Review: Ernie Ball Music Man James Valentine Signature

The backstory of James Valentine’s relationship with Ernie Ball is almost like some Lifetime Network feel-good flick tailored for guitar players.
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The backstory of James Valentine’s relationship with Ernie Ball is almost like some Lifetime Network feel-good flick tailored for guitar players. Years ago, his group, Square, won $25,000 in Ernie Ball’s “Battle of the Bands 3” contest. Valentine took his share of the prize money, relocated to Los Angeles, and joined what became Maroon 5. Super success. Millions of album sales. Grammy Awards. Roll credits…

This almost familial partnership recently birthed the James Valentine Signature model—a savvy mash-up of the Telecasters and ES-335s Valentine typically wields in Maroon 5. It’s a starkly beautiful instrument with a choice of Trans Buttermilk (shown), Trans Natural, Trans Maroon, or Trans Black hues and a stunningly figured “roasted maple” neck caressed with a hand-rubbed gunstock oil and wax finish. (The roasting process dries the neck for increased stability and resonance.) The Valentine doesn’t just bask in its magnificent looks like some bored supermodel, either. This machine delivers a variety of tones (via a hum/sing pickup combo and a coil-split control), serves up an onboard gain boost (variable from +1dB to +22dB), offers a noise-cancelling circuit for all single-coil and non-humbucking modes, and features pickup-level compensation for a consistent output whichever pickup you select.

Everyone who walked into my office and picked up the Valentine loved playing it. The neck almost molds to your hand and says, “Play anything you want, and at any speed you can, because I’m not gonna get in your way.” Marvelous. The guitar’s relatively light weight and all of its subtle design tweaks absolutely collaborate to make this a welcome plank to hold—whether you’re sitting down for long practice or studio sessions, or slinging it across your neck for multi-set gigs. If you’ve got “moves like Les Paul”—meaning, like the guitar legend, you constantly adjust settings as you play—the Valentine’s easy-to-grab controls afford quick and unfettered access to the Volume/Boost knob, Tone/Coil-Tap knob, and 3-way pickup selector.

On a gig, the Valentine can produce almost any sound you desire—unless you’re a stone, old-school jazzer who wants that hollowbody resonance. If so, you can at least get close to some fat jazz timbres by knocking down the Master Tone knob, flipping to the neck pickup, and adjusting your attack a bit. Boom! For all other styles, a few minutes of experimenting with the controls can produce excellent tones for rock, funk, pop, blues, R&B, grunge, industrial, and metal. The single-coil and humbucker each exhibit articulate intelligibility that delivers good note definition even if you go for aggressively saturated tones. This machine can growl, kerrang, chime, roar, soar, and get as bluesy as you please. Playing the Valentine is like having a Medusa of Sound at your fingertips—one that doesn’t turn you to stone (thank goodness), but that definitely rocks the house.

SPECIFICATIONS

JAMES VALENTINE SIGNATURE
Contact music-man.com
Price $2,099 street
Nut 1 5/8"
Neck 25.5"-scale roasted maple, bolt-on (5 bolts)
Fretboard Roasted maple
Frets 22 medium, stainless steel
Tuners Schaller M6-IND locking
Body Ash
Bridge Music Man hardtail, vintage-bent steel saddles
Pickups SH-Music Man custom-wound staggered polepiece single-coil (bridge), custom-wound humbucker (neck)
Controls Master Volume w/push/push gain boost, master Tone w/push/push coil split, 3-way selector
Factory Strings Ernie Ball RPS11 Slinky, .011-.048
Weight 8 lbs
Built USA
Kudos Looks hot. Plays hotter. Versatile sounds. Superb construction.
Concerns None.

MAKER’S INSIGHTS

By Sterling Ball

“The Valentine is a real working person’s guitar with some subtle innovation,” says Ernie Ball Music Man CEO and Chief Designer Sterling Ball. “James is an awesome guitarist, as well as a student of the guitar. He still takes lessons—even though he has sold millions of records—and that curiosity was channeled into the development of this guitar. Now, we don’t design signature guitars for the public. I think what makes us a very successful signature guitar company is that we have blinders on. All we see is the guitar player and what they want. We’re keenly aware of the public when we make non-signature guitars, of course, and Scotty Ball is incredibly involved in the R&D process for that area.

“For James, we knew he liked round-bottomed guitars, ash bodies, and at least one cutaway, because he’d often play an ES-335 or a Telecaster. We also knew he doesn’t like back contours. I had an idea about how to get the “Tele plank” sound that James loves, while making the guitar more comfortable and lightweight. So, with the help of our designer/engineer Kevin Hendrickson, we crafted a body that’s thinner at the top than at the bottom, and we changed the angle of the cutaways slightly. We had to get the coil-tap just right, because he needs a versatile-sounding guitar, and I think it’s brilliant. He also asked for the boost feature to be about half the 22dB we typically provide on the JP and Luke models. The guitar comes standard with 10dB, but it’s adjustable if some players want the full 22dB boost. Finally, James is very much into the social responsibility of sustainably harvested woods, so we made sure all the wood that goes into his guitar was right and proper.

“We’re very selective who we let in the family, and James is a welcome addition—or “adoption.” We would not have come up with the Valentine on our own, and I think he’d have a hard time coming up with it with somebody else. That’s the definition of a great relationship/partnership, and also the creative synergies that go into it.”

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