It’s over 40 years now since the luthiers at Music Man drew a line in the sand that marked the turning point between the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ eras of guitar design. Introducing active electronics to the fray is considered by many to be the moment that defined the next 20 years of exploration. When the Ball family bought the company out in 1984, they took that baton and steered guitars into the uncharted waters of quirk and nuance for which they remain infamous to this day. With this latest update to their extensive six string range Ernie Ball Music Man has clearly taken a look back through the yearbooks for a bit of inspiration.
The StingRay is every bit the modernist guitar peppered liberally with a traditional flavour. The most striking thing about it is that as soon as you pick it up you can feel how meticulous the engineering is. The peak of the quilted maple neck is pitched sharply toward your thumb around the nut, resembling the deep V of a 60’s Fender, which then mellows out over the course of 25.5”s to a shallow C shape. This means that you can comfortably jump between chopping away at power chords, to flitting around up top and back again without too much readjusting of your grip. Standing up, the balance sways nicely towards the offset tail of the guitar, meaning that if you absolutely have to wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care then you know exactly where it’ll be when you come to your senses.
Notoriously clean and mid-range focused, a lot of Ernie Ball Music Man’s catalogue caters to a pretty select type of player. John Petrucci peers up at me from the swing tag as if to say “Go on, play some Satriani licks. You know you want to!” Thankfully though Sterling Ball and sons have decided to give this guitar a bit of breathing space. The custom wound HH-2 Music Man humbuckers aren’t so unerringly tight and squashed sounding as some of their peers, with the chrome covers even offering a smattering of bluesy break up for warmth. Razor-sharp tonal precision is still the backbone of the sound, but it’s that little bit of headroom and sparkle that really sets this build apart from its brethren.
It also allows the guitar to be extremely versatile and responsive to changes in technique. Slacken your grip on the pick and chime away on some chords up at the bridge and you will hear how well-stacked the harmonics are, as they go ringing around your head with all the crystalline clarity of a ‘52 Tele. Heavy up a little by kicking on some gain and you’ll start to hear the amount of control on offer. It’s almost like they’ve managed to carve 99% of the extraneous frequency out of the tone and as a result you never feel like things are getting out of hand.
It’s next to impossible to get the thing to lose tune too! I spent way too long diving on the whammy bar and bending strings around like Hendrix on the brown acid and at the end not a note is out of place. Mastery Bridge systems are getting a lot of kudos lately for being at the forefront of bridge design, but they’re being given a solid run for their money with what the website describes as a “modern tremolo with vintage saddles.”
Coupled with straight through strings at the headstock, there’s nothing new about the machinery at play, just another example of impeccable engineering by what it’s supposed to do. Other builders that purport to err on the side of vintage rely on intentional imperfection to remind of us guitars of yesteryear, often at the expense of clarity and originality. Ernie Ball Music Man on the other hand, have come out with a guitar that hand picks the best of both worlds. In a nutshell, The StingRay is extreme modern precision meets warmth and intimacy in a versatile and thoroughly enjoyable player. It might look a little alien but it plays just like you remember.
For more details on the range of Ernie Ball products, head to cmcmusic.com.au.
Hits and Misses
Near impossible to lose tuning