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The early days of Music Man

Rating: 17 votes, 3.53 average.
We are reintroducing Music Man amps with my good friend Marco of Mark Bass and I was asked to write a short paragraph....hahahaha

Sitting down to write this re-introduction of Music Man Amps brings back memories….all good.

Music Man was a company that was formed by Leo Fender, Tommy Walker, and Forrest White. You all know Mr. Fender…but behind the scenes there was a very talented
group of men and women that helped make the old Fender Musical Instrument company what it was…they were key people that were instrumental in creating the legendary “pre-CBS” era. For various corporate reasons they didn’t fit into the post CBS buyout of Fender ….But they weren’t done creating and needed an outlet and that outlet was Music Man.

Many people think that Mr. Fender designed the Music Man amps, but it was actually my Godfather Tommy Walker. Tommy was one of the first reps for Fender but was a self taught electronics genius. He also designed the preamp in the Stingray bass. When they started getting to the R and D phase Tommy brought in his god kids. My older brother and I would visit Leo’s lab and play the stuff and then take it out to jam and bandstand it and report back. I ended up getting more involved and worked closely with Leo on the prototyping of the Stingray and the Sabre. One of the reasons why he liked me is that I would tell him what I felt. I had grown up around Leo and Tommy and wasn’t afraid or intimidated to tell them if something wasn’t right….a lot of better players than me would not be so open around Mr. Fender. Since Leo was a huge country music fan that was the core group of beta testers he used….We were the rock guys.

When the amps and instruments were ready I brought some great artists at the time to become endorsees…from Albert Lee to Eric Clapton and many more. The Eric Clapton set up was really great….461 Ocean Blvd had just been released and I told Tommy that I had a chance for Eric Clapton. He didn’t know who he was but trusted me. I met him at the Long Beach Arena and helped him unload a head and two 4x12 cabinets out of his 1968 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. We set up and the Roadie liked the sound…now it was time for Mr Clapton. He approved and that helped give Music Man instant credibility. Please understand that Eric Clapton no longer endorses Music Man but we are all forever indebted to him for his early support.

The Amps were a big hit. The Stingray Bass was an even bigger hit. The guitar was a failure. It was way too bright and nobody liked the rotary switch. Leo and Tommy and the rest had a finger pointing falling out and Music Man was going to be sold to the highest bidder at auction. I went to my Dad and told him that I thought that Ernie Ball should buy it and concentrate on making forward thinking ergonomic guitars and basses and make them in San Luis Obispo, California. This was 1984. I tried to make the numbers work to set up an amp factory but just didn’t have enough money to do both instruments and amps. Tommy designed the amps and cabinets so well that there was not enough profit to justify the continued production. So basically I killed the Music Man amp.

I have approached and been approached about re-introducing the Music Man Amps so many times I have lost count. It was just never the right fit and nobody that I talked to could do the amps justice. When my dear friend Marco of Mark Bass sent me an early morning email asking if I was interested I said “Let’s do it!” I had zero hesitation. I had found my perfect partner to make these great amps come back to the market.

Why Mark Bass? Because I believe that our industry has been blessed with very few passionate geniuses and Marco is one of them. His drive and commitment to creating the very best audio products is so very impressive. I use and love Mark Bass…they are light as a feather, powerful, and nothing sounds as good as them. I am so excited to see Marco and his team faithfully recreate the amps that a previous genius Tommy Walker helped create. Tommy is resting in peace but I’m sure he would be smiling if he were here today. Tommy Walker was one of the most important role models, mentor and friend that I have had and these amps are my tribute to Tommy.

I wanted to cover the early days of the set up of the team and factory for Ernie Ball making Music Man instruments. The original team was Dan Norton who had worked as my fathers right hand man and later mine for 40 years. Tommy Walker came on board and we needed a guitar maker/luthier/designer.

That person was Dudley Gimpel. Dudley had worked at a crazy good and just plain crazy store in Minneapolis, Minnesota called Knut Koupee. He made a Telecaster for me and I loved it and showed it to my father and he made one for Ernie too. Very shortly thereafter Dudley moved to LA to work for Valley Arts guitars who at the time were making all the hip studio guitarists axes. Dudley wasn't happy there and heard that I had bought Music Man. He called and asked if I was interested in hiring him. Valley Arts was a customer of mine and I couldn't hire away customers employees...I told Dudley "As long as you work at Valley Arts, I can't hire you." He called again and asked again...I repeated the I couldn't hire him as long as he worked for a customer. He called a third time and said "I quit Valley Arts" I said you are hired.

This started a design partnership that has covered all of our guitars and basses for the first 25 years. Dudley "Genius" Gimpel and me. WE have since brought in and mentored new designers but all of the stuff still passes through both Dudley and my filters.

Dan, Dudley, and I had two agendas. One was to figure out how to make the Sting Ray bass now that we had bought the company and the second was to design a new guitar since that is where the real market is and the as I mentioned earlier the Leo designed one had missed the mark.

I'll never forget sitting in a basically empty little wood shop at 225 Tank Farm Road in San Luis Obispo and talking about what we liked in existing guitars and what we thought was missing. That guitar was the Silhouette.

We introduced that guitar at the worst NAMM show ever...New Orleans summer 1985. It was a NAMM experiment gone bad. The few dealers who showed up were so hung over from partying on Bourbon Street came to the show late and didn't buy anything. The few that showed up made sure they came buy and laughed at Dudley and I for this little guitar with the funny headstock. It flopped.

But I sent one to Keith Richards. It's a long story....but out of the blue I get a phone call at home mid 1986. "Hello, Sterling? This is Keef." I said "who" He said "Keef Richards" "I got your guitar, its like a fine woman..lets go"

The next thing I knew we got a telex (before fax and email) for an order for 10,000 guitars from Japan. That was the good news. The bad news is that we were making about 4 guitars and basses a day. But we were off and running on a now thirty year journey.

Dan is not well now....Tommy is gone...so is my Dad. Dudley and I are sort of the last men standing from what I look back on was a very special era. Thanks go to Dudley for the great partnership and new thanks to Marco for getting me to write this and starting a new chapter in Music Man.

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  1. mfallmann's Avatar
    Again a very nice read, Mr. Ball.
    Thank you for sharing your insight of the history and development of your company and products.
    It is both fascinating and inspiring to see how someone who REALLY loves his work succeeds in putting out excellent products that outshine themarket.
    This is the reason why I love your instruments!
    Best regards,
    Matthias Fallmann

    PS: Looking forward to the new EBMM amps.
  2. bovinehost's Avatar
    Dan Norton is one of those inside guys that may not ever get the recognition he deserves, but a few of us - informed by you - understand how important he has been over the years. Please pass my best wishes to him. The last time we met up in the desert, lo those many years ago, I had two goals. (1) To meet Dan Norton and (2) to play with Jimmy Cox. I'm sure neither of them understand how important that was to me but it was. Anyway, I love my Markbass gear and I know that the reintroduction of the Music Man amps is going to KILL. Cheers, boss.
  3. Nyrlo's Avatar
    Back in 1976-78 I was working at E.U. Wurlitzer Music in Boston, MA in the upstairs electronic repair department. We customized many Music Man amp heads for Aerosmith and Parliament Funkadelic back then for touring. I'll try to find some photos. They were great sounding amps and had real integrity in their build and design - road warriors they were. Loved those amps and look forward to seeing how you re-introduce the line. Good luck!
  4. Golem's Avatar
    Great tales ... "True Tales from the Crypt" !

    And great to hear Marco's on board. Got 5
    of his "children" now ... great sound, and
    easy on the back !
  5. Nutboy's Avatar
    Great people and great stuff. Love you guys and all you do! Can't wait

  6. gregc's Avatar
    Nice read. I love the history.
  7. stratamania's Avatar
    Excellent write up and really interesting read. So glad that Musicman turned into what it is today.
  8. mrwright's Avatar
    I love reading first account history of anything interesting but particularly about the history of my favorite guitars and amplifiers. Leo Fender and MusicMan amps have always been a captivating read as have all stories on Ernie Ball and ALL who contributed to the fine musical instruments that we truly enjoy playing. I, along with countless others, welcome the news of the return of the mighty Music Man HD amp. If I may, would you PLEASE include the hd-130 EV in the line up. I own one of these 93lb beasts in a cream white vinyl and it can move a lot of air when pushed !!

    Thanks again for staying the course and for keeping the dream alive for the mighty
    MusicMan amp.

    Dennis Wright
    San Luis Obispo
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    Very inspiring Mr. Ball, thank you!
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