Sterling ball has evolved and grown the family business his dad started—as well as bringing his own brood into the enterprise—but designing guitars and basses for Ernie Ball is just one element of this modern Renaissance man’s current lifestyle. He has also become a bona fide star in the BBQ world with his Big Poppa Smokers company and competitive-grilling career. (Ball is the brand ambassador for Smithfield Pork, and the “face” of summer grilling for Walmart and Tabasco.) And, as if he didn’t have enough to fill his time, he recently released his second solo album, The Mutual Admiration Society [Mascot], that features guests such as Steve Vai, John Petrucci, Steve Lukather, Albert Lee, and Steve Morse.
How did you and your team—John Ferraro and Jim Cox—approach the sessions?
Basically, we went into this thing really pure with no expectations. I think when you do that, you don’t try to overthink or oversteer, and some really good things can happen. The two of us would just sit down and play, because there’s a certain feel that we have together, and that feel would always lead us to certain musical directions. The only thing I might have told John was not to be a session guy and play things too safe. He is very capable of going for it, and that’s what I wanted to hear.
Excepting the melody line, what do you feel elevates an instrumental into something special?
The textures—the parts and the layering—is critical. It’s like creating a recipe. You add a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, you listen to how it all fits together, and then you pick the good stuff. It’s actually not that easy to make a simple song sound good. You need to build those tracks with some sweet bits to attract the listener.
How did you lay down your guitar solos?
I’m like the race-car driver who is going into a turn too fast, and you don’t think he’s going to make it, but, all of a sudden, he does. I just play, and I try different things each time. If I focus too much, I’ll play too stiffly.
Was it all intimidating to incorporate the solo tracks from those world-class players into the album?
Well, when Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, Steve Vai, Albert Lee, John Petrucci, and Jay Graydon want to make music with you, you make music with them. And I actually got a very strong lecture from Steve [Vai], who said, “Stop this self-deprecating bullsh*t. You’re in the club. You have a unique voice. So shut up.” That helped me go in the studio and create. I’ll tell you another thing: I spent my life serving artists. My job wasn’t to be their peer—it was to create tools to help them. But, at this time of my life, and thanks to my dear friends, I finally felt it was okay for me to join the club.