When you make something that immediately catches the eye and ear of the discerning bass playing populous, the temptation to follow that up with a second instrument is just too great to resist. Such is the case with the Ernie Ball Music Man SUB Sterling Bass, which follows hot on the heels of their original Sting Ray-inspired model.
The Sterling is every bit as impressive as that original. However, in reality, this new model has a lot more in common with a three-band EQ Sting Ray than it has with the full-priced Sterling bass. So what changes have been made to bring it in line with the SUB presentation?
Well, this highly attractive retail price is made possible by the tried and tested method of imaginative cost cutting in terms of circuitry and materials used, as well as on general production. As part of this process, the unique three-way lever switch that is used to alter the pickup configuration on the full-priced Music Man Sterling bass is missing from the
SUB. Not only was this one of the main visual features of the regular instrument, it was a fundamental feature that offered some outstanding tonal qualities, with series or parallel mode options and the ability for the pickup to operate as a single coil.
This much more basic layout simply offers controls for volume, bass, middle and treble. But it’s not such bad news in reality, because there is a wide range of super tones still to be found and it all has that definitive Music Man delivery - a plus by anyone’s standards!
There are some other real individual qualities to heighten appeal too. For example, the general look is stylish and bursting with that ‘street cred’ element that we liked so much about the first SUB (Sports Utility Bass). That’s mainly down to the somewhat industrial appearance that comes from the textured body finish and a diamond cut aluminium scratchplate - elements that contrast brilliantly with the sleekness of the black neck and headstock. And it’s these same key elements that are employed to keep the price in check.
Turning cost-cutting production methods into desirable appeal is a neat trick, and it’s never been used to better effect than here. The body is extremely comfortable and, if you’re experiencing weight problems with your regular bass, this would be worth checking out as it really does feel light on the shoulder.
As we’ve come to expect from Ernie Ball/Music Man, the overall build quality is high. The usual six-bolt neck plate firmly secures the neck to the body. The neck is slender in width with a well-used feel about it, in spite of the painted finish, and is fitted with 22 beefy frets along the lines of its design inspiration. These are well dressed and, along with the rolled edge of the dark rosewood fingerboard, add comfort when playing.
The headstock is undoubtedly one of the neatest designs to be found on any bass regardless of price, but better still it has those classic ‘elephant ear’ tuners featuring ultra short shanks. Compact, efficient and traditional - just the job!
Having already established that this Sterling SUB lacks the most important ingredient that gives the regular Sterling its unique sound, let’s examine exactly what can be achieved here. There’s actually no cause for disappointment as the slightly downsized dimensions of the body not only add comfort but allow a generally crisper edge to the sound - and the three-band active EQ is able to bring this element sharply into focus. Of course, any Music Man bass has the advantage of amazing pickup design, which provides a great foundation for the building of your sound.
The note definition is excellent and well-balanced right across the tonal range, providing a clean, modern sound with the emphasis on clarity rather than a boomy bottom end. Even on full bass, there is a superb bubbling quality to the sound, achieved because the note definition is retained.
Perhaps the most startling control feature is the mid control; piling this on not only fills the sound but positively forces tonal emphasis on the instrument, adding to the overall sound projection. We all know how important mid frequencies are on a bass guitar, and this has been illustrated superbly on this model. Rotation provides a host of accentuated more hollow tones that almost defy the single pickup configuration. It is another reminder of just how potent genuine Music Man pickups really are.
As already stated, we were very impressed with the first Sports Utility Bass from Music Man, but at the same time we were concerned it would affect sales of the regular Sting Ray. Fortunately, that scenario proved not to be the case. It stands to reason that the same can be said about the SUB Sterling, particularly as it is so different from its namesake.
With such a definitive sound imprint, there's no way this should be viewed purely as a cheap alternative to the real thing: it's a well priced bass with some highly desirable design and sound qualities of its own. Retailing at the same price as the Sting Ray-influenced original SUB, it's something of a baby brother - the downsized, offset body has reduced horns and a correspondingly lighter weight.
All in all, this is a delightful instrument whichever way you look at it, and a pure joy to play. Better still, the price defies its abilities and it'll be appreciated by fine players everywhere - in fact, because of the straightforward approach to the circuitry, many players may actually prefer this stylish and effective layout over that of the full blown Sterling. Best to view this as a new addition to a superb range of basses that burst with quality.