Before we get deep into our Sterling by Music Man StingRay Ray4 Review. It seems almost incredible that the Stingray first arrived in our consciousness just over 50 years ago. It made an immediate impact. Those bass guitarists who were playing, and aspired to play at the higher levels wanted to try it out.
Some were impressed; others were not. But it has to be agreed it has become an iconic bass and has made its mark on the history of the bass guitar. It was after all the first production bass guitar that featured active electronics. Like them or not, they have changed the way we play and given us alternatives. That must be a good thing.
The question, though, is often asked. How did a bass guitar with such obvious style and sound appear from nowhere? Who was behind it, it must have been someone who knew what they were doing?
When you think Bass guitar, you only need to think of one man, the great Leo Fender. It was him.
Leo, along with Tom Walker and Forrest White, both Fender employees fed up with CBS, set up Music Man. He had sold Fender to CBS and had watched the debacle that unfolded with his beloved Precision and Jazz basses. So, he probably woke up one morning and decided to remind everyone how to make a great bass guitar.
That was in 1972. Leo had a ‘no-competition’ clause in his sale contract with CBS that lasted ten years. He took over as Chairman of Music Man in 1975, ten years after the sale. In the meantime, just a few casual words of advice might have been offered, wink wink.
In 1984, just 12 years and a bucketload of success later, they sold it to Ernie Ball. At least he didn’t sell it someone else who shall remain nameless. And now, of course, it has achieved the ultimate accolade. Other companies build copies of it.
The Sterling by Music Man StingRay Ray4 Review. A closer look at a bass icon.
But is it? We need to look a bit deeper first.
It all actually gets quite confusing with this bass guitar. Fast forward 16 years, and Ernie’s Son, Sterling, is now CEO of Ernie Ball. They released a budget version of the Stingray known as the S.U.B. It had the same basic shape but had a different body finish and pickguard.
Some thought that he was trying to compete with the Fender/Squier set up, and by having a cheaper version of the real thing, it would bring a whole new customer base. It didn’t really work, and this line was ceased in 2007.
Not to be deterred, Ernie Ball brought out a range called Sterling by Music Man. A cut-price version, the real thing was called Music Man Sterling, a bit of confusion here. The Sterling by Music Man was half the price of the Music Man Sterling. Some thought they were getting the real thing at a budget price. However, the Ray4 was one of the ranges of the more affordable versions.
It is true that it gives you the look of the original, but you cannot expect it to give you the sound and the way the original played. It has many of the specs of the original Stingray but doesn’t possess the quality that the guitar possessed. That is the difference between an original and a budget version.
Our job here is not to compare the two. It is to judge the Sterling by Music Man Ray 4 on its own merits. So how does it stack up? This is what we will concern ourselves with in this review.
As mentioned, it has the look. It is built with a Basswood body and finished in black. Basswood is well-known in the manufacture of budget end guitars. Whilst it doesn’t have the qualities of Mahogany, it is a decent tonewood. It is a softwood and therefore, quite light. This bass guitar, for instance, weighs under nine pounds. That makes it a good instrument for a starter or beginner.
The black near-circular pickguard is a focal point of the body design. This, of course, was the same for the original bass guitars. In its original version, that is what people first noticed about the design. It has been kept, and so it should be.
The body shape is nicely contoured with the top edge beveled for the elbow. This gives a nice comfortable playing position. On the back of the body, the top edge has a very ‘Precision-style’ upper shaped style. The influence of the mighty man, we wonder? If it is or isn’t, it doesn’t matter, and it still fits neatly to the body. Just like Precisions do.
The double-cutaway gives full access to the fretboard. The horns of the cutaway are quite sharp but with nicely curved edges. It is a gentle, non-aggressive design.
It is made in Indonesia, and the quality of the body production is good.
This is an area where they needed to pay attention to detail. Many people often refer to the Stingray as being a guitar for ‘slap style’ playing. That has often been attributed to the humbucker pickups. It is true the humbucker adds a bit of bite to the sound, but you can slap on a Precision as well, and that is single-coil. A lot of the slap technique can be made easier by the shape and style of the neck.
This has a Maple neck and also a Maple fretboard. Both of the woods used in the neck construction are hard Maple. This has a few effects on the playing style. Going back to our point about the slap technique. Hardwood necks make it easier because there is no ‘give’ in the surface of the fretboard on the strike. This makes the sound crisp and clean and easier to produce than on a softer wood. The sound is very precise with a lot of ‘bite’ to it and has a tight bottom end.
Rosewood, the more common of fretboard materials, is a harder wood than Maple. But it has a downside as it is also greasy and doesn’t seem to bite so hard. Other scenarios affect the sound from the neck. The strings used, of course, are prime. But a hard neck material is always better for that style — the perfect scenario for slap bass.
Well, a Maple neck will still deliver great tones and action, and it does on this guitar. The neck is well-made and fitted with a truss rod. It has 21 medium frets on what feels like a massive 34-inch scale length. Even though it is the same as a Precision, it feels longer.
The nut has a width of 1.5 inches. The neck is attached by six bolts visible on the attaching plate on the back of the body. It is a good neck design with a starter-friendly feel. It has a satin finish, which gives a nice crisp but rich sound with a lot of sustain. Did they get the neck right? We think so, just.
We have always appreciated the look of this guitar. It has a nice “Leo-like” look to it. But in all its manifestations, at whatever price point we are not fans of the look of the hardware. This for several reasons.
Firstly a black guitar has a certain style. But to put garish polished chrome on it doesn’t seem to work. Have chrome by all means, but so bright?
The three metal knobs on the curved chrome control plate, for example. They are well-made and function accurately. They handle the volume and work well with the onboard preamp. But is that plate a bit over the top? Would it have been better in black? On stage lighting, it is blinding in reflection.
The open-gear tuners are also of a decent quality. But why the strange design of not having them inline. They say it reduces tensioning and tuning problems. Never noticed that from any of our inline tuners on Precision bass guitars. Practical or just a gimmick? Certainly doesn’t help when you are actually trying to tune it in a live situation.
Finally, the heavyweight hardtail bridge is a good design, and it works very well. It allows for a greater string contact with the metal, thus improving the transfer of energy. We’ll let them get away with that one. The bridge is usually chrome or similar.
The hardware is of decent quality for a budget instrument. It is well-built, apart from the machine head positions, has a tough design and does its job. Just don’t stare at it under lights.
We always smile when we read the advertising and marketing blurb for guitars with humbucker pick-ups. They seem to think it is necessary to prefix humbucker with the legend, ‘Low-noise.’ Excuse us, but isn’t that what they are supposed to do? Weren’t they invented to combat the single-coil hum we had to endure before they arrived?
On this Sterling Stingray bass, there is one ‘Low-noise’ humbucker. It is a ceramic magnet pickup designed to be ‘hotter’ than the norm. Ferrites constitute the main components of a ceramic magnet. Theoretically and practically, they do produce a stronger magnetic field than Alnico.
It does suit some people and the way they play. But, this guitar can produce a rich and warm bottom end. Even a bit thunderous, like a bass guitar should. But it seems that as soon as some people pick it up, they have to jack up the top end. It seems they are losing the potential of this bass guitar whilst also missing the point.
If you like the ‘low-noise’ humbucker sound on bass, you won’t be disappointed with this.
A Little More Tonal Control
It has a two-band EQ and preamp. A very simple affair, which is really just a treble and bass control. Both high and low frequencies may be cut or boosted as required. It requires a 9v battery which is inserted in the back of the guitar.
How Does It Play?
It plays quite nicely. The Maple neck is smooth and has a nice comfortable action. It feels quite slick, and the deep cutaways give good access to the fretboard. The body contours make it comfortable to hold, and as it is lightweight, it feels easy in the hands standing or seated.
Depending on how it is bought, it may need setting up, but that is unlikely to be a problem. It is hard to know the market they are aiming for with this instrument. It is affordable enough to be suitable for a starter, but it doesn’t feel like a starter bass guitar for a young player. The weight isn’t the problem, but the size is. There aren’t really any complaints though with the way it plays. For a budget-priced guitar, it does play very well.
How Does It Sound?
The Humbucker gives this bass guitar its sound, and the EQ adds the final touches. It is a bass that will appeal to those that like the sounds it produces. And like all bass guitars, it has what it is good at.
It does slap very well, but there are some limitations to that. The funky, jazz style is going to work well. It doesn’t sound like the real thing, of course. If you are expecting it to, then you will be disappointed, but it has a sound reminiscent of it. The controls will give you what might best be described as variations on a theme.
Sterling by Music Man StingRay Ray4 Pros & Cons
- Great looking Bass.
- Good quality construction.
- Very nice to play.
- Good sounds.
- ‘Hot’ active pickups.
- Soft Maple neck is not the best for slapping.
- Tuner alignment seems unnecessary.
- Brightly polished brass hardware may not be to everyone’s taste.
- The size may be an issue for beginners.
In its price range, it is a good bass guitar. It is very well made and certainly looks the part. It has its failings in our view though both in appearance and sound.
We have already mentioned the exaggerated chrome fittings with the black body. It feels a bit too much. The sound it excels at is a little one-dimensional. But it is good at those sounds. But this guitar wasn’t designed to fit a wide range of genres.
If the humbucker bass is what you like, then as a budget version, you will like it. It plays nicely, and the neck is very good. We do not like the machine head layout at all, but to some, that will be irrelevant. If you’re a humbucker bass player on a budget, the Sterling Stingray bass guitar could well be the perfect bass for you.
So, we suppose the ultimate conclusion of this Sterling by Music Man StingRay Ray4 Review is that it is a good guitar for the right bassist, but it is definitely not suitable for all.