Ernie Ball/Music Man 20th Anniversary Silhouette

BACK IN 1990, Keith Richards said that the Ernie Ball/Music Man Silhouette guitar "has the opportunity to become like the Stratocaster or Telecaster or Les Paul, one of the classic electric guitars." This compliment, made long before Keith fell out of a coconut tree and underwent brain surgery (although his sanity has always been suspect), helped the Silhouette earn attention that it truly deserved.

Introduced 20 years ago, the Silhouette was the first solidbody guitar in the Ernie Ball/Music Man line, which now includes the Axis (formerly known as the Edward Van Halen model) and Albert Lee, Steve Lukather, Steve Morse and John Petrucci signature models. While the Silhouette may not be as popular as the Strat, Tele or Les Paul, it certainly has achieved status as a cult classic amongst in-the-know guitarists who have made it a success over the past two decades. The new 20th Anniversary Silhouette celebrates this model's unique appeal, while offering its fans something a little bit different.

Music Man has made a few minor changes to the Silhouette over the years, including several features that were introduced with the Silhouette Special in 1995. The 20th Anniversary Silhouette offers a handful of significant design differences, while it remains faithful to the original model's overall vibe. Unlike previous models, which featured a top-routed alder body with electronics mounted to a pickguard, the 20th Anniversary has rear-mounted electronics and boasts an alder body topped with an attractive slab of book-matched flame or quilted maple with a three-ply veneer layered in-between. In the center of the body, beneath the pickups, is a mahogany tone block, a unique feature found only on this model. It gives the guitar a tone similar to a mahogany-bodied set-neck guitar, without the added weight.

The pickups are two custom DiMarzio humbuckers instead of the stock humbucking/ single-coil/humbucking configuration of the standard Silhouette, and a three-position pickup selector replaces the five-position switch. However, the features that made the Silhouette stand out from the crowd are still there, including the distinctive 4+2 headstock, compact and lightweight body design and 24-fret neck. The body and neck joint are contoured for playing comfort, although the cutaway horns are flatter and not quite as sculpted as on the regular Silhouette and Silhouette Special. The neck is attached to the body with five bolts to ensure perfect alignment and steadfastness, no matter how much you abuse the guitar while playing.

One other significant new feature is a patented compensated nut that features several notches on its fretboard side, rather than on the overhanging "shelf," as on the conceptually similar Buzz Feiten tuning system. The guitar I received for examination was expertly set up, and the intonation was dead-on perfect.

With its two humbuckers and maple top, the 20th Anniversary Silhouette is like a hybrid of the classic Silhouette and Axis. The guitar delivers lively and loud tone even before it's plugged in, and the maple/alder/mahogany combination and 25 1/2-inch scale produce nice, bright treble, fat-and-warm midrange and punchy, dynamic low end. Because of the 24- fret neck, the two humbuckers are positioned relatively close together, which means that the neck pickup doesn't sound quite as mellow and round as a Les Paul's neck pickup. The DiMarzios offer a good balance of hot output and clarity, with just enough guts to give your amp a good workout while they clean up to an acoustic-like shimmer when you back down the volume control.

My test guitar included the optional Music Man vintage tremolo, a nonlocking system with bent hardened steel saddles. The strings are anchored in a solid brass block, which enhances the guitar's sustain and inherently bright, lively tone. The tremolo stays in tune very well for a vintage-style setup, and even extreme dive bombs didn't knock the strings out of tune.

Ernie Ball/Music Man guitars are renowned for their outstanding craftsmanship, materials and playability, and the 20th Anniversary Silhouette is no exception. The neck has a slim, rounded profile and an almost raw-wood feel: instead of a polyester finish, the neck is treated with gunstock oil and hand-rubbed wax. While I typically prefer necks with traditional finishes, I found the results remarkably comfortable.

Keith Richards got it right when he called the Silhouette a classic. After 20 years, this model still impresses. If you're looking for a guitar with vintage appeal and tone but with modern playability and performance, the Silhouette aims to please.

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Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.