There haven’t been many innovations in pickup switching since the 50s. A few coil splits, phase flips, blend pots, series/parallel tweaks and Fender’s S1 are pretty much all that’s happened in that department in 60 years (okay, I’m understating it to make a point, but bare with me). So Ernie Ball Music Man has tackled the problem in a system that takes the best of what techs have been tweaking in back rooms for years, and blows it out to almost unlimited potential in The Game Changer. The best way to describe it is this: it frees the coils of each pickup from the normal order of things, so now you can instantly – and with an analog signal path – rewire your guitar or bass by combining any order of pickup coils in series, parallel and in or out of phase. The result is more than 250,000 possible pickup configurations, which you can create on your computer and then send to the guitar for storage in several banks.

The Game Changer system is built into the Reflex guitar, an incredibly resonant, great-sounding instrument. The model on review is the H-S-H Reflex with piezo option, but there’s also an H-H version. Both feature custom DiMarzio humbuckers. The body is made of chambered basswood with a maple top and a mahogany tone block. The neck is select maple (with maple or rosewood fretboard options), 25-1/2″ scale length, flattish 12″ radius, with 22 high profile medium width frets and Music Man’s intonation-compensated nut and body-end truss rod adjustment. A Music Man strings-through-the-body bridge is standard, with vintage tremolo optional. It’s a fine guitar, with a surprising amount of acoustic power, and very playable.

Electronics include a 5-way lever preset selector (think of it like a regular 5-way that you can tell to do anything you want), a 2-way push-pull Bank A/B selector, on/off/momentary on toggle Bank Z selector, and momentary on Save and Piezo on/off knobs. It’s powered by three AA batteries for 100 hours of play, and syncs to your computer via USB. And of course it plugs into a regular amp too – or a regular and and an acoustic one, since the output jack is stereo. There’s also a MIDI jack for changing presets that way – imagine having your pickup selections programmed alongside your pedal switches and amp channel changes!

The Reflex itself is a great guitar, and since it doesn’t have a history it’s free of that “Oh I know exactly what I’m supposed to play on this” thing you get from a Strat or Les Paul, you feel like you have a clean slate to work with, which means the guitar basically becomes whatever sound you dial in with the Game Changer. The DiMarzio pickups are voiced to give you the best possible springboard from which to explore the system’s capabilities, and the piezo gives you some great acoustic type sounds as well as just adding some extra edge to electric tones, both clean and dirty. There’s really nothing that you can’t do here: imitations of Les Pauls, Strats, Teles, the Peter Green/Gary Moore Les Paul sound, Jimmy Page’s ultimate Les Paul wiring, and sounds nobody else has made yet. For example, want one humbucker wired in series, the other in parallel in reverse phase, and the middle pickup on all at the same time? Done. And although the guitar is laid out like a H-S-H instrument, it’s really five individual coils, so you can think of it like that if you choose: you can explore the subtle difference in tone between the two coils of each humbucker, for example. This is especially useful for fine-tuning the interaction between the neck pickup and your amp. Throw in the piezo and you’ve got an astounding cache of guitar sounds to call upon. The tone control seems very well voiced for those great Zappa-esque honking wah-type sounds when you turn it all the way down too.

The Game Changer itself is truly revolutionary – if you’re the type of player who’s going to use it. It’s an easy sell to studio guitarists and guys with MIDI racks. The real challenge for Ernie Ball Music man is convincing players who have been happy with five, three or even one pickup selection for six decades that there are sounds lurking in there that they will find useful. And there are: it’s ridiculously flexible. I’m just not sure if traditionally-minded players will be comfortable getting over the tech-ness of it, even though the guitar is capable of some beautiful vintage tones. That’s no fault of the guitar or EBMM – it’s just a result of the guitar world being a traditional kinda place where we all (well, most of us) still use tubes, mechanical switches etc. But nobody should be daunted by this technology. Think of it as simply doing what players have done for decades with a soldering iron and some switches, but in this case it’s all done via a digital switching system (while maintaining an analog signal path throughout), and you can change it instantly instead of needing to roll your sleeves up and inhale fumes from burning solder. And ultimately, you have to let your ears guide you. While the Game Changer can give you any pickup configuration you can possibly dream up, you don’t necessarily need to think about the ins and outs of the signal once you’ve created your ideal tones. At that point the Game Changer stops being an innovative pickup selection system and becomes simply a great-sounding guitar.

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]This is an extended version of a review originally published in Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in]