie Ball Music Man makes some of the best production guitars around. And I’ve seen quality in EBMM instruments that rivals many custom builds. The Kaizen is no exception, and it arrived perfectly set up in its fitted G&G hardshell case.
“Contours are everywhere (even the back plate is shaped), and the guitar is almost entirely without flat surfaces.”
Tosin Abasi’s virtuosic style of music will challenge any guitarist, no matter how technically adept. Executing almost any of Abasi’s ideas puts playability at a premium, and the Kaizen is really built to feel like a natural, seamless extension of the player. The body is ultra-ergonomic. Contours are everywhere (even the back plate is shaped), and the guitar is almost entirely without flat surfaces. The neck’s thin profile and satin finish makes it feel extra fast, and the sculpted heel makes for unobstructed access all the way up to the 24th fret. The fretboard is slightly thicker on the treble side than the bass side, and its “infinity” radius enables you to see the entire fretboard with ease.
Kaizen’s vibrato system is excellent, too. The whammy bar is set from the factory to only go down in pitch. Using it vigorously, I was impressed that the guitar stayed perfectly in tune, even without a double-locking nut system. The guitar has a compensated nut, and the strings go straight through the tuners without a break angle, which improves tuning stability.
Modern Meaty Sounds
The Kaizen’s pickup configuration consists of a heat-treated Ernie Ball Music Man bridge pickup and a mini humbucker in the neck. While high gain is part of the mission, the pickups are also clear and present. And though they are passive, they sound awake and powerful, like active pickups do. The 3-way pickup selector switch offers bridge humbucker, bridge and the neck’s outer coil combined, and both coils from the mini humbucker in the neck.
In high-gain situations (I used a Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb combo, Mark IV head, Bogner Ecstasy Mini Red, and Line 6 M9 Stompbox Modeler as amp and pedal pairings), the bridge pickup offers abundant sustain. Notes blossom into feedback beautifully and djent-style rhythmic figures cut through with razor-sharp accuracy.
“This ain’t your uncle’s Tele.”
The combined pickup setting is excellent for clean, percussive, slap-and-pop figures, like those that R&B bass players use, as well as the thumping moves you hear from Abasi. In this setting, pick attack feels immediate, and the guitar really cuts, even at lower volumes. It’s also an ideal setup for funk-type rhythm figures. The middle pickup setting is articulate in dirty settings, too, and fast, alternate-picking licks pop like a machine gun.
The neck mini humbucker, meanwhile, is versatile and responsive. It delivers creamy classic blues sounds in dirty amp and pedal settings, especially when you roll guitar tone and volume back a touch. Open up the guitar’s tone and volume and the Kaizen is a heavy rock monster. As big and explosive and Kaizen can sound, in cleaner settings it’s very rich. The guitar’s pots also give you room to shape a great range of cleaner tones. With the tone knob almost all the way off, it still sounded clear through the mellowness, and there was almost none of the blanket-over-speaker, mushy tonality you hear from most guitars when the tone control is down. Pretty impressive.
The Kaizen is an exquisite instrument. There is little question about the music the guitar is intended for. It’s a shred machine, first and foremost, made for modern, heavy styles. But it’s easy to imagine how it would excel in other contexts because of the wide variety of sounds available. It would make a very interesting progressive jazz instrument for sure.
While the roughly $4k price tag will be a barrier for many, it’s not obscene for what you get. If you’re a forward-thinking guitarist, particularly one that feels like you’ve squeezed all the tricks you can from your old instrument, the Kaizen has the potential to unlock a lot of new ones.
Ernie Ball Music Man Kaizen Demo | First Look
Ernie Ball Music Man Kaizen 7 Solidbody Electric Guitar - Apollo Black
Obsessive Progressive: Open-String Chords
Add ethereal layers to your chord progressions by inserting a few carefully selected open strings.
• Create introspective and dark phrases that include open strings.
• Imply extended harmonies by moving basic shapes up the neck.
• Learn how to cop some of Tosin Abasi's 8-string mojo. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
One of the more exciting aspects of fretboard geometry is that it's possible to include wide intervallic leaps in licks and chords by using open strings. Open-string chords are extremely common in the progressive realm, as it makes it easier to add color to ordinary chords. You'll hear this regularly in the guitar playing of everyone from Alex Lifeson and John Petrucci to Misha Mansoor and Tosin Abasi.
If you're working in standard tuning, you have the notes E, A, D, G, and B that can be added to chord voicings. For example, play an A major triad at the 2nd fret on strings 3–1 (A–C#–E). Now replace the C# with the open 2nd string (B). Whoa—you've just created a jangly Asus2 (A–B–E), which sounds much more intriguing than a plain ol' A chord.
One of the quickest ways to get these chords under your belt is to take a simple chord voicing like an open E and move it up and down the neck while letting the top two strings (B and E, respectively) ring out. In Ex. 1,I take a simple grip on the lowest four strings and move it up and down the neck to create some interesting—and otherwise unplayable—sounds. Now, these chords aren't diatonic since they come from many different keys, but the open strings help to tie the progression together.
Click here for Ex. 1
We explore a similar principle in Ex. 2, starting with a B5 chord. We're still keeping the top two open strings while moving the bass note around. This example works so well because it's not just the open strings tying the chords together, but also the F# and B on the 4th and 3rd strings, respectively. The tension takes on a new flavor with the F#11 chord when the 3rd-string B shifts down a half-step to A#, the 3 of the chord. But we still have that open ringing B on the 2nd string, which yields a tangy minor second interval against the A#.
Click here for Ex. 2
Ex. 3 exploits a classic chord movement that takes an open C major shape and slides it up the neck two frets to create a Dadd11 chord. This is pleasing because the fretted notes change while the open notes remain static, resulting in sounds that are more complex than a regular D chord. The second two measures take fretted notes on the 4th, 3rd, and 1st strings and keeps the 2nd string open. Against an E bass note, these voicings create some colorful E minor flavors.
Click here for Ex. 3
We move over to the djent side of things with Ex. 4. This one takes influence from Periphery's Mark Holcomb. (If you're into this style, be sure to check out my Periphery lesson.) Here, we're using a series of chords with multiple open strings. I find chords like this easier to approach when I focus on the fretted notes and consider the open strings just a bit of harmonious “noise." Which, in technical prog music, isn't a bad thing at all.
Let's break down these voicings a bit. In the first measure we have a Dm11, which is simply a D minor dyad with the open 3rd and 1st strings (G and E) acting as the 11 and 9, respectively. Our next chord is basically a vanilla C major triad on strings 5–4–3, but with a pair of E notes ringing on the top strings. The Am11 voicing adds a nice cluster on top of an open 5th string. The final two chords are essentially the same voicing, just slid up the neck. Once we shift up to the 8th fret, the function of the open 4th and 1st strings shift from a 3 and #11 to a 13 and a 7. It's essential to have your guitar properly intonated to make sure the chords ring true.
Click here for Ex. 4
The basic chord progression for Ex. 5 comes from a layered section in my tune, “Fly Away." I wanted to create a nice texture over a chord progression while using open strings.
Click here for Ex. 5
The second guitar part from this piece is shown in Ex. 6. Located roughly at the 6th position, the passage maintains the pattern on the top three strings while moving the bass line around on the 4th string. Presenting these two parts as though they're one creates a rich harmonic backdrop to solo over.
Click here for Ex. 6
Ex. 7 expands on this idea and gives you a serious picking workout: Here we're playing a series of chords on strings 4–3–2 while leaving the open 1st string to ring out. As with previous examples, this common tone (or pedal) helps to connect chords that otherwise wouldn't work together.
Click here for Ex. 7
Our final riff, Ex. 8, is inspired by Animals as Leaders' Tosin Abasi. (Although, yes—we are two strings short of his 8-string electric.) There are some big chords that are based around E Lydian (E–F#–G#–A#–B–C#–D#) and use the 6th and 2nd strings for color. In essence, the chords played are essentially maj13 shapes with an open 2nd string, but because of the huge range, they sound extremely fresh. Tosin is a master of wide-range voicings, so it's well worth checking him out further for more exciting ideas.
Click here for Ex. 8
Obviously, we're merely scratching the surface of the possibilities here, and really the best thing to do is go out and learn as many prog songs as possible. When you find chords like these that appeal to you, make a note of them and then try weaving them into your own riffs and ideas.
Good luck, and I'll see you next month!