For most bassists, a Music Man bass guitar spells high-quality construction and top-shelf electronics that perform well both in the studio and live performances.
Great bass players like Flea (RHCP), Pino Palladino, Joe Dart (Vulfpeck), Bernard Edwards (Chic), Cliff Williams (AC/DC), Paul Denman (Sade), Tony Levin and many others play and endorse them.
Even though Music Man (now Ernie Ball Music Man or EBMM) are mass-produced assembly-line bass guitars, they set the benchmark for electronics, tone, construction and playability.
Any high-end Music Man can go head to head with even boutique builds like Sadowsky, Roscoe, Modulus and others.
Music Man was co-created by Leo Fender in the 80s. While the Fender P-bass ruled the 50s and 60s and the J-bass ruled the 70s and 80s, Music Man was the king of bass guitars in the 80s and 90s.
It’s a sonic icon that defined a new generation of bass playing, and it still dominates the market with its signature tones and ubiquitous brand recognition.
Compared to other brands, Music Man basses have one of the most consistent QA track record, and you will rarely ever hear any complaints about a particular Music Man series or year of production.
Bass players tend to rank the different Music Man bass models as follows:
- Music Man StingRay
- EBMM Bongo
- Sterling SUB (Made in USA)
- Sterling by Music Man
Table of Contents
Music Man bass tone: how good is it?
Music Man basses are known and loved for their particular trademark sound. They have lots of oomph, mid-character and not-too-hi-fi treble full of personality.
Leo Fender had already struck tone gold with the Fenders, but he managed to pull off another heist with the ideal pickup placement found on Music Man basses – this time using humbuckers.
The crux of the Music Man bass tone is an emphatic and belligerent lo-mid timbre that is really good at cutting through the mix for any genre or technique whatever the EQ curve. More so than most other basses of all ranges.
Music Man basses hit a sweet spot for the humbucker pickup where the mids have an undulating presence in the mix without compromising the lows. The end-result is unique.
This low-mid presence modern sound of the Music Man is often mischaracterized as ‘zingy/modern/crisp highs’ – like a smiley face EQ with scooped mids. However, such modern growl with crisp highs is more the territory of Sadowskys and high-end Fender Jazz Bases IMO. Big difference!
Both the Fender Jazz and EBMM have an assertive presence in the mix, but the first relies on the highs while the other is more guttural. Once you fall in love with the EBMM tone, it is often hard to adjust to Fender or even another boutique bass.
Whether you like the tone of the Music Man or not is a personal thing, however. A 100% Fender P fan may not endorse the sound of an EBMM with rounds.
Tweaking the Music Man tone
This not-so-subtle tonal characteristic is both a blessing and a curse for EBMM. Some bassists feel that Music Man basses are a one-trick pony tonewise.
However, while every Music Man does lean toward a specific tone, it doesn’t mean they lack versatility.
There are easy ways to cut back on the MM character to make it sound warmer and deeper even with just the onboard 2 or 3-band EQ.
Admittedly, it is hard to completely undress the tone of its signature low-mid character. This is easier to achieve with the 3 or 4-band EQ of a double buck EBMM – which are versatile basses well-suited for jazz and precision territory.
You can pair up a Music Man bass with an EQ/DI with warm tone-coloration or a tube preamp. The tonal possibilities from this combination can give you special results and some deeply gratifying vintage tones.
You can also slap on old strings to ease up some of that Music Man zing if you find it too aggressive.
MM basses, however, do their thing best with a nice shiny pair of roundwounds with a little snap – e.g. DR Hi-beams or Roto66, for some gritty fingerstyle sounds and tasty slap tones.
How good is the Music Man STINGRAY?
Stingrays (SR) are great and comfortable to play. The knobs feel substantial, there’s no play in the tuners, nothing rattles, and the pickups have a nice little bevel on them for resting your thumb.
These MM basses have bolt-on necks, slab bodies and string-thru-body bridges. They are a good option for studio session players because they respond to DI and mic-ing with equal flair.
Music Man Stingray basses are known for their fast and slender maple necks. The old lacquered and roasted maple necks are comfortable to grip/play. The newer gloss or satin back-finish is as smooth as it can get.
The thin profile is built for speed without compromising sturdiness. If you want an even slimmer neck, try the SR SLO Special.
The older SR models from the 80s and 90s were more contoured and had some nifty string mutes on the bridge, if you are into that percussive funk or old school tone.
The older six-bolt necks were oil-finished with attractive birdseye or flame maple figures.
Stingrays come in 4 and 5 strings, and have active electronics with 2-Band a 3-Band EQ. One can choose between Humbucker, Humbucker + Single Coil, and Double Humbucker configs (H, HS, HH).
All three pickup variations have a noticeably different sonic character though they all share the ‘signature tone’. With the HS and HH you get more tonal variety (for extra $) and more rope to dial out the signature tone, though you will never really escape all of it.
The MM Stingrays lean on the heavier side and have some neck-dive potential. This can be alleviated with a wide padded bass strap though.
The hardware is top-shelf stuff, the construction is first-rate and the playability is great. As is the case with most humbuckers, the width of the pickup acts like a ramp or thumb rest which makes them really easy to play.
The special edition anniversary Stingrays, the 30th Anniversary SR5 and the Old Smoothie, are extraordinary instruments that uphold everything EBMM is famous for.
Is the Music Man BONGO bass good?
Bongo basses are the lightest Music Man series. Compared to other MM models, the electronics are hotter, and the body shape is eclectic and ergonomic. The Bongo necks have extreme playability. Bongos are very well-regarded and have good resale value.
The Bongo neck has a different circumference which makes it more comfortable to play compared to a Stingray. The Bongo 5, for example, typically feels more comfortable to play than the SR4.
The Bongo has a paint finish instead of the oiled finish of most SR, and has 24 frets for accessing high-octave two-register fretwork.
Music Man Bongos exist in 4, 5 and 6 strings and, feature a 18V active preamp with 3 or 4 band EQ and Neodymium pickups.
The H version has no blend with a 3-band EQ. HH/HS have a blend knob, and a 4-band EQ. The H has a similar tone to the SR5 tone. The HH has a fat, clear tone and growls like no-one else.
The HS is the most ultra-versatile option with the neck pickup adding a lot of value to the instrument.
On the whole, the Bongo has more of a modern classic sound with a very different low-end profile compared to the SR.
The Bongos weigh 8.6 to 9lbs and are better balanced and lighter than other MMs. They are also more delicate because of the basswood body that can ding and dent with reckless use.
Is the Music Man Sterling bass good?
Sterling refers to Sterling SUB Made in USA. They were made around 2000 and are now discontinued. A Sterling 4 (MIA) costs around $950-1100.
Most online retailers don’t offer these anymore but they are still available on Reverb.com. They are commonplace in the used market and a good one goes for $500 to $800.
What are they like? Take the Stingray description above and add to it thinner necks, smaller bodies and a step away from the ‘Ray tone’.
The Sterling is to the Stringray what the Fender J-Bass is to a P-Bass. It was EBMM’s attempt to move away from the signature sound and offer something different.
The end-result is a bass that traded the SR tone for more versatility in a smaller size/shape. To get fresh tones, EBMM added a phantom coil for noise cancellation and a coil-switch that allows you to run the coil in parallel and series.
Unlike the 6-bolt Stingray, the Sterling USA SUB had a 5-bolt neck and a lacquered finish on the neck – that may not be to everyone’s liking.
All Sterlings have a narrower neck width at the nut compared to the Stingray (with the exception of SR Slo Special) which makes them better suited for slender or petite players.
They come in H, HS and HH pickup configurations. You can dial in a lot of great tones on the HS and HH. They all have their pros and cons but you can’t go wrong with either of the three.
The Sterling USA is like the MIM Fender series, an almost as good version that is priced cheaper to drive sales. Although, Sterlings were made in USA…
Are the Music Man Cutlass & Caprice basses good?
The C&C was Music Man’s attempt to strike at the heart of the Fender market with a P & P/J style bass. Some of the key differences from Stingray models include a new headstock design, compensated nuts and light/contoured body.
The Cutlass nut width is 41.3mm and the Caprice clocks 38.1mm. They both have alder body, vintage music man bridges, 3 & 1 style Schaller tuners, a bolt-on maple neck and rosewood/maple fingerboards with 21 frets.
The Cutlass is a world-class instrument with a familiar sounding split-coil tone, an ultra-light body and incredibly comfortable neck. The bass has a classy vintage tone that some may argue was more vintage than a vintage Fender.
It is often described as a hybrid between the CR Classic and the Fender Precision that sounds great in funk and blues. Check out this video of the Cutlass in action:
The Caprice is a remarkable P/J style bass with VVT controls and an ultra-slim Dough Wimbish style neck. It has an offset body and pickup blend that can yield a huge array of functional tones.
It is a gorgeous looking and modern sounding bass. However, it is priced higher than the Fenders. Check out this video of the Caprice in action:
It seems both of these basses were recently discontinued and are being phased out.
Check out this Video displaying both basses and some groovy playing:
Is the Music Man SUB bass good?
The American made USA Sterling SUB is not to be confused with the made-in-Indonesia budget versions that are often referred to as Sterling S.U.B. series or Sterling by Music Man. You can easily differentiate them by looking at the price tag.
The Sterling by Music Man line is made by Praxis via a licensing agreement with EB to manufacture the bass in Asia. The models include MM Ray 4/5, Ray 24/25CA and Ray 34/35.
This is the “Squire” equivalent of the StingRay that includes active electronics, 2 or 3-band EQ and good fit and finish for the price.
There are evident tradeoffs in terms of components, electronics and preamp. Overall, they justify the price and serve as an entry point to the MM world.
SUB Ray4/5: No-frills, 2-band EQ version, probably the cheapest of all MM basses. Retails for $299
SUB Ray 24/5CA: Budget version of the SR Classic. 2 Band EQ. Retails new for $500
Sub Ray 34/5: Costs around $800 new. It’s close to the real deal in terms of pricing. But by itself, this is a really good bass guitar with a lot of bang for buck.
The Sterling by Music Man is not comparable to the SR or Bongo in terms of quality, feel, tone and price. They do have serviceable hardware, cheaper electronics and excellent playability for the price.
They can work well enough for intermediate players or as a rehearsal bass or back up instrument for pros. The Ray 34/35, however, is a solid bass in its own right.