Friday, 18 April 2008 06:29

And the Story Goes On…..and on….and on………..

Written by  Sterling Ball
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So know it’s 1962 and my Dad’s store is just down the block from the house and we were all out terrorizing the neighbors and my dad shows up and wants the kids to choose the packages for the new strings….I remember this vividly, ( Kind of weird because I was seven) and he stuck his right hand out and showed us this wacky string package that was in black and white….then he pulled his left hand out and there was a hot pink day glo version of the same artwork…..It was unanimous the day glo won……He called them Slinky’s.

The artwork was done by a genius high school buddy that was one of Walt Disneys top art directors named Roland Fargo Crump. If you get to Disneyland and see “It’s a Small World”( you will notice an uncanny resemblance as that was Crump’s work too……)

So now he has a name and package for the strings now it’s time to sell them. Easy,……right? My Dad didn’t know anything about business. He was a instant serial entrepreneur…..he had to break all the rules he didn’t know and figure out how to get dealers excited about guitar strings when at the time they were kept in drawers and an after thought for the stores. Today accessories are one of the most important segment of any retailers business but back then ignored. The first thing he learned is that he was a dealer in the LA area and no store would consider buying a string with a competing stores name on the package. The second thing is that NOBODY cared. I went on sales calls with him as a kid and I sat on the curb and waited while he was rejected 9 out of ten times….

So my Dad did what all people with passion for an idea that everyone thinks is crazy. He tried different stuff. He first off made sure that there was extra profit for the dealer to sell the stuff and broke conventional discount structure. He then said that if they didn’t like his name on the package that he would put their name on it. Bingo. You could tell the four Ball kids by looking at their hands as they were the ones with the paper cuts and hangnails from stuffing the front label into the sets for the dealers. They started to build momentum as did Rock N Roll….Dealers started realizing that they were making money and that it was cool having heir name on the set. He appealed to their ego.

It’s starting to build and my dad would get letters from guys wanting the strings. He stared doing mail orders. Back then there weren’t roadies and bands like the Beach Boys would be lugging their gear and people would ask them where they got those flexible strings and they said, This crazy guy in California named Ernie Ball….more mail orders.

So as it grew he started putting his original front label in the sets as a back label and dealers didn’t mind as they were selling and generating profit from a new area of the store. As the momentum grew he switched the labels and put his in the front and the dealers in the back. Double hangnails for us kids…that was if we didnt get library duty going through the yellow pages looking for new dealers to contact. If they looked like a really big dealer we would rip the page out and my dad would do artwork from the ads logo and sent the dealer some spec strings. It worked about 90% of the time.

This is when I knew that all I ever wanted to do was Ernie Ball. By 9 I was running the stores cash register when I wasn’t driving my dad nuts. What an era…..The Byrds hung out in the store and so did most of the bands and if you bought a set of strings at the now thriving store we would put them on tweak the guitar’s set up for free. Any number of us kids and store guys would get the workbench and polish and re string.

Oh yeah and while he was doing this string thing he was also introducing colored guitar picks as the conventional wisdom was that you only could sell tortise shell colored ones. He was teaching like mad. When you took from Ernie Ball and his staff of teachers you always had the top 30 arranged for easy, moderate, and advanced students. It was so unique that my Dad had a Xerox machine when they first came out (pre trademark concern days) and Xerox was so impressed that they did an international ad campaign…print and TV. BIg Time. “IF Ernie Ball’s guitar store can afford a Xerox 813 how expensive can it be?” “About the cost of a dozen guitar picks”, said Ernie.

He was arranging music for Hansen Publications gutiar folios. I remember when the Hansen guys called my Dad and said, “Ernie, we have a book that you have to do really quickly as these guys are a fad and won’t last’….it was the Beatles. Sometimes on Ebay you can find my Dad’s arrangements. His Classical Gas one was a big seller.

Now the Store is rockin, the strings are growing and Dads still teaching. We are cruising along waiting for KRLA or KHJ to debut the newest Beatles songs so we could play them before the record came out. The thrice broke Ernie Ball is now a growing success. It’s 1967 and three things happened. The British Invasion hit, Guitar Player Magazine started, ( By fellow teacher and San Fernando Valley retailer/teacher/steel guitarist named Bud Eastman…..who also founded Musicians Friend) and my Dad decided at 37 to sell his stores, ( he had three by then) move to Newport Beach and semi-retire and concentrate on the accessory business. He wanted to surf at lunch and learn to fly an airplane. He did both but this semi-retirement was a failure as the magazine and the British Invasion messed up that concept as the business took off……..

Part four coming when I get around to it…..Hope Im not boring you cats.

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 July 2009 09:21