Ernie Ball

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Ernie Ball

Ernie Ball, Inc. produces guitar strings and custom-built guitars and basses, as well as numerous guitar accessories, such as picks, cables, and straps. Owned and operated by the Ball family, the company sells its products to more than 5,500 music shops in the United States. Ernie Ball's foreign business is maintained by 68 distributors who sell the company's products in more than 75 countries. The company pioneered the development of guitar strings for rock-and-roll guitarists. The son of a car salesman, Ernie Ball grew up in Santa Monica, California. His father, who supplemented his income by teaching people to play the Hawaiian steel guitar, encouraged his nine-year-old son to learn the instrument, a pursuit that the younger Ball quickly tired of. When he was a teenager, however, Ball became strongly interest in music and began practicing the Hawaiian steel guitar between two and three hours a day. Ball joined the Musicians' Union and got his first job, playing six nights a week in a south central Los Angeles tavern. When he was 19, he joined the Tommy Duncan band as a pedal guitarist. He toured the southwestern United States with the Tommy Duncan band for a year, ending his stint when the Korean War broke out. Ball joined the U.S. Air Force Band, formed a five-member band on the side, and played four nights a week on the air base. During his three-year tour, during which he learned to play the standard guitar, Ball fleshed out his repertoire through exposure to a variety of musical genres such as Dixieland, concert band, classical, big band, and jazz.

When Ball left the military, he returned to the haunts of his youth in Los Angeles. He began playing in bars again, but his $53-per-week paychecks were not enough to support his wife and children. Like his father, Ball supplemented his income by giving music lessons. Ball's financial situation improved considerably when the bandleader of a weekly television program, Western Varieties, heard him play. Ball was offered a seat on the staff band and the opportunity to feature in two solo parts, which greatly increased his recognition in the Los Angeles music community. Ball's income swelled by a factor of three once he began appearing weekly on Western Varieties. Perhaps equally as important, his rising reputation in the Los Angeles music community led to steady offers for studio work and dramatically increased the number of students seeking his expertise. Not long after joining Western Varieties, Ball was giving music lessons to more than 80 students.

The First Guitar-Only Shop Opens in 1958

Ball achieved fair success as a musician, but his greatest accomplishments were achieved without an instrument in his hand. In 1958, he opened a small music shop in Tarzana, not far from Hollywood. The store was unique because inside there were only guitars and guitar accessories for sale. The store's inventory flew in the face of convention, representing the only retail establishment in the United States to sell only guitars. From the start, Ball faced criticism and pressure to broaden the selection of products stocked in his stores. On the company's corporate Web site, Ball remembered the reaction of industry insiders to his novel retail concept. He wrote, "Sales reps would come in and say, 'Ern, you've got to sell clarinet reeds, drum sticks, valve oil, blah, blah, blah,' and I'd tell them, 'I just want to sell guitars,' and they'd argue, 'There's no such thing as a guitar store, you'll never make it.'" Ball brushed aside the resistance to his business approach and kept his eyes focused exclusively on guitars. Before long, customers were traveling from miles away to frequent Ball's music shop, and the store became a haven for guitar enthusiasts throughout the greater Los Angeles area. As it turned out, Ball's music shop provided a venue for him to display his greatest talent. Ball did not achieve his success as a retailer; a chain of Ernie Ball music shops did not spring from the original Tarzana store. Instead, Ball made a name for himself as problem-solver, thriving as a designer attuned to the particular needs of guitarists. He began developing his renown in this area because of his time spent giving music lessons. He noticed that his beginning students were experiencing difficulties with the most popular electric guitar strings of the day, the Fender #100 medium-gauge set. Specifically, his young students were struggling to press down the third string. On the company's Web site, Ball explained, "The third string was a 29 gauge, like a giant cable, and the poor kids were getting finger blisters." Ball reported the problem to Fender, asking one of the company's sales representatives to talk to Leo Fender. The sales representative returned with the news that Leo Fender was not interested in making lighter gauge strings because the lighter strings would force him to re-engineer his guitars to compensate for the different tension. Undeterred, Ball contacted a string manufacturer and had custom gauge sets produced with a lighter, 24-gauge third string.

At the time, Ball was delving into custom manufacturing, a new, powerful musical style was sweeping across the country. The early 1960s witnessed rise of rock and roll and the attendant explosive growth in the popularity of electric guitars. Rock-and-roll guitarists needed lighter, more flexible guitars strings, qualities that made bending the strings much easier. As a retailer, Ball witnessed his customers tailoring existing products to meet their needs. The string manufacturing industry had yet to address the needs of rock-and-roll oriented, electric guitar players. Many rock guitarists would buy a set of guitar strings, throw away the sixth string, and replace it with a banjo first string. Ball believed there should be a set of lighter gauge strings designed specifically for playing rock and roll. Again, he approached the established manufacturers in the industry, contacting the same Fender sales representative that had served as his go-between with Leo Fender. The sales representative reported back that Leo Fender was unwilling to discuss the matter. Ball contacted another veteran guitar company, Gibson, and received a similar response. Ball decided to do it himself, which led to the introduction of Slinky strings in 1962. At first, Slinky strings were available only at Ball's retail store, but the popularity of the custom strings soon carried the Ernie Ball name toward global recognition.

A String Manufacturer Blossoms in the 1960s

Slinky strings confirmed a place for the Ernie Ball name in the music industry. The Tarzana shop began to attract the legends of the day, including artists such as Merle Travis and the Ventures, who became frequent visitors to the store. Established musicians became emissaries for Ball's strings, taking them on tour and replying "Ernie Ball" when asked which type of strings they used. (Ball's third son, Sterling Ball, once remarked that magazine interviewers had little idea what to ask the guitarists, so they asked them which type of strings they used.) Word-of-mouth advertising of Slinky strings propelled Ball's company forward in directions he had not anticipated. Ball's enterprise was tugged and pulled by interest in Slinky strings, gradually expanding the company's geographic reach and transforming its focus. Mail orders started to arrive, first from guitarists who lived far away from the Tarzana shop and next from other retail establishments. "We weren't a string company yet," Ball wrote on the company Web site. "We were just a little store that had some strings people wanted to buy." The turning point in the company's evolution from a retail operation into a manufacturing operation occurred in 1967. That year Ball sold his Tarzana shop and moved his rapidly growing string business to Newport Beach. At first blush, the move suggested the emergence of a more ambitious business venture, but according to Ball's reflections on his company's Web site, the transition was made for opposite reasons. "I wanted to change my lifestyle and work shorter days," he wrote. "[I wanted to] learn to surf, learn to fly a plane, and grow a beard." Ball made the move, settling into his new operation with only a staff of two. His dream of a bohemian lifestyle was never realized, however. Interest in Slinky strings and the Ernie Ball name did not allow any time for his lifestyle changes save growing a beard.

Overwhelmed by the demands of his new manufacturing operation, which ranged from laying out artwork to packaging string sets, Ball enlisted the help of his sons--Sterling, David, and Sherwood--who helped out in the warehouse after school. Sterling, in particular, was a pivotal addition to the company, serving as an adept salesman, an orchestrator of artist and dealer relations, and eventually as the company's leader.

Once Ball was able to settle into his new operation, he began pursuing a long-held dream. For years, he had wanted to make an acoustic bass guitar, a yet-to-be-developed instrument whose only close relative was the Mexican guitarron, common in mariachi bands. Ball took a trip south to Tijuana and bought a guitarron, but his efforts at retrofitting the instrument into his vision of an acoustic bass failed. Later, he teamed with a former Fender employee, George Fullerton, and realized success in making an all-wood acoustic bass. The partnership resulted in the 1972 introduction of Earthwood guitars, basses, and strings. Although the Earthwood operation experienced production and personnel problems early on, the venture ultimately produced roughly 2,000 prized Earthwood basses, guitars, mandolas, and baby guitars before shuttering production in 1985.

While Ball was developing his concept of an acoustic bass, his son, Sterling, came to the fore in the company's growth and expansion. Sterling Ball figured prominently in the Ernie Ball Company's expansion overseas, spearheading the company's export activities. By 1977, as the Earthwood operation wrestled with its own maturation, the Ernie Ball Company was exporting its products to 14 countries. Sterling Ball, surreptitiously, aggrandized the company's international operations. In a May 2002 interview with World Trade, Sterling Ball recalled his actions. "We had a sales manager who thought we had done all we could in export. I was a young upstart. I had a friend who was working in another company who was a very good export manager. I said, 'Hey, could you send me some names, but don't tell the sales manager that I got these names.' I sent a mailing behind his back. I think I opened 21 new markets that way. It was then when we became a pretty serious exporter."

In the music industry, Ernie Ball established a precedent for exporting merchandise. Instead of using foreign markets as a dumping ground for outdated products that had outlived their retail appeal in the United States, the company applied the same degree of commitment to overseas sales as it did to domestic sales. The attention to foreign markets paid dividends, helping the company to turn into a highly successful exporter.

While the company was making its indelible imprint overseas, it also aggrandized its stature domestically. In the early 1980s, Ernie and Sterling Ball readied themselves for their next achievement. They felt business conditions were ripe for the production of a highly crafted, U.S.--manufactured electric guitar, a domestically made instrument that could compete with the inexpensive guitars produced in Japan, Korea, and Mexico. The father-and-son team sought to enter the new business realm via acquisition.

The target found in the Balls' acquisitive search was a company known for producing high-quality electric basses and amplifiers. The company was called Music Man, and in 1984 the operation was up for sale. The Ernie Ball Company's ties to Music Man were intimate. Leo Fender had manufactured the company's instruments. The Fender sales representative that Ernie Ball had talked to about string manufacture during the early 1960s built Music Man's amplifiers. Sterling Ball had been involved in the design of the company most successful instrument, the StingRay bass, introduced in 1976.

The Ernie Ball Company acquired Music Man in the fall of 1984. Once the acquisition was completed, Sterling Ball gathered a team of musicians, designers, and production specialists to develop a new product line marketed under the Music Man banner. Meanwhile, his father oversaw the construction of a new facility in San Luis Obispo to house the operations of both the Ernie Ball Company and Music Man. In 1985, the San Luis Obispo facility was occupied. One year later, the first bass designed at the San Luis Obispo facility was introduced, the Stingray 5.

A steady stream of new product introductions and Sterling Ball's efforts to affiliate the company with the stars of rock and roll galvanized the company's reputation across the globe. The list of musicians who used Ernie Ball instruments, strings, and accessories included the icons of the industry. Members of bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The Pretenders, U2, AC/DC, and Fleetwood Mac relied on Ernie Ball for their equipment. During the 1990s, a new generation of guitarists embraced the slew of products made in San Luis Obispo, ensuring that the legacy of the Ernie Ball name would continue into the 21st century. Guitarists such as Mike McReady and Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, and Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, as well as members of 311, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and Social Distortion used Ernie Ball products.

As Ernie Ball neared the end of its first half-century of existence, the company enjoyed an entrenched market position and the esteem of musicians throughout the world. By 2002, the company's product line had expanded to include Music Man guitars and basses, volume pedals, and other accessories. Ernie Ball strings and accessories were sold in more than 5,500 music stores scattered throughout the United States. The company's international business was substantial, conducted through long-term relationships with 68 distributors who exported Ernie Ball products to more than 75 countries. Under the astute leadership of Sterling Ball, who served as chief executive officer and president, the company promised to figure prominently in its industry well into the future.

In 2002, the company ended its 17-year stay in San Luis Obispo, citing high housing costs and the city's low unemployment rate as the reasons for the move. In a June 20, 2002 interview with The Tribune, Sterling Ball remarked, "It's really hard doing business in San Luis Obispo and it isn't getting any easier. For the past seven years, I've looked at other places." In October 2002, the company announced it was leaving San Luis Obispo. Ernie Ball planned to build a 100,000-square-foot office and manufacturing facility in Coachella, California, west of Palm Springs. The company planned to complete the move into its new string instrument plant during the first fiscal quarter of 2004.