Sterling by Music Man AX40 and AX20 Guitars
Sterling by Music Man, sterlingbymusicman.com
AX40, $779.00; AX20, $709.00
Originally published in Guitar World, 30th Anniversary 2010 issue
Sterling Ball's AX Series sets a high standard for performance and tone from a budget instrument.
Sterling Ball, son of the late Ernie Ball and the president of Ernie Ball Music Man, was a driving force behind the company’s growth from a respected string manufacturer to one that is also a revered maker of American guitars and basses. For evidence of the company’s ax-building prowess, consider that Ernie Ball has built instruments for such technical wizards as Eddie Van Halen, Flea, Tony Levin, Albert Lee, Steve Lukather, Steve Morse and John Petrucci, to name a few. Recently, Sterling again expanded the company to include overseas-built, midpriced instruments that bear his name. Two of the most popular of these Sterling by Music Man guitars are the AX20 and AX40, both of which developed from the classic Ernie Ball Music Man Axis guitar that Van Halen made famous in the early Nineties.
Each of these AX Series instruments has a body shape that is practically identical to that of the high-end Axis guitar. The guitars are built from lightweight and warm-sounding basswood, capped with a quilted maple veneer top and wrapped with cream binding. Sterling Zebra humbuckers are mounted directly to the body for excellent transference of acoustic energy.
As impressive as these budget guitars look and sound, it’s the feel of the necks that sets them apart from most other instruments in this range. They’re not very wide and are carved asymmetrically, so that the left hand is positioned more properly and comfortably. It’s the kind of ergonomically perfect feel that you expect to find on a guitar that’s been worn in through decades of constant use.
The truss rods are accessed in front of the neck pickup, and the headstocks are cut in the classic Music Man shape, with tuners split four on one side and two on the other. Incidentally, this tuner configuration results in Strat-like jangly mids courtesy of the long G string, and punchy highs from the shorter top strings. The fretwork on both of my test guitars was fantastic, and the medium jumbo frets were crowned superbly.
Sterling has no affiliation with Eddie Van Halen, but it’s safe to say that the AX40 is as close as you can get to the EVH sound and feel for this kind of money. Its double-locking tremolo is very similar to a Floyd Rose, with the nut drilled through the neck for maximum resonance and stability. The single volume control and absence of a tone pot delivers the pickups’ loudest and purest tones. The maple-topped neck is a little deeper than the AX20s, but it’s still a lot faster and easier on the hand than thinner necks that don’t have this asymmetrical shape.
Considering the overall quality of the AX Series instruments, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the loud and inspiring tones that sprang out of the AX40. I loved the hard-hitting midrange, balanced highs and highly responsive low end, all of which were ideal for crunchy or heavy styles. Although the bridge doesn’t boast the super-hard metallurgy of its higher-priced kin, its edgy tone was an appropriate complement to this guitar’s wild demeanor, and tuning was extremely stable.
While theAX40 is designed especially for rock and metal, the AX20 covers practically any style. Its rosewood fretboard adds body, rather than darkness, to the tone, and the hardtail bridge sounds classically loud and sweet. The strings run through the basswood body and are securely fastened at the other end by locking tuners. The AX20’s neck doesn’t fill the hand with as much wood as the AX40’s, but it will make a lot of Tele and Strat players feel at home. The standard pairing of volume and tone controls is useful for exploring this instrument’s range of expression.
As with the AX40, I was stunned by how many details shone through the AX20’s jangly tone, loud response and pleasing overtones. Country, blues and rock are the AX20’s forte, largely because the fixed bridge and string-through-body setup creates an airy tonality that’s as much fun to hear as it is to play.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sterling Ball's AX Series sets a high standard for performance and tone from a budget instrument. They’re a genuine joy to play, hear and show off. The AX20 is a superb guitar for the player who wants vintage tones, and the AX40 is actually one of the hottest shred guitars at any price.
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