In 1976, Music Man introduced one of the most classic of bass guitar designs of all time, the StingRay.
With a humbucking (double coil) pickup at the bridge and strings that went directly over the pole pieces, the StingRay bass had a super hot output and only seemed controllable through Music Man amplifiers. Later on, this guitar would be dubbed by some rock musicians to be “too clean” for rock standards.
This was something that Sterling Ball, Ernie Ball’s son and then-beta tester, decided was a disadvantage. He thought the StingRay should be more versatile and brought this critique to one of the designers at the time, Leo Fender. As the founder of the famous Fender company we know today, Leo Fender brought his financial gains and expertise to Music Man’s co-founders and fellow designers, Forrest White and Tom Walker. Together, with insight from Sterling Ball, they created prototype #26 and nicknamed it, “Old Smoothie.”
Although it was not the design used through 2015, Ernie Ball Music Man is digging this previously abandoned bass out of the vault for the StingRay’s 40th anniversary.
Right out of the case, this bass is a work of art—a harmonious marriage of chrome and gloss. Its alder wood body has a high gloss polyester finish over a chocolate sunburst. The design is reminiscent of the Fender Precision Bass but it has features that easily distinguish it from any other instrument, including a boomerang-shaped control cover, a teardrop shaped pickguard, a single bridge humbucker, and a distinctive 3 + 1 headstock.
Every component on the 40th Anniversary StingRay bass feels like it could withstand the test of time. Instead of a four-bolt neck plate construction like a Fender, Old Smoothie has a total of six bolts. The control knobs are are easy to grip and conveniently placed. The Schaller tuning machines spin with the greatest of ease; fine tuning takes no time at all.
Coupled with the classic Music Man hardened steel bridge with vintage stainless steel saddles, the strings barely move at all. Even after thrashing on chords and swinging this bass around for a few songs, it stays well enough in tune to need just a quick once over. The rear-mounted truss rod is easily accessible and adjustable without having to remove the strings. With all of this attention to detail, this bass is designed to be user-friendly and indestructible.
As a small player, I fully expected this bass to feel exactly like most other full, 34” scale axes. That is, way too big for me. Old Smoothie, however, balances perfectly from my neck. My left hand rests easily on the first fret without having to overextend my arm. The fingerboard is a little too wide for my smaller hands to effortlessly play chords, but the low profile of the frets is a welcomed compromise. My hand glides smoothly over the glossy neck. From picking to fingering to slapping and beyond, every style of play seems accommodated.
On prototype #26, Leo Fender re-designed the original StingRay humbucker so that the strings would sit between the slugs instead of directly over them. To make room for the extra two pole pieces, he took two pickup covers and split them, then pieced them back together with black electrical tape. This design allowed for Old Smoothie to be way more versatile.
I am able to get a very smooth sound when placing the treble and bass knobs right in the middle. Surprisingly, these control knobs are pretty sensitive, and the range is vast. Wandering far from the middle EQ makes for either extremely bright highs good for pop music or completely muddy sub rumbles for heavier genres. Considering that this bass has only one pickup and three knobs (one being the volume), pulling out seemingly infinite combinations of tone and color is surprisingly simple. Even for those who do not think less is more, this custom humbucking pickup leaves nothing to be desired.
All in all, Old Smoothie is exactly what its name suggests—a classic vintage ride that easily navigates through sonic soundscapes.