Music Man unveiled its James Valentine signature model back in 2016 to almost universal acclaim, and the Nebraska-born guitarist’s highly versatile squeeze was praised in these pages for its wealth of great tones and fantastic neck. Although the Valentine covered a lot of ground already, this latest 2018 iteration ups the ante with the addition of a vibrato bridge – good news if, like this writer, you regularly find yourself unconsciously reaching for a whammy bar that doesn’t exist when playing hardtail guitars.
Aside from switching the bridge and adding attractive new finish options, the Valentine Tremolo preserves everything that we loved about the original model: the roasted, figured-maple neck is finished with a blend of wax and gunstock oil (here, the timber is a lovely birdseye section, oven-baked to a rich caramel hue) while the snug, wedge-shaped ash body sits somewhere between a double-cut Junior and a Telecaster, and tapers from around 41mm on the treble side to 35.5mm on the bass side.
There’s also the wiring, which unleashes a huge array of tones from the staggered-pole single-coil bridge pickup and chrome-covered neck humbucker, both mounted in Music Man’s recessed pickup rings that allow for height and tilt adjustment. Although the pickup selector switch is just a three-way, both volume and tone controls are push/push, unlocking coil-split (tone) and gain boost (volume) options, the level of which can be adjusted, along with the guitar’s hum-reducing Silent Circuit, via internal trim pots.
The Valentine’s impressive acoustic resonance and sustain translates to a similarly excellent electrified performance. Whether your poison is pop, funk, soul, Americana, rock ’n’ roll, experimental indie-rock – or you need to approximate all of the above during the course of a function-band gig – this guitar has you covered.
Maroon 5 guitarist Valentine wanted his signature instrument to combine the neck-pickup tones of his Gibson semis with Tele-like sounds at the bridge, but there’s no doubt that the Modern Tremolo vibrato unit and its bent-steel saddles bring a little more Strat-like flamboyance to the table, particularly when you push the tone control to activate the neck humbucker’s coil split and let those Jimi-isms take over. With the split engaged there’s a slight uplift in hiss but, thanks to the Silent Circuit, there’s nothing like the buzz we experience when A/Bing the Valentine with vintage-style Strat pickups.
Wide open, the bridge pickup has a muscular twang and delivers a nicely vocal lead tone. Rich in harmonics, it’s definitely not thin and it’s comparable in level to the monstrous 10k Monty’s Broadcaster-style bridge pickup fitted to our own parts T-style. Knocking the tone control back a little delivers more of a pseudo-humbucker sound for classic-rock riffs, while the volume control retains brightness as it’s rolled back and the guitar’s voice cleans up and morphs into a hollowed-out jangle.
Flip the pickup selector switch to the middle and the push/push tone pot gives you access to two very different sounds. With both coils of the neck activated, it’s thicker and bluesier, making you want to really dig in and play lead. When the humbucker is split so that only the outer screw coil is active, there’s much more zing and chime, with an almost Gretsch-y jangle that just demands that you strum chords. It might be James Valentine’s guitar, but Johnny Marr lives here, too.
As previously discussed, the coil-split neck pickup tone can get infectiously Stratocaster-like, but flipping to the full neck ’bucker mode feels like swapping springs for hydraulics, and introduces a much smoother flavour, akin to the Gibson and Collings semi-hollow tones that Valentine loves.
Everyone has their own mental snapshot of what a great ES-335 tone is, of course – and it rather depends on the records, players and eras you gravitate towards – but there’s certainly a nice mixture of cream and clarity here reminiscent of Gibson thinlines. There’s even a jazz-club smokiness when you roll back the tone a little, play with fingers and throw in a few Wes Montgomery-inspired octaves. Not half bad for a solid ash bolt-on!
Telecaster, Strat, ES-335… that’s almost everything you need to cover the whole history of popular music, right? Well, not quite, but the Valentine certainly provides a huge palette of tones to paint with. It also tips its hat to the guitars that influenced its design without feeling backward-looking or limiting the player to an old-school approach.
On top of all that, the tweakable onboard boost can be set to heat things up considerably, to the point where it might make your stompbox solo boost redundant. And the little things really make a difference in a performance scenario, such as the fact that the push/push pots are easier to engage quickly than the average push/pull pot.
As you might expect from a high-end instrument from the Ernie Ball Music Man stable, the Modern Classic Tremolo bridge performs smoothly and superbly. Designed for downward travel only, whether you are dipping or diving, it returns to pitch with impressive accuracy.
On paper, the depth of the rounded C-shaped neck is a little skinnier than we’d usually prefer, but it’s undeniable that Music Man knows a thing or two about carving and finishing a bolt-on neck. The combination of the drag-free, organic feel of that sumptuous wax and oil blend and the expertly rolled ’board edges and fret ends makes for a very friendly feel. Overall, it feels more like a guitar that’s spent time on the bench of an experienced tech than one that’s come straight out of a shipping box.
Many artist collaborations offer little more than a fancy finish and a signature decal on a peghead, but Music Man’s relationship with James Valentine has delivered so much more. Our review model arrived a month too late to be in the running for our 2018 Gear Of The Year Awards, but if you are looking for a do-it-all guitar with a great neck, bulletproof tuning stability, and pro-level mod cons that make life easier on the road, this is it.
- PRICE £2,649 (inc hard case)
- DESCRIPTION Solidbody double-cutaway electric guitar. Made in USA
- BUILD Ash body, roasted figured-maple neck with 10″ fingerboard radius and 22 high-profile, medium-width stainless-steel frets, compensated nut
- HARDWARE Music Man Modern Classic Tremolo vibrato bridge with bent-steel saddles and push-in arm, Schaller locking tuners
- ELECTRICS Custom Music Man active preamp with Silent Circuit (requires 9V battery, supplied), push/push volume for gain boost, 500k push/push passive tone with .022µF tone capacitor, 3-way blade pickup selector, custom-wound staggered pole-piece single coil (bridge) and humbucker (neck) with chrome covers
- LEFT-HANDERS No
- SCALE LENGTH 25.5″/648mm
- NECK WIDTH 41.3mm at nut, 51.3mm at 12th fret
- NECK DEPTH 19.3mm at first fret, 21.5mm at 12th fret
- STRING SPACING 33.5mm at nut, 53.3mm at bridge
- FINISH Husker Red (as reviewed), Saturn Gold, Toluca Lake Blue, Trans Buttermilk (all high-gloss polyester), Satin Natural (satin polyester)
- CONTACT Strings & Things stringsandthings.co.uk music-man.com