The Big Five-O, Ernie Ball Celebrates it's 50th Anniversary

June 19, 2012

Roland Sherwood Ball
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.

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, California.

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 Beach, California.

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.

Steve Morse (left) and Sterling Ball jam at NAMM.
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?

“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 industry?

Sterling Ball tests a Music Man bass .
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.

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?

An assortment of Ernie Ball ads from over the years.
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.

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 around?

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.

Eric Clapton was an instrumental early
endorser of Music Man amps.
What’s your perspective on the Music Man EVH saga?

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.

Steve Lukather and Sterling Ball.
What was he playing at the time?

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.

Sterling (left) and Ernie Ball.
Will effects and amps remain off limits for Ernie Ball or Music Man?

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!

Brian Ball 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 product development. 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 strings?

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.

What advantages does cobalt have over other materials?

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 for strings?

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

Scott Ball

Scott (right) and his dad.
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 V-shaped top.

What was the motivation for doing a set-neck guitar?

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 designs?

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

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