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.
BE A SPORT
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.
AXIS OF …AWESOME
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.
AX YOURSELF: IS THIS THE GUITAR FOR YOU?
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.