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Ball, Ernie (30th August 1930-9th September 2004)

Entrepreneur, innovator and multi-instrumentalist from Santa Monica, California, whose father was an Hawaiian steel guitar instructor and whose grandfather wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”. At the behest of his father, he tried his hand at the steel guitar when he was nine years old, but quickly tired of it. As a teenager, however, he became enamored of the instrument again, spending three hours per day honing his skills. He joined the Musicians Union and was gigging on the L.A. club circuit while still in his teens.

In 1949, he hooked up with Tommy Duncan’s outfit and toured the southwest U.S. with them for about a year. Uncle Sam came calling when the Korean War broke out and Ernie landed a spot in the USAF band, multi-tasking on bass drum and guitar.

After his tour of duty, he went back to the L.A. club scene but soon found steady work on KTLA-TV’s Western Varieties. This exposed him to a larger audience and he soon found himself in demand as an instructor and session musician.

In the late ‘50s, Ernie did something that was highly unusual at the time, but has since become commonplace: He opened a guitar shop. Some believe it was the first of its kind. Although his idea was met with naysayers, it became a huge success, ultimately selling its wares to over 5,500 outlets and seventy foreign countries.

Ernie is also credited with the development of the acoustic bass guitar as it is known today. It was his belief that if electric guitars had a counterpart in electric basses, acoustic guitars should enjoy the same complement, resulting in a better sound. Its model was the guitarron, a fixture in Mexican mariachi bands. He purchased the instrument in Tijuana and began experimenting with it.

It was not the end of his experiments. In the 1960s, with guitar-dominated pop-rock, Ernie found that Fender’s “medium gauge” strings were still hard for his students to play, especially the G string. After having the Fender people poo-poo his idea of a lighter-gauge string, he went to another manufacturer and dialed down the gauge from 29 to 24. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was enough to make an impact.

In fact, Ernie’s interest in strings superceded his guitar business in 1967, as his string business was now big enough to warrant a move to Newport Beach, California. By the 1970s, he also had distributorships in Asia and Europe.

To put Ernie’s success into perspective, consider some of the artists who have used his products: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Edge, John Fogerty, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayer, Jimmy Page, Slash, Pete Townshend and Steve Vai. It was this kind of ubiquitous appeal that launched his company into the stratosphere, becoming the second largest manufacturer of guitar strings in the U.S.

His management style was that of the pragmatist, favoring product-testing over product surveys and instinct over the bottom line. It worked. In the 1980s, Ernie Ball gobbled up Music Man Company, and amps, basses and guitars were added into the mix, with none other than Leo Fender constructing the guitars and Tom Walker taking care of the amps.

In 1972, Ernie’s idea for an acoustic bass guitar enjoyed fruition with the help of George Fullerton, an alumnus of the Fender company. The Earthwood, as it was called, was much larger than other guitars, much like the aforementioned guitarron. Unfortunately, it was ahead of its time, as the trend in pop-rock was electric. It finally got a fair hearing in the 1980s, in part because of MTV’s popular Unplugged series. Today, it is considered more of a curiosity, especially among collectors.

Ernie Ball’s company relocated to San Luis Obispo, California, in 1985. In 2003, the string manufacturing division was moved to Riverside County. With Ernie at the helm, the company enjoyed grosses of over $40 million a year.

On 9th September 2004, he passed away from a terminal illness and his son Sterling continues to run the company.