There haven’t been many innovations in pickup switching since the 50s. A few coil splits, phase flips, blend pots, series/parallel tweaks and Fender’s S1 are pretty much all that’s happened in that department in 60 years (okay, I’m understating it to make a point, but bare with me). So Ernie Ball Music Man has tackled the problem in a system that takes the best of what techs have been tweaking in back rooms for years, and blows it out to almost unlimited potential in The Game Changer. The best way to describe it is this: it frees the coils of each pickup from the normal order of things, so now you can instantly – and with an analog signal path – rewire your guitar or bass by combining any order of pickup coils in series, parallel and in or out of phase. The result is more than 250,000 possible pickup configurations, which you can create on your computer and then send to the guitar for storage in several banks.
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 system.
Witness the birth of an Ernie Ball Music Man Axis Tribute. Thanks a lot – now the Axis will be haunting my dreams. Again.
Ernie Ball Music Man instruments have a stellar reputation for build quality, sound and playability. But they’re also expensive, which means not everybody gets the chance to own one. Music Man knows this – hell, a lot of companies would kill for problems like “everybody wants to play our instrument” – so they’ve authorised Sterling By Music Man, a separate line of instruments licensed by Ernie Ball Music Man and built overseas by Praxis Musical.
The Ray34 bass is based on the classic Music Man StingRay bass, which was introduced in 1976. It’s built using the same materials and components and the same basic design. The spec sheet says the body is made of Lightweight Ash, but to be perfectly honest, the particular example on review was pretty heavy. Not uncomfortably so, but it was noticeable.
Steve Lukather recently unveiled the LIII, a new signature model which takes his established Luke model and updates it with a few tweaks – most notably new custom-voiced passive DiMarzio pickups in place of the active EMGs on the Luke model. And the new, larger body shape was a response to requests from players who felt that the standard version made them look too big. Luke is currently touring Australia with G3 and for Bluesfest, and this guitar sounded incredible in the hands of both Luke and Mike Keneally. And man, I want one. And I have a huge – huge – interview with him to post when I’ve finished typing it up, but here’s a teaser:
“I’m loving mine. I wanted to do a different take on it. Non-active DiMarzios, a little bigger body. It’s a simplification. But we’ve had such fantastic success with the guitar over the years, why not see where this goes? I listen to what people say. Constructive criticism, I’m all about. But if someone’s going to go on the internet and beat the shit out of me for a laugh, there’s not much I can do about that. But I listen to these things. They (Ernie Ball) were a little bit opposed to this at first, but we found a happy medium and so far the reactions are really positive.”
And here are some pics from NAMM:
Country guitarist Albert Lee is a freak. One of the true greats able to play totally in the pocket in a very tasteful, rhythmic manner – as those who were lucky enough to see him at the recent Ernie Ball 50th Anniversary party can attest – then slice your head off with a seemingly impossible flurry of speedy yet purposeful notes. Lee’s longstanding signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar is much the same: both restrained and outrageous, traditional and exotic. The most common, three-single-coil configuration displays an obvious lineage to the Fender Stratocaster but to think of it as just a pointy Strat is to do the guitar a great disservice. And that fact is driven home even further by the EBMM Albert Lee HH model.
The twin-humbucker HH has the same basic outline as the triple single coil version, with its angular body horns and a very ‘designy’ forearm contour which follows the path set in motion by the slope of the top edge of the cutaway. The body is made of African Mahogany, finished in a high gloss polyester and available in all of EBMM’s Standard Classic Colours range. The company goes to great pains to ensure that all guitars weigh in within a specific range – around 2.95kg, give or take a little, or 0.2kg more for the tremolo version, ensuring consistency from guitar to guitar.