REVIEW: Ernie Ball Music Man Armada

armadaWhen it comes to guitar design, it’s kinda hard to do something new. Sure, there are brands out there doing something legitimately ‘out there’ – Strandberg comes to mind – but companies that have a well-established design style and a dedicated fanbase can often be locked into making the same guitar over and over again. Ernie Ball Music Man is a company who has often seemed to delight in pushing their designs just that little bit beyond what might be perceived as the limit of what their customer base will comfortably accept, with the groovily pointy Albert Lee signature, the Bongo bass, the Steve Morse model with its elaborate pickup setup and of course the Game Changer pickup selection system. But the Armada is possibly the boldest step yet by the company. Designed by Music Man’s Scott Ball and Dudley Gimple, it’s a neck-thru instrument with a single-cutaway design and a 24.75″ scale length.

Prior to this the closest EBMM has come to a singlecut guitar has been the Axis (originally designed as the Edward Van Halen model), but this is from a whole different universe entirely. Most obviously it features a big V-shaped chunk of Maple sitting atop the Mahogany body. The neck is carved from the same piece of Honduran Mahogany that runs through the centre of the body, and it terminates in another Music Man first: a tilt-back headstock (capped with the same maple as the body). The fretboard is Rosewood with 22 high-profile wide Stainless Steel frets and an intonation-compensating nut.

The bridge is a standard tune-o-matic design with thumbwheel heigh adjustment and individual saddles, and the tailpiece is strung ‘top-wrap’ style, which provides a shallower breaking point for the strings to pass over the bridge saddles. Some players report that this increases the guitar’s treble content.

Electronics are a pair of custom-voiced Music Man hum buckers paired with master volume and tone controls and a three-way pickup selector switch.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Armada is that when you pick it up and strum it unplugged, it’s loud. There’s a honky midrange quality which is almost reminiscent of a semi-hollowbody guitar. The next thing you’ll notice is that that special nut really keeps things nicely intonated across the neck. Of course, once you plug it in you’ll really get a feel for what this guitar can do. The Music Man humbuckers have a vintage output level which really allows the character of the guitar itself to come through. The bridge pickup is very bright and snappy, which might be surprising to those who are more used to darker-voiced, higher-output humbuckers, and it’s absolutely magical when you lay into some AC/DC-like open chords, tough rockabilly licks or Jimmy Page riffs. The neck pickup has a very smooth, velvety tone which is great for lyrical lead work in a jazz-fusion kind of way or in a blues-rock vein. And the in-between pickup setting leans towards the brightness of the bridge pickup but with a bit more depth and fullness thanks to the influence of the neck ‘bucker. Compared to my Gibson Les Paul Traditional with vintage-output Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbuckers the Armada is a little smoother and fuller, but certainly within the same basic framework.

The Armada is a very comfortable guitar to play. There’s something instantly familiar about it if you’ve ever played either a Les Paul or a Firebird, yet it’s got enough of a modern ergonomic vibe to escape too close a comparison to either of those guitars.

The Armada is a bold step for Music Man, turning the company’s established design style totally on its head while still embodying the strict quality standards that the company has always upheld. It may look a little radical, but once you start to play it it’ll really start to feel natural and you’ll soon realise that it’s a guitar that welcomes experimentation and creativity. The built quality is flawless, the tone is wildly flexible and the styling is definitely distinctive and adaptable to a multitude of visual vibes.