Music Man (company)

Music Man (company)
Music Man Stingray in Trans Gold finish, 2001 model

Music Man is an American guitar, and bass guitar manufacturer. It is a division of the Ernie Ball corporation.


Early years

The Music Man story began in 1971 when Forrest White and Tom Walker talked with Leo Fender about starting a company they would call Tri-Sonic, Inc. White had worked with Leo in the very early days of Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company as the plant manager and stayed on after the company was sold to the CBS Corporation, but had grown unhappy with their management. Tom Walker worked as a sales rep at Fender. Because of a 10-year non-compete clause in the 1965 contract that sold the Fender companies to CBS, Leo Fender was a silent partner.

The name of this partnership was changed to Musitek, Inc. by 1973 and in January 1974 the final name, Music Man, appeared. In 1974, the company started producing its first product, an amplifer designed by Leo Fender and Tom Walker called the "Sixty Five". It was a hybrid of tube and solid state technology. The preamps used the then burgeoning solid state "op-amp" integrated circuits embodying traditional Fender preamp time constants and architecture, while the power amps typically featured a Cathode Driven Tube power amp stage, much as were used in the radio broadcast industry in AM Transmitters. There were a few models with a tube phase splitter in them, but for the most part Music Man amplifiers used the faster responding common Grid, Cathode Coupled drive from a solid state front end that players characterized as "loud as hell". The number of designs rapidly increased. 15 of the 28 pages from 1976 catalogue were dedicated to amplification. In 1975, Fender's legal restriction had expired and after a vote of the board he was named the president of Music Man.

This wasn't Fender's sole enterprise however. He also owned and ran a consulting firm called CLF Research (Clarence Leo Fender) in Fullerton, California. By 1976, it had built a manufacturing facility for musical instruments and was contracted to make Music Man products. In June 1976, production started on guitars and in August basses followed. The 1976 catalogue shows the first offerings; A two pickup guitar called the "StingRay 1" and the StingRay Bass. Both instruments featured bolt on neck designs; the basses featured a distinctive 3+1 tuner arrangement that should help eliminate "dead spots" while the guitars came with a traditional, Fender-style 6-on-a-side tuner array. The StingRay Bass featured a single large humbucking pickup (located somewhat toward but not adjacent to the bridge) with a two-band fixed-frequency EQ. A row of string mutes sat on the bridge. Basses were produced in fretted and fretless versions.

These instruments were designed by Leo Fender and Forrest White. Sterling Ball assisted in the design of the bass. Tom Walker played a large part in the design of the bass preamp. They were the first production guitar and basses to use active electronics which could boost frequencies, whereas traditional electronics could only reduce frequencies. The preamps were coated with epoxy to prevent reverse engineering. The StingRay Bass sold well. While highly innovative electronically, the guitar was not blessed cosmetically and met with little success. Part of the reason for the poor sales of the guitar was that the preamp actually made the sound "too clean" for most Rock and Roll guitarists, who preferred the slightly distorted sound offered by passive electronics.

In December 1978, a two pickup bass was introduced called the Sabre(discontinued in 1991). A redesigned guitar bearing the same name followed. Both sold poorly.

CLF Research and Music Man were treated as separate companies, headed by Leo Fender and Tommy Walker, respectively. Fender made the guitars and basses, while Walker's company made the amplifiers and sold accessories. The instruments were made at CLF, and shipped to Music Man's warehouse, where each instrument was inspected and tested. Problems with fibers in the finish caused Music Man's inspectors to reject a high percentage of the instruments, and return them to CLF for refinishing. Since Music Man didn't pay CLF Research until the instrument finishes were deemed acceptable, a rift developed between CLF and Music Man over payment.

Low sales stressed the staff. The company's internal conflicts caused Leo Fender to form another partnership. Paul Bechtoldt author of "G&L: Leo's Legacy" describes the situation:

Leo had decided to market guitars under another name besides Music Man in 10/79 due to tension between CLF and Music Man. Production of bodies and necks for both Music Man and G&L were concurrent up to and including March 1981. G&L was incorporated May 1980, although some early models with the moniker "G&L" have body dates from March 1980.[1]

Other incidents point to a later date for CLF's exit. Sterling Ball, Music Man's current owner, describes the circumstances and confusion regarding this era on the Ernie Ball website forum:

"Here is the problem...most of these guys are dead so trying to correct the record becomes more and more difficult. Tommy, Leo, Forrest and quite a few more are no longer with us. I can tell you that Leo was very disappointed that his stingray and sabre guitars didn't sell and that was the basis for G&L. G&L (GEORGE AND LEO) was started at CLF behind Music Man's back and coincidence or other CLF made 2,500 Music man bass necks with straight truss rods. Tommy was forced to go to a young upstart Grover Jackson to make the basses. Grover was the one who introduced the trans finishes. I often asked Tommy why he didn't sue over the suspect necks and he replied "My daddy didn't raise me like that".[2]

Still another account varies. In an interview conducted by Gav Townsing, George Fullerton offers this scenario,

"At the end of 1979 we stopped building for Musicman and never made another item for them. We really weren’t friends at that point and not even talking."[3]

It has been said that Music Man attempted to force Leo Fender into selling the CLF factory, and when he refused ~ Music Man began cutting orders trying to drive Leo into financial despair. In November 1979, Leo had enough of Music Man's pressure and the ties were cut.

Tom Walker was also having extreme problems with his relationship with Forrest White. At one point, Tommy is said to have chased Forrest out of the building telling him to never return.

By all accounts it was an acrimonious affair. Sterling Ball makes no mention of the dates these incidents occurred but many place the date of the 'neck incident' in late 1982. So how were the instruments made during the two years between the G&L start up and the final CLF blow out? A contract was given to Grover Jackson to build bass bodies and assemble the instruments with CLF necks and the remaining CLF hardware. When CLF stopped making necks Jackson made those also. Oddly, it was Grover Jackson who would provide the headache that would torment Fender and Gibson in the coming years. His Jackson and Charvel line of guitars seemingly would pop into every guitarist hands in the 1980s.

Given this climate the StingRay guitar was quietly dropped from the line. The Sabre guitar soldiered on until 1984 but it's doubtful there were problems filling orders. A graphite necked StingRay Bass debuted in 1980. Fender had been opposed to the idea. The neck was made by Modulus. It was called the Cutlass and the two pickup variant, the Cutlass II. Neither it, nor the new translucent finishes, were able to turn the financial tide and by 1984 the company was near bankruptcy. Music Man was in good company as both Fender and Gibson reached the nadir of mismanagement in the early 1980s. After looking at a few offers Music Man was sold to Ernie Ball on March 7, 1984. Music Man's remaining physical assets were sold on June 1, 1984. The production of amplifiers, which were manufactured at a separate factory, ceased.


Tony Levin playing a Stingray 5

Ernie Ball had started producing a modern acoustic bass guitar in 1972 under the name Earthwood but, despite endorsement by players of the stature of John Entwistle, the bass was only moderately successful in terms of sales and production stopped around the mid-1970s. Ball's partner in this company was George Fullerton. The factory, which Ball still owned at the time of the Music Man purchase, was located in San Luis Obispo, California and that is where Music Man started producing basses in 1985.

Ernie Ball Music Man improved their visibility in the guitar market with a succession of new guitar models, largely player-endorsed, including the Silhouette (1986), Steve Morse Signature (1987), Eddie Van Halen Signature/Axis model (1990), Albert Lee Signature (1993), Steve Lukather Signature (1993), the John Petrucci 6 & 7-string guitars (1999). They also introduced a series of new electric bass models, including the StingRay 5 (1987), the Sterling Bass (1993) and the Bongo Bass (2003) (the futuristic look of which was designed in conjunction with the BMW DesignworksUSA team). While none of these could compete against Fender or Gibson on sales figures, Music Man outpaced the competition by making 'players' guitars with quick change pickup assemblies, teflon coated trussrods, low noise pickup designs, piezo bridge pickups, 5 and 6 bolt necks, sculpted neck joints, graphite acrylic resin coated body cavities and most importantly, consistently high quality fit and finish.

Recent years

Albert Lee playing his signature model guitar

In 1996, Ernie Ball/Music Man began an annual 'Battle of the Bands' contest to spotlight unsigned talent.

Initially, Music Man concentrated solely on production of its high-end, US-built instruments, refusing to enter the budget instrument market. In the late 1990s, the demand for cheaper versions of Music Man instruments had increased and other companies had begun to exploit this market-gap by producing replica instruments, built from inexpensive woods and components in various East-Asian countries. Music Man responded by licensing its designs to HHI/Davitt & Hanser, launching OLP (Officially Licensed Products) to give Music Man market coverage in this price point.

As a replacement for the overseas line of OLP Music Man instruments the company developed the 'SUB' line of Guitars & Basses (listed both online & in print and other media as well as physically on the headstock first as the acronym "S.U.B." for "Sport Utility Bass" and then as the non-acronym "SUB" due to the fact that two versions of guitars were made under the "Sport Utility Bass" banner, and that a "S.U.B. Bass" repeated 'Bass' twice). This midrange line (in which the typical cost was typically less than 1/2 the price of their "standard" instruments) was launched in 2003 to prove that a quality instrument without the bells and whistles could be made in the USA. A non-angled "slab" piece of wood to which a textured paint that didn't call for any polishing was applied, as well as necks with a matte painted back instead of the "Oil & Wax" finish applied to the higher-end models made up the bulk of the changes between the lower and higher model lines - quite simply, "Production Hours" were reduced as opposed to the quality of the wood, hardware, or electronics that allowed the 'SUB' line of guitars & basses to be made at their price-point without a loss of their trademark quality. The product was a success and helped Music Man when its main price point was in a slump. Sterling Ball has commented that, due to the quickly growing $1,000+ segment of the guitar industry, there have been fewer and fewer SUBs in production each year. This line was made at the same plant that makes the higher priced models, but was discontinued in September, 2006. Used 'SUB' guitars & basses are in high demand and have held their prices even years later on the used instrument market such as eBay and private forums due to their quality and "Made In The USA" production status.

In 2000 Ernie Ball/Music Man was raided by the copyright lobby group the Business Software Alliance and accused of having unlicensed software installed at its premises. Following a court settlement, the BSA used Ernie Ball/Music Man as an example in advertisements and industry publications; Sterling Ball was so offended at this treatment that he had all Microsoft software removed from Ernie Ball/Music Man ("I don't care if we have to buy 10,000 abacuses,") and imposed an open-source software policy across the company.[4]

In 2001, Sterling Ball decided to institute a living wage at the plant. The entry level wage would be $10.10 per hour. One third of the then current workforce of 226 people got a raise. He cited the need to attract and retain high quality employees, and the moral responsibility to provide his employees with a decent income. Fewer than twenty percent of the residents in San Luis Obispo county can afford to buy a house. He had this to say in a New Times interview concerning the decision, "It's contrary to a lot of traditional business theories, I know, but I did it because it's the right thing to do, fundamentally."

John Myung playing a Music Man Bongo bass

2003 saw the introduction of the radical Music Man Bongo Bass, the result of a partnership with DesignworksUSA, a design firm better known for its work with BMW. This bass features a 24-fret rosewood fingerboard with custom "moon"-shaped inlays and a 4-band active EQ powered by an 18V supply. It also came with 4 and 5 strings, in fretted, fretless and left-handed versions, with the choice of HS (humbucker/single-coil), HH (dual humbuckers), and H (single humbucker, the traditional Music Man setup) pickup configurations and a pickup blend pot for ultimate versatility. These pickup configurations were adopted on other Music Man models three years later, using a 5-way pickup selector switch with coil-tap capabilities.

In 2008, Music Man released the Bongo 6, its first six-string bass, played by Dream Theater's bassist John Myung - the company does not "endorse" any non-signature model musicians, but Sterling Ball was quoted as saying that "We won't be making any six-string basses unless a high-profile player asks for one", while Myung was using a variety of 4 & 5-strings to record several Dream Theater albums until he and the company got together and began working on a prototype, which was so successful that Myung took it directly on tour with him. In the words of Sterling Ball "We've never 'hit it out of the ballpark' with a new model so successfully until now!!" The company offers a five-string version of the Sterling Bass line since January 22.

Steve Lukather playing his signature model guitar

Music Man has recently introduced the 'Big Al' bass, which is based on the Albert Lee signature guitar, boasting an 18V-powered 4-band EQ, active/passive switching, series/parallel pickup wiring and three single-coil pickups with neodymium magnets as well as a limited-edition run of 25th Anniversary guitars and basses finished in a Venetian Redburst finish, featuring a bound bookmatched figured maple top and mahogany tone block. The 25th Anniversary guitar sports a chambered basswood body and dual DiMarzio custom humbucking pickups with chrome covers, while the 25th Anniversary bass (available in 4, 5-string, fretted and fretless versions) has an ash body and comes in H, HH (ceramic magnets) and HSS (ceramic+neodymium magnets) pickup configurations, active/passive circuitry and an active 4-band EQ with 18V power supply. Other features include a 22-fret select maple neck with rosewood, maple or pau ferro (lined/unlined fretless) fingerboard and mother of pearl dot position markers. The 25th Anniversary models were replaced by the Reflex series, introduced on July 23, 2010.

As of 2010, the 'Big Al' bass came in a 5-string version with the choice of H and SSS pickup configurations. The Albert Lee signature model comes with two custom-wound DiMarzio humbucking pickups and an African mahogany body.

The JPX, new for 2010, is a sleeker variant of the John Petrucci signature model, released to commemorate 10 years of collaboration with Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci. The new body shape has a slightly thinner upper horn and a more symmetric bridge end profile. The body is also chambered for added acoustic resonance.

Music Man's latest addition was the Bass Player Live Deluxe Classic Collection, which combines the elements of the first Music Man basses - such as a 2-band EQ, a chrome truss rod wheel, vintage skinny fretwire and nut, a chrome plated, hardened steel bridge plate with "Classic" stainless steel saddles and adjustable mute pads, as well as a 7.5" radius urethane finished figured maple neck - with modern features such as a 6-bolt neck fixing and graphite acrylic resin coated body cavity and aluminum control cover. Models include the StingRay, StingRay 5 and Sterling.

In 2009, as a replacement for their 'SUB' line of lower-priced "midrange" instruments Music Man outsourced a new Far Eastern-constructed budget brand called Sterling by Music Man[citation needed]. Basses include the RAY34/RAY35 (Music Man StingRay 4 and 5 string models) and the SB14 (Sterling). Guitars include the AX20 (Axis Super Sport), AX40 (Axis), JP50 (John Petrucci) and the SILO30 (Silhouette). This practice has been performed by many guitar manufacturers.

Notable artists who use Music Man instruments




Music Man Basses


  1. ^ Bechtoldt, Paul, G&L: Leo's Legacy, Woof Books 
  2. ^ Ball, Sterling (May 11, 2005), "Re. Some "Music Man" History From George Fullerton", Ernie Ball Bass Discussion Forum,, retrieved January 13, 2011 
  3. ^ Townsing, Gav (May 11, 2005), "Some "Music Man" History From George Fullerton", Ernie Ball Bass Discussion Forum,, retrieved January 13, 2011 
  4. ^ "Rockin' on without Microsoft". CNET News. Retrieved 20 August 2003. 

External links

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