SLO man made name in guitar strings

This article first appeared in The Tribune on Sept. 10, 2004.

Roland Sherwood "Ernie" Ball, who expanded a small music store near Hollywood into a guitar and strings business known worldwide, died Thursday (Sept. 9, 2004) after an ongoing illness. The San Luis Obispo man was 74.

Ernie Ball Inc. --based in San Luis Obispo from 1985-2003 -- put guitars and other equipment into the hands of music legends such as Metallica, Paul McCartney and B.B. King.

Sterling Ball, the company's president, said his father was a revolutionary in the guitar industry.

"He changed the way people thought of guitar accessories, and how they sold and marketed them, and to this day the Ernie Ball way is the industry standard, " Sterling Ball said in a statement.

"My dad understood how to make tools for musicians, and our family is deeply proud of being part of this creative process. We will all miss him immensely, and are grateful for the legacy he created for us."

When Ernie Ball opened a small music shop near Hollywood in 1958, sales reps laughed at the fact he wouldn't sell drum sticks and clarinet reeds to diversify his shop.

"I just want to sell guitars, " he said.

The reps responded: "There's no such thing as a guitar store; you'll never make it."

Nearly a half-century later, guitars and strings from his self-titled music company are sold in more than 5,500 music stores in the United States and exported to 75 countries.

Ernie Ball Inc. is the second-largest guitar strings company with $40 million in annual sales, according to Music Trades, an industry trade magazine.

Ball grew up in Santa Monica as the son of a car salesman who, on the side, taught people how to play the Hawaiian steel guitar. Ball played that instrument as a 9-year-old but started practicing heavily as a teenager.

Years later, he played gigs in South Central Los Angeles bars and had a stint in the U.S. Air Force Band. His big break was landing a staff band job with KTLA's popular weekly show "Western Varieties" in the 1950s.

In the early 1960s, Ball developed the first rock 'n' roll strings, called "Slinkys." Demand grew so much for these strings that he sold his small retail store and moved his strings business to Newport Beach. He bought an electric guitar company, Music Man, in 1984 and permanently moved both his businesses to San Luis Obispo in 1985.

Ernie Ball Inc. moved its string operations -- and more than half of the 328 jobs -- to the Riverside County town of Indio last year, saying high housing prices here made it difficult to hire qualified manufacturing employees.

This year, the company was the 31st largest private employer in San Luis Obispo County with about 150 part-time and full-time workers.

Chuck Braun, who served as Ball's plant manager in the 1980s, remembered his former boss as a quiet man who took care of his customers.

"He had this idea about perfection. He was one of those types of people who took pains to do things the right way, " said Braun, now an insurance agent in Atascadero. "That's how he built his business, and that really made an impression on me."

Ball was not a typical executive. He disregarded profit-and-loss statements and didn't like market surveys to see if products would succeed, according to a company news release.

"If it feels right, I know it will sell, " he said.

Ball is survived by his wife, Ani; sons Sherwood, Sterling and David; daughter Nova; and eight grandchildren.