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Ernie Ball Music Man Classic StingRay 4 Bass Review

Ernie Ball''s Classic Stingray 4, which blends modern features with its 1976 roots, is reviewed.

Download Example 1
Flat EQ - Mutes off, then on
Download Example 2
Flat EQ, then Brite EQ, then Deep EQ

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Leo Fender’s bass designs. His early basses set the standard for functional simplicity. His later models added some beef, sparkle, and versatility. And with the Classic StingRay 4, Ernie Ball Music Man has gone back to the StingRay’s original 1976 roots, while retaining a few touches of the modern rendition.

So What’s It Made Of?
The Classic StingRay is built from, er…classic materials. No exotic tropical hardwoods here. Ash body, maple neck, rosewood fretboard. Pulling the bass out of its case, the glossy, amber-finished, flame-grained headstock jumped right out at me. It even had the old two-guys-standing-in-the-shape-of-an-M logo.

Flipping the classic over revealed a deep, 3-D flame along the back of the neck. The fingerboard has a 7.5" radius, with a solid yet comfortable profile. Many contemporary instruments have a larger radius and a flatter profile, but those often feel a little alien after having played old-school basses for most of my years. With a neck width of 1 5/8" at the nut, the Classic StingRay felt right at home as soon as the neck hit my palm. Most basses today have big, beefy frets, but not the Classic. The choice here was high-profile, narrow frets. They were nicely crowned and polished, with no hint of protruding ends to ding up your fingers.

The ash body had an artful, two-tone tobacco burst finish with dark edges that blend smoothly into the lighter stain. It’s slab cut, with edges that are rounded but not tapered back to flow into your arm or your belly. Music Man says it weighs 10 lbs, 4 oz—nearly a pound heavier than the contemporary version— but this one felt lighter. On a strap, the Classic balanced nicely. I expected the slab body to be uncomfortable, but it felt fine. Same goes for playing while seated.

Hardware and Such
A few nice touches brought the whole thing together, especially the six-bolt neck joint on a tried-and-true rectangular plate. The truss rod has the easiest-to-use, most fool-proof design of any I’ve run across—a little slotted wheel recessed into the body on the neck-heel end. That choice avoids problems with rounded Allen wrenches, stripped corners on a bullet, or a nut recessed deep in the headstock.

The big, sturdy bridge on the Classic was a real treat, with vintage, hollow-barrel string saddles and foam string mutes that rest on folded spring metal and are individually adjustable using a thumb screw. Music Man brought this bridge style back because they’ve been receiving lots of customer requests for it since switching to top-loading bridges in the ‘90s.

The battery cavity features a surface-mounted chrome plate rather than a plastic popup box, so on-the-fly changes will be a challenge. I commend Music Man for using machine screws and threaded brass inserts rather than wood screws, though.

Getting to the Guts
Look at a contemporary StingRay in a shop or on a gig, and you’ll more than likely see a three-band preamp, a pair of humbucking pickups, and a selector switch. The Classic version shuns all those trappings in favor of its throwback roots: one pickup—that mighty Music Man StingRay pickup with the huge pole pieces just daring you to coax out a big, fat sound—a two-band EQ, and no switches. Yes, it’s just those three chrome-dome knobs and a jack on that boomerang-shaped chrome plate.

Taking off the eight screws on the boomerang revealed one of the tidiest wiring jobs I’ve run across. Wires were twisted together, and the preamp was attached to the bottom of the volume and tone pots. However, I was surprised that the cavity wasn’t fully shielded with a brass plate on bottom—or even with black conductive paint.

So…What’s It Sound Like?
Playing fingerstyle riffs, I soon found that the bass-and-treble EQ hit its stride with both knobs at halfway, perhaps with a slight tweak in either direction. There’s no center detent to help you find your way—and no pointer line, either. That means you can’t preset a tone before you start playing—or even visually assess where you’ve set the EQ.

Nonetheless, I was able to dial in a range of sounds that belie what you’d expect from a single-pickup axe. Take the bass knob down a bit, bump up the treble, and it sounds like it has a bridge pickup. Go the other way with some added bottom, and you get the sound of a neck pickup. Maybe that’s why players call the StingRay’s pickup location the “sweet spot.” Dialing the treble all the way up got a little noisy, and dialing both tone controls all the way down produced a quiet, muffled tone. Stay away from the extreme settings and you’ll be fine. Overall, attack was both rounded and punchy when playing fingerstyle. The bottom end was nicely defined, yet fat. If you turn to slapping— which I don’t—the bass has a well-controlled snap to its top edge.

Finally, the foam mutes: Just barely touch the strings with them, and they roll off a bit of highs. Crank the mutes up closer and you can create an old-school thump. Because of the thumb screws, though, this isn’t something you should try on the fly—it’s a little awkward reaching under each string to turn the tension knobs.

The Final Mojo
The Classic StingRay is a great bass that’s nicely designed and carefully built. It can get nearly any sound with definition and authority. If you’re considering a four-string StingRay, the big choice is between the contemporary model and the Classic. The Classic streets for around $1800, while the contemporary model is about $400 less. Feel might be one point, with the Classic’s slightly rounder fretboard and skinny frets. Another aspect of feel might be the lack of body contours. Or maybe you just like the idea playing a bass that’s a re-creation of the original’s roots. Regardless, the Classic definitely deserves consideration.

Buy if...
you want a straightforward, versatile bass, and you lean toward retro styling.
Skip if...
you want contemporary options such as a three-band preamp, piezo pickup, or dual pickups.

Street $1800 - Ernie Ball Music Man -