As one of the most carefully considered makers out there, Music Man defines the high-end production electric, never afraid to incorporate new concepts like active boosts, hum-cancelling circuits, stainless steel frets, compensated nuts and, on an increasing number of models including the Cutlass, roasted (aka torrified) maple necks.
These on-going additions, of course, come on top of design elements that go back to the mid-eighties like the highly distinct and practical 4-over-2 headstock, or the wheel-style truss rod adjustment that is now copied by many, Fender included.
The Cutlass launched back in 2016. The following year saw the Cutlass HSS. The Cutlass, of course, caused a stir a couple of years back in our office. While ‘doing a Fender’ has become de rigeur, the Cutlass’ overly Stratocaster-like appearance hid numerous charms not least its lower tier ‘Modern Classic’ pricing, active buffer and hum-cancelling Silent Circuit which, bundled in with stainless steel frets, fired a shot across the bows of many higher-priced boutique makers.
The addition of a bridge humbucking HSS version is a no-brainer not least when it’s offered in this Stealth Black finish (a slightly shiny satin, not a matt) with ebony fingerboard. But things have changed, primarily the price which is now over 50 per cent higher than the three single coil model we looked at back in issue 413: while the original model looked set to do battle with Fender’s USA models, the 2018 version sits more with brands like Suhr and PRS’s Silver Sky bolt-ons.
The Cutlass’ neck measures 51.76mm at the 12th and in terms of depth is 21mm at the 1st fret, 23mm at the 12th. It features that wheel-style, and very practical, truss rod adjustment along with Music Man’s own five-bolt neck-to-body join on a nicely rounded body heel.
Music Man’s Modern vibrato mixes old-school bent-steel saddles with two height adjustable pivot posts, a push-fit, tension adjustable arm and a steel top-plate, although the deep-drilled block material isn’t specified. The unit, by design, sits flat on the body’s face with no up-bend; down bend is virtually to slack and, partly thanks to the Schaller rear-lock tuners, return-to-pitch stability is excellent.
The Cutlass isn’t that far from standard, employing both the Silent Circuit and a buffered output - effectively an active guitar. It goes for a simplified master volume and tone set-up (hugely overlooked on so many guitars like this) and puts the output jack on the side, avoiding the oh-so-Fender look of the original dished jackplate. Although the black single-ply scratchplate ‘disappears’ in this colour, the bass-side especially is very different to a Fender design. The two single-coils offer a stagger that reflects the arc of the strings rather than some historic reference, while the bridge humbucker, in a plastic cover, melds in with the vibe nicely.
There’s plenty to appreciate here though its modern presentation certainly reflects what we hear. While we don’t get the usual pickup hum there is a very slight active ‘hiss’, which may annoy some, and overall it’s voiced, to our ears, on the more modern side of the Strat tracks. String-to-string balance is noticeably more regular than our reference Fender American Pro, which has a slightly dominant G and softer B and E.
While many will say ‘Well that’s what a Strat is supposed to sound like’, not all of us live in a 1950s bungalow - the balance here is certainly appreciated. It’s nice, too, that the bridge humbucker isn’t over-loud, again it’s pretty well balanced in terms of output with the single coils and has an expected smoother, fuller voice. Certainly in bridge and middle it still creates that typical hollowed texture, which along with the neck and middle sound a little produced, in a good way.
The neck doesn’t shy away from high-end attack and, as ever, the middle provides extremely good contrast. Certainly if you’re mixing funkier, poppier voices with a bit of good ol’ classic rock ’n’ blues in your set this and a few basic effects will get you there in exemplary fashion.
Music Man builds some of the finest modern electrics money can buy. The key word here is modern: from design to set-up it’s extremely hard to find fault. Yes, the Cutlass doesn’t hide its inspiration but it’s an entirely more up-to-date dish with the sort of specification we’re coming to expect from the cream of modern bolt-on makers: sophisticated hum-cancelling, stainless steel frets, an improved vibrato and, more unique to Music Man, a buffered output. Add in the 2018 change to roasted maple for the necks and, certainly, it’s state-of- the-art.
While the all-over Stealth black won’t be to everyone’s taste Music Man offers plenty of more classic-looking hues. The down-side might be the substantial price increase but alongside makers like Suhr it’s less of a ‘which is best?’ shoot out, more a ‘which do you prefer?’