Erin Hurley is a journalism senior and Mustang Daily SLO lifestyle columnist.
I don’t play any musical instruments myself, but I’ve always wanted to learn. A lot of my family is musical, and I think that’s part of the reason I’ve always loved music.
Ideally, I’d like to play electric guitar — it’s just cool. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out there’s actually an electric guitar factory in San Luis Obispo — the Ernie Ball Music Man factory. It’s on Suburban Road, down the street from the shopping center with Trader Joe’s and Food 4 Less.
This company has been a pretty big part of the music world for decades — how cool is it that they make their guitars right here?
Unfortunately, the factory doesn’t give tours to the public, but it’s still such a cool place, I had to tell you all about it. I got to go on a tour for my column, and it was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. Guitars go from just pieces of wood to bright, shiny, awesome works of art completely on the premises.
The Ernie Ball company started as a producer of light-gauge guitar strings, and that’s still the company’s “bread and butter,” my tour guide and the director of engineering Dudley Gimpel said. Founder Ernie Ball started out with a guitar store in Tarzana, Calif., in the 1950s.
Ball was a well-known musician himself, Gimpel said, and also gave lessons and saw that people were buying strings and throwing away the heaviest one, Gimpel said. So he came up with the idea of selling lighter string sets, and the rest was history. Gimpel said lighter-gauge strings changed the way modern music is played.
In 1979 the company moved to San Luis Obispo because Gimpel said Ball wanted to leave Los Angeles and liked this area. Then, in 1984, Ball bought the Music Man electric guitar company from Tom Walker, one of the company’s original founders — Gimpel added the two were “good friends.”
The guitar string factory has since moved to Coachella, Calif., but the focus of the guitar production is still here in San Luis Obispo.
The company’s Ernie Ball strings are what it’s known for, and these strings are used by all kinds of artists including John Mayer, Paul McCartney and Paramore.
The Music Man also designed guitar models specially for certain artists, such as Steve Morse of Deep Purple and John Petrucci of Dream Theater (his model is the most popular with customers, Gimpel said). He added they do a lot of experimenting to figure out the sounds that artists like.
A lot of the work that goes into making the guitars is done by hand, and Gimpel said each one takes five to six weeks to put together. The company makes approximately 250 a week, and has the ability to make smaller amounts of many different styles, so it can do more special orders, too.
Gimpel showed me all the steps of how the guitars were made, which was pretty awesome. He told me that the wood used has to be stored at the right conditions, but the weather here in San Luis Obispo is perfect so the Music Man doesn’t need to do anything special to preserve the wood.
And I had no idea how much actually goes into making an electric guitar. Trust me, it’s a lot. The neck has to be put together and sanded, and the body has to be carved and grooved — in 1990 the company started using computer numeric control (CNC) machines that help them be more accurate and make exactly the same holes and groves each time. Everything has to be finished and painted and put together. Then all the electronics have to be put in, and it is checked to make sure everything works.
“It could be the smallest part that keeps an instrument from going out the door,” Gimpel said.
With all the different options and combinations people can pick for a guitar design, there are thousands of Ernie Ball Music Man guitars to choose from.
And they’re internationally known — Gimpel said that they’re shipped all over the world.
So it turns out we have a pretty significant piece of music history right here in San Luis Obispo. The Ernie Ball Music Man company has been a part of the careers of so many great artists, and I think local music lovers and musicians should feel honored to be so close to such a legend.