I get super-embarrassingly dorky over guitar design, but having seen classic shapes since the day I discovered what a guitar was, I’m now more drawn to iconoclastic whack jobs, 25th-century daydreams, and crazy-ass aberrations. I adore Les Pauls, Teles, Strats, Gretsches, and other seminal designs, but I also feel that builders who strive to do something different should be lauded for not being bound entirely by history.
The design team at Ernie Ball/Music Man definitely enjoys futzing with convention (the Bongo bass, Albert Lee guitar, 4-by-2 headstock, etc.), and the company’s new Armada is not only its first through-body design, it also catches the eye with a unique, arched V-top. The motif showcases two different tone woods (maple and mahogany), and appears to be inspired by a medieval knight’s tunic, a superhero costume, or a drum major uniform. In addition, two-tone color schemes balance the Armada’s lean moderne lines with a retroesque hint of hot rods and bowling shoes. It’s a cagey and stunning design hybrid. The inlaid Armada logo on the headstock is the only element that doesn’t ring true, as, from afar, it looks somewhat like a cheap sticker.
Construction is 99.8-percent perfection. I had to use a magnifying glass to find one finish flaw—a smidgeon of stain overrun where the top binding meets the neck—and a couple of fret ends could have been smoother. The quiltedmaple top is exquisitely matched, the four-ply binding (cream/black/cream/black) is superbly rendered, the mother-of-pearl fretboard inlays betray no evidence of filler, and the chrome hardware feels substantial and well anchored.
If you don’t mind using your imagination, wielding the Armada can feel like a roll in the hay with a young Sophia Loren. There are curves and heft to this beauty, and everything from its body contours to its thick, retro-style neck is comfortable and inviting. The guitar doesn’t fight you in any way, and access to high frets is unfettered (an added bonus is the luxuriously rounded neck bout). I initially thought the Volume and Tone controls were positioned too far south for quick tweaks, but I could grab them easily without interrupting my flow, and the textured knobs ensure that even sweaty fingers won’t impede volume swells and manual wah maneuvers. The 3-way pickup selector moves horizontally, rather than vertically, but this had no effect on rapid-fire tone adjustments.
Sonically, the Armada ain’t no street punk. It doesn’t fire off sneering aggression—it seduces with complex, sophisticated tones that are warm, clear, and articulate. The neck pickup veers towards jazzland with a round bass, smooth mids, and subtle highs. Go to the combined position, and the bass emphasis is unchanged (a nice touch), but you get more snap and zing to the mids and highs (as if you used a graphic equalizer to make slight boosts at 4kHz and 8kHz). The bridge pickup delivers tight lows, present but not harsh mids, and open and airy high frequencies. String-to- string remains excellent when going for overdrive, distortion, and fuzz sounds.
Multi-thousand dollar guitars may still be a nervous purchase until the economy really heats up, but the Armada delivers everything you’d expect from such an investment. It screams quality from every angle and through every sound, and its unique look allows adventurous types to feel like they are holding a limited-edition work of art.
ERNIE BALL/MUSIC MAN ARMADA
PRICE $4,350 retail as tested (Quilt top /sunburst at $100 upcharge); $3,800 retail (Opaque black/ gold); $4,000 retail (Flame top)
CONTACT Ernie Ball, ernieball.com
NUT WIDTH 1.688" compensated
NECK Mahogany, neck-through body
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24.75" scale
FRETS 22 jumbo, stainless steel
TUNERS Schaller M6-IND locking with pearl buttons
BODY Mahogany with V-shaped figured- maple/mahogany top
BRIDGE Tune-o-Matic-style, Graph Tech tailpiece
PICKUPS Custom Music Man humbuckers
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS Ernie Ball Slinky RPS10
WEIGHT 8.38 lbs.
KUDOS Unique design. Excellent workmanship. Great tones. Cozy feel and playability.