The Sterling by Music Man range is Ernie Ball Music Man’s answer to Epiphone and Squier: well-made instruments from a reputable company at a budget price. The Axis looks great and feels solid, but loses some points in playability, build quality and tuning. The guitar sounds great, even with stock pickups, but the edges of the frets can be a little harsh. These issues aren’t unfixable, but it’s not what you’d want straight out of the box.
The Sterling Axis is a tribute to Music Man’s famous Axis model, made famous by artists such as Eddie Van Halen and Adam Levine of Maroon 5. The Sterling Axis is an Indonesian-made, 22-fret, single cutaway electric made of basswood with a Fulcrum tremolo bridge and two humbuckers. My first impression was that what you’ve paid for is exactly what you’ve got. The guitar feels solid, but isn’t as well made and finished as a higher-end Music Man. The pickups are better than what I expected for stock pickups, and the guitar holds tune fairly well, even without a locking nut. In saying that, a welcome addition would be some better quality tuners as the stock Sterling tuners don’t feel solid. I still wouldn’t go too crazy on the whammy, and I wouldn’t expect anything but a budget feel, playability and sound from this guitar.
Straight out of the box, the guitar was tuned and set up fairly well. The action felt great; however, the guitar is awkward to sit with, as the cutaway and horn make for an uncomfortable shape that doesn’t sit quite right on a thigh. It feels balanced when standing and playing, and the volume and tone are close enough for easy access without being in the way. The five-way pickup selector is also close by. The single cutaway provides easy access up the 22nd fret without having to change your hand position too much, which is a welcome change from most single-cutaway guitars. This is aided by the nicely rounded heel that the Axis features. The unfinished neck is easy to move around on and the guitar feels fast, similar to higher-end Music Man guitars. This guitar would be a great introduction to the rest of the Music Man range, as it feels similar in build and shape without the bells and whistles (and also without the piezo pickups, beautifully rounded frets and literally jaw dropping finishes, but I digress). It would be a welcome addition to any collection.
Contrary to this guitar feeling like a lightweight speed machine, the stock pickups and body shape make the Axis sound like a heavier, more solid guitar. The resonance is rich without being overbearing and it’s easy to dial in a tone for rock or metal, but this wouldn’t be my go-to for blues and more soulful music. Through a few different amps, this guitar carries its own distinct sound while taking on the character of whatever signal chain you put after it, and I like that. The guitar handles drop tunings well, as it retains clarity but adds size and feel. The sustain on the Axis is good, making chords and notes ring out beautifully whether amplified or unplugged. Even on cleaner settings the guitar sings, and chimey, bell-like cleans make the stock pickups a redeeming feature of the Sterling Axis.
Overall, this guitar is what you’d expect it to be. It’s a budget guitar, so it’s never going to feel like anything but that, but it also doesn’t shy away from being a budget guitar. It’s well made, designed by a reputable company, and is a great introduction to higher-end Music Man guitars without the price tag. It feels and plays like a fast guitar, but rings out like a rock classic whether you’re playing high gain or cleaner rock, and anything in between. When looking at the Sterling by Music Man range, what you see is what you get, and the Axis hides nothing, nor expects to be anything more than what it is.
Hits and Misses
Great access to higher frets
Unfinished neck is smooth
Awkward to sit with