By Richard Bienstock
Though Ernie Ball is a well-established name in the musical instrument industry, its Music Man division has never shied away from the sort of innovation more typically seen among newer entrants to the field.
Consider the retro-modern angularity of the Music Man Albert Lee signature six-string, the “sawed-off” horns and headstock of the company’s Bongo bass, and the Game Changer model’s patent-pending pickup system, which, Music Man boasts, offers players access to more than a quarter-million pickup combinations. Each of these examples demonstrates that the central California-based manufacturer continues to push the edges of guitar-design territory in terms of aesthetics and usability.
Music Man’s newest creation, the Armada, is a success on both fronts. The guitar’s most arresting feature is without question its extremely unorthodox, and quite stunning, body design, which at first glance looks as if a Flying V was separated from its neck and jammed upside down into the lower bout of a more traditional model—an SG or a Jaguar, perhaps. But the Armada is more than just a looker. The guitar also sports several features unique to a Music Man instrument, including a shorter scale (24 3/4 inches as opposed to the company’s more common 25 1/2), a pair of specially designed and voiced humbucking pickups, and, most notably, neck-through-body construction, the first in Music Man’s history.
Furthermore, the distinctive body shape offers up not only outrageous form but also true tonal function, utilizing a combination of three wood types: African mahogany for the wings, Honduran mahogany for the center block, and, resting on top, a V-shaped slab of deeply figured maple. “The African mahogany is lightweight and very resonant, while the Honduran is denser and provides more strength for the neck portion of the instrument,” explains Dudley Gimpel, Music Man’s director of R&D. “The maple brightens everything up a bit and provides nice tonal detail.”
Tonal detail is further enhanced by several additional elements, including the proprietary humbuckers, which, Gimpel says, were developed initially to exhibit “more vintage output, but as R&D progressed ended up becoming a little hotter and fatter sounding.” Another factor is a unique treble-retaining wiring scheme.
“Most electric guitars tend to lose high end as you back down on the volume,” Gimpel says. “We designed a circuit that keeps the treble level constant at all volume points. As a result, the guitar keeps the exact same tone regardless of where the volume knob is set.”
This attention to detail extends to every aspect of the Armada. The beautifully grained maple inset is arched at the center for maximum pick-hand comfort and slopes downward to join seamlessly with the African mahogany wings. It is accented by four-ply binding (which also lines the perimeter of the body), mother-of-pearl “V” inlays on the rosewood fretboard, and a matched headstock topped with maple derived from the same piece of wood used in the body.
Other exceptional features include a compensated nut, wide high stainless steel frets, sleekly rendered neck bout for easy access to upper frets, bound and angled headstock (another first for Music Man), TonePros bridge, Graph Tech tailpiece, three-way short-throw toggle switch, low-friction master volume and tone knobs, and easy truss rod adjustment via an exposed thumb wheel located just above the neck-position pickup. It’s an elegant package, to be sure. “That’s definitely the word we had in mind when making this instrument,” Gimpel says. “Every element here contributes to bettering the overall playing experience.”
The result is a guitar that’s not only built for comfort but also designed to push the envelope. “It has its own ‘cool’ factor,” says Music Man vice president Scott Ball. “Even if at first it takes people a while to accept it, once they play it, they’ll come to love it, because the Armada is unlike anything else out there.”
LIST PRICES Opaque top, $3,850; flame maple top, $4,000; quilted maple top, $4,250
Music Man, music-man.com