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.
The AX 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 built 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.