Ernie Ball Music Man released their Sterling By Music Man line about 18 months ago to offer a price-effective alternative to their very high-quality, high-price-tag US-made models. The Sterling line-up is made up of models that are based on popular EBMM axes, but with a few little concessions made here and there in the name of cost-effectiveness. That said, they’re by no means budget models in terms of quality, and shouldn’t be thought of as such. I was pretty damn impressed by the AX20 a while ago, so I was psyched to get my hands on the new AX30, a new model for 2011.
The AX30 is based on the classic Axis model, which once upon a time was the Edward Van Halen signature guitar. Eddie moved on in the mid 90s to Peavey and then to his own company, EVH, but Music Man has continued to tweak the specs of the model since that time, and the AX30 reflects a few of those refinements, most noticeably in the form of a non-locking two-point bridge and the addition of a tone control. (Tone controls were absent from the original EVH version, but in a twist of very Eddie humour he had EBMM use a knob which said ‘tone’ on the volume pot – the joke being that you got better tone when it was all the way up).
Like the originals, the AX30 has a basswood body with creme binding and a quilted maple top. The top here is a veneer (ie: very thin, probably not thick enough to have a noticeable impact on the tone) whereas it’s a little thicker on the Axis. The maple neck (with rosewood fretboard) is joined to the body via a very sturdy five-bolt joint designed by Music Man. There are 22 medium jumbo frets, which are larger and with maybe a bit more mass appeal than those found on the EBMM models. A spoke wheel truss rod adjustment sits at the base of the neck for extremely easy access to this often fiddlesome part. The back of the neck is asymmetrical, with more meat at the bass side and less at the treble side, which makes it very comfortable for either extended playing sessions or finger-pretzling megashred.
The AX30’s electronics quiver is built around a pair of Sterling A5 zebra humbuckers featuring Alnico magnets. The pickup selections on offer are, while not unique to this particular guitar, relatively unique in the grand scheme of things. Although there are two humbuckers you get five possible pickup selection options: full neck humbucker; both neck coils in parallel; both humbuckers together; the inside coils of both pickups; and the full bridge humbucker. It’s not the most intuitive of layouts – I’d rather have the split-single setting in the middle just because I like Telecasters so much – but it works.
The tones of the AX30 are extremely versatile. After spending half the morning jamming on some Dream Theater riffage with the Sterling JP100 (read my review here), I plugged the AX30 into a Sherlock Fat Head with the exact same tone and gain settings and was surprised by how much brighter in tone and lower in output the bridge humbucker was compared to the JP100. It has an almost single coil-like twang, and is great for riffs that require lots of articulation and detail. Lovers of classic rock will really dig this sound. I was equally blown away the comparatively high output of the neck pickup. The neck setting really screams, with a pleasing high-end ‘sizzle’ around the edges of the notes, and a fat, full midrange. The other pickup selections are variations on this theme, with more or less pick attack and smoothness depending on which setting you select. The contrast between the bridge humbucker and any of the other settings means you can virtually use the pickup switch as your overdrive pedal, while the ‘inside coils’ setting has enough growl and punch to work perfectly as a grunge or heavy metal rhythm tone in contrast to the bridge humbucker’s more classic rock feel.
The AX30 is a surprisingly versatile axe which plays great and looks extremely cool. While it’s not quite like strapping on a US-made Axis or Edward Van Halen model (if you can find one), it’s a very well-designed and well-made guitar which brings a lot of its own vibe to the table.