Review: Ernie Ball Music Man 30th Anniversary StingRay5

September 1, 2017

The music man StingRay has been lauded continuously in these pages, most recently in 2016 when we reviewed the 40th-anniversary edition of the stalwart bass. Looking back on our many StingRay reviews, the details change with each iteration, but a few broad threads remain true: They’re rugged, comfortable, and beautifully constructed, and they boast a singular tone that’s a category unto itself. While ten years younger than its smaller brother, the StingRay5 is nearly as iconic. Born in 1987, the 5 was the first StingRay the Ernie Ball team designed from scratch after purchasing Music Man. It was never intended to be a standard StingRay with an extra string: Although it inherits the 4’s general look and concept, the 5 introduced a suite of new features to enhance the original’s limited flexibility, including a 3-band preamp and 3-way pickup-coil selector. The 30th Anniversary StingRay5 is essentially a luxurious, tastefully modified version of the bass we’re all familiar with—a greatest-hits package pulled from 30 years of success.

Given that you are likely familiar with the StingRay5, let’s discuss what’s new with the upmarket 30th-anniversary model. First, it’s arguably the sexiest-looking StingRay5 ever made. Ernie Ball Music Man has always had a knack for aesthetics, and the Anniversary is a visual treat. The whole package looks hot, but in a refined, instant-vintage sort of way. I love the Buttercream finish, the white binding, dots, pickup, nut, and the gorgeously figured roasted-maple neck, a new addition to the StingRay line. “Roasting” maple is a bit of a trend at the moment, and many claim it does more than give the normally pale wood a beautiful tan. Roasted necks are subjected to heat in an atmospherically controlled environment for many hours, drying out the wood and supposedly stabilizing its microscopic structure. The potential advantanges are resistance to warping with temperature and humidity changes, more resonance, and reduced weight. Regardless of its functional benefits, the roasted bird’s-eye-maple neck on the StingRay5 is gorgeous.

The 30th Anniversary bass also gets a modified electronics package. The 3-band EQ has been revoiced, while the big humbucker gets thicker wire and sees a return to ceramic magnets, rather than Alnico, which Ernie Ball has favored since 2008. As ever, the StingRay 5 does a lot with a little, pickup-wise. The single-pickup StingRay was never a versatile bass, but the 3-position switch and EQ go a long way toward wringing out a decent variety of tones, all variations on the StingRay theme. The electronics assembly is solid, although as with a P-style bass, getting at the preamp and pots requires removing the pickguard. Fortunately, Ernie Ball includes a rear-mounted battery compartment with a quick-release cover to render that task mostly unnecessary.

Our tester was exceptionally comfortable. Like other StingRay5s I’ve played, it felt solid and dense. At a little over ten pounds, it isn’t light, but it carried its weight well, and the nicely contoured body, thin and supple neck, and excellent balance enhanced its all-night playability. The tall frets aren’t for everyone, but then again, they’ve long been a facet of the StingRay vibe, and for the sort of aggressive rock and funk for which the bass excels, they’re just the ticket.

STRINGS OF PEARL

The electric-bass tone pantheon is really a trinity. To the obvious pair—the Fender Precision and Jazz—the StingRay is a necessary, well-qualified addition. In the hands of Louis Johnson, Flea, Pino Palladino, or Bernard Edwards, the StingRay has estabilished its bona fides on innumerable hits. The reason it’s so integral is its unique sound; no matter how hard you may try on another bass, the only way to get a Music Man-style tone is on a StingRay (or one of its many imitators). The sound—slightly hollow in the mids, with a toothsome texture in the lows and airy thwack in the highs—is practically the platonic ideal of a slap sound, and many rockers have exploited its aggressive presence, too.

The StingRay5 has always been a particularly cool extension of that iconic sound, fully capable of authentically copping it while also holding a few more surprises. Especially useful is the boost/cut EQ, rather than the stock StingRay’s boost-only affair. Also of note is the 3-position pickup switch, which chooses among series, parallel, and a hum-cancelling single-coil setting. Our StingRay5 tester sounded just like it should, with all the thrust and assertiveness of its ancestors. It had an especially glorious B string, with a crisp clarity that does further damage to the mistaken notion that a good B requires a 35" scale. The pickup switch changes its character from a more full-bodied (and slightly louder) vibe in the series setting to a more trad-StingRay sound in the parallel setting, which is the stock StingRay 4-string configuration. The single-coil setting is somewhat like the parallel, but slightly less full in the low mids.

The StingRay5 has long been a solid bass, the definition of a workhorse. The 30th Anniversary edition may add some fancy livery, but look past that, and it’s every bit the Clydsedale it’s always been. It doesn’t do everything—but then again, that was never the intention. Rather, it’s an irreplaceable asset for certain jobs, and that’s more than most basses can boast.

SPECIFICATIONS

ERNIE BALL MUSIC MAN

30th Anniversary StingRay5

Street $2,400
Pros Drop-dead gorgeous; durable and well constructed; versatile for a single-pickup bass
Cons None
Bottom Line If you want a collectible StingRay5 that’s guaranteed to look and sound trick onstage, this is your bass.

SPECS

Construction Bolt-on
Body Ash
Neck One-piece roasted bird’s-eye maple
Neck width at nut 1.5"
Fingerboard Roasted maple or rosewood
Fingerboard radius 11"
Frets 22, high-profile stainless steel
Scale length 34"
Tuners Schaller BM w/tapered string posts
Bridge Music Man chrome-plated steel with “Classic” nickel-plated saddles
Pickup Music Man humbucker
Tone controls 3-band EQ w/3-position pickup-selector switch
Made in U.S.A.
Contact music-man.com

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