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Bassists tend to lead diverse musical lives. Many pride themselves on the ability to seem competent in an array of musical styles. So there are a few key basses we all want in our arsenal to enable this diverse musical life. For a lot of bassist, no well-rounded collection could be truly complete without a Music Man StingRay.
The StingRay’s brilliant sheen, scooped mids, and aggressive snarl come courtesy of its big and brash bridge-pickup-only design and active electronics. But it’s this single-pickup layout that also makes the original ’Ray limited when compared to more versatile two-pickup designs. To address this issue and add some flexibility to its lineup, Music Man rolled out the Sabre bass in 1978. The Sabre differed from the StingRay in a few subtle ways, but it was essentially a two-pickup StingRay. It saw some success through the ’80s, but the Sabre never quite caught on like the ’Ray and production was ceased in 1991.
Fast-forward to 2013 and the reintroduction of Music Man’s original dual-pickup bass, now designated the Classic Sabre. It shares important details with the original Sabre, but in many ways it’s a substantially changed instrument. It promises to deliver the iconic Music Man snap, but thanks to its versatile electronics there are many more sounds on tap.
It Slices, It Dices Our test Classic Sabre looks sharp. The Mayan silver poly finish is flawless with a subtle metal flake that pops in the right light. The neck—available in bird’s-eye or flame maple—is glossy, but never felt slow or tacky. Music Man has a excellent reputation for excellent construction and stout hardware, and the Classic Sabre is no exception.
The biggest differences between the Classic Sabre and the original are the pickups and electronics. Most immediately noticeable are the new iteration’s covered humbuckers. The issue of their aesthetic appeal is subjective, but to me there’s something about seeing the giant, exposed pole-pieces that are intrinsic to the StingRay’s trademark look. Of course, this isn’t a StingRay. And furthermore, the Sabre’s neck pickup utilizes 16 pole pieces (two pairs per string), rather than the traditional eight, which would look entirely different anyway
Details Dissected The Sabre’s 5-position switch affords a lot of tone diversity. A player can solo the bridge pickup, use the bridge pickup with the bridge-side coil of the neck pickup, use all coils of each pickup, solo just the coil of the neck pickup closest to the bridge, or solo the neck pickup.
Add the 2-band EQ, and the Sabre’s palette can get broader still. One note about the EQ: It’s boost/cut, but there aren’t center detents on the knobs. And while this generally might bother me, it’s traditional in the Music Man context and somewhat logical given the circuit’s voicing. Even at the knobs’ extreme values, the EQ produces musically useful tone. So it’s arguably more effective to ignore exactly where you are on the frequency spectrum, and instead just work with the knobs until you find a combination that works. The only rub is that it can be a bit tricky to precisely turn back to a favored tone once the knobs have been adjusted.
The Sabre has excellent playability and balance. Its body is slightly smaller than the StingRay, and this, combined with the body-contoured back, aversion to neck dive, and medium weight made the Sabre a pleasant companion—strapped or lapped. The shallow C-profile neck was fast and fairly narrow (1 5/8") at the nut—almost J-bass-like in feel. As with other Music Man basses, the Sabre has chunky frets and big position-indicator dots.
Adjusting action and intonation is easy. I had to tweak the truss rod a touch upon the bass’s arrival, and the neck was exceptionally responsive to the adjustment. Checked with a strobe tuner, the instrument’s intonation was nearly spot-on out of the case.
I was thrilled to see that Music Man included their handy string mutes on this model. Each mute rests on a small leaf-spring and is actuated with a knurled thumbscrew. Unscrew the spring and a small piece of foam puts increasing pressure on the underside of the string, right next to the saddle. It’s not an on-the-fly adjustment, but it only takes a minute and greatly enhances the bass’s utility.
A Cut Above I tested the Sabre with a variety of setups—including amps from Epifani and Aguilar—and in the studio with a Universal Audio LA-610 (with no EQ or compression engaged) feeding Apple Logic. Reasoning that most potential buyers would probably want to know that the Classic Sabre effectively nailed the Music Man-style thwap, I started out by soloing the bridge pickup. Sure enough, the new Sabre issued all the sizzle and snap for which the StingRay is rightly famous, especially if I tailored the EQ to favor the highs a touch.
Moving through the other pickup selections and fiddling with the EQ, I managed to coax a variety of tones from the bass, many of which took me far afield from the stereotypical StingRay-style snap. A few settings stood out. With both pickups engaged, I got a killer full-bodied sound with the kind of robust low-frequency presence that can glue a rhythm section together, but without sacrificing the treble response and dynamic sensitivity that allows the bass to leap above the fray. I also dug the two neck-pickup-only selections, including the P-bass-like single-coil setting (with a patented Silent Circuit to eliminate 60 cycle hum) and the two-coil humbucking setting. Both offer that woody edge and slightly hollow midrange that characterizes neck pickups, with the single-coil setting being the softer, more woolly of the two. Neither setting sounded at all like a StingRay, but that’s the point. This is an altogether different animal.
The Verdict The Sabre is an excellent all-round bass. While it doesn’t cop every tone in the book (it won’t, for example, produce a soloed single-coil J-style tone from the bridge pickup), it offers plenty of breadth to cover most gigs. Its construction is top-notch, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call the Classic Sabre fancy, it conveys the rugged utility and thoughtful and skilled craftsmanship. If your tone tastes run in the slightly zing-y direction, or if you love to slap, the Classic Sabre might be a no-brainer addition to your arsenal.