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This article was originally published in issue #21
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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the latest guitar from California's Music Man - the Armada. We dragged Rick Graham away from his game of bowls to consider the invasion.
The designers at Ernie Ball Music Man have never been shy of trying something different. You only have to look at the company's past product catalogue and you'll see some pretty innovative designs. Well, Music Man's latest offering, the 'Armada', is certainly different - not to say controversial. The Editor says it looks Art Deco to him - but he's like that! Unveiled during the winter NAMM show, it provoked distinctly polarised opinions but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Hard though it is to believe now - the Telecaster was once regarded as pretty off the wall!
Music Man's designer, Dudley Gimpel, has stated that he was inspired by wristwatch designs
although I'm sure you'll be forgiven for thinking that pizza and/or cheese had some influence on him, too! But let's get past the shape and bear in mind that this newcomer is new in other respects too - not least of which because it's Music Man's first through-neck design. OK, it's time to venture out into deeper waters and find out if it's sink or swim for the Armada.
Getting straight down to the fundamentals, the through neck design Armada features a mahogany neck/body construction with a striking V-shaped wedge of carved book-matched, figured maple making up the top. The contrast of the beautifully carved maple juxtaposed with the mahogany body certainly gives the Armada a unique two-tone aesthetic which Gimpel was clearly aiming for.
The guitar's neck profile is modelled after the classic '59 Les Paul profile and features a rosewood fretboard with a single ply cream binding marrying the two together. The neck has a scale length of 24.75" and features 22 high profile, wide, stainless steel frets, the 'wedge' body theme being continued by repetition in mother of pearl as fret markers.
The headstock is the one thing instantly recognisable as a Music Man design, bearing four of the Schaller locking tuners on the top-side and the remaining two on the underside.
Finishing off the hardware details, the passive Armada features master volume and tone controls with a three way pickup toggle switch, controlling custom Music Man humbuckers in both the neck and bridge positions. The nut is a compensated type of Music Man's own design and the bridge is a Tuneomatic type with thumb wheel height adjustment and individual saddles, with a Graph Tech tailpiece.
Start to play and you immediately find that the Armada has a very 'chunky' feel to it, but I'm talking a chunkiness that is reassuring, rather than overbearing. Right from the moment I picked it up, it felt balanced and very comfortable to play and for me - it felt like home, so to speak. As always seems to be the case with Music Man guitars, the set-up was great, with exceptionally good intonation. Unplugged, it has a loud, very resonant sound, which was both loud and well balanced. Plugged in, the Armada really set sail, producing everything from crystal clean tones, through to classic crunch Rock rhythms and leads, right the way through to hi-gain metal tones and soaring saturated lead.
Its looks may place it in the 'alternative' category, but tonally, this is a very versatile beast and would be at home in a wide variety of playing styles.
So what do we think of the Armada as a whole? Undoubtedly it's a superbly crafted instrument and offers great variety of tones. If our sample is typical (and I bet it will be, knowing Music Man!) they will all be beautifully made. The stumbling block - well, the first one - is the appearance. This one is like Marmite - you'll either love it or hate it. Having said that, for me, it didn't take long before the Armada's looks started to become irrelevant - it's just a great guitar. The second stumbling block though is the price. This is an American handmade guitar, aimed at players who can tell the difference and it is priced accordingly. Only you can decide whether the looks appeal to you, but I can guarantee that if you try one, you will find you've picked-up a really well built, great playing, great sounding instrument. If your list of 'possibles' currently has either PRS or Gibson on it, add this one, too.