One of the big surprises for most visitors to the NAMM convention in Anaheim, California this year was the revelation that Ernie Ball Music Man were releasing a new sub-brand called Sterling which would recreate some of the iconic company’s best-known designs, while keeping costs down by using Asian manufacturing facilities. “Hang on,” I hear you saying. “Wasn’t that the point of those O.L.P EBMM copies?” Well yeah. Those O.L.Ps (which are quite playable and well-made for the price point) are pitched at the lower end of the market, while Sterling By Music Man is aimed more towards the middle (although the introductory prices seem extremely reasonable). So where does the additional money go, and what kind of guitar do you get for it?
OUT OF THE DARKNESS AND INTO THE LIGHT
The Silhouette is one of Ernie Ball Music Man’s longest standing models, and over the years variations have been used by no less a guitarist than the great Keith Richards, shredder Vinnie Moore and Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden. That’s a pretty wide range of guitar royalty right there, and it gives you an idea of just how adaptable the Silhouette is. The basswood Silo20 has a humbucker-single-humbucker configuration, 5-way pickup selector switch (positions 2 and 4 split the humbucker’s coils into singles in conjunction with the middle pickup), volume and tone controls and a string-through hardtail bridge. The maple neck is attached with a 5-bolt joint, has 24 frets on a maple fretboard, and is topped off with locking tuners.
Construction is very solid for a guitar in this price range. Particular care has been taken with the fret ends. They’re not quite as finessed as a USA-built top shelf Ernie Ball Music Man instrument, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a rough spot along the fretboard edge. Combined with the asymmetrical neck carve, which slopes in towards the treble strings (picture an aerofoil kind of shape but fatter) and the result is a very comfortable, playable instrument which seems to mould to your body.
I AM THE MUSIC MAN
Sterling, meet Marshall. The words kinda sound like a couple of Connecticut guys being introduced at the yacht club, but the sonic results certainly don’t. The Sterling-designed pickups, which are based on Alnico magnets, are very hot and powerful. There’s a kind of dark vibe, with powerful bass and almost fuzzy highs, while with the exception of a little upper-midrange spike they sound quite scooped in the mids. This seems to emphasise the percussiveness of the tone, making the Silo20 a great choice for palm-muted pop-punk riffs or, with higher gain levels, all-out chugging metal. Digging in with the pick brings out some cool overtones, and the excellent upper fret access really shows off how good these pickups sound when you move up to the widdly end of the neck. The high end gets tamed a little and the pickups positively scream, in the best possible way. The single coil is definitely more spanky than sweet, and is especially good for country, funk and soul sounds. The output is high enough that it can hang with the humbuckers without breaking a sweat.
INVEST IN THE STERLING
The Sterling brand is a bold move for Ernie Ball Music Man but I think they’ve got it right. Is playing the Silo20 like playing a USA-made Silhouette? Nope. But taken on its own merits it’s a very well made, great-sounding mid-price guitar that gives a slice of the Ernie Ball Music Man experience without breaking the bank.