REVIEW: Sterling By Music Man S.U.B AX3

The Sterling By Music Man S.U.B Series family of instruments are designed to provide a new level of quality, features and value for the beginning or intermediate player. Part of this philosophy includes using established (and very player-friendly) Ernie Ball Music Man designs such as the Silhouette and Axis as the basis for budget-priced guitars. A lot of us might remember the SUB name from a previous attempt by EBMM to make their designs more affordable: the original SUB instruments were US-made but with more budget-friendly finishing techniques. The new S.U.B line is made in Asia, and ironically the finishes look a lot prettier than the old SUB line, which had a sort of industrial vibe.
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CLICK HERE to buy the Sterling By Music Man S.U.B Ax3 from Musician’s Friend for $249.

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The AX3 is based on the Axis, which itself is based on the original Edward Van Halen signature model made by Music Man for much of the 90s. When Edward departed the company for Peavey, a few changes were made to the guitar’s design (including a wider neck and slightly different electronics layout) and the Axis has been a popular guitar ever since. The S.U.B. Series version uses a solid hardwood body (they don’t specify which hardwood) topped with a bound top. If you inspect it up close you’ll see that it’s not actually quilted maple but rather an image of one. It wouldn’t be fair to expect an actual quilted maple top at this price range, and most players in the AX3’s target market will be happy with a quilt graphic that gives them most of the look but without the price tag.

The neck and body are joined with EBMM’s famous five-bolt neck joint pattern. It’s an extremely stable system which prevents lateral movement of the neck in the pocket and also maintains greater wood-to-wood contact between the neck and body. It’s very clever and very functional. And the actual neck joint is sculpted to allow easier upper fret access, so it’s very playable too.

The maple neck itself features an asymmetrical carve. It’s more rounded on the bass side, sloping down on the treble side, which orients the fretting hand more ergonomically whether you’re chording, shredding or doing something in between.┬áThe fretboard is also maple, and there are 22 medium frets for your noodling pleasure. The scale length is 25.5″.

Electronics include two high output humbuckers with an Axis-correct ‘zebra’ colour pattern, master volume and tone controls and a five-way pickup selector switch which offers a range of humbucker and single coil tones. The bridge is a vintage-style tremolo with a two-point fulcrum pivot system. The bridge has a small area at the back to rest your palm while picking, although I don’t know of many players who rest their palm that far back on the bridge.

The tones aren’t quite as spectacular as the Sterling By Music Man AX30 (which has surprisingly good pickups) or the Axis (which has the same DiMarzios originally used in the Edward Van Halen model) but the AX3 does a respectably good job regardless, and the different pickup selection options are a great bonus. The EBMM Axis design itself very well to single coil tones, and this carries over very well to the AX3. Humbucker tones are perfectly usable although lacking in a bit of distinctiveness and depth, and I guess this is a rare example of a guitar that I feel sounds better in single coil mode than humbucker. Usually if a guitar has splittable ‘buckers it’s the other way around.

Playability is exceptional for this price range, although the fret ends are a little rough and the volume and tone pots feel a little sticky. If this was my guitar to keep I’d swap out the electronics and pickups, and give the fret ends a good file, but really, for the money and the intended market it’s quite a bargain. All in all this is a very respectable budget guitar indeed. It doesn’t claim to be a $1200 or $3500 instrument but it definitely punches above its weight and will make a fine first instrument and a great platform for new pickups down the road.