As with many great companies founded by someone with a vision
and an entrepreneurial spirit, the Ernie Ball story begins with the
man himself, Roland Sherwood “Ernie” Ball, who was born in 1930,
in Santa Monica, California. His family had musical roots. His great
grandfather Ernest Ball wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” his
grandfather Roland Ball had a music publishing business, and his
father played and taught steel guitar.
|Roland Sherwood Ball
As a teen, Ernie Ball was playing steel
professionally in the Los Angeles area,
and, at 19, he was touring with a band led
by ex-Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys
singer, Tommy Duncan. Ball did a tour of
duty with the U.S. Air Force band during
the Korean War, and, afterward returned to
Los Angeles, where he played local gigs and
eventually landed a spot on Doye O’Dell’s
Western Varieties show. Ball’s appearances on
TV led to studio work and teaching jobs,
and in 1958 he opened a guitar store in Tarzana,
With the increasing popularity of electric
guitar, Ball recognized that many players
could benefit from a string set that had
a lighter plain G, instead of the standard
wound G. Unable to get Fender or Gibson
interested in the idea, Ball enlisted a string
company to make custom sets with a plain
G, which he started selling in his store in
1962, under the Ernie Ball brand.
After noticing that some players were
making their own even lighter sets by using
a banjo string for the high E, and swapping
an A string in place of the low E, Ball got
the same string manufacturer to produce
an equivalent set, which he called Ernie Ball
Slinkys. The strings were a hit, and Ball was
soon filling orders from stores and individuals
all over America. In 1967, Ball sold his
store and moved the string business to Newport
By the early 1970s, Ernie Ball strings
were in use by Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend,
Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and other elite
rock players. The company grew steadily,
opening dealerships throughout Europe
and Asia, and becoming the second-largest
string manufacturer in the U.S.
In the mid ’80s, Ernie Ball acquired Music
Man, which provided a platform to move
into guitar and bass manufacturing. With
Ball’s son Sterling now at the helm, what
emerged was a radical solidbody electric
called the Silhouette—a compact and forward-
thinking design that directly led to the
signature models that would be played by such
stylistically diverse players as Albert Lee, Steve
Morse, Eddie Van Halen, and Steve Lukather.
This year, Ernie Ball celebrates its 50th
anniversary, and who better to talk about its
history than Sterling Ball, who has been pivotal
in steering the company to the heights
it has reached today?
|Steve Morse (left) and Sterling Ball jam at NAMM.
“I think we are the first guitar company
born out of the roots of rock and roll
to make it to 50,” says Ball. “This anniversary
is important to me, because my dad is
no longer with us. I was very fortunate to
have been taught by my father, and to have
worked with him, and it’s great to be working
with my own kids now.”
Understanding what players want seems to have
always been at the core your company’s success.
I’ve always said that I want to be close
enough to our customers that I can smell
their breath. The farther you get from your
customers, the more opportunity you create
for others. If Fender and Gibson in the ’70s
and ’80s had really been focusing on the
needs of their customers, Seymour Duncan,
DiMarzio, and EMG would probably have
had a lot harder time breaking into replacement
pickups. That’s how the world works.
So that’s why we have two mobile stages
that travel anywhere the kids are, and it’s
why we do our Battle of the Bands—which is
something I’m particularly proud of, because
we’re on our 16th year. It’s the largest livemusic
promotion in the history of the music
business, and it’s the longest running.
What’s the main benefit you get from hosting
your Battle of the Bands?
It’s a way of reaching out to young musicians,
and it has worked out great, because
outside events create waves of opportunity
for us to both sell and develop new products.
Generally speaking, the music industry
is very good at riding waves, but not so
good at making waves.
How were you introduced to the music
It all goes back to my great grandfather,
who wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” My
grandmother was a jazz pianist, my mother
was a singer, and my grandfather had the largest
Hawaiian music publishing company at
the time. My first visit to the Fender factory
was when I was five years old. Leo was sort
of “Uncle Leo,” Tommy Walker [who worked
in sales for Fender] was my godfather, and
Don Randall helped my dad greatly. So I got
to grow up watching Fender mature, along
with a lot of other companies—some that
became great, and some that died.
|Sterling Ball tests a Music Man bass .
I’ve lived my whole life with people assuming
that, because I worked in a company
named after my father, I just walked in and
everything happened. The thing is that my
dad was the greatest teacher on earth, and
he was unbelievably creative, but he could
only take it so far. That’s where I came in.
When I started working for him there were
eight employees. When I took it over there
were 14. Now, we have around 450 employees.
So it was the greatest opportunity. It was
lucky for him and lucky for me.
How did your company acquire Music Man?
I’d regularly visit Leo in his lab, and I
was just a little out of high school when I
was doing the final beta testing of the Music
Man Stingray. I set up the company with Eric
Clapton when he had just come out with
461 Ocean Boulevard. Tommy Walker [cofounder
of Music Man] and I went to the
Long Beach Arena in his ’68 Cadillac with
some Music Man half-stacks in it, and we
put them onstage for Eric to try. He liked
how they sounded, so he came back with
that Music Man ad: “There’s only one.” It
was a way of paying back my godfather, and
it was tremendous for the company. I was
very involved with Music Man at the time,
and I was actually considering going to work
for Tommy—not my dad.
What changed your mind?
That’s the ugly part of the Music Man
story. See, Leo came out with the Stingray
bass and guitar. The guitar had a funky rotary
switch, it had big magnets in the pickups,
and it was unbelievably bright—as was the
Stingray bass. They sounded that way because
Leo was almost deaf at that time, and he
thought they sounded smooth and beautiful.
But talk about luck. What happened
was that the slap-bass style comes out with
Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson, and
it was like, “Oh man, this is exactly what we
want!” But it was a total accident. All that
stuff about Music Man being known for these
great funk and slap basses was accidental.
|An assortment of Ernie Ball ads from over the years.
On the other hand, there was no happy
accident with the Stingray guitar. It was a
dismal failure. Leo believed it was Tommy’s
fault, and Tommy felt that Leo was being
stubborn. So some of the people who had
fallen out at Music Man, including George
Fullerton—who, by the way, was my dad’s
partner at Earthwood [which introduced
an acoustic bass guitar in 1972]—started
a new company called G&L. This created
a situation where some really questionable
Music Man instruments were being made,
because they were trying to do G&L at the
same time. Grover Jackson, who had just taken
over Wayne Charvel’s shop, even stepped in to
make a small number of basses for Music Man
while they were trying to hang on. Ultimately,
it drove Tommy and Leo apart, and Music
Man was headed for bankruptcy. The bank
had a sale, nobody showed up, and I went
to my dad and said, “I think we should buy
it.” So that’s what we did.
What did you do to get Music Man turned
The first thing we realized was we
couldn’t afford to make the instruments
and the amps. The amps were built so solid
that there was no profit in them, so I killed
them. My idea was to make one instrument,
and when we were able to make
two that were as good, we’d make two.
There was a guy named Dudley Gimple,
who had made some custom Tele-style
guitars for Ernie and I. Eric Clapton’s tech
Lee Dickson saw them, and soon Dudley
made a “Seven Up”-green three-singlecoil
guitar for Eric. Then, Dudley went to
work for Valley Arts, but he wasn’t happy
there, so I hired him. Our first order of
business—besides trying to produce the
Stingray bass—was the challenge of doing
a guitar. And so we came up with the Silhouette,
which caused everybody to laugh
at us—until Keith Richards played one. I
remember making nine guitars a day, and,
suddenly, we got an order for 10,000 white
Silhouettes from our Japanese distributor.
Next, we did the Stingray 5, which was very
successful, and is probably the standard for
American 5-string basses. From there, we
came out with signature models for Albert
Lee, Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, and, for a
brief time, Eddie Van Halen.
What’s your perspective on the Music Man
|Eric Clapton was an instrumental early
endorser of Music Man amps.
Well, any time you talk about that relationship
there are people who are living in
the past, and that’s all they want to think
about. We had a great short run with Eddie.
We had a chance to work with an artist of
immense talent, and it was a gift. I’ve got
nothing but high praise for Eddie, no matter
what people want to say. It was a great experience.
I think we made him a good guitar,
and I think he liked them.
Wasn’t the Steve Lukather model also introduced
during that time?
Yes. I met Luke through Jay Graydon, and
we hit it off really well. When Luke asked
if I’d make him a guitar, I agreed. But first,
I had to get permission from Eddie’s management,
because the agreement was that I
couldn’t make another signature guitar for
anyone. They gave me the go-ahead, though,
because Eddie and Luke are good friends.
Luke’s guitar was the easiest one ever. Basically,
we designed it over the phone, and I
communicated everything to Dudley. We
nailed it on the second or third prototype.
Luke has been using the guitar ever since.
We just went though the process again on
the Luke 3—which is three percent bigger,
and has passive humbuckers that feed a
preamp we designed. It has what we call
the “Spank” knob, which gives a 10dB boost
when you slap the treble control. This feature
has allowed Luke to take the Tube Screamer
out of his pedal chain.
How did Albert Lee start using your guitars?
In 1972, my dad came home with a record
called Head Hands and Feet, and said, “Listen
to this song ‘Country Boy’—that’s an English
guitar player.” Albert happened to be opening
for Jethro Tull at the Forum, so we went
to see him. The next night, he was playing at
the Whisky, and I went there with a couple
of friends and met him. Next day, he drove
down to Newport and visited our family. I
was still in high school when Albert moved
to California, and he slept on my mom’s
couch for the next six weeks.
What was he playing at the time?
|Steve Lukather and Sterling Ball.
A black Gibson SG that Pete Townsend
had destroyed and that had been glued back
together. The Albert Lee model was actually
not designed for Albert. It was designed for me.
I showed it to him at a Christmas party in ’86,
and he wanted it, so I gave it to him. He has
been playing our guitars for almost 30 years.
Did John Petrucci have specific requests for
his signature model?
John is the modern day Les Paul. Everyone
is going to think I’m crazy to say that,
but he’s a player who never stops his quest
for the perfect guitar. John has sold a lot
of guitars for us, and they’re all designed
around what he wants—never what he thinks
the customer wants. It speaks to the integrity
of a signature model. A signature guitar
shouldn’t just look like the one the guy plays.
It should be the one the guy plays.
One of your most recent innovations is the
Gamechanger. What drove you to develop a hightech
system for switching pickups?
Popular music has been shaped by the
sonic possibilities that the 3- and 5-way switch
limit you to. With the Gamechanger, a guitar
with three humbuckers suddenly has more
than two-and-a-half-million sonic possibilities.
So you can really make the guitar sound
how you want it to. The Gamechanger will
never make a profit in my lifetime, but if we
get the right people using it, they’re going
to show us what can really be done with it.
It’s like when the Maestro fuzz came out,
and it was the country guys who showed
people what to do with it.
Will effects and amps remain off limits for
Ernie Ball or Music Man?
|Sterling (left) and Ernie Ball.
Nothing is off limits. When I say something
is off limits, that’s when I should retire.
I don’t do business plans. That’s not how it
works. Our ideas come out of excitement,
working with artists, and having a lot of
engineers available to design stuff. I’m still
so interested in unlocking the guitar, and
I’m trying hard to do things that are different.
It all goes with being an entrepreneur.
Nothing I do that involves the guitar
is something I get paid for. I get paid to talk
to attorneys and all that other stuff. It isn’t
work designing a bass or a guitar for somebody
with the guys in the shop. That’s the
Magic Kingdom ticket!
on Slinky Cobalt Strings
Sterling Ball’s son Brian started out
in his family’s company working part time in
artist relations while studying for a business
degree in marketing. After graduating from
college, he joined the company full time, and is
now Ernie Ball’s vice president.
Along with overseeing
sales and marketing,
Brian also spearheads
His team’s latest achievement
is the development
of the revolutionary Slinky
Cobalt strings, which hit
the market this year.
What inspired the
development of Cobalt
We were on a quest
to find a new voice for
guitar and bass, and there
really haven’t been a lot of
alloy-based advancements in strings for a long
time. The last one was stainless steel, and that
was almost 30 years ago. We did some market
research, and found that guitar players wanted
strings that could deliver more output and
clarity, as well as being extremely resonantsounding
through an amp. Bass players love
low end, and they want to cut through a mix, so
we wanted to develop bass strings that had a
really punchy tonality without sounding harsh.
How did you discover that cobalt was the
thing to use?
It was a long process that took more than
five years of trying out hundreds of alloys—
only to learn how difficult it was to come up
with something that could improve upon what’s
already out there. Our persistence—and the
continual discoveries we made—helped us to
understand that cobalt could bring something
new and distinguishable to the string market.
does cobalt have over
Cobalt has higher magnetic
and mechanical strength, which has proven
to make the strings sound different and also
last a little longer.
What’s the main difficulty of using Cobalt
One of the challenges was figuring out how
to turn it into the fine wire gauges needed for
bass and guitar strings. Cobalt is used a lot in
automotive and aerospace technologies, where
they want it in either sheets or rods. So part
of the invention process involved turning it
into something very fine and thin. We used a
lot of different resources in the development
of Cobalt strings—such as acoustic software
technology to make sure what we were hearing
was backed by scientific data. In the end, I’m
really happy that we kept going down the path
we were on. Not only did I learn a lot through
the whole process, but I think it has been a real
benefit for our company. — AT
The Ernie Ball/Guitar Player Connection
“My dad had a guitar shop in the San Fernando Valley, where he taught music, and Bud Eastman
[founder of Guitar Player] also taught music in the same town,” says Sterling Ball. “Bud and my dad
were both steel players, and he and his wife were friends with my parents. Of course, they all knew
Remo Belli, who had his drum shop there. So out of San Fernando came Ernie Ball Slinky strings,
Remo drum heads, and the essence
of Guitar Player magazine. My dad
was actually offered a piece of GP
in 1967, but he famously said to
Bud, ‘Who are you going to write
about, and what are you going to
write about after six months?’ It’s
one of the few times my dad made
the wrong decision, and Bud never
let him forget it!” — AT
Another key figure in the Ball family
dynasty is Sterling’s son Scott, who oversees
Music Man production and sales, and
also is tasked with developing new models
for the guitar and bass line. Most recently,
Scott has been working on a new guitar that
made its first appearance in prototype form
at the 2012 Musikmesse show in Frankfurt,
Germany. Co-developed by Ball and
designer Dudley Gimple, this guitar breaks
with company tradition by featuring a set
neck with a 24.75” scale, and a single-cutaway
body that incorporates a radical looking
|Scott (right) and his dad.
What was the motivation for doing a
Well, my dad had played around with the
idea before, but it kind of got shelved because
we’re known as a bolt-on company. But he asked
me to come up with something new, and this is
what happened. I told my dad, “If Porsche can
come out with the Cayenne, then Music Man
can do a neck-through guitar.” We made it in
three weeks. Everyone was burning the midnight
oil to get it done, because we wanted to
show the guitar at Musikmesse to see what
people thought of it. The reaction was great.
We had Jamie Humphries and other players
coming in at the show and going, “Wow, what
is this?” It’s so different than anything we’ve
done—which is exciting. Everyone thinks of us
as a bolt-on company, but, thanks to the people
we have working for us, we can make anything.
Did you feel it was important for your
company to have a high-end custom guitar?
Yes, and that’s why it will be branded differently
from Music Man. The finish and the
binding and everything will cost so much more,
so the price point has to elevate quite a bit.
We’re not going to be shipping them for at
least nine months, because we have to retool
and change how we move stuff around the
factory. The production will also be limited,
because we’ll only be able to make a certain
number per week. Right now, it takes about
six times longer to mill out a guitar like this
on our Fadal machines.
How did you arrive at the body shape?
That was Dudley’s idea. He told me he’d
wanted to make this guitar since 1984. When
he showed me the design on the computer, I
said, “Let’s go for it.” We go back and forth on
what we like, and whether we’re testing pickups
or body woods, it’s definitely a team effort.
We’re going to be making our own pickups for
this guitar, too, so we’ve been doing a lot of
testing of different designs.
Do you draw your inspiration from vintage
guitars, or are you more into modern
As a bass player, I play the Big Al and the
Bongo, so I’m definitely into forward-thinking
instruments. But I think we’re going to add
aspects to this guitar that will appeal to the
vintage guy, as well as someone who wants a
modern guitar. I definitely follow my dad’s mantra
of keeping the guitar going forward, and not
just replicating what has already been done.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I get to work every day with my brother,
who is my best friend, and I get to talk with
my dad every day about cool stuff that we
want to do. I also can’t say enough good things
about all the people in the factory who make
our stuff—they are the ones who really make
it all happen. — AT