Albert Lee is undoubtedly guitar royalty. Best known for his remarkably clean and lightening fast country chops, the venerable guitarist has been in partnership with Ernie Ball Music Man for over 40 years, with his signature offset guitar receiving rave reviews worldwide. As such, it was no surprise that when the Albert Lee signature model by Sterling was announced in early 2018, it turned the heads of adoring fans worldwide. Just like the St. Vincent, John Petrucci and James Valentine signature models, the SBMM Albert Lee signature successfully manages to balance both the spirit and elegance of its more expensive counterpart with the affordability of the Sterling series.
The first thing I noticed when this guitar was unboxed was its eye-catching body shape. Sporting a black-on-black body and pickguard, the ‘retro-modern’ offset style body boasts sleek angles and a thin profile; this translates to an incredibly light guitar, constructed with a body of mahogany, hard maple neck and jatoba fretboard. The mahogany body resonates notably well, and its black paint makes for a stark contrast with the pale maple neck. The jatoba fretboard played smooth and didn’t feel dry at all – almost like a midpoint between rosewood and pau ferro. While the guitar was built in Indonesia, the final inspection and set up takes place in a Praxis facility in Orange, California, resulting in a hassle-free experience out of the box.
I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the lightly sanded satin-finished neck, which gave it a raw-wood feel to its entire length. The 9.5-inch radius C-shaped neck felt slick and brand new every time I picked the guitar up, making traversing up and down the fretboard an absolute breeze. However, the outermost fret edges felt slightly rough in some areas, and could use a touch more filing down.
Sterling by Music Man opted to produce the dual humbucker version over Albert’s preferred SSS setup. The five-way pickup selection wiring is copied directly from its Music Man counterpart, and allows players to freely choose between the neck, middle, bridge, or the inner and outer coils. The neck pickup in isolation is pure warmth and sonic butter, while the bridge humbucker provides plenty of twang and responds extremely well with all manner of gain.
The polished silver lip on the two-point fulcrum tremolo ingeniously doubles as a comfortable palm rest, and even allows creative players to generate some vibrato without the tremolo arm installed. The 4-over-2 standard non-locking tuners are one of the areas where SBMM cut costs, but still manages to keep tuning stability at an acceptable level. The controls on board offer simplicity at its finest – a volume and tone knob hold sway over the two hum-free humbuckers. Even when rolling the volume down, the pickups manage to maintain the bulk of their tonal integrity, which is a commendable feat.
While differences exist between the Music Man Albert Lee signature and the SBMM version, it’s difficult to ignore the many positives about this guitar at its appealing price point. With its lightweight body, it’s a great choice for players of smaller stature or players with aching backs or shoulders. Its conspicuous offset body is refreshing and is a buoy of originality in a sea of Strat and Tele copies. Sterling By Music Man has done a laudable job in converting Albert Lee’s signature guitar into a more budget-friendly option for their customers, and offers an ideal choice for beginners and pros alike.
Hits and Misses
‘Retro-modern’ offset body
Extremely playable neck
Great sounding pickups
Fret edges could use slightly more filling