The eponymous founder of string pioneer Ernie Ball is, sadly, no longer with us, but he has kept it in the family and passed the torch to his son and grandson, Sterling (pictured, left) and Brian (pictured, right), who are no less passionate about the business they now run. Gary Cooper spoke to them both, as the firm looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary as the guitarist’s string of choice…
Heritage has become the golden word in guitar marketing. But like star quality, some really have it, while lots try to fake it. If you want the real thing – the real smell, taste and feel of genuine rock and roll history – one of the best places to go is to Ernie Ball – both the eponymous string brand and the Music Man guitar and bass division.
It would be easy to fill an article with tales of Ernie Ball’s ‘firsts’ but there is plenty of that for the historically minded on the company’s website – and it’s great (and often surprising) reading. Suffice it to say, Roland aka ‘Ernie’ Ball was the first man to understand that guitarists needed strings they could bend and finger comfortably.
By the mid-1950s, Ball had what has been described as the first electric guitar store in the world and was set to change the instrument forever, by offering custom gauge strings to a generation that was beginning to realise the joys of vibrato. In 1962, Ball coined the name ‘Slinky’ – and the rest is written on the guitar string shelves of every guitar shop in 110 countries.
In the general run of business, you would have expected Ball’s competitors to have stolen his idea and either driven him out of business or made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. But 2012 sees the 50th anniversary of the Ernie Ball brand and the company is still firmly in family hands, headed by the irrepressible Sterling Ball, with his sons, one of whom, Brian, looking after the vitally important marketing and artist relations. And in few companies are artist relations more important than they are at Ernie Ball.
Rapidly seized on by artists like Merle Travis and The Ventures, what really lit the blue touch paper was the mid-1960s era, when Eric Clapton became one of the first of the British Blues players to jettison banjo strings in favour of guitar strings of the desired gauge. Add to Clapton’s name Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and succeeding generations of guitar gods and the Ernie Ball legend was cast in stone.
‘So Ernie Ball has endorsers – who hasn’t?’ a cynic might say. But he would be wrong. It’s not until you meet the players who use Ernie Ball strings that you start to realise the company’s talk of ‘family’ and ‘relationships’ is quite genuine. Ernie Ball (and Music Man) names like Albert Lee, Steve Morse, Jon Petrucci, Eric Clapton, Steve Lukather and Keith Richards are not doing what they do for free strings – they regard Ernie Ball as family. You cannot buy relationships like these.
But what does this mean to a retailer? Sterling Ball feels it should matter a lot:
“Understanding the evolution of the brand and its relationship to the industry is pretty important. We got that brand by being the first to offer Rock n Roll guitar strings, we offered exceptional customer service, great quality and an unparalleled roster of artists. And I’d say to a retailer they should know that Ernie Ball strings are the single most played products on hit records in the history of Rock n Roll. The ability to make it for 50 years and stay relevant through all the changes that have happened... well, you’re not supposed to pat yourself on the back, but you just can’t help it.”
“What a lot of people don’t understand about our relationships with artists is that there’s no contract. Only one or two artists have ever left me – with all of those guys it’s based on a handshake. And that comes back to my belief that my performance should dictate whether somebody is happy with me – not a legal document. For example, I just spent 48 hours with John Petrucci working on a new guitar and he’s been working on the strings as well. I’m very proud to point out that we don’t need contracts to maintain a 30-year relationship with Steve Morse, Albert Lee or Steve Lukather. I say I don’t have a contract, but I’m Albert’s kids’ godfather, I’m Steve Morse’s son’s godfather... so I guess that’s better than a contract as they’d have to fire the godfather,” he laughs.
“But what it comes back to is that it’s a family-owned business. I work seven days a week and so do my sons. This is our life, this is our passion. I was very, very fortunate to learn from a gifted serial entrepreneur – and that’s Ernie Ball. My father’s no longer with us, but I believe I work with him every day.
“But I can’t talk with a British magazine without talking about Strings and Things. Back when I graduated from High school, I came to London and drove them mad for a while when Rod Bradley and the guys had Top Gear.”
Like discussions about artists, this is also close to the heart of the Ernie Ball secret. In the normal run of things, times change and brands move, but Ernie Ball has been distributed by Rod Bradley’s Strings and Things since he formed the company.
There have never been the usual NAMM/Frankfurt rumours and the bond seems as strong today as ever.
“If you’re with the best for your brand, there’s no need to change,” Ball says. “It’s a matter of them evolving with you and constantly communicating – and that’s the relationship we have with Strings and Things. It’s a model for the industry. Look at their logo – it’s the typeface off one of our original T-shirts. Rod Bradley committed a lot to us. He had at one time Peavey, Guild and all those others and he said ‘I want to concentrate on Ernie Ball’ and he did. Their level of customer service is equal to ours I think. It’s a lot like a marriage – if you grow together, there’s no reason to get divorced.”
As a man who took over a business when it had just 14 employees and who grew it to the international stature it has today, Sterling Ball has invaluable insight into how to make a company work.
“You’ve got to get to get involved with your customers. Understand the product. Know more about the product than your customer, because they’re extremely well educated today. Don’t allow apathy to creep into your store. I’m yelling this – screaming this.
“Don’t try and be the big superstore, be the cool place. Hire the hip kids to work in your store. Be the place where people want to hang out. You’re selling an environment, a vibe, a culture and treat customers right. Remember the passion you had when you got into the business and do whatever it takes to maintain that passion.”
Sterling Ball is an impressive man at the head of an impressive company that has been at the heart of Rock and Roll for 50 years. We will be back to ask more questions, later in this celebration year.