One step down from the US-made Music Mans, two steps up from the OLP imports, the Sterling AX40 are great working guitars at the right price. Review by Martyn Casserly
Sterling AX 40
If you’ve ever had the chance to play a USA Music Man guitar, you’ll know just how good they are – light in weight, with big tones and necks that are arguably the best in the business. You’ll also know that they cost a fair few bob, but the new Sterling by Music Man guitars sit in the mid-price range, share many of the appointments with their high-class siblings, and look like dead ringers.
Sterling AX40 series has its origins in the signature Music Man that Eddie Van Halen used in the 1990s and the Axis range made after Eddie left the company in ’95.
The compact offset body is made from basswood with a quilted maple veneer top finished in transparent gold (the only colour option for this model). An all-maple neck is secured to the body via five bolts and has 22 medium jumbo frets with small dot inlays.
It has an asymmetrical carve to offer ‘the qualities of a thin neck, but enough mass for good tone’. The result is a very fast and comfortable playing experience – one of the best in this price range that we’ve seen for a good while.
The headstock is adorned in standard Music Man 4+2 style with chrome tuners. The double-locking tremolo – designed to lower in pitch only – is smooth and returns reliably to pitch after enthusiastic dive-bombs, and two Sterling Zebra humbuckers are wired to a three-way switch and a solitary volume control.
This guitar is buSterling AX 40ilt to go fast and scream loud. Plugged into a cranked amp, the neck pickup is full and round, perfect for flowing legato runs and big blues bends. Roll the volume off a bit and it cleans up for a hard-hitting old-school blues tone.
Switching to the middle gives a good mixture of bite and body – great for chunky riffs on heavy gain or Stones-style ringing chords with lighter overdrive. On a clean channel there’s also plenty of funk in this position and even a passable acoustic tone for rhythm work, while the bridge pickup gives a springy attack with plenty of grunt to push a tube amp nicely into overdrive. The obvious tonal comparison is with a Les Paul, but the AX40 has a clearer tone that modern rockers may prefer.
Sterling AX40 Verdict
Music Man could be on to a winner. The Sterlings are instantly playable, sound good, and at under 600 they’ll have a few other makers looking nervously over their shoulders. Sterling AX40 is an out-and-out ballsy rock guitar giving chunky tones and screaming leads, with a neck that assists your playing rather than battling you. The single colour option might be a stumbling block, but hopefully Music Man will eventually expand the range. It’s a very good guitar, and if locking trems aren’t your thing then there’s also a hardtail version available (the AX20 at 529) which will no doubt be just as good.
You can dig in and thrash about, but you’ll find that a more controlled and tempered playing style really brings the best out of the guitar – and quite possibly out of the player, too. Music Man has made professional-level instruments for a long time now, but at last there’s an option for your average working musician. The Sterlings are the kind of guitars you can buy, beat up on stage without panicking about the resale value, and really grow to love. We’ll take two.