Going Gold – Ernie Ball at 50
It’s been a long ride for the folks at Ernie Ball, Inc. What started out as a one-man operation selling custom-made strings out of a humble electric guitar store has grown into a global brand and MI staple with one 60,000 sq-foot facility in Coachella, California (Ernie Ball) and another 45,000 sq-foot base in San Luis Obispo (Music Man), employing a total of roughly 500.
Ernie Ball has been embraced by iconic musicians throughout the past half-century and the company has earned a reputation for fostering close relationships with established artists, while also nurturing and encouraging the development of younger players. An organization noted for nonstop innovation which improves product and the experience for their end-users, EB is also one of the most respected entirely family-run businesses in the music industry.
MMR recently spoke with Brian Ball and his father, Sterling, about the company’s first 50 years and their outlook for the future.
MMR: The background and evolution of Ernie Ball, the company, is pretty widely known to many in the business, but can you briefly describe – in your own words – how the family business got started?
Brian Ball: My grandfather had a deep passion for guitar. Early on he was taught Hawaiian steel guitar by his dad, and later played pedal steel professionally with the Tommy Duncan Band (formerly of the Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys). During his tour in the Korean War he also played with the Air Force band, and really gained prominence around the Southern California music scene when he played live on KTLA’s “Western Varieties” show.
MMR: Was it about this time that Ernie connected with Leo Fender?
BB: Earlier, actually. His friendship with Leo Fender stemmed from an endorsement relationship. Ernie had heard about what Leo was doing with guitars, the two met up and hit it off.
Sterling Ball: My father became a beta-tester for Fender and then an endorsee. Later he sold Fender Guitars at his retail location in Tarzana [Los Angeles]. And, of course, it was through Leo that we got involved with — and ultimately purchased, in 1984 — Music Man Instruments.
BB: As rock and roll music came into prominence in the early ‘60s, the electric guitar had become the preeminent lead voice in popular music. Ernie noticed that students in his lesson studio were having difficulties bending strings and playing the lead lines effectively. He saw that there was a market for strings designed specifically for these players.
SB: The funny thing is: Leo didn’t think rock n roll strings were a good idea – that’s the only reason we’re in the business!
BB: Ernie asked Fender and Gibson to come out with lighter gauge strings, only to be told he was nuts. So he decided to do it himself by private-labeling banjo frailing strings into newly branded Ernie Ball string packs titled “Slinky Custom Gauge Rock and Roll.”
He was an ace at setting instruments up, and started to string up touring musicians’ guitars with his new strings. Word started to spread amongst the British Rock and Roll scene where you had early adopters including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, and more.
MMR: Relationships with artists continues to be a key component of Ernie Ball’s business model. Can you talk about endorsement arrangements and what that means to your overall approach?
BB: Our products are used from everyone from Clapton to Slash, to Angus Young and The Eagles.
SB: Ernie Ball products were there for the creation of so much of rock history to the point where I’d say, as far as the guitar goes, there’s probably no product in the history of the business that’s been on more hit records — Everything from “Good Vibrations” to Hendrix to “Stairway to Heaven” to John Mayer today.
BB: We treat artists like family. That may sound cliché, but we really nurture a partnership and we’re supporting them in far more meaningful ways then simply sounding out boxes of strings to the studio. Our motto, if we have one, is that we make tools for artists and musicians – and we try to make really good ones. You can’t nurture a good relationship if you don’t make good product.
SB: The emergence of Guitar Player magazine and the British Invasion. Guitar Player was huge, because there was suddenly a venue to promote guitar, and the influx of all these electric guitar-based rock bands obviously was big for the instrument and for us. More recently, our involvement with the Warped Tour and Battle of the Bands have been huge in helping us connect with younger players.
The key is: it’s been a process that’s 24 hours a day for all of us, so it’s really hard to think about things in those terms. But I’ll tell you, when I look at 50 years with the tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment that I have and being able to think about my dad and the things he taught me… My dad was so passionate about making this product and this company work. To have made it 50 years and still be extremely relevant is very satisfying for me.
MMR: What new products and developments are on the horizon for Ernie Ball/Music Man?
BB: The new Game Changer – featured in the EB/Music Man Game Changer Reflex Guitar – is a unique pickup switching system that truly unlocks the capabilities of your pickups. Rather than getting just a preset of three or five tonal options, what we’ve done is given guitar players basically a virtual tone port. You can combine any order of pickup coils in or out of phase, in series, parallel … it’s incredible.
Ernie Ball Cobalt Strings is another new product. We’ve been on a nine-year pursuit for something that’s truly beneficial and groundbreaking for players. Lately, the focus in guitar string development has been strictly related to “durability” and I feel that’s gotten saturated and diluted. There are so many different signals and factors involved in what produces tone: pickups, cables, effects, tone woods, and so on. You can mitigate how impactful the string can be. Cobalt gives you the most magnetically active element available. The relationship between signal pull is stronger than any other alloy. It’s giving guitar and bass players more output, more response, more clarity.
We have other new products being released all the time, but those are the two biggest for the time being.
MMR: What’s your outlook for the next 50 years?
BB: I think our future is really bright. We’ve got a lot of ideas and the ability to execute those ideas. I’ve got a lot of pride and passion for our family’s business. I’m excited and invigorated to work with my father and hopefully make my grandfather proud. Both my brother Scotty and I are looking to develop more products and keep Ernie Ball globally competitive.
SB: Early on, one of the things I realized was the necessity of reinventing yourself for the next generation. If all we did was to rely totally on our 50-year legacy, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We’re really balanced between staying new and fresh while celebrating our track record and history. We live, eat, breathe, and sleep the customer, the product, and the process. We still love the guitar, so we’re going to keep doing what we do, which is: following our instinct and making product.
On a positive parting note: it’s been a great life, a great career, and I still get up early in the morning ecstatic to do it. I got a chance to work with my dad, I get a chance to work with my kids… I can’t imagine a better life.