REVIEW: Ernie Ball Music Man Reflex

The Ernie Ball company is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, and over the years they’ve done it all: strings, picks, basses, guitars, 7-string guitars, baritone guitars… they have original designs out the wazoo, and an incredible list of famous users who all operate on handshake deals – Steve Lukather, John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert, Albert Lee, Steve Morse. Heck, even Joe Bonamassa, who has Gibson and Epiphone signature models, still takes to the stage with various Ernie Ball Music Man guitars. The company has never been content to rest on the successes of the past, and their policy of closely listening to and collaborating with artists is why it can be so hard to keep up with their latest models. But that’s also half the fun. And it’s this drive for innovation that brings us to the Reflex, which features a particularly interesting pickup selection circuit as its biggest selling point.

The Reflex is a kind of odd design. It has obvious visual links to the old Edward Van Halen model (which lives on today in slightly modified form as the rather excellent AXIS), but it’s a little stretched out compared to that instrument’s rounder outline, giving it a slight Telecaster vibe, or maybe a little like one of Manson’s creations as used by Muse’s Matt Bellamy. Because this is a new shape, you don’t quite get the ‘I know exactly what kind of music I’m supposed to play on this’ vibe that you get from familiar shapes. So that makes the Reflex a good ‘clean slate’ platform for its unique switching system, and doubly so for Ernie Ball’s use of the instrument as the bed for the Game Changer pickup selection systemAnd you can buy the Game Changer version of the Reflex here).

The Reflex body is made of a chambered basswood with a maple top and a mahogany tone block. The neck is select maple with the option of either a select maple or rosewood fretboard. The frets are 22 high-profile medium-width frets installed on a slightly round, slightly flat 12″ radius fretboard, and the back of the neck is finished in Music Man’s famous gunstock oil and hand-rubbed special wax blend, which feels smooth and satiny rather than slick and shiny. The nut is a special intonation-compensated model which sweetens the tuning especially around the first few frets, while the truss rod is adjustable from the body end of the fretboard. The neck is attached to the body with a five-bolt joint which feels extremely stable and which appears to offer very solid contact between body and neck. The joint itself is sculpted for enhanced access to the upper frets. The upper fret access is quite good, allowing your fingers to reach all the way to the 22nd fret while prompting your thumb and palm into a supportive posture which invites big bends.

The bridge on the review model is the Music Man vintage tremolo, although a hardtail version which looks much the same but without the bar is also available. Colour options are black, white, vintage sunburst and vintage gold. The pickups are a pair of DiMarzio custom humbuckers with Music Man pickup rings, and the controls are limited to 500kohm volume and tone pots and a .022µF tone capacitor.

The biggest challenge associated with introducing any new pickup selection scheme onto the market is getting players to accept it: if we’ve done things a certain way for over 60 years now, why should we learn something different? So the Reflex wiring is very cleverly designed to get a huge range of tones out of a minimal number of switches and pickups. Each setting is available in Series or Parallel mode. Series is the type of wiring typically applied to humbuckers: the current from one coil feeds into the next and the resulting sound is the result of this feed-forward design. However, the famous Stratocaster ‘in between’ sounds are achieved by wiring two separate single coils in Parallel, which means part of the current is flowing through one coil, and part through another. Each method has its own tonal imprint. On the Reflex it doesn’t matter if you select Series or Parallel mode, the actual pickup combinations are the same either way. Position 1 is the bridge humbucker. Position 2 is the outer coils of each pickup, position 3 is both humbuckers on at once, position four is the inner coils, and position 5 is the neck humbucker. Flip the two-way toggle switch all the way down for Parallel mode, or all the way up for Series mode. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to think of the Series sounds as being fat higher-output voices, and the Parallel settings as being lower output, airier-sounding versions of those tones. Dial the amp just-so and you can use the Series/Parallel switch to go from a spacious, jangly tone to a honking lead voice on setting 4, for example, without actually changing pickups at all. The pickups are well-voiced to take advantage of this variety, and the can go from screaming hard rock to snappy single coil spank with ease.

The Reflex doesn’t tell you what kind of music to make with it. It simply hangs in there with you no matter where your creative muse takes you. The guitar itself is great but the pickup switching system is the real star here, offering ten very different and very useful options.

Click here to buy the Reflex!