ANYONE WHO HAD EVER WANTED TO GET INTO an Ernie Ball Music Man guitar at a lower price point got a taste of that when Music Man licensed some of their designs for the OLP (Officially Licensed Products) a few years back. The OLP brand was retired earlier this year, leading some to wonder how they might get some Music Man on a budget. Well, rest easy, because at the 2009 Winter NAMM Show, the MM folks debuted their Sterling line, which sports some of their classic designs at more modest prices. Having long been a fan of the originals, I was eager to check out the AX40 and Silo20 featured here. I cranked them through a Divided by 13 CJ11, a Bogner Alchemist, and a Nolatone Tango 22.
Fans of Hagar-era Van Halen will instantly recognize this maple-capped beauty. The AX40 looks pretty much identical to the guitar that Mr. Ed wielded in those days, which ultimately became the Axis. This Indonesian-made instrument is loud and lively when strummed acoustically. The double-locking whammy is flush against the body, which transfers vibrations from the strings very effectively. It also makes for great tuning stability if you break a string and eliminates whammy sag during double-stop and oblique bends. The neck is super comfy, with a satin finish and a slim, asymmetrical carve.
The AX40 is a straightforward instrument, with a single Volume knob, no Tone control, and a 3-way toggle. Not surprisingly, it dishes out robust, powerful humbucker tones. The bridge pickup, is punchy and clear. The neck pickup is warm and full—almost too full in fact. It is noticeably louder and boomier than the bridge pickup and I would probably lower it a tad to even out its response. As is, though, it’s great for singing, flutey, Cream-style woman tones. At high gain settings it was a blast to sweep and shred on this pickup, and it was easy to do thanks to the AX40’s spot-on setup. When I perceived a slight fretting out on extreme bends—which wasn’t audible through an amp—the “spoke wheel” trussrod provided an easy fix. The pleasant sonic surprise came from the middle position. I’m not always crazy about dual-humbucker tones, particularly when you don’t have separate volume controls to blend the pickups. But Sterling really nailed it on the AX40. Even with no ability to split the coils, the middle setting was bright and chimey. It also cleaned up amazingly well through a loud amp. In fact, I think this guitar is at its best plugged into a cranked amp, with me riding the Volume control to go from clean to dirty.
It’s pretty impressive how Sterling is able to deliver such bang for relatively low bucks. The AX40 is a must-try option for anyone looking to grab a piece of Music Man magic.
Where the AX40 sported a relatively stripped down feature set, the Silo20 has some bells and whistles, mostly due to its hum/sing/hum pickup configuration. What it shares with the AX is slick playability and resonant acoustic ring, but the Silo has 24 frets, a hardtail bridge, and an all-basswood body to give it its own identity. It also has uncommonly clean and even fretwork for a guitar in this price range. Nice!
As fun as the Silo20 is to play unplugged, it’s through an amp that the true colors of this design come out. The bridge humbucker is brash and bold, with great output while still remaining detailed. The 5-way switch makes it possible to get a variety of cool pickup combinations, and Sterling has done a great job here. Switching up from the bridge pickup in position one, we then get the treble coil of the bridge pickup with the middle single-coil. This is a brighter tone with less output, perfect for clucky funk or for just playing dynamically in a verse section. The next position gives the middle pickup by itself, and, although I almost never use this position on a Strat, it sounds great on the Silo. Combining the middle pickup and the bass coil of the neck pickup serves up a cool, “Sultans of Swing” vibe, and finally the neck humbucker, which is big and fat. The tones are all useful and even though some of the dual pickup tones struck me as a tad hyped and notched on first listen, I grew to really dig them and see how they would come in handy on a gig and in the studio. At $399 street, the Silo20 is tough to beat. Well done.