Music Man is an American guitar, bass guitar and amplifier manufacturer. It is a division of the Ernie Ball corporation. The Music Man story began in 1971 when Forrest White and Tom Walker talked with Leo Fender about starting a company they would call Tri-Sonic, Inc. White had started working with Leo in the very early days of Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company as the plant manager and stayed on after the company was sold to the CBS Corporation, but had grown unhappy with their management. Tom Walker worked as a sales rep at Fender. Because of a ten year non-compete clause in the 1965 contract that sold Fender to CBS, Leo Fender was a silent partner.

The name of this partnership was changed to Musitek, Inc. by 1973 and in January 1974 the final name, Music Man, appeared. In 1974 the company started producing its first product, an amplifer designed by Leo Fender and Tom Walker called the “Sixty Five”. It was a hybrid of tube and solid state technology. The number of designs rapidly increased. Fifteen of the 28 pages from 1976 catalogue were dedicated to amplification. In 1975 Fender’s legal restriction had expired and after a vote of the board he was named the president of Music Man.

This wasn’t Fender’s sole enterprise however. He also owned and ran a consulting firm called CLF Research(Clarence Leo Fender) in Fullerton, California. By 1976 it had built a manufacturing facility for musical instruments and was contracted to make Music Man products. In June of 1976 production started on guitars and in August basses followed. The 1976 catalogue shows the first offerings; A two pickup guitar called the “StingRay 1” and the StingRay Bass. Both instruments featured bolt on neck designs with headstocks bearing distinctive 4+2 and 3+1 tuner arrangements. The StingRay Bass featured a single large humbucking pickup (located somewhat toward but not adjacent to the bridge) with a two-band fixed-frequency EQ. A row of string mutes sat on the bridge. Basses were produced in fretted and fretless versions.

These instruments were designed by Leo Fender and Forrest White. Sterling Ball assisted in the design of the bass. Tom Walker played a large part in the design of the bass preamp. They were the first production guitar and basses to use active electronics which could boost frequencies, whereas traditional electronics could only reduce frequencies. The preamps were coated with epoxy to prevent reverse engineering. The StingRay Bass sold well. While highly innovative electronically, the guitar was not blessed cosmetically and met with little success. Part of the reason for the poor sales of the guitar was that the preamp actually made the sound “too clean” for most Rock and Roll guitarists, who preferred the slightly distorted sound offered by passive electronics. The notable exceptions were Music Man sponsorees Alabama, who found the cleanliness of the Music Man guitars appealing.

In the early 70’s, Randy Owen, Jeff Cook, and Teddy Gentry, all cousin’s from Fort Payne, Alabama, formed Wild Country, using gear Jeff had been collecting.

They moved to Mrytle Beach, SC, and there-after, change their name to Alabama. While up there, they played and started using Music Man Guitars, Basses, and Amps, being the Sabre II Guitar and Bass. They also added Mark Herndon, as the band’s drummer

From the group’s Bowery days, on up to the 40 Hour Week Album, the group used nothing, but Music Man equipment, then switched over to Fender and other various guitars and amps. Jeff Cook went onto working with other guitar companies designing his own line of guitars, one series, was produced by the B.C. Rich guitar company.

The Music Man Sabre II Double Neck 6 string guitar is picture with Jeff Cook holding it on the front cover of the Mountain Music album and the back cover of the Closer You Get album. Jeff owns the only two that was made. One of them is in his display case, at their museum, at their Fan Club in Fort Payne, Alabama.

During the groups My Home’s In Alabama Tour, a video was shot out in California, during a concert, where they are using Music Man equipment.

They also showcased their Music Man Equipment in their Country Music Videos- Mountain Music, Theres a Fire In The Night, Dixieland Delight, Can’t Keep a Good Man Down, I’m Not The Way Anymore, Closer You Get. –Cave Rat 19:20, 22 February 2007 (UTC)

In December 1978 a two pickup bass was introduced called the Sabre (discontinued in 1991). A redesigned guitar bearing the same name followed. Both sold poorly.

CLF Research and Music Man were treated as separate companies, headed by Leo Fender and Tommy Walker, respectively. Fender made the guitars and basses, while Walker’s company made the amplifiers and sold accessories. The instruments were made at CLF, and shipped to Music Man’s warehouse, where each instrument was inspected and tested. Problems with fibers in the finish caused Music Man’s inspectors to reject a high percentage of the instruments, and return them to CLF for refinishing. Since Music Man didn’t pay CLF Research until the instrument finishes were deemed acceptable, a rift developed between CLF and Music Man over payment.

Low sales stressed the staff. The company’s internal conflicts caused Leo Fender to form another partnership. Paul Bechtoldt author of “G&L: Leo’s Legacy” describes the situation. “Leo had decided to market guitars under another name besides Music Man in 10/79 due to tension between CLF and Music Man. Production of bodies and necks for both Music Man and G&L were concurrent up to and including March 1981. G&L was incorporated May 1980, although some early models with the moniker “G&L” have body dates from March 1980.”

Other incidents point to a later date for CLF’s exit. Sterling Ball, the current owner of Music Man, describes the circumstances and confusion regarding this era on the Ernie Ball website forum:

“Here is the problem….most of these guys are dead so trying to correct the record becomes more and more difficult. Tommy ,Leo, Forrest and quite a few more are no longer with us.. I can tell you that Leo was very disappointed that his stingray and sabre guitars didn’t sell and that was the basis for G&L. G&L (GEORGE AND LEO) was started at CLF behind Music Man’s back and [by] coincidence or other CLF made 2,500 Music man bass necks with straight truss rods. Tommy was forced to go to a young upstart Grover Jackson to make the basses. Grover was the one who introduced the trans finishes. I often asked Tommy why he didn’t sue over the suspect necks and he replied “My dady[sic] didn’t raise me like that”.

Still another account varies. In an interview conducted by Gav Townsing, George Fullerton offers this scenerio, “At the end of 1979 we stopped building for Musicman and never made another item for them. We really weren’t friends at that point and not even talking.”

By all accounts it was an acrimonious affair. Sterling Ball makes no mention of the dates these incidents occurred but many place the date of the ‘neck incident’ in late 1982. So how where the insturments made during the two years between the G&L start up and the final CLF blow out? A contract was given to Grover Jackson to build bass bodies and assemble the instruments with CLF necks and the remaining CLF hardware. When CLF stopped making necks Jackson made those also. Oddly, it was Grover Jackson that would provide the headache that would torment Fender and Gibson in the coming years. His Jackson and Charvel line of guitars seemingly would pop into every guitarist hands in the 1980s.

Given this climate the StingRay guitar was quietly dropped from the line. The Sabre guitar soldiered on until 1984 but its doubtful there were problems filling orders. A graphite necked StingRay Bass debuted in 1980. Fender had been opposed to the idea. The neck was made by Modulus. It was called the Cutlass and the two pickup variant, the Cutlass II. Neither it, nor the new translucent finishes, were able to turn the financial tide and by 1984 the company was near bankruptcy. Music Man was in good company as both Fender and Gibson reached the nadir of mismanagement in the early 1980’s. After looking at a few offers Music Man was sold to Ernie Ball on March 7, 1984. Music Man’s remaining physical assets were sold on June 1, 1984. The production of amplifiers, which were manufactured at a separate factory, ceased. Ernie Ball had started producing a modern acoustic bass guitar in 1972 under the name Earthwood but the venture had largely collapsed by the mid 70s, some say due to poor marketing. It seems it was an idea twenty years before its time. Oddly enough, his partner in this company was George Fullerton. The factory, which Ball still owned at the time of the Music Man purchase, was located in San Luis Obispo, California and that is where Music Man started producing basses in 1985. Some people mistakenly assume that the buyout of Music Man was like the CBS and Norlin buyouts of Fender and Gibson(and Moog Music) and that it was another in a line of big corporations ruining good guitar manufacturers, but nothing could be further from the truth. One important difference is that Ernie Ball was a musician and spent his life in the service of musicians. Another is that since Sterling Ball was a longterm employee of Music Man the buyout had more in common with the employee buyouts of Fender and Gibson in 1984 and 1986.

By using player endorsed models Music Man racked up a string of successes including the Silhouette(1986), Steve Morse Signature(1987), StingRay 5(1987), Eddie Van Halen Signature(1990), Albert Lee Signature(1993), Steve Lukather Signature(1993) and the Sterling Bass(1993). While none of these could compete against Fender or Gibson on sales figures, Music Man outpaced the competition by making ‘players’ guitars with quick change pickup assemblies, teflon coated trussrods, low noise pickup designs, piezo bridge pickups, 5 and 6 bolt necks, sculpted neck joints, graphite acrylic resin coated body cavities and most importantly, consistently high quality fit and finish.
Previously, Music Man had ignored the option of offering low priced instruments. This gave other companies the opportunity to profit by producing low priced knock-offs. In response, Music Man licensed its designs to HHI/Davitt & Hanser, launching OLP (Officially Licensed Products) to give Music Man market coverage in this price point.

The ‘SUB’ line was launched to prove that a quality instrument without the bells and whistles could be made in the USA. The product was a success and helped Music Man when its main price point was in a slump. Sterling Ball has commented that, due to the quickly growing $1,000+ segment of the guitar industry, there have been fewer and fewer SUBs in production each year. This line was made at the same plant that makes the higher priced models, but was discontinued in September, 2006.

In 1996, Ernie Ball/Music Man began an annual ‘Battle of the Bands’ contest to spotlight unsigned talent.

In 2001, Sterling Ball decided to institute a living wage at the plant. The entry level wage would be $10.10 per hour. One third of the then current workforce of 226 people got a raise. He cited the need to attract and retain quality employees, and the moral responsibility to provide his employees with a decent income. Fewer than twenty percent of the residents in San Luis Obispo county can afford to buy a house. He had this to say in a New Times interview concerning the decision, “It’s contrary to a lot of traditional business theories, I know, but I did it because it’s the right thing to do, fundamentally.”

2003 saw the introduction of the radical Music Man Bongo Bass, the result of a partnership with a design firm better known for its work with BMW.

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