Gear talk for the GAS-afflicted.

Review: Sterling by Music Man AX40D – D is for Dimarzio

Review: Sterling by Music Man AX40D – D is for Dimarzio

May 6, 2014

Eddie Van Halen’s impact on the world of rock guitar can never be understated – not only did he revolutionise guitar playing technique itself with a combination of furious blues-on-steroids licks, crazy stretch pentatonics and rapid fire finger tapping, but over the years, he’s been responsible for helping design so many pieces of guitar equipment that have become staples for guitar players all over the world in multiple genres.

After creating the original superstrat, Eddie changed the game once again, unveiling his Music Man EVH signature guitar, which was a startling departure from his original striped hockey stick guitar to a small, rounded body with a figured maple top. We know good tone when we hear/see it, and the MM EVH soon became THE Van Halen guitar to have, and eventually gave birth to the Peavey Wolfgang (my personal favourite incarnation of this design), and finally resulting in today’s EVH branded Wolfgangs.

The secrets to EVH tone have always been shrouded with mystery, and the MM EVH was no different. For years, people have been obsessing over the custom wound Dimarzios that resided in the MM EVH, and rightly so – they literally could not be bought separately from an MM EVH (which later became the EBMM Axis after Eddie and Sterling Ball parted ways). In the attempt to achieve yet another magical tone-link in the journey to Van Halen tonal nirvana, people were buying the Axis just for the pickups, so they could put these unicorn tears infused pickups into their custom projects. eBay prices for a set of these pickups could be pretty horrendous from what I’m told.

Well, here’s the good news – EBMM have just turned that on its head with the AX40D. An upgrade from the normal AX40, the AX40D carries the exact custom wound pickups that I’ve been talking about, and at less than half the price of an Axis.

However, pickups are only one part of the chain – how does the rest of the guitar measure up? Let’s find out.

Purple Rain

The review unit I was sent, courtesy of NZ Rockshop, was in bombastic, glorious purple quilt. One thing the world has become exceedingly good at is manufacturing pretty looking guitars, and this guy is no exception.

 

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I can’t say I’m a huge fan of purple guitars usually, but something about this aesthetic combination of deep purple (hah!) and cream binding/hardware just works for me. The quilt top is a veneer at this price point, of course. It does look really good in the light, but still suffers slightly from a visual flatness and lack of 3D depth that you would see from a true figured top. This is something that’s common to the Sterling line – I haven’t seen any of their veneers that would fool anyone into thinking that they were full depth tops, unlike the PRS SE Zach Myers that I recently reviewed, which just looked drop dead gorgeous. That being said, the top on the AX40D still looks pretty damn good:

 

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The sticker on the basswood body proudly proclaims that true Dimarzios do indeed reside within this guitar, and on the back there’s another sticker which says that all units are inspected and set up in their Orange County facility in California, which is reflected in the great action and playability with nary a fret buzz to be heard. One little detail missing was that the fret edges were not rolled quite as smoothly as on other Indonesian guitars like the RG Premium series, though the frets are Eddie-style vintage spec small and so they don’t really protrude that much anyway.

The headstock is finished to match the body very neatly with no runs or bleed, and is gloss finished all around up to the locking nut.

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Another important detail is the neck profile. As I mentioned early on, the Peavey Wolfgang is one of my favourite guitars of all time, and it has a very specific neck profile that is shared by all of the high-end Axis/Wolfgang guitars – thicker than you’d expect for a “shred” guitar, but narrower at the nut. And it needs to be oiled, not satin or gloss.

On the AX40D, the neck profile captures the general vibe and shape, but doesn’t quite get it 100% correct, which may be partially due to the finish. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how exactly it’s finished – it could be lightly oiled or a light coat of satin, but it just feels a little stiffer than a really well oiled neck. Case in point, my recently purchased Washburn N4 came out of the case feeling like a broken in old friend, but unfortunately I didn’t quite get that feeling from the AX40D. Though, that’s not to say that you couldn’t wear it in on your own over time!

An asymmetrical 5-bolt joint completes the fusion between neck and body:

 

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The licensed Sterling double locking bridge is dive-only, so you can easily retrofit an EVH D-Tuna for your on-the-go drop D needs. Not having any long term experience with the trem, I can’t say a lot about its reliability, but I’d be a little wary of abusing it too much and prematurely wearing out the knife edges.

 

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Ax40D in Action

So… how good are these legendary Dimarzios? And how do they sound housed in more budget conscious mass production guitar instead of a USA handmade Axis? Let’s find out, starting with clean tones, starting in the neck position, moving to the middle and finally the bridge:

I really enjoyed the clean tones out of the AX40D – not too boomy or shrill, with a nice midrange warmth. In a word, sweet and I think the same goes for the slightly overdriven tones (again moving through neck/middle/bridge). Have a listen for yourself!

Of course, you also want a guitar like this to excel at big, arena rock, and so it does! The bridge pickup loves chunky, percussive riffing and harmonics, while the neck pickup retains great definition for high gain speed picking (however sloppy the perpetrator of said speed picking, as you’ll hear…)

 

Home run?

Not quite, but close! It looks great and sounds great, but unfortunately in my personal estimation, still plays like many other mass produced guitars, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since quality control is so great these days – just don’t be under the illusion that for a scant $1299 you’ll be getting a guitar equivalent to a handmade Axis. Nonetheless, the AX40D brings great tone at a great price point, and if you can’t afford an Axis right now, this certainly is the next best thing!

Let’s call it 3.5 F*ck Yeahs.

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