Ernie Ball Music Man: The Ranges Explained!

Published on 02 April 2024


Ernie Ball Music Man is a prestigious brand indeed. Founded by Leo Fender and now owned & operated by the makers of world-famous Slinky guitar strings, there’s fame and heritage here aplenty.

At guitarguitar, we’ve been proud to stock Ernie Ball Music Man guitars (and other products) since pretty much the beginning of our business, twenty years ago. We’re huge fans of the brand, and feel like they are some of the best quality guitars on the market.

Even though Ernie Ball Music Man guitars (henceforth written as EBMM) are pretty distinctive with their unique body shapes and ‘4+2’ tuner configuration on their headstocks, it’s still relatively easy to get confused about the brand. They offer Music Man, Sterling, Sterling Sub and BFR ranges, with lots of variations within that. There is also an instrument called the Sterling, outwith those range naming conventions. There’s the famous StingRay bass, but there’s also a StingRay guitar! And some basses are just ‘Ray’ basses!!! 


Worry not: I’ll straighten this out for you. Just read this blog and you’ll be a master on the subject!



Ernie Ball Music Man as a Brand

Ernie Ball Music Man Artists

Ernie Ball Music Man Guitars & Basses

BFR - Ball Family Reserve

Sterling by Music Man

Sterling Sub

True Iconoclasts


Ernie Ball Music Man as a Brand

Before commencing to each individual sub-part of the brand, let’s take in a quick history lesson. Music Man started in 1974 by Leo Fender and two other ex-Fender staff members. He sold the brand to employee Sterling Ball, son of the famous ‘Ernie’ (real name Roland) of Ernie Ball fame in 1984, and production moved to San Luis Obispo, California.

This is where EBMM remain, and their guitars are a high quality blend of robotic measuring & cutting with plenty of old-school handwork in there, too. Indeed, the level of handcrafting that each EBMM guitar receives is boutique-level, to say the least. Check out this little bullet-point rundown of a typical EBMM guitar or bass build:

  • Timbers for body and neck are hand selected for beauty, consistent looking grain and light weight.
  • Bodies and necks are milled, cut and drilled by robots. The bodies and necks are then hand-sanded to perfection.
  • Frets are hand levelled and crowned 
  • Electrics are hand-soldered.

This all ensures that every EBMM guitar is made with precision where precision is best, and handmade where human hands are best. Rather than a compromise, it's the best of both worlds and contributes in a large way to this brand’s famous feel.


Ernie Ball Music Man Artists

One way to cast judgement on any brand is to see who’s not only playing them but who has signature guitars with them. Obviously, brands want great artists to sign up since it reflects well on them, but take a look at Music Man and you’ll see top artists from a diverse selection of genres, and tellingly, they seem to stay with Music Man for a long time. This is perhaps the biggest proof that the company is operating at a consistently high level, since they’d all go elsewhere otherwise. 

Signature guitars are kind of their own range with EBMM, and of course they are all pretty unique! Each artist has their own guitar shape, specs and hardware that makes their guitars singular statements of their artistry.

Here’s a brief list of artists with signature Music Man guitars:

As you can see, there’s no ‘house style’ when it comes to EBMM artists. What ties these people together is a sense of individuality, which is represented in their instrument.

Ernie Ball Music Man Guitars & Basses

So, to the main Ernie Ball Music Man range itself. This makes up the majority of the brand’s output, and is made in the San Luis Obispo facility to the stringent quality levels outlined above. As implied earlier, EBMM use guitar designs that are entirely their own. Some are relatively familiar - the Cutlass could definitely be described as a Strat-style guitar - but others are less obviously ‘inspired’. The Axis is an original singlecut that owes little to either the Tele or the Les Paul but could be looked at as existing at some mid-point between the two. 

Music Man guitars tend to feature pickups made in-house (including some models with innovative ‘Heat Treated’ pickups) as well as their own specially designed tremolo. Some artist signature guitars are based on existing guitar designs like the Cutlass and the Stingray, and these styles are made as ‘standard’ models, too.

In terms of basses, it’s all about the world-famous StingRay, of course! This original design has become one of the most enduring classics of the bass world, right up there with Fender’s Precision & Jazz basses, the Rickenbacker 4003 and the Gibson Thunderbird. The StingRay combines power with elegance in a way that echoes Fender’s best but actually offers an entirely different sound. 

Known for its warm, powerful sound, the Music Man StingRay marries a specially-designed humbucking pickup with an active EQ preamp. The level of control you get over your tone is one of the best things about the StingRay, apart from the wonderful sound and feel, of course!

The StingRay is available in a wide range of Collections (as EBMM put it), including retro 70s styles, short scale models and more. It’s available as a 4 string, a 5 string, and with either a single humbucker or a pair. However you prefer your StingRay, you can have it!

Aside from the myriad StingRay (yes, you need a capital ‘R’ in there) models, EBMM also produces the Bongo bass and the Sterling. The Bongo is a defiantly modern design, built for balance and performance. The Sterling is a slightly smaller take on the StingRay, with a slightly downsized body and neck. Otherwise it boasts the same powerful humbucker and active EQ as its larger sibling.



BFR - Ball Family Reserve

BFR stands for Ball Family Reserve, and is an ever-changing collection of limited run instruments made with non-catalog woods and finishes. Comparing the BFR guitars to ‘custom shop’ guitars isn’t really accurate, mainly because Ernie Ball Music Man guitars are already ‘custom shop quality’, if you get me? There are no guitars from the Californian facility that aren’t made to boutique specs, so the ‘regular’ range is very much the equal to other brands’ custom shops.

That said, the BFR is where you can find some exclusivity and some eye-catchingly unusual instruments. The actual availability of BFR offerings changes seasonally, with only limited amounts ever available. You’ll find rare woods, unusual colours, different hardware and other appointments that conspire to make each BFR instrument very special indeed. All existing EBMM guitar and bass designs are fair game for the BFR treatment, so you’ll see a Steve Morse one month and a Cutlass the next.

We regularly stock BFR guitars and basses, but there is no fixed regularity to the releases, so it’s a matter of ‘as and when’, which makes them all the more mysterious and desirable.


Sterling by Music Man

So, the above text is all true for USA-made EBMM guitars. There is also, however, a series called Sterling, and those are instruments licensed by Ernie Ball Music Man, but not made by them. These are built in Indonesia and are designed to be affordable takes on EBMM guitars, rather like how Epiphone are to Gibson. They are ‘official’ replicas, and they are designed by Ernie Ball’s design team, but Music Man don’t physically make these.

Model-wise, the Sterling range is pretty comprehensive. There are artist models from most of the EBMM roster, including John Petrucci (both JP and Majesty models), St Vincent, Steve Lukather and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. There’s also a good range of Cutlass, Sabre, Axis and Stingray guitars.

Bass wise, it can get slightly confusing. We’ve already seen a US-made Sterling bass, which was a slightly downsized model. Okay, now there’s a Sterling version of the Sterling (see what I mean?) and this has the same smaller body and neck, but it has passive electronics instead of the active units on the American EBMM Sterling. Also, this Indonesian Sterling has the word ‘Sterling’ written on the headstock twice, so it’s a Sterling Sterling, or at least a Sterling by Music Man Sterling, which hardly helps!

Anyway, that’s just one model. There are lots of affordable-ish StingRay models here, and they have an extra name to differentiate them, too. Four string models are called Ray4, and 5 string models are Ray5. So far, so straightforward. Ray34 and Ray 35 have a 3-band EQ (Ray4 and Ray5 models have a 2-band EQ). There’s a few more conventions, so let me make a handy list for you to refer to:

  • Ray4: 4 string, 2-band EQ, one humbucker
  • Ray5: 5 string, 2-band EQ, one humbucker
  • Ray4 HH: 4 string, 2-band EQ, two humbuckers
  • Ray5 HH: 5 string, 2-band EQ, two humbuckers
  • Ray34: 4 string, 3-band EQ, one humbucker
  • Ray35: 5 string, 3-band EQ, one humbucker
  • Ray34 HH: 4 string, 3-band EQ, two humbuckers
  • Ray35 HH: 5 string, 3-band EQ, two humbuckers
  • Ray24CA: 4 string, 2-band EQ, single humbucker, slightly different body, narrower nut
  • Ray25CA: 5 string, 2-band EQ, single humbucker, slightly different body, narrower nut


Sterling Sub

Within the Sterling brand, there’s a further sub brand known as Sterling SUB. Some say that it stands for ‘Sports Utility Bass’ which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me (not least because the term is often used on guitars as well as basses), but what you need to know is that these are the most affordable Music Man-derived guitars you can get.

The Sterling SUB range includes a number of guitars such as the Axis, Cutlass and Albert Lee models, all made to a low price point but retaining the look and style of the more expensive EBMM models. There are a number of StingRay basses available too: they use similar naming conventions as the list above, though there’s less choice here, so you’re looking for names like SUB Series Ray4 and SUB Series Ray5.


True Iconoclasts

Ernie Ball Music Man are an all too rare example of a genuinely iconoclastic guitar maker who are successful in today’s market. It’s hard to provide original designs that don’t overtly riff on classic Fender and Gibson designs, and that’s before you factor in the fact that Music Man was founded by Leo Fender! Hats off to them for offering top-quality guitars that aren’t variations on accepted classics.

Their StingRay bass is a legitimate classic, and the rest of the EBMM stable follows its idiosyncratic path. For musicians who crave individuality in addition to incredible quality, there aren’t many choices as clearly effective as Ernie Ball Music Man.

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