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|Founded||Fullerton, California, United States (1974)|
|Headquarters||San Luis Obispo, California, United States|
|CEO Sterling Ball|
Dudley Gimpel (lead designer)
|Subsidiaries||Sterling by Music Man|
In 1971, Forrest White and Tom Walker formed Tri-Sonix, Inc. Walker had previously been a sales representative at Fender. Walker approached Leo Fender about financial help in the founding. Because of a ten-year non-compete clause in the 1965 contract that sold the Fender companies to the CBS Corporation, Leo Fender became a silent partner.
White had worked with Leo Fender since 1954, in the very early days of the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company as the plant manager, eventually becoming vice president, and stayed on after the company was sold to CBS, but grew unhappy with their management and resigned in 1966. Fender did not like the corporate name, so it changed first to Musitek, Inc., and in January 1974 the final name, Music Man, appeared. In 1974, the company started producing its first product, an amplifier designed by Leo Fender and Tom Walker called the "Sixty Five," a hybrid of tube and solid-state technology that players characterized as "loud as hell". The number of designs rapidly increased, and 15 of the 28 pages from the 1976 catalogue were dedicated to amplification.
In 1975, Fender's legal restriction expired and, after a vote of the board, he was named the president of Music Man.
Fender also operated a consulting firm, CLF Research, in Fullerton, California. By 1976, it had built a manufacturing facility for musical instruments, and was contracted to make Music Man products. In June 1976, production started on guitars and in August basses followed. These instruments were designed by Fender and White. The 1976 catalogue shows the first offerings; A two-pickup guitar called the "StingRay 1" and the StingRay Bass. Both instruments featured bolt-on neck designs; the basses featured a distinctive 3+1 tuner arrangement to help eliminate "dead spots," while the guitars came with a traditional, Fender-style 6-on-a-side tuner array. The StingRay Bass featured a single large hum-bucking pickup (located somewhat toward but not adjacent to the bridge) with a two-band fixed-frequency EQ. A row of string mutes sat on the bridge. Basses were produced in fretted and fretless versions.
Tom Walker played a large part in the design of the bass preamp. They were the first production guitar and basses to use active electronics which could boost levels in selected frequency bands. The preamps were coated with epoxy to prevent reverse engineering.
The StingRay Bass sold well. While highly innovative electronically, the guitar was not blessed cosmetically and met with little success. Part of the reason for the poor sales of the guitar was that the preamp actually made the sound "too clean" for most Rock and Roll guitarists.
In December 1978, a two-pickup bass was introduced called the Sabre (discontinued in 1991). A redesigned guitar bearing the same name followed. Both sold poorly.
CLF Research and Music Man were treated as separate companies, headed by Fender and Walker, respectively. Fender made the guitars and basses, while Walker's company made the amplifiers and sold accessories. The instruments were made at CLF and shipped to Music Man's warehouse, where each instrument was inspected and tested. Problems with fibers in the finish caused Music Man's inspectors to reject a high percentage of the instruments, and return them to CLF for refinishing. Since Music Man didn't pay CLF Research until the instrument finishes were deemed acceptable, a rift developed between CLF and Music Man over payment.
Low sales stressed the staff. The company's internal conflicts caused Leo Fender to form another partnership:
In an interview conducted by Gav Townsing, George Fullerton offers this scenario:
In November 1979, Leo had enough of Music Man's pressure and the ties were cut.
A contract was given to Grover Jackson to build bass bodies and assemble the instruments with CLF necks and the remaining CLF hardware. When CLF stopped making necks Jackson made those also.
Given this climate, the StingRay guitar was quietly dropped from the line. The Sabre guitar soldiered on until 1984. A graphite-neck StingRay Bass debuted in 1980. Fender had been opposed to the idea. The neck was made by Modulus. It was called the Cutlass and the two pickup variant, the Cutlass II. Neither it, nor the new translucent finishes, were able to turn the financial tide and by 1984 the company was near bankruptcy. After looking at a few offers Music Man was sold to Ernie Ball on March 7, 1984. Music Man's remaining physical assets were sold on June 1, 1984. The production of amplifiers, which were manufactured at a separate factory, ceased.
Ernie Ball had started producing a modern acoustic bass guitar in 1972 under the name Earthwood but, despite endorsement by players of the stature of John Entwistle, the bass was only moderately successful in terms of sales and production stopped around the mid-1970s. Ball's partner in this company was George Fullerton. The factory, which Ball still owned at the time of the Music Man purchase, was located in San Luis Obispo, California and that is where Music Man started producing basses in 1985.
Ernie Ball Music Man improved their visibility in the guitar market with a succession of new guitar models, largely player-endorsed, including the Silhouette (1986), Steve Morse Signature (1987), Eddie Van Halen Signature/Axis model (1990),Albert Lee Signature (1993), Steve Lukather Signature (1993), the John Petrucci 6 & 7-string guitars (1999). They also introduced a series of new electric bass models, including the StingRay 5 (1987), the Sterling Bass (1993) and the Bongo Bass (2003) (the futuristic look of which was designed in conjunction with the BMW DesignworksUSA team). While none of these could compete against Fender or Gibson on sales figures, Music Man outpaced the competition by making 'players' guitars with quick change pickup assemblies, Teflon coated truss-rods, low noise pickup designs, piezo bridge pickups, 5 and 6 bolt necks, sculpted neck joints, graphite acrylic resin coated body cavities and most importantly, consistently high quality fit and finish.
Initially, Music Man refused to enter the budget instrument market. In the late 1990s, demand for cheaper versions of Music Man instruments had increased, and other companies had begun to exploit this market gap by producing replica instruments in various East-Asian countries. Music Man responded by licensing its designs to HHI/Davitt & Hanser, launching OLP (Officially Licensed Products) to give Music Man market coverage in this price point. This agreement continued until 2008.
As a replacement for the OLP instruments, the company developed an in-house line of guitars and basses. Initially branded as S.U.B. for "Sport Utility Bass," this became the non-acronym "SUB" after two models of six-string guitar were launched. This mid-range line, with production cost one-third to one-half less than the "standard" Music Man instruments, was launched in 2003, with the goal of proving that a quality instrument without the bells and whistles could be made in the USA. Produced at the same facilities as the Music Man models, the major defining factors of the SUB were a non-angled "slab" body finished with a textured paint that didn't call for polishing, as well as necks with a matte painted back instead of the "oil and wax" finish applied to the higher-end models; savings were realized largely from reduced production time, as opposed to the quality of the wood, hardware, or electronics, allowing the SUB lines to achieve their price-point without loss of quality. The product was a success, and supported Music Man when its main line was in a slump. The SUB models were eventually discontinued in September 2006. Sterling Ball commented that, due to the quickly growing $1,000+ segment of the guitar industry, there were fewer and fewer SUBs in production each year.
In 2009, as a replacement for the SUB line, Music Man licensed Praxis Musical Instruments to build a new import budget brand, Sterling by Music Man. Basses included the RAY34/RAY35 (StingRay 4- and 5-string copies) and the SB14 (Sterling copy). Guitars included the AX20 (Axis Super Sport), AX40 (Axis), JP50 (John Petrucci) and the SILO30 (Silhouette). In 2012, Praxis expanded this line with the "Sterling By Music Man SUB Series" to compete with other sub-$300 USD "beginner" instruments, produced in Indonesia and other Far East countries using "non-standard" woods (i.e. not typically thought of as "tone woods") to keep production costs low.
2003 saw the introduction of the Music Man Bongo Bass, the result of a partnership with DesignworksUSA, a design firm better known for its work with BMW. This bass features a 24-fret rosewood fingerboard with "moon"-shaped inlays and a four-band active EQ powered by an 18V supply. The Bongo was made available with four or five strings, in fretted or fretless and left-handed versions, with the choice of HS (humbucker/single-coil), HH (dual humbuckers), and H (single humbucker, the traditional Music Man setup) pickup configurations and a pickup blend pot for ultimate versatility. These pickup configurations were adopted on other Music Man models three years later, using a five-way pickup selector with coil-tap capabilities.
In 2008, Music Man released the Bongo 6, its first six-string bass. Sterling Ball had previously said "We won't be making any six-string basses unless a high-profile player asks for one," until John Myung (Dream Theater) collaborated on the prototype Bongo.
Music Man introduced the 'Big Al' bass, based on the Albert Lee signature guitar, with an 18V-powered 4-band EQ, active/passive switching, series/parallel pickup wiring and three single-coil pickups with neodymium magnets. As of 2010, the 'Big Al' bass came in a 5-string version with the choice of H and SSS pickup configurations. The Big Al and Reflex basses were discontinued in 2015.
The JPX, introduced 2010, is a variant of the John Petrucci signature model, commemorating the ten-year collaboration with Petrucci. The new body shape has a slightly thinner upper horn and a more symmetric bridge end profile. The body is also chambered for added acoustic resonance.
Music Man launched[when?] the Bass Player Live Deluxe Classic Collection, with elements of the first Music Man basses -- a two-band EQ, a chrome trussrod wheel, vintage skinny fret wire and nut, and hardened steel bridge plate with "Classic" stainless steel saddles and adjustable mute pads, 7.5" radius neck -- with modern details such as a six-bolt neck mounting. Models include the StingRay, StingRay 5, and Sterling.
Introduced in 2018, the Stingray Special series includes revamped versions of the StingRay and StingRay 5 basses with new pickups and an 18 volt preamp.
In 1996, Ernie Ball/Music Man began an annual 'Battle of the Bands' contest to spotlight unsigned talent.
In 2000, Ernie Ball/Music Man was raided by the copyright lobby group the Business Software Alliance and accused of having unlicensed software installed at its premises. Following a court settlement, the BSA used Ernie Ball/Music Man as an example in advertisements and industry publications; Sterling Ball was so offended at this treatment that he had all Microsoft software removed from Ernie Ball/Music Man ("I don't care if we have to buy 10,000 abacuses,") and imposed an open-source software policy across the company.
In 2001, Sterling Ball decided to institute a living wage at the plant. The entry level wage would be $10.10 per hour. One-third of the then-current workforce of 226 people got a raise. He cited the need to attract and retain high quality employees, and the moral responsibility to provide his employees with a decent income. Fewer than twenty percent of the residents in San Luis Obispo county can afford to buy a house. He had this to say in a New Times interview concerning the decision, "It's contrary to a lot of traditional business theories, I know, but I did it because it's the right thing to do, fundamentally."