REVIEW: Ernie Ball Music Man Albert Lee MM90

Have you seen the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel? You have? Right. Well y’know how Zero Moustafa can’t bring himself to talk about his fiancé Agatha because it makes him too emotional? That’s how I feel about this guitar. Just writing about it now – knowing that it’s not mine and I’ll probably never get to own it or one like it because frankly they’re priced at what they’re worth and they’re worth a lot – brings a bittersweet tear to my eye. I’ve played other Music Man Albert Lee models over the years and quite liked them (St. Vincent does too – look for her playing a twin-humbucker version). I’ve even reviewed them here. And of course Albert Lee himself is an absolute guitar master who can hand no less a player than Steve Morse his ass – just look at this footage of Lee and Morse at the Ernie Ball 50th Anniversary party for proof – but there’s something magical about this particular version of Albert Lee’s signature model Music Man, even compared to the single coil and humbucker versions.

All of the standard Albert Lee Music Man specs are here. It features a Southern Ash body with a select Maple neck and fretboard, 22 high-profile medium-width frets (which are finished quite well indeed), Music Man’s famous five-bolt neck joint which offers great access as well as preventing lateral shifting while giving you great transfer of string energy, and the company’s even more famous 4+2 headstock configuration, which allows straight string pull while ensuring that you can fit your cased Music Man into the overhead compartment of a plane if the airline will let ya.

The nut is an intonation-compensated design which keeps you nicely in tune all over the neck, and the fretboard is a bend-friendly 10”. The scale length is a twangy 25.5”. And the review model is finished in a gorgeous red sparkle with a black pearloid pickguard that I personally could take or leave. A white one would look dead sexy, and Music Man offers black, white, tortoiseshell, black pearl, white pearl and vintage white pearl option.

There are two pickup options available (apart from the humbucker-loaded Albert Lee HH which gets its own model page on the Music Man website). The SSS version offers three custom-wound Seymour Duncan single coils with 250kohm pots and a .047µF tone capacitor, while this version is the MM90, which offers three Music Man MM90 single coils (basically P90s) with 500kohm pots and a .022µF tone capacitor. There’s also Music Man’s 9v battery-operated silent circuit, which effectively removes the background hum that typically plagues single coils.

If you’ve never played a guitar with P90-style pickups before, this one is a great place to start. The tonality is edgy and a little fuzzy around the edges, warm yet bright at the same time. If there was a flavour equivalent it’d be a Violet Crumble chocolate bar. The bridge pickup has enough edge for hard rock and metal rhythms and yet enough twang for killer country tones, and it allows lead lines to sound cutting and bold while keeping chords from ever sounding too pretty. The middle pickup is nice for leads and jangly chord work (and it’d kill for slide), and the neck pickup brings out all these juicy overtones when you dig in with the pick. The in-between pickup settings are nice too, with plenty of zip and zing, taming some of the punch while playing up the treble detail. This guitar is suitable for anything from the cleanest of country to some pretty intense metal styles – think Mastodon or High On Fire – and it does it all without hum thanks to that clever silent circuit.

Don’t let this guitar’s country pedigree fool you: it’s as versatile as any Music Man and it’s packed full of vintage tones and modern playability, it stays in tune well and it looks like Christmas. The Red Sparkle model on review is the only one of this colour in the country at the moment, so if you happen to spot it in a store, please tell it I said hi. Then give it a play and you’ll fall in love too.

Music Man Albert Lee MM90