REVIEW: Music Man Axis

lOnce upon a time, Ernie Ball Music Man had a certain high-profile endorser, one of those epoch-defining chaps who changed the way we approach the instrument. He designed a signature model with the company and it was very popular – as current used prices for said instruments will demonstrate – but eventually he moved in a different direction. Production was stopped on his signature guitar but most of the model’s features survived in the form of the Axis. Now almost 20 years later it’s still a great seller for Music Man, and an iconic guitar in its own right. And we described all that without once mentioning Eddie Van Halen.
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The Axis features a basswood body with a flamed maple top. This is an interesting combination: basswood is typically considered a rather flat-sounding tone wood, and maple is known to add some extra definition in the treble range. It’s much more common to see basswood on ‘shred’ guitars, and maple tops paired with mahogany on more traditional designs. But said famous guitarist and design gurus like Dudley Gimple at Music Man certainly know what they’re doing with tone woods. The neck is bird’s eye maple, as is the fretboard, and here’s where you’ll notice the first change from that original signature model: the Axis’s playing surface is a little wider, with a bit more wood between the outer strings and the edge of the fretboard. Players of the original guitar sometimes complained that the strings were so close to the edge of the fretboard that they’d go sliding off, causing all sorts of freaky fretting-out sounds.

The other major change is a subtle one but again, it makes a big difference to the ergonomics of the guitar. The pickup selector toggle switch has been relocated to a location down by the volume control, and oriented the right way up. On the original, it was near the treble side cutaway, and it was inverted compared to how we’d normally wire such a switch. The pickups are a pair of DiMarzios which are only available on this model. They’re somewhat similar to the Tone Zone and Air Norton, but not close enough that you could simply buy those two models and get the same sound. The bridge is a Floyd Rose-licensed model which is mounted flat to the body, which provides more stability when bending.

The Axis is a very lively guitar. There’s plenty of treble definition thanks to the combination of all that maple and the powerful bridge humbucker, but there’s also a lot of harmonic richness and dynamic range. If you’re a player who likes to play at ’10’ all the time you’ll miss a lot of the fusion-friendly subtlety that the Axis makes available. It’s especially suited for high-gain hard rock, but there’s a an addictively toothy responsiveness to lower-gain crunch settings too. And the neck pickup is a real gem. It has a very rounded, deep tone which is almost like an oboe – if an oboe had a whammy bar. It tracks extremely well for high-speed licks but it also really appreciates it when you hang onto a note and squeeze the bejesus out of it. In fact, although it has a hard rock heritage, this is a killer axe for blues rock of the Gary Moore variety too, provided you get along with Floyd Roses.

The Axis is one of Music Man’s true legendary guitars, and it’s nudging ever closer to its 20th anniversary as its own instrument. It’s a very versatile axe with impeccable build quality and a tone all its own. Sure, the slightly undersized body and headstock might make you look like a giant when you pick one up, but hey, if that’s the only downside, I think we’re looking at a classic.