Expectations are always high, perhaps too high, when you’re handed a classic instrument to review round these parts.
Whether those expectations are rewarded is hard to decide for that very reason. In the case of the utterly beautiful bass reviewed below, the weight of history that surrounds it would be intimidating if we didn’t breed our reviewers tough here. Let’s man up, plug in and make a judgment call...
Ernie Ball’s 30th Anniversary Stingray 5 is a wonderful instrument from top to bottom. Pick it up - with care; it weighs 4.54kg, or 10 pounds in old money - and give it an unplugged pluck. It whispers ‘classic’ in your ear immediately.
This may be something to do with the white neck binding matched to the humbucker, or the expensive feel of the select roasted maple neck, or those high-but-navigable stainless steel frets, or just because you remember Tony Levin playing one all those years ago. It’s a Bentley among basses, for heaven’s sake; no wonder Ernie Ball accompanies it with a hand-signed certificate of authenticity.
You’ve paid the thick end of three grand for this instrument, and while we regularly encounter basses which cost much more than that, you still expect flawless construction, or as close to flawless as possible.
Our review model - the only one in Europe at press time, we’re told - doesn’t disappoint, with a seamless construction and components that exude a precision feel, from the flip-out battery compartment upwards. Six bolts hold the neck to the body, reinforcing the muscular feel, and the MM bridge is breathtaking - a truly massive monster. There’s going to be some serious bottom end when we plug in. Better close the windows.
Some bass guitars try their hardest to please, offering you tons of friendly tones at the flick of a switch and leaping up and down (metaphorically) when you walk through the door.
This Stingray isn’t quite that easy. You need to spend time with it, getting to know what it can do and running through the options before it gives up its secrets. It’s a player’s bass, for sure, but the player needs to know he or she is up to.
For example, the single active pickup plus three-band EQ configuration would seem pretty simple, but there are hidden depths here courtesy of the three-position selector switch, which offers series, single-coil and parallel modes. Each tone is subtly different to the others, with the preamp and pickup (exclusive to this anniversary model) working to supply varieties of sounds which we tend to describe as ‘thin’, ‘thick’, ‘full’ and so on in an attempt to convey sound on paper.
Time spent on the tone range will be well rewarded. The flat tone here is perfectly usable, in particular with the low B string, which balances thump with clarity, but the most fun comes when you add colour via the EQ.
The three detented (thank you, Ernie Ball) EQ controls will keep you occupied all day: roll on the low end and you get a truly huge surge of bass, while the top end brings everything to the forefront. This isn’t the mids-heaviest bass ever, so try a scooped EQ for maximum response.
The neck is supremely playable. When reviewing bass necks, our reviews often oscillate between ‘slippery’ and ‘shreddy’ at one end of the spectrum and ‘solid’ and ‘sticky’ at the other. In this case you’ve got a near-perfect balance of those two feels - speedy to navigate while also conveying a sense of dignified presence.
Fingerstyle and slap players will be most at home here, we reckon, thanks to a bouncy string feel and the sense that as you play this instrument, it’s reacting right back at you.
That’s what you’re paying for. If you’re after a five with huge presence, and if you have a large chunk of your taxed income looking for a home, and - frankly - if you’re a bit of a traditionalist, this bass is possibly the ultimate of its kind. It’s expensive, but you’re not just paying for a name: you’re paying for heritage. What a splendid bass. Do investigate.