Music Man’s current range encompasses not only some of the most sumptuous signature models available anywhere, but also a number of modern recreations of some truly classic designs. The quality and playability have never been in question, and now the company has applied its know-how to a range of stripped-down versions of selected established MM guitars and basses under the Sterling by Music Man brand.
Music Man Valentine
This is the signature model of the criminally underrated James Valentine from Maroon 5. On the face of it, it seems a straightforward instrument, far removed from the bells and whistles of The Game Changer and Steve Morse models, but there’s plenty going on under the hood.
An obvious talking point concerns the pickups. Both are in-house Alnico 5 units and include an unusual single coil in the bridge. It’s the size of a standard humbucker and, as MM’s Derek Brooks explains, Valentine was involved heavily in their development.
The Valentine’s hardtail bridge has a removable cover for player comfort
“James told us what sounds he was looking for and we made several prototypes,” Brooks tells G&B. “He wanted one guitar to capture the neck pickup of his Gibson semis and a Tele-ish bridge pickup, although we did experiment with some P-90 style pickups too. The bridge single coil has elements associated with Tele pickups,” he continues. “But it has a different wind and the steel bottom plate is smaller. The DC resistance of the pickup is nearly 11k, so it certainly has its own voice.”
The roasted maple neck feels as good as it looks
We’re assured that the humbucker-style baseplate and cover have no significant effect on the tone, and the single row of polepieces are not only slanted but staggered too. “The stagger approximates the range of a vintage Strat or Tele, but the proximity of each string to the magnet is more uniform, which provides the desired balance in sound,” says Brooks.
In addition, the electronics include an active preamp for a boost in gain of up to 20dB set beneath a push/push volume pot, and a coil split that solos the humbucker’s neck-side coil, situated under the push/push tone pot. The Valentine joins John Petrucci’s JP15 in bringing a roasted maple neck to the table. It has a lovely honeyed appearance and, in addition to the flawless oil and wax finish, sports 22 stainless steel frets, a compensated nut and that unmistakable 4+2 mini headstock.
The Valentine’s neck humbucker is ideal for many styles, giving the guitar a varied tonal palette
Valentine’s love of Telecasters and small-bodied semis such as the Gibson ES-346 and Collings I-35 is echoed in the design of the ash body, with the dimensions of both cutaways nodding towards both of these influences.
The Maroon 5 guitarist was involved throughout the design process of his first signature guitar
Interestingly, the body tapers slightly, too, going from 38.5mm thickness at the lower waist to 33mm at the upper, a concept, suggested by MM’s head honcho Sterling Ball, that imparts a more intimate connection to the guitar.
Sterling Cutlass CT50
There’s a significant jump in quality between the Sterling guitars and those produced under the OLP banner a few years back. While the latter were cheap ’n’ cheerful copies of selected MM instruments, the Sterling range is of a far higher construction value with specs that offer a number of features that make their American alternatives so attractive.
The Cutlass can trace its roots back to the 70s and Leo Fender’s tenure at Music Man. Apocryphally at least, Leo worked on both the embryonic Cutlass and StingRay designs and, loaded with three vintage-voiced single coils and sporting an impressive three-tone sunburst finish, we can certainly feel his influence here.
The Sterling’s unmistakable headstock is loaded with a sextet of locking machine heads
The biggest surprise lies with the neck: it’s far bigger than we were expecting, both wider and deeper at the first fret than the Valentine. It possesses a significant soft-V profile, too, the apex of which flattens off around the 11th fret. It therefore provides an alternate playing experience to that we’d hitherto encountered from other Music Man guitars, which we applaud.
The Tele bridge pickups from the mid-50s that we’ve encountered have a DC resistance of around 7k, and the additional heat of the Valentine bridge pickup is immediately apparent.
With an amp set to the point of break-up, open chords ring out with the ideal balance of trebly twang and meaty midrange. Kicking in the preamp adds not only volume but, as expected, body too, and could double as both a solo boost and an additional tone in its own right. What’s more, the Silent Circuit keeps everything as quiet as a mime’s grave.
The unobtrusive five-bolt neck join of both guitars allows for effortless upper-fret access
The soupy neck pickup provides an inspirational tonal contrast and, while full and warm, doesn’t necessarily recall great Gibson semi tones of yore. This is not an issue, though, as the tones here are truly wonderful, allowing for soulful blues licks, rock solos and jazzier passages.
There’s a just-audible pop when the coil split is engaged, which is disappointing, but the resultant tone, throwing a soupçon of glassy high end and reduced bass into the mix is, again, a joy.
Tonally, the Cutlass performs as we’d expected, with a good range of Strat-style tones that tick the majority of boxes. To our ears, the bridge and middle settings lack a little body, and we would have liked more character from the neck too. That said, the guitar plays beautifully and is a genuine alternative to the wide range of Fenders out there.
The design and look of Sterling’s vintage-style vibrato betrays the influence of a certain Leo Fender
We have to confess that we found the Cutlass tricky to keep in tune – especially, as is so often the case, the pesky G string. Of course, a string change cures most ills in this area and, thanks to the compensated nut and 11-48 strings out of the box, there were no such issues with the Valentine.
These are two very different guitars from wildly varying price points but both offer good value. The Valentine’s price tag is justified by its near-perfect neck and majestic tones, while the Cutlass offers an interesting alternative for Strat fans. We’d happily use either in anger, but there’s no getting away from the Valentine’s wonderful tones and the feel of its neck. We love it.
Key Features Music Man Valentine
• Price From £2,449 (with flightcase)
• Description Solidbody six-string guitar, made in USA
• Build Solid ash body with four-ply tortoiseshell teardrop scratchplate; hardtail bridge with vintage-style bent saddles; roasted flamed maple bolt-on neck with gunstock oil and wax blend finish; roasted maple fingerboard with 10-inch radius; 22 medium stainless steel frets; compensated nut; locking Schaller M6-IND tuners
• Electrics Music Man custom-wound single coil with staggered polepieces (bridge) and MM humbucker (neck)
• Controls Volume, tone, three-way blade selector, push/push active preamp and push/pull coil split
• Left-handers No
• Finish Trans Buttermilk (as reviewed), Trans Maroon, Trans Black, Satin Natural
• Scale Length 648mm/25.5”
• Neck Width 41.3mm at nut, 56.9mm at 12th fret
• Neck Depth 23mm at first fret, 25mm at 12th fret
• String Spacing 34mm at nut, 55mm at bridge
• Weight 3.63kg/8lbs
Key Features Sterling Cutlass CT50
• Price £594
• Description Solidbody six-string guitar, made in China
• Build Basswood body with three-ply tortoiseshell scratchplate; bolt-on maple neck with natural finish; rosewood fingerboard with 12-inch radius; 22 medium frets; vintage-style vibrato; locking tuners
• Electrics Three Sterling single coils
• Controls Volume and tone, five-way blade selector
• Left-handers No
• Finish Three-Tone Sunburst (as reviewed) and Fiesta Red (with rosewood neck only), Black, Seafoam Green and Olympic White (with maple neck only)
• Scale Length 648mm/25.5-inch
• Neck Width 42mm at nut, 52mm at 12th fret
• Neck Depth 23.5mm at first fret, 26mm at 12th fret
• String Spacing 34.5mm at nut, 54.5mm at bridge
• Weight 3.76kg/8.3lbs
• Contact Strings & Things 01273 440 442 www.music-man.com