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A Guide to the Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Bass

A Guide to the Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Bass

The modern age of musical instruments has been frequently punctuated by tremendous breakthroughs. Truly great innovations routinely stand the test of time, undergoing little evolution, as musicians of disparate generations and taste continue to use tried-and-true tools to bring their art to life. Exemplifying this notion is the Music Man StingRay—for nearly 50 years, it’s stood as a pivotal achievement in bass guitar history and has been the chosen instrument for countless innovators to express their voice. In perpetuity, the StingRay lays the low-end foundation for discerning bass players desiring its distinct tonality, playability and time-proven greatness.

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay 3+1 Headstock

Table of Contents

The History of the StingRay Bass
Famous Uses of the StingRay Bass
What Makes StingRay Basses So Great?
   How Does the StingRay Bass Compare to Other Popular Basses
Where Does the StingRay Bass Stand Today?
StingRay Bass Buying Guide
   Great Beginner/Introductory StingRay Basses
       Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY4
       Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY5
   Mid-Tier/Step-Up StingRay Basses
       Sterling by Music Man StingRay Short-Scale
       Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY34
       Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY35
   High-End/Top-Tier StingRay Basses
       Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special H
       Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special 5 HH
       Ernie Ball Music Man BFR StingRay Special H
       Ernie Ball Music Man 35th Anniv. StingRay 5
Complete Your Rig With a StingRay Bass

The History of the StingRay Bass

When Fender companies were sold to CBS in 1965, then-Vice President Forrest White and sales representative Tom Walker were left in the lurch. The pair stayed on for a short time, while Leo Fender himself remained a consultant, but were quickly jaded with new management and set off to pursue other endeavors.

In 1971, White and Walker formed Tri-Sonix, Inc., with Leo Fender as a financial backer and silent partner. The company’s name was officially changed to Music Man in 1974, and Fender was appointed president the following year, coinciding with the expiration of a 10-year non-compete clause lingering from the CBS sale.

Designed by Leo Fender and Tom Walker, with beta-testing input from Sterling Ball, the StingRay bass guitar debuted in 1976 with appointments that would make it an icon: a signature 3+1 headstock configuration, symmetrical oval pickguard, single passive humbucker and active electronics. Widely heralded as Leo Fender’s final groundbreaking innovation, the StingRay became the first production bass to offer onboard active equalization.

It was an instant classic adopted by influential players spanning genres and remains a go-to choice for bassists today.

StingRay Hot Honey and Ocean Sparkle Finishes

Famous Uses of the StingRay Bass

Historically, the StingRay bass made a splash with prominent players and upholds its reputation in the current era. Louis Johnson, who helped pioneer slap funk technique and famously played on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, immediately took to the StingRay and its uniquely expressive midrange punch. Inspired by Johnson’s tone and style, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea used StingRays almost exclusively until Californication in 1999. Another legendary funk bassist, Bernard Edwards of Chic, adopted the StingRay, which then encouraged Queen’s John Deacon to give the instrument a try (hear it in action on mega-hits “Le Freak” and “Another One Bites the Dust”).

Tony Levin was an early fan of the StingRay, first picking it up in 1979. He’s best known for his work with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and Liquid Tension Experiment, in addition to his prolific session career, laying down the low end for everyone from John Lennon to Pink Floyd, and David Bowie to Lou Reed.

In alternative, rock and metal universes, the StingRay has been a choice weapon for Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton; AC/DC’s Cliff Williams; Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave; Dave “Phoenix” Farrell of Linkin Park; Pantera’s Rex Brown; and Kim Deal of the Pixies, to name a few. Justin Chancellor of TOOL has also been known to pick up a StingRay, as has Jeff Caxide of post-metal outfit Isis. A StingRay was notably Colin Greenwood’s (Radiohead) primary bass for recording and touring The Bends in the mid-’90s.

Joe Dart, an exciting contemporary player known for his soulful, funkified grooves with Vulfpeck, has a penchant for the StingRay’s superior handling of slap technique, as well. Music Man basses lend a complementary voice to his band’s tasteful stylings.  

The Music Man StingRay reliably serves players the timeless tone and effortless playability that have made it such a classic all these years.

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Hot Honey and Ocean Sparkle Necks

What Makes StingRay Basses So Great?

Leo Fender had decades of design expertise to draw from when he codeveloped the StingRay, which had an undeniable influence on the instrument. He also had the consultation of Sterling Ball, who was frankly honest about the bass’ progression and frequently the “tiebreaker” when it came to disagreements between Fender and Tom Walker.

Ball noted key issues with the prototype: it was incredibly hot and would overdrive the input stage of amps, and the humbucker magnet would dampen the E and A strings’ vibration when played higher up the neck. These kinks were worked out by the time the StingRay made it to market in 1976.

During initial testing, Sterling Ball also felt that the bass was unreasonably bright. Then in his sixties, Fender suffered from hearing loss, and what sounded good to him was borderline harsh to younger ears. Ironically, the trebly “edge” of the StingRay is a distinct part of its voice that just so happened to complement the emerging slap bass of the day. Ultimately, Fender was correct in making the bass bright, even if it was coincidental.

StingRay basses provide the best of meaty, passive humbucking alongside active electronics for deeper tonal control. Tom Walker’s significant contribution to the StingRay was his work on the preamp—as the first mass-produced bass to feature active electronics, the preamp came epoxy-coated to prevent competitors from stealing the design. The customizable EQ circuits made the StingRay exceptionally versatile from day one.

As Leo Fender’s first venture after selling his namesake brand, the StingRay seemed almost destined to succeed.

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Ocean Sparkle Control Panel

How Does the StingRay Compare to Other Popular Models?

Compared to other Leo Fender innovations, like the Precision Bass® and Jazz Bass®, the StingRay delivers a more assertive midrange and even a slight top-end shimmer you may not expect from a bass instrument. These tonal characteristics form a powerful three-dimensional image that’s quintessentially StingRay.

While many basses are built to sound smooth and “round,” the StingRay offers that iconic mid-forward tonality that helps it cut through a dense arrangement like butter—not unlike a Rickenbacker, in that sense. Still, it doesn’t sacrifice low-end “oomph” or solidity, and easily establishes itself as the grooving pulse of a band. Despite the single-humbucker versions seeming simplistic, they’re deceptively adaptable thanks to that onboard EQ. A StingRay is one of the few bass guitars that can go from funk to punk at the turn of a knob.

Being the first bass to offer active electronics in standard, off-the-line production models, the StingRay raised the bar for the future of the instrument. These days, active electronics are considered the norm on many basses, making direct signals for recording and live performance highly usable. 

Where Does the StingRay Bass Stand Today?

The StingRay is still the flagship of the Music Man lineup. Highly innovative from inception, the enduring instrument set the benchmark for what a modern bass guitar should be. From its shapeable sound, that’s equally suited to slap, fingerstyle and picking, to its comfortable body and slinky neck, the StingRay is a veritable low-end dynamo.

As ageless as the Stratocaster® in bass circles, the Leo Fender-designed StingRay was a victory lap for the man who changed the course of music forever.

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Neck

StingRay Bass Buying Guide

Between Sterling by Music Man and Ernie Ball Music Man, there’s a diverse collection of StingRay basses to choose from for players of all levels. We’ve compiled a list of our favorites and organized them by tier, starting with introductory instruments, moving through professional, high-end offerings.

Whether you prefer 2- or 3-band EQ, short versus standard scale, single or dual humbuckers, and 4- or 5-strings, this buying guide will provide an overview of available StingRay basses in their current evolution.

Great Beginner/Introductory StingRay Basses

Want to experience the magic of a StingRay without spending an arm and a leg? Sterling by Music Man produces affordable versions of the legendary bass, whether you’re a beginner dabbling for the first time, or a more experienced player looking to flesh out your collection at a reasonable price.  

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY4 Maple Fingerboard Electric Bass in Chopper Blue

Why You Should Buy It: The Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY4 is ideal for beginning players who favor the sound and playability of a classic bass at an accessible price.

The Sterling StingRay RAY4 is the perfect introduction to this lineup, featuring all the hallmarks of the original. With a 9V 2-band active preamp and single ceramic humbucker, players of all skill levels can harness the classic StingRay sound. Built-in clarity, responsiveness and undeniable punch—plus, extra customization via bass and treble controls—equip this bass with all the musicality it needs. This eye-catching Chopper Blue model comes with a maple neck and fretboard, sporting an ultrasmooth and playable 9.5" radius. Beginners looking to become familiar with slap and fingerstyle techniques for pop, funk and R&B would find this bass to be an incredible launchpad.

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY4 Maple Fingerboard Electric Bass Guitar Chopper Blue White Pickguard

Pictured: Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY4 Chopper Blue

As a lefty beginner, it’s easy to be discouraged by the limited selection of instruments on the market. Fret not, my friends: the Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY4 comes in a left-handed version for southpaws. There’s also an awesome dual-humbucker RAY4 that comes with a 5-way pickup selection for more sonic colors to paint with.       

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY5 5-String Electric Bass in Satin Walnut

Why You Should Buy It: The StingRay RAY5 is great for players of all skill levels who are experimenting with an extended-range bass for the first time, balancing construction, components, playability and affordability. 

The Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY5 expands the instrument’s range with the inclusion of a low B string. This satin walnut model rocks a solid basswood body, maple neck and jatoba fretboard, with a slightly flatter 12" radius and 22 medium frets. Its elegant, attractive finish accentuates the StingRay’s contours and curves, for an overall refined and sleek aesthetic that’s sure to inspire newer players to pick it up and play.

Electronically, the RAY5 bears the same 9V active preamp and 5-string ceramic humbucker as the 4-string version, creating the definitive StingRay sound. Having an extra low note is ideal for players who want to immediately get their hands dirty with metal, jazz, prog or fusion, and it’s a bass you can grow with over time.

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY5 5-String Electric Bass Guitar Satin Walnut

Pictured: Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY5 5-String Satin Walnut

Sterling by Music Man thoughtfully includes a left-handed StingRay RAY5 in the collection for those of us who “mirror” righties. There’s also the Sterling StingRay RAY5 HH, which boasts a pair of humbuckers and a 5-way selector to expand its palette. 

Mid-Tier/Step-Up StingRay Basses

Mid-level StingRays are a step up from the introductory line, incorporating different body, neck and fretboard woods, as well as electronic configurations not found on basses in the tier below. They’re generally produced with more elaborate finishes, too, so they can both look and sound the part of a higher-quality bass guitar.

Sterling by Music Man StingRay Short-Scale Electric Bass in Vintage Sunburst

Why You Should Buy It: Lightweight, portable and exceptionally playable, the Short-Scale StingRay also includes a 3-way pickup selector for a ton of tonal variety from its solo humbucker.

At just 30", the Short-Scale StingRay from Sterling by Music Man is a lighter, more portable bass than its 34" siblings. The shorter scale length enhances playability by reducing the distance between frets, so players who like to fly around the fingerboard can get into more technical territory unhindered—it’s great for fast-handed rock or metal riffing, complex slap grooves found in prog or fusion, and virtually any genre where speed is a factor.

The Short-Scale StingRay also offers totally unique electronics, including a push/pull volume knob that engages a boost, a single tone control and a 3-way rotary selector. Its neodymium humbucker can be run in parallel, single-coil or series modes, for a whole new range of tones from the StingRay. The killer vintage sunburst finish, black pickguard and chrome hardware give it a timeless look, and tonal flexibility allows the bass to situate itself in any era of music.

Sterling by Music Man StingRay Short-Scale Electric Bass Guitar Vintage Sunburst

Pictured: Sterling StingRay Short-Scale Vintage Sunburst

For a more hot-rodded look, the Sterling by Music Man Short-Scale StingRay also comes in Fiesta Red, with a roasted maple neck and fretboard that not only looks fantastic, but offers greater stability.

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY34 Electric Bass in Blue Sparkle

Why You Should Buy It: The essential 4-string StingRay, the RAY34 gives players the sonic versatility of 3-band active EQ with bass, treble and mid controls, to dial in iconic, punchy StingRay tone, or something unique to your taste altogether.

Moving up through the series is the StingRay RAY34 in Blue Sparkle. This essential StingRay contains the tone-sculpting power of 3-band onboard EQ and one alnico humbucker, achieving the groovy disco/funk sounds of the late ’70s, the aggressive alternative rock rumblings of the ’90s and beyond, plus everything in between. Its nyatoh body offers a blank canvas on which to paint a colorful sound, and the roasted maple neck and fretboard give it the settled-in feel of a vintage instrument. Blue Sparkle is a striking finish, accented by a pearloid pickguard, white humbucker and chrome hardware.

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY34 Sparkle Bass Blue Sparkle

Pictured: Sterling StingRay RAY34 Blue Sparkle

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY35 Electric Bass in Purple Sparkle

Why You Should Buy It: The Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY35 is perfect for bassists who demand a workhorse 5-string with the ability to run the humbucker in series, parallel or true single-coil modes.

The space-age RAY35 5-string  sonically shimmers and shines with a nyatoh body, roasted maple neck, rosewood fretboard, 3-band EQ and 3-way pickup selector. Apart from having a fifth string for extended range, the RAY35 achieves myriad tones thanks to its pickup switch that lets you alter the character of the single humbucker. Combine that with onboard active equalization, and you can call up robust lows, pushed or scooped mids, and a top end that’s crystal clear or softly out of focus.

Sterling by Music Man StingRay RAY35 Sparkle Bass Guitar Purple Sparkle

Pictured: Sterling StingRay RAY35 Purple Sparkle

With a bridge based on the original StingRay, the Sterling by Music Man-designed tailpiece incorporates a brass block for enhanced resonance and sustain. The RAY35 also features a cool asymmetrical pickguard and all-black hardware to embellish its groovy, galactical looks. Try this 5-string StingRay if you’re a fan of down-tuning and need the extra range for pummeling riffs, or if you play pop, hip-hop or R&B and need ultralow sub-bass tones.

High-End/Top-Tier StingRay Basses

Ernie Ball Music Man offers premium components and construction for discerning players seeking the best of the best in their StingRay bass. These flagship models represent the craftsmanship, sound, look and feel of a high-end instrument, catering to the uncompromising standards of professionals, serious hobbyists and collectors.

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special H Electric Bass in Ivory White

Why You Should Buy It: The ultrareliable EBMM StingRay Special H captures the essence of the original ’70s basses, with modern improvements in pickup and preamp design for even more sonic range.

The Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special H has recently been redesigned to show off a lighter, more contoured body for greater comfort, and the roasted maple neck is finished with a blend of wax and gunstock oil for smooth, easy glides across the entire fretboard. The Special H also features an 18V preamp for extra clean headroom to help you dial in everything from modern punch to silky vintage tones.

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special H Electric Bass Guitar Ivory White

Pictured: Ernie Ball Music man StingRay Special H Ivory White

This Ivory White model, donning luxurious gold hardware, includes a matching roasted maple fretboard, which you can also find on the Black and Burnt Apple finishes. Other EBMM StingRay Special H colorways—Sea Breeze, Amethyst Sparkle, Buttercream, Pueblo Pink and Frost Green Pearl—alternatively have a rosewood fretboard. The Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special H is a workhorse bass, tonally covering groovy slap, jazzy fingerstyle, picked pop-punk and more.

Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special 5 HH Limited-Edition Rosewood Fingerboard Electric Bass in Black

Why You Should Buy It: Between the additional string and humbucker, the StingRay Special 5 HH is a total tonal chameleon ready to take on djent one night, and country the next.   

Ernie Ball Music Man released the first StingRay 5 in 1987, establishing a precedent for the modern 5-string bass guitar. This limited-edition StingRay Special 5 HH benefits from recent developments in the timeless StingRay design, including a sleeker, more ergonomic body, a clean 18V preamp and a pair of neodymium humbuckers optimized for unparalleled tonal diversity.

Ernie Ball Music Man Stingray Special 5 HH Limited-Edition Rosewood Fingerboard Electric Bass Guitar Black

Pictured: Ernie Ball Music man StingRay Special 5 HH Limited-Edition Rosewood Fingerboard Black

The Special 5 HH is an obvious choice for any style of music requiring additional range, but the fifth string also reveals new positions and pathways for playing lower notes, which doesn’t necessarily mean chugging on the open B. A 5-string can help you add weight to a chorus, explore new scales or arpeggios, and more. The Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay Special 5 HH comes in a limited-edition black finish with gold hardware—a regal look that never goes out of style.

Ernie Ball Music Man BFR StingRay Special H Electric Bass in Ruby Punch

Why You Should Buy It: You appreciate top-tier wood selections and the meticulous attention to detail that goes into producing a flawless Ball Family Reserve (BFR) StingRay bass guitar.  

Ball Family Reserve instruments represent the peak of Ernie Ball Music Man materials and craftsmanship. The BFR StingRay Special H in Ruby Punch sports a gorgeous matching 3+1 headstock, pearloid pickguard and chrome hardware. A beautifully figured flame maple neck looks exquisite and boasts breezy playability in a smooth satin finish. Mother-of-pearl block inlays complete the distinguished look of the BFR StingRay Special H, honoring Ernie Ball Music Man heritage with an heirloom-quality bass guitar.

Ernie Ball Music Man BFR StingRay Special H Electric Bass Ruby Punch

Pictured: Ernie Ball Music Man BFR StingRay Special H Ruby Punch

Naturally, the instrument sounds the part of a StingRay, but it’s the outstanding wood selection and craftsmanship that sets the BFR instruments apart from the others.

Ernie Ball Music Man 35th Anniversary StingRay 5 5-String Electric Bass in Spalted Sunburst

Why You Should Buy It: The 35th Anniversary StingRay 5 is a collector’s instrument, perfect for bassists who want to own a one-off design saluting a legacy of innovation.

2022 marked the 35th anniversary of the StingRay 5, which was celebrated with a one-of-a-kind rendition of the storied instrument. The Ernie Ball Music Man 35th Anniversary StingRay 5 features a rare two-piece body, using ash as the primary wood with head-turning spalted maple on top. Its translucent sunburst finish lets the natural wood pop, while black hardware seamlessly blends in to not detract from the figuring.

Ernie Ball Music Man 35th Anniversary StingRay 5 5-String Electric Bass Spalted Sunburst

Pictured: Ernie Ball Music Man 35th Anniversary StingRay 5 Spalted Sunburst

This StingRay notably lacks a backplate for its four control knobs, again to show off more of the incredible spalted maple. Complementing the body is a figured roasted maple neck and ebony fretboard—together, this is one of the most visually striking StingRay basses available, with many compelling properties that commemorate 35 years of 5-string bass dominance.

Complete Your Rig With a StingRay Bass

Whether you’re a beginner, serious bassist or producer looking to add a StingRay to your arsenal, Sterling by Music Man and Ernie Ball Music Man offer a far-reaching collection that caters to diverse budgets and needs. This buying guide is a handpicked curation of popular models, and you’re always encouraged to visit your nearest Guitar Center store to check out these instruments in person to make an informed decision. Whichever you choose, one thing remains certain: the StingRay bass is still one of the most recognized looks and sounds in music, and it’s never too late to trick out your rig with an indelible icon.

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