REVIEW: Sterling By Music Man Silo20

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?

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.

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.

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.

CLICK HERE to buy the Sterling by Music Man SILO20 Electric Guitar Black from Guitar Center for $347.13.

CLICK HERE to read my review of the Sterling By Music Man AX20.

REVIEW: Sterling By Music Man AX20

At the dawn of the 90s, Eddie Van Halen aligned with Ernie Ball Music Man to develop his first signature guitar. Though he was previously associated with his self-cobbled creations and some Kramer models, he’d never put his name on a commercially available axe, and the whole guitar world was looking. I’m sure at the time that the expectation was of a single-pickup Silhouette with a Floyd Rose tremolo, single volume knob and a red finish with black and white stripes. So when they unveiled the Edward Van Halen model, with its quilted maple top, Les Paul-meets-Telecaster shape and twin humbuckers, it was quite controversial.

Eddie’s association with Ernie Ball Music Man didn’t last, but his model lives on (with subtle changes) as the AXIS, and it’s upon this model’s Super Sport variation that the Sterling By Music Man AX20 is based. The AX20 has the same twin humbucker layout with a Music Man-designed fixed bridge, a 5-way pickup selector switch, and controls for both volume and tone (the Edward Van Halen model only had a single volume control, which was capped with a knob that said TONE, the joke being that when you turn it all the way up you get good tone. Arf). The body, as with the AXIS, is basswood with a maple cap. The decision to use basswood for the Edward Van Halen model was quite controversial back in the day: a relatively flat-sounding wood, it wasn’t typically associated with high-end guitars until Ibanez started using it in Steve Vai’s Jem models in 1987.

The AX20’s maple neck is based on that of the EVH guitar, with an asymmetrical profile which is ‘C-shaped’ on the bass side but almost ‘V-shaped’ on the treble side. There are 22 frets on a rosewood fretboard, and there’s a set of locking tuners on the 4+2 headstock.

Having reviewed an actual Ernie Ball Music Man AXIS last month in Mixdown Magazine, the first thing I did with the AX20 was give it the ol’ once over to see how closely it measured up. The neck shape is surprisingly similar, the 5-bolt neck joint is very stable and comfortable, and the fretwork is quite respectable. There didn’t seem to be any finishing blemishes or anything of the sort. Unplugged, the AX20 has a little bit of that steely high end and midrange poke that you tend to find on a new guitar that’s not yet broken in, and which seems more present on some new guitars than others. Now, being a big fan of the DiMarzio pickups in the AXIS, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the AX20. My fears were soon dashed though, because these humbuckers sound great. I imagine they’re the same design as the ones in the Silo20 model (see my review of that model here), but the addition of the maple cap on the AX20 adds more midrange and alters the characteristic of the high end compared to the Silo20. The result is a high-output pickup which screams with harmonics and has a powerful, cutting pick attack. The neck pickup sounds full but still has a nice sizzle, and the bridge unit… well it sounds pretty darn close to the famous ‘brown sound’ – certainly closer than one could be forgiven for expecting. By the way, the pickup selections are: bridge humbucker; bridge and neck (single coil); bridge and neck (humbucker); neck (parallel – kinda like having 2 single coils), neck (humbucker). The single coil modes are snappy and funky. For non name-brand pickups these units are pretty damn special.

The AX20 is a great guitar for the money. In fact it’s a great guitar for any money. The playability and construction aren’t quite as finessed as its USA-made daddy, but the tones are very complex, it looks sharp as all get-out, and it’s very easy to play. I feel it’s especially important to point out this: often when one buys a mid-priced guitar with proprietary pickups the first thought is ‘what pickups am I gonna replace these with?’ Well you instantly save yourself a few hundred bucks with the AX20 because it already sounds that good. Is it as good as an Ernie Ball Music Man AXIS? Nope. Does it feel like one? Well the Sterling’s neck feels a little slicker and more mass-produced, and the fretwork isn’t quite as nice as the AXIS, but the similarities are striking in terms of neck profile and overall playing experience. The AX20 and the AX40 trem version probably aren’t going to steal away any sales from the AXIS, and in a side-to-side comparison the AXIS still of course comes out on top – with that kind of pedigree that’s a given – but the AX20 comes across as a better guitar than it needs to be for the price range it’s competing in, and it more than adequately fills the gap between the cheaper OLP copies of Ernie Ball Music Man designs, and the real thing.

CLICK HERE to buy the Sterling by Music Man AX20 Electric Guitar Transparent Orange from Musician’s Friend for $499.

CLICK HERE to buy the Sterling by Music Man AX40 Electric Guitar Transparent Gold (locking trem version) from Musician’s Friend for $549.00.