The return of a classic. Welcome back! By Steve Henderson
The original StingRay bass (and its stablemate, the StingRay I guitar), designed by Leo Fender and Forrest White, hit the market in 1976 – two years after the release of their fabulous guitar amps – and bass players took to it in droves. Its fat, bright tones coincided nicely with some of the newer music styles emerging in the mid-’70s, and its stylish design seemed to be an upgraded version of the fabulous Precision Bass that was also designed by Fender and his team.
Ironically, the StingRay guitar failed to capture anyone’s attention – if you’ve played one, you’ll immediately know why – and quickly faded into obscurity along with the StingRay II and the subsequent Sabre models. In 1984, when the Music Man company self‑destructed a mere decade after it officially began, the Ernie Ball company bought Music Man and its various patents. The following year, Ernie Ball started producing basses at their old Earthwood factory in San Luis Obispo, and almost ten years after it first appeared, the StingRay bass was reborn. The 1985 version of the StingRay was a cut above the original, but it retained the killer design that still looks as fresh and cool today as it did 40 years ago.
But the Ernie Ball x Music Man relationship predates the purchase considerably. During the ‘70s, Sterling Ball (Ernie’s son) worked at Music Man on that original StingRay design, beta testing and fine-tuning the instrument. Since acquiring the Music Man marque, Sterling Ball has driven the reintroduction of the StingRay and the development of other successful guitar and bass designs. So, how does all of this relate to our review instrument? Isn’t it just a StingRay?
A LITTLE RAY OF SUNSHINE
Yes, it is – but it’s a very specific StingRay. It’s an as-faithful-as-possible reproduction of the 26th prototype of the ‘70s StingRay series: “Old Smoothie” to Sterling’s friends. I guess he must have liked that particular bass, because here it is, replicated for the StingRay’s 40th anniversary (released last year in the USA). Old Smoothie has a bunch of the original’s features: 34-inch scale, maple neck and fingerboard, 21 thin and low-profile frets, and a long and fat Alnico V humbucker with ten pole pieces (so that the strings are in-between the pole pieces rather than over them). The two‑band active EQ makes tonal choices simpler, and the pots are smooth and even. Old Smoothie has a through-loaded bridge – a design that maximises sustain and tone compared to a top‑loaded bridge that has a kind of cantilever effect. It’s a more expensive option, but it makes for a tighter, more focussed tone and more positive feel. This bridge also incorporates those weird mutes under each string, which can be deployed for that flatwound sound.
SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
However, it’s not an exact clone. Thankfully, they’ve chosen not to copy the original’s bullet rod, instead using their brilliantly simple and contemporary truss rod adjustment device (that little wheel at the base of the neck). The body is alder instead of ash, and its sunbursting is more stylishly rendered, fading smoothly through the three hues. The lacquer is more contemporary: ‘70s Music Man (and Fender) instruments had a heavier lacquer that caused acoustic dampening – affecting the resonance – and had the potential to chip and crack. Old Smoothie’s poly finish has another benefit: it has less of a dampening effect, allowing for a longer resonance which means more sustain and more open tones. It also looks and feels better, and is more resilient.
Playing Old Smoothie unplugged reveals a definite low-mid tone with overtones that are easily identified. The neck is super comfy along the entire length, and the alder body is less fatiguing to play and clearly more resonant than the original’s swamp ash. Plugged in, that familiar StingRay punch is there in spades. The humbucker has a natural midrange push, and the bass and treble circuits (the active preamp was, in the ‘70s, a ground breaking addition) allow the player to sculpt the sonic range with a good degree of accuracy. The tone has a harmonic strength that supports the fundamental tones brilliantly; the fundamentals are still tight and defined, but there’s a subsonic deal happening that, through a great bass amp, adds a bloom to each note and creates a deeper aural image.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re after the classic thump of a P Bass, but with little more finesse and versatility, a StingRay is just what you need – and Old Smoothie is no exception. The price? In the ‘70s and ‘80s, when you could buy a three-bed brick house for $70k, the StingRay was a premium instrument retailing for around $1,200 – so, by comparison, this new and improved StingRay is a bargain. Old Smoothie is a finely crafted instrument and there’s clearly been a lot of love driving this project because this is a way better instrument than the original was. The fretwork, finish and general attention to detail is first-rate. Tonally, Old Smoothie is every bit the classic StingRay, but the playability has benefitted immensely from 40 years of production experience. The fact is, Old Smoothie has all the tone and vibe of the original, along with the playability and tight manufacturing tolerances of a modern Music Man instrument. Old Smoothie would be right at home in the hands of the retro stylist or the modern player. And, in another 40 years, a whole new generation will be digging the StingRay vibe, and Old Smoothie will still be making it happen.
TOP 5 FEATURES
• Sunburst alder body
• Maple neck
• Two-band active EQ
• Top-load bridge
• Classic tone
• Simple layout
• High quality construction
• Small frets may not suit everyone
Ph: (02) 9905 2511