Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay 40th Anniversary (Review)

In 1976, 11 years after Leo Fender sold Fender Musical Instruments to CBS, Leo’s company Music Man—a partnership with former Fender employees Forrest White and Tom Walker—unleashed the StingRay, the first mass-produced electric bass with active electronics.
By E.E. Bradman ,

In 1976, 11 years after Leo Fender sold Fender Musical Instruments to CBS, Leo’s company Music Man—a partnership with former Fender employees Forrest White and Tom Walker—unleashed the StingRay, the first mass-produced electric bass with active electronics. Almost immediately, it was a smash hit with players such as Bernard Edwards, John Deacon, Carl Radle, and especially Louis Johnson, who visited the factory several times to give Leo feedback.

Behind the scenes, Tom Walker’s teenage godson had been a crucial beta tester with direct access to the ear of “Uncle Leo.” “Tommy designed the preamp, and when they got to the R&D phase, [he] would bring in me and some friends to play stuff and report back,” says Sterling Ball, who became CEO and chief designer of the Ernie Ball brand. In the early days, he recalls, Leo gravitated toward the StingRay’s famously hot output. “He was hard of hearing, so he liked a bright sound,” says Sterling. “Bright sounded normal to him.” But an early prototype, StingRay #26, had an experimental ten-polepiece pickup that gave it a smoother tone than the standard eight-polepiece pickup. In appreciation of Sterling’s help with R&D, Leo gave him #26, which he had nicknamed “Old Smoothie.” Leo left in 1979, and Sterling’s father, Ernie Ball, bought Music Man in early ’84, sealing Sterling’s relationship with the instrument he helped create.

In 2010, news of this one-of-a-kind 4-string began to get around the internet, and in January 2016, Ernie Ball Music Man unveiled a reissue in celebration of the StingRay’s 40th anniversary.

NICE AND SMOOTH

The first thing one notices is Old Smoothie’s chocolate-and-sunburst finish, inspired by its primogenitor’s three-tone sunburst, which has aged to a deep brown around the edges. The tenpolepiece pickup is quite distinctive, too; just like the original, it really does resemble two eightpolepiece housings cut and rejoined to form a pickup with five polepieces in each coil. The stringthrough- body bridge with adjustable mute pads, walnut skunk stripe on the back of the maple neck, and light yellow neck finish help give it that oldschool glow. Although its trussrod adjustment wheel and six-bolt neck plate are borrowed from the post-’84 era, Old Smoothie retains the ’76-style alder/sunburst body, maple fingerboard, and 2-band EQ. Its most striking quality, perhaps, is the absence of the Ernie Ball logo from the headstock, a first for an Ernie Ball Music Man bass.

Old Smoothie came perfectly set up with .045– .100" Ernie Ball Super Slinkys. At just over nine pounds, it was a joy to play for long periods, and the slim neck—with its 7.5" radius (instead of the more modern 11")—made it easy to play fast lines and upper-register double-stops. Our tester’s polepieces, faithfully copied from prototype #26, didn’t exactly line up with the pickup cover, but the pickup height was ideal. The mutes worked like a charm, allowing us to try our best Bernard Edwards “chucking” imitation without worrying about open string noise.

Plugged in, Old Smoothie has oodles of that classic StingRay tone: big bottom, slightly scooped mids, and pointy highs. But what sets Old Smoothie apart is the pickup. The prototype’s extra long polepieces, later shortened in production basses, cause string dampening, and they don’t line up directly underneath each individual string, thus capturing less of the direct string vibration. The result is a more subdued take on the classic StingRay sound, with a bit more fundamental. The trademark Music Man high end can sometimes sound harsh and thin, and in the wrong hands, the active nature of the preamp can dominate. But Old Smoothie’s mellower brand of zing—a StingRay, certainly, but with a slightly sweeter sting—might actually just be a bit more versatile.

Anyone looking for classic ’Ray sound in an undeniably vintage package would be silly to not try one of these instruments. With its warmer variation on one of the great bass tone templates, Old Smoothie is a welcome addition to the Music Man StingRay legacy.

SPECIFICATIONS

ERNIE BALL MUSIC MAN

StingRay 40th Anniversary
Street
$2,000
Pros Familiar tone, new warmth
Cons None
Bottom Line A fastidiously vintage StingRay reissue with a sweeter, smoother voice.

SPECS

Body Alder
Finish High-gloss polyester
Colors Chocolate burst
Bridge Music Man chrome-plated, hardened steel bridge plate with vintage stainless steel saddles and adjustable mute pads
Pickguard White
Scale length 34"
Neck radius 7.5"
Frets 21
Neck Maple
Neck width 1.625" (41.3 mm) at nut, 2.5" (63.5 mm) at last fret
Fingerboard Maple
Fret markers Black dots
Neck finish High-gloss polyester
Neck colors Natural aged light yellow finish
Tuners Schaller, with tapered string posts
Trussrod Rear-mounted, adjustable
Neck attachment Six bolts
Shielding Chrome plate brass control cover
Controls 2-band active preamp; volume, treble, bass
Pickup Custom “Old Smoothie” humbucking with ten elongated Alnico magnets and split cover
Made in U.S.A.
Contact music-man.com