Monday, March 10, 2008

Bass with Balls #1: Music Man Stingray

The Music Man Stingray was first produced in 1976. Its physical similarity to the Fender Precision bass can be explained by the fact that it was designed by disgruntled former Fender employees, including Leo Fender himself, who sold his company to CBS in 1965. The classic Stingray, like the one pictured here, boasts a single humbucking pickup in the bridge position and an active 2 band EQ. Fingerstyle players who are used to anchoring their thumb on a neck pickup will have a tough time with the Stingray, as the strings have less springiness and punch when plucked way down by the bridge.

The Stingray sounds like a sabre-toothed tiger in heat humping a hive full of honeybees. Not only are its low mids thicker than Ricki Lake's ankles, but their complexity is fractaline, layering a piano-like clarity and sustain and a fret-buzzy growl to create a tone that's almost synesthetic. Properly amplified, the Stingray will cut through any racket made by even the noisiest guitarist like a knife through warm butter, without the honking and blatting characteristic of its Fender cousins. Its tone is perfect for funk, rock, punk, or metal, but the single pickup limits its tonal range, and if I were playing soft jazz, R&B or country I would probably reach for a different bass (likely a Fender Jazz). Although the Stingray's quality is legendary, it sacrifices versatility for personality, and some bass players just don't like it. I respect this. it takes more balls to be original, warts and all, than to be some kind of half-assed chameleon.

This bass is famous for its rugged construction (its body is solid ash and its neck is attached by six fat bolts--that's 2 more than are holding my Fender Jazz 5 together) as well as its quiet electronics (it's called a "humbucker," after all). Lower-end manufacturers have recently started copying it more often, but it still trails far behind the P-bass in terms of how often its design is ripped off. The most noteworthy budget Stingray clone is probably the Ibanez ATK, which, in my opinion, is a stylish piece of junk like everything else built by Ibanez.

Famous rock bassists who play a Stingray include Cliff Williams of AC/DC, Flea (who has since switched to a signature model Modulus Stingray clone that costs as much as a used Toyota), Tim Commeford of Rage Against the Machine (who switched to the Fender Jazz bass after Rage's first album) and Justin Chancellor of Tool (who switched to Zon basses about halfway through the recording of Aenima). I don't know why all the Stingray players are jumping ship--my guess is their great bass tone made them famous enough to afford fancier axes like Zons and Moduli. Even Kurt Cobain traded in his trusty Volvo for a Lexus in the end.

Here are some videos featuring the Stingray: The Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Aeroplane" (the Stingray's forte is slap-and-pop, and it really stands out in this song) and Rage Against the Machine's "Bomb Track."

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