Music Man takes a workhorse guitar up a level (or five). Words by Steve Henderson.
Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #132. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Our friends at Music Man have sent us a real treat for this review: a Ball Family Reserve Axis – a beautiful presented twin humbucker solidbody with a gorgeous figured maple top. The Axis series has been around, in various renderings, for a couple of decades now and, from its origin, it was meant to be a straight‑ahead rock machine (thanks Eddie!) without the distraction of multiple switches and knobs.
The Ball Family Reserve is a program involving limited runs of selected models using the absolute finest materials available and produced by Ernie Ball/Music Man’s truly artisan‑level custom shop. This particular Axis, one of only 75, remains true to the “Axis philosophy” of stripped-down simplicity with two pickups, one knob, one switch, and a whammy. It also has one of the sweetest maple necks you’re likely to find anywhere.
Opening the road case of a new Music Man for the first time is always an experience. The instrument is usually wrapped in plastic, shiny and pristine, and you know that the last person
to touch it was a luthier in San Luis Obispo.
However, this time is, I believe, the first time a Music Man guitar has arrived not perfectly set-up. It had a reverse bow, so just about every note rattled. But Music Man has a fabulous truss rod adjustment system, that little wheel between the neck and the front pickup, and, less than a quarter turn later, the Axis played perfectly and with the lowest action I think I’ve ever experienced – not a rattle to be heard.
RESERVED FOR THE BEST
Through a variety of amps, the Axis effortlessly offered up luscious humbucking tones. Wherever you strike the strings, the guitar rings with a sound that has body and harmonic richness. Through a tweed Bassman, the clean tones are big, round and dominant. There’s enough output to easily tip the Bassman front end into overdrive but lightening up on the pick cleans up this attack.
Through a 50-watt Marshall and 412, the breadth of the sound is even more apparent, displaying a tight bottom end, strong mids, and rich highs. Even through a Roland Cube 40, the Axis displays an unusually clear presence with plenty of harmonic content.
But the Axis was made to rock, and that it does. Through the drive channel on a Mesa TransAtlantic and a Mk IV Boogie, the Axis absolutely dominates the mix. It’s clear, rich voice (either pickup) never loses its identity to the drive circuit – it remains present and expressive. I hooked up an old DS-1, a Zendrive and a Mesa Flux-Five to the Bassman and then to the clean channel on the Mk IV.
The Axis/DS-1 combination produced a smooth distortion with a nice scoop in the mids and backing off the guitar’s volume created a nice crunch but still with plenty of volume. The Zendrive and the Flux-Five, being overdrive units, each brought out the rich mids of the Axis. The Zendrive has a narrower Q than the Flux-Five, so the mid focus changed a little. But the voice of the Axis remained the core flavour and both pedals worked with the Axis’ humbuckers to create a dynamic, creamy tone with loads of sustain.
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
There’s always an exception (at least one) to any rule so, when I hear players say you need a set and glued mahogany neck and body to get real sustain and humbucking tone, I think of the great Music Man guitars I’ve played that produce exactly that sound without the weight of “real” mahogany or the practical limitations of a set neck. The Axis is a bolt-on design, featuring figured maple neck (25.5-inch scale length, with that great Axis shape and Music Man’s cool four‑plus-two headstock) and a figured (in this case, birdseye) maple fingerboard with a ten‑inch radius.
The black binding and lack of fretboard markers give it a very streamlined look. This is bolted, with a whopping five bolts, to a basswood body with a highly figured maple top, finished in high gloss steel blue for a super classy appearance. There are 22 perfectly crowned and polished frets, Schaller machines with pearl buttons, and a Floyd Rose whammy system that stays in tune no matter what.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I know a review is supposed to identify all the negative aspects of the review item but the Family Reserve Axis is one of those defiant instruments that is brilliantly made and does everything it’s meant to do.
The neck is fabulous to play and the neck joint is contoured to allow easy access to the upper frets; the tones are authentic and universally useable; the balance is perfect whether seated or standing; there are minimal controls to distract the player, so it’s about the music – the guitar makes the sound, the player does something with it. There’s just nothing to dislike.
Even with the production line Axis model, which is a cheaper and more readily available,
it’s hard to find a feature that isn’t practical, useable and musical. With other “name” brands being so inconsistent or having an uncertain future, Music Man continue to produce high-end instruments that appeal to the amateur, the pro and the collector.
With a price tag nearing $7,000, this Axis is not cheap – but, for what you get, it’s not expensive either. The Ball Family Reserve Axis is a stunning example of what luthiers can do when the focus is on the player and not the bottom line.
• Two humbucking pickups
• Three-way switch
• Basswood and maple body with bolt-on maple neck
• Chrome hardware
• Locking vibrato system
• Plays brilliantly
• Superb build quality
• Great tones
Ph: (02) 9905 2511