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The Music Man Sterling Axis AX3FM in a transparent gold flame maple top is a modern iteration of a historic staple. Likely named after the 3 Axis CNC machine used to recreate the asymmetric neck profile of Eddie Van Halen’s favourite Kramer, this model shares the iconic comfort and versatility found in high-end Music Man guitars. This includes the original one they made for the late great Eddie Van Halen himself.
Unlike the Sterling Sub Series and more akin to the original licenced product (OLP), the Axis AX3FM has a matching headstock that has ‘sub series’ in a far smaller print right below ‘Sterling’, arguably making for a far classier aesthetic! At such an affordable price, this guitar is exceptionally sturdy and well-crafted, making it great value for money. It’s nice to see the gorgeous flame maple top back in production through a warm and vibrant transparent gold finish.
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The first thing that strikes you when you see the Sterling Axis is its beautiful appearance, fit, and finish. A noticeable extra attention to detail that highlights the nicely figured maple veneer, with a golden yellow finish that sits seamlessly atop its poplar body, tied together with a classy binding-like effect. It has a maple neck and fingerboard both with a mild matte finish, and a black gloss back. The AX3FM has a vintage-inspired fulcrum tremolo bridge, a 5-way pickup selector, and what are described as HH pickups. I’m not sure what can be attributed to the mystique of these pickups but they do sound great! When the top neck pick-ups are selected and the tone knob is rolled up through a clean setting, you get a not-too-bright, not-too-warm, but not cold, jangly tone. On just one neck pickup, you can get a really nice warm, mellow tone especially with the tone knob rolled back. The tone control reacts really nicely with these pickups.
When all pickups are firing, what you get is a full, warm but clear-cut voicing that sounds distinct and lovely. Select just one bridge pickup, and you can get a really nice jangle with slightly less presence but just as much bite as the neck. Finally, for both bridge pickups it’s the perfect amount of presence and bite to give a very full and supporting sound, perfect for rhythm playing.
For my personal favourite application to the Sterling Axis, grit! It pairs perfectly with high gain amps. You can find a number of variations of full-bodied chords and seamless soloing thanks to its hard maple asymmetric neck. It’s more rounded where the bottom strings sit and thinner at the top. A perfect combination for a comfortable feel across an assortment of playing styles. Dare I say, the best of both worlds. Through a high gain amp and across all its pickup selections is where I think this guitar can really show off its versatility and nuance, but I was very impressed with its clean and crunchy sounds.
The chords when on the bridge pickups are full-bodies and can even be on the fuzzy side with the tone rolled down – which I certainly prefer, all while maintaining definition with its top strings. On just one bridge pickup it’s similar, but a little less all-encompassing which is perfect for creating dynamics in your playing. On all pickups, the beast is roaring! It’s hot, warm, punchy, a little fuzzy, and defined. With both neck pickups, I get reminded of an iconic, heavy rock sound. It has only one volume knob and one tone knob but fear not, the coil-splitting options really do offer a plethora of sounds and all can be tweaked to your preference.
Its hard maple neck has a 5-bolt attachment which attributes to sustain and the scale length is a comfortable 25.5”, with a width that spans from 42mm to 57mm. Its 12” radius in combination with its asymmetric neck makes it great for playing chords and its 22 nickel, narrow frets of medium height allow for easy movement across the fingerboard. Just the right amount of gloss for smooth or shredding solos. Not to mention all the wails and dives you can do thanks to its fulcrum tremolo.
The .009 – .042 strings work well, but depending on your style of playing, preference and tuning, I really do think it could sound even better with a slightly heavier gauge. In the meanwhile, I enjoyed all the expressions I could apply with the out-of-the-box setup. It has diecast tuning machines which are a solid staple, a single action truss rod, and minimal but stylish black dot fret markers. Of course, tuning stability is reliant on the material of the nut, due to the inherent friction of the chosen material. The Sterling Axis AX3FM does sport a very sturdy yet plastic variation of a nut; however, this can easily be worked around and is a small concession for such a decently priced and well-made guitar!
Overall, I was really pleased and impressed with this affordable, extremely well-built, and considerately designed Music Man Sterling Axis! I can always really appreciate when a guitar company makes the effort to really weigh up what needs to stay and what has to go in order to make quality more accessible and it seems Music Man Sterling have certainly achieved that here. It looks great, sounds great and is an all-rounder for playing. It definitely can inspire different voicings and styles of performance and writing simply from its many varying assets such as its asymmetrical neck and its 5-way toggle switch/pickup options. If you’ve been eyeing off this range, this release is the one to pull the trigger on!