Photo courtesy ernieball.comOn Sept. 9, Ernie Ball, one of the last remaining pioneers of the electric guitar's development, passed away in San Luis Obispo at age 74. A guitar string might seem a trifling thing compared to a Fender Stratocaster, but Ball's light, durable strings were the first to cater to rock players' needs, and they've influenced four decades of music-making.
A professional guitarist, Ball opened in 1958 in Tarzana what was reputed to be the first guitar-only music shop in the nation. As a musician dealing with musicians, he recognized a demand for lighter-gauged strings and responded with his now world-famous Slinkys in 1962.
At the time, the music industry tended to regard rock guitarists as bastard stepchildren who should be content with what they were given. Hence, if a player wanted lighter, easier-to-bend strings, he'd typically have to buy a set of unsuitable strings, throw out the low E string, use the A in its place and so on, substituting a lighter banjo string or whatever else he could find for the high E. Ball's string sets eliminated that bother and gave players more choices.
Much of the company's growth from a storefront to a $40-million-per-year operation took place when the company was headquartered in Newport Beach from 1967 to 1985. Then the company moved to San Luis Obispo, where it also manufactured guitars under the Music Man name, originally an Anaheim company where Leo Fender had parked his genius in the 1970s. Ball continued to manufacture the esteemed basses Leo had designed for Music Man, along with new instruments that became popular with Eddie Van Halen, Albert Lee and other top players. In 2003, the string operation was moved to Indio.
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Like Leo Fender and other California guitar pioneers, Ball was a hands-on enthusiast, not a stuffy business type. In a Guitar Player interview, he once divided the industry into corporate guys with ties on and shirt-sleeve guys, and he made it clear which of those he was. If things ever did get too corporate for him, he said, he'd quit and become a full-time surfer.