Music Man: The Sounds & Players of the StingRay

Formed in 1974 with the silent support of Leo Fender after selling Fender to CBS, the Music Man company quickly cemented its place in bass royalty with the 1976 release of the StingRay. Widely considered the first active electronic bass to hit the consumer market, the tone shaping and EQ capabilities were unlike anything on the market and it became a pioneer for funk and aggressively-positioned players across the globe. 

Music Man experimented with the production of guitars and amps as part of their product catalogue, but nothing had the same appeal or staying power of the StingRay and were eventually discontinued. Ernie Ball purchased the Music Man company in 1984, leading to the brand we’re used to today – Ernie Ball Music Man. Since this acquisition, the brand has gone from strength to strength, reintroducing guitars and other bass models to the roster – we’re looking at you Bongo Bass – and launching the daughter brand Sterling to provide a budget alternative to the StingRay line.

What bassists use StingRays?

Many bassists have chosen Music Man basses as their tool of choice, and some of the most iconic basslines in history have been recorded with this storied axe. Notable players include Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie), Pino Palladino, and Joe Dart, along with the bassists we’ve featured below. Let’s explore some of the iconic players of the Music Man StingRay.

Tony Levin: Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (1986)

The mad hatter of bass himself, Tony Levin is one of the most creative and experimental bassists alive. He has pioneered new techniques, including the creation of the ‘funk fingers’ – small sticks that attach to the fingers for a unique slap sound – and the use of the Chapman stick instrument. Tony is notably the longstanding player for Peter Gabriel and King Crimson.

One of the finest examples of Levin’s approach to simple, hooky bass lines would be Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. This romping 80s anthem is built on a rock-solid drum beat that maintains a consistent energy, giving Levin’s funky bass line space to create the movement that the track is so well known for. The iconic verse riff is played within an Eb major scale with a flattened 7th (Eb Mixolydian for the theory buffs), giving it that funky edge. Check out the notation and tablature below to play along.

Sledgehammer bass tablature by Peter Gabriel

How to get the Sledgehammer tone

Upon hearing the first note, it’s clear Levin’s got something going on here beyond just the groove. Here’s our tips to dial in the Sledgehammer tone on a Music Man StingRay:

  • Active StingRay with a small push on bass and slight roll-off on treble EQs
    • Bonus points for playing fretless as Tony does on the track
  • Octave pedal with a blend of input signal and 1 octave below
  • Chorus pedal dialled to your preference
  • Play with a pick to get the attack in the riff

Louis Johnson: Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean (1983)

We’re willing to bet you can already hear that unmistakable bass line in your head – Louis Johnson put down that defining lick for Michael Jackson in addition to others from the Thriller album, including Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing). Johnson’s bass playing can be found all across the disco and funk era, and he’s considered one of the pioneers of slap bass alongside Larry Graham – Louis even earned the nickname ‘thunder thumbs’ for his aggressive technique. 

The Billie Jean bassline almost writes itself but is firmly rooted in the song’s key of F-sharp minor. It plays a consistent line throughout the majority of the song, and the ticket to the tone is to play evenly throughout the entire riff. Here’s the notation and tablature of the song’s main bass line.

Billie Jean bass tablature by Michael Jackson

The bass heard on Billie Jean is composed of three layers of synthesisers augmenting the core bass itself, so you can get creative with how you want to approach it. Instead, here’s some additional listening to get your fix of Johnson playing with Brothers Johnson on the disco hit Stomp!

Garry Tallent: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s Prove It All Night (1978)

Perhaps one of the most underappreciated bassists in the hard rock landscape, Garry Tallent is a founding member of the legendary E Street Band that has played alongside Bruce Springsteen since the early 70s. Although today you’ll see him rocking a Spector Shorty live, Garry spent a good deal of the early years on a StingRay bass. 

Prove It All Night is one of the best snippets of Garry Tallent’s… well, talent, and shows that a well-rooted melodic bass line can elevate a song and make it something special. Played in the key of A major, the main riff that runs through the intro and majority of the verse is played within an A major scale, using the triad notes A (1st), C# (3rd), and E (5th) as the core, with generous use of the F (6th) to complete the riff and add intrigue. Here’s that riff below to play along. 

Provie It All Night Bass Tablature by Bruce Springsteen

How to get the Prove It All Night tone

Tallent isn’t known for shaking things up in the tone department. His signature sound has remained consistent throughout the decades, focusing on being a foundational cog in the Springsteen wheel instead of taking centre stage. Here’s how to get the tone: 

The Bottom Line

If you’ve been on the fence about whether a StingRay – or any of the Music Man and Sterling catalogue – is right for you, the answer is a resounding yes. The innovative active electronics defined a new generation of bassists leading into the 1980s and the StingRay is widely considered as iconic as any Precision or Jazz bass you’d find. 

There really is nothing like it, and Music Man’s strive to craft the finest quality instruments possible from their San Luis Obispo factory in California ensures that any StingRay you add to your arsenal will become a mainstay. 

We have a selection of Music Man basses available at BassBros, so feel free to get in touch and arrange an appointment.