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This article was originally published in issue #17
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You can get a lot of basses for surprisingly little money these days. But can you get one that you'd take on a professional stage? Dean Veall checks out a real contender from Music Man's Sterling S.U.B. series.
Here's a bass that really needs no introduction at all. The original Music Man Stingray has been making its mark in all genres of music since its inception back when - well around the same time as I entered the world too actually! 1976 was obviously a very good year!
Designed by Leo Fender, Tom Walker and Sterling Ball, this new and exciting instrument with a nod to Fender's original Precision design, in terms of outline, brought some innovative feature 'upgrades' such as active electronics, a chunky soapbar pickup, shorter 3+1 headstock and one of my favourite additions, the tasty chrome boomerang control plate. Oh and let's not forget that identifiable Music Man bass tone!
Over the last 37 years and counting, the Stingray has spawned a whole host of model variations. We've seen left hand versions, limited editions, 5-string versions not to mention up to date with the latest 'Reflex', 'Sterling', 'Big Al' , 'Bongo' and hi-tech 'Game Changer' instruments, currently advertised on the Music Man website.
Today we look at a family subset that Music Man describe as 'a new level of quality and value for the beginning or intermediate player'. They go on to say, ' we feel all players should have access to affordable guitars and basses that feel, sound and play like a refined, crafted professional instrument.'
First of all, before any confusion ensues - the Sterling By Music Man family of instruments is further split up in to USA/ Canada instruments and International Instruments. The options for each 'outlet' vary, so it's worth taking a closer look first.
From the international range there are five models to chose from. Three 4-string models and two 5-string models. Starting with the 5-string versions, there is a black one with a maple fingerboard and a walnut satin version with a rosewood fingerboard. Over to the 4-string models, again a black version with a maple fingerboard but also a white model (with the same black pick guard) with rosewood for the fingerboard instead. Finally, there's the model we are reviewing today, the walnut satin version which, as you can see, has a rosewood board. The USA models have a sumptuous honey burst finish 4-string instead of the Walnut Satin and only one 5-string model. There is, as far as I know, no left hand option available in this range.
Here we are then, and immediately there is little doubt that a great deal of effort has gone in to making this instrument a worthy member of the Music Man family. Yes, it comes in at a far lower price point in comparison to the premium USA models, but you'd not mistake where this bass gets its heritage..
The walnut satin finish is really tasty indeed. Just take a closer look at the video and images. There's a great close up on the Sterling By Music Man website too showing off the solid hardwood body grain. Speaking of which the 'hardwood body', although not advertised, I understand to be jabon, an Indonesian wood similar to basswood.
Top to bottom, the instrument features chrome tuning keys with a good action and a small string tree for the A and D strings to give them a better break angle over the nut.
On to the neck and fretboard - well! What a joy! The nut width is more akin to that of a 'Jazz Bass' profile at 38mm, something that I prefer. A little unexpected, perhaps, as my main instruments are usually 6 and 7-string beasts! The rosewood fretboard on this model looks well finished with medium jumbo sized frets and the back of the neck is smooth and comfortable, featuring a satin tinted finish. I like the large dot markers too; easy to see on darkened stages. Six bolts fix the neck on to the body.
Moving on down the body, the familiar Stingray layout greets us. On to the blemish free body surface is a three-ply oval tear-drop pickguard and characteristic 'MM' humbucking pickup. The pickup does not have any coil switching options and is wired directly to an active two band circuit comprising treble and bass boost and cut controls. The third knob on the control plate is the master volume, furthest from the top mounted jack socket. There's a battery compartment that is easy to access on the back of the instrument - a standard 9v battery provides power to the active circuit. I'm always a bit wary of plastic battery compartment doors and have seen many a bass with bits of electrical or gaffer tape holding broken lids in place. I hope the type on these basses will last!
Modelled on the original Stingray, anchoring the strings to the body is a 'large heavy duty and fully adjustable bridge'. Yes, another part of the Stingray design that has always remained. I like that aspect actually; not my own personal taste in bridges, but it's part of the Stingray design that even the budget models can enjoy. So that's got to be a good thing for those working up to a top of the range model.
Sometimes, it's the smaller details that 'make' a bass. Here's a couple I like about the S.U.B. There's the truss rod adjuster for one: OK, so it shouldn't need adjusting much at all, but I am really pleased to see that even on a bass of this price, there's a tidy cut out in the pick guard to access the adjuster wheel. You don't even need an Allen key to adjust the neck either. A straight bar is tool is included, or indeed a small screwdriver will suffice. I like that a lot. I also really like, if I may bring attention back to the metal control plate, the top mounted jack socket. I get to work in environments such as schools where shared kit gets...ahem…'severely tested' by students and have seen so many plastic pickguards split around the jack socket. I think this is a welcome inclusion and should certainly help to extend the life of the instrument's hardware through daily usage.
Plugging in, although the S.U.B. has only one fixed pickup and a two band EQ, there's a lot of tone variation on offer. The EQ has a smooth boost and roll off of both the treble and bass end. I hope that comes across clearly in the video. Boosting the lows and pulling back the top end gave the bass a great 'dub' sound whereas boosting the top end back up we were in to unmistakeable Stingray rasp territory. Slap bass sounded vibrant and zingy and fingerstyle seemed even enough across the fretboard.
Some may feel that such an instrument is a bit of a one trick pony but I think that actually, there's much more value in this instrument than the price tag suggests. This is a great little bass for not a lot of money that I am sure would be a great addition for the beginner or indeed, even the gigging professional who, perhaps, wanted a spare, or only occasionally needed a 4-string bass. Don't expect the S.U.B models to be equal to the USA premium models - however, do expect to find that the Music Man vibe is there, albeit in an understandably diluted version. I'd certainly recommend this instrument along with my other budget favourites reviewed in G.I. to my students.