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1976 Music Man StingRay Prototype "Old Smoothie"

One of the first Music Man instruments ever built after the CBS no-compete restriction expired

In 1971, Tom Walker and Forrest White—two former Fender employees—approached Leo Fender about starting a new company. They launched the company as Tri-Sonic, and after a few more name changes, settled on Music Man in early 1974. Initially, Music Man specialized in building hybrid amplifiers constructed with both tube and solid stage technology like the Sixty Five. In 1975, Fender’s “no-compete” legal restriction mandated by CBS in 1965 expired and they started using exclusive guitar and bass models through Fender’s CLF Research. When developing the first StingRay basses for Music Man, Leo relied on a young-and-up-coming star Sterling Ball—son of Ernie Ball—to test the instruments, work with R&D, and deal with artist relations.

The bass shown here is an early Music Man StingRay bass prototype custom built for Ball in 1976. Not only is this historically significant for being one of the first Music Man instruments ever built, but also because it now can be seen as a torch-passing moment between Leo Fender and Sterling Ball—current owner and CEO of Ernie Ball Music Man.

It has an ash body finished in a 3-tone sunburst that has aged to a deep chocolate brown around the edges. The neck is a one-piece maple with a walnut stripe down the back and bullet truss rod adjustment on the headstock. It has the original string-through-body bridge with ferrules on the back and adjustable bridge mutes. The unique feature of the bass is the pickup, which was fabricated using two StingRay bass pickup covers, cut and rejoined to form a pickup with five pole pieces in each coil. The pickup is mounted with each string placed between two pole pieces, which are the original 3/8" diameter Alnico V rod magnets. The preamp is the original Music Man 2EQ active preamp. And Dudley Gimpel, Ernie Ball Music Man’s production manager and master luthier, says the iconic bass’ cool nickname is Old Smoothie, because “its sound is very fat and smooth, with the typical punch of the StingRay, but a little more subdued and much mellower tone.”

A special thanks to Dudley Gimpel and Ernie Ball Music Man for the opportunity to feature this fine instrument and its story.