Celebrating An Icon: The History Of MusicMan Bass Guitars

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Born out of a partnership between music legends, MusicMan has carved a significant niche in the music industry. Whether you’re a musician, an aspiring artist, or simply a fan of quality sound, the story behind one of America’s top guitar and bass manufacturers is sure to intrigue you.

From its humble beginnings and inevitable challenges to its eventual rise to fame, this article uncovers the history of MusicMan. Discover how MusicMan persisted in its pursuit of innovation and quality, contributing to its legendary status in the world of music.

Get ready to explore the origins, key models, and unique attributes of MusicMan basses, and learn why many iconic bassists have chosen MusicMan as their trusted partner.

MusicMan Bass History

Origins of MusicMan

MusicMan, an American guitar and bass guitar manufacturer, was born out of a partnership between Leo Fender, Forrest White, and Tom Walker in 1971.

The roots of MusicMan can be traced back to Tri-Sonix, Inc., a company founded by Fender and Walker. Fender, due to a non-compete clause with CBS, which had acquired his previous company,

Fender Musical Instrument Company, couldn’t initially be a public partner in Tri-Sonix. In 1974, the company rebranded as MusicMan and launched its first product, an amplifier named the “Sixty Five,” designed by Fender and Walker.

The company quickly expanded its product line to include guitars and basses, with the StingRay bass becoming one of its most iconic models. The StingRay bass was a pioneer in the industry, being the first production bass to feature active electronics and a built-in preamp. This innovation led to its popularity due to its powerful and punchy tone. However, the late 1970s saw MusicMan facing production issues and quality control problems, leading to a rift with its manufacturing partner, CLF Research.

In 1984, MusicMan was acquired by Ernie Ball, and production of MusicMan basses resumed in 1985 at their factory in San Luis Obispo, California. Under Ernie Ball’s ownership, MusicMan continued to innovate and introduce new models, solidifying its place in the music industry.

Brand Characteristics

MusicMan basses are renowned for their high-quality craftsmanship, innovative design features, and versatile tone options. The company’s commitment to achieving unequaled playability, beauty, and consistency in crafting guitars is evident in their products. The tonewoods used in the guitars are hand-selected from the finest suppliers worldwide, including alder, ash, poplar, basswood, mahogany, and maple. Each body and neck is carefully chosen and matched for their tonal qualities, grain characteristics, and natural beauty.

The company also offers more affordable models under the Sterling by MusicMan brand, which are made in the Far East. These instruments still feature key MusicMan appointments, making them a budget-friendly alternative without compromising on quality.

Key Bass Models

MusicMan has introduced several key bass models over the years. The StingRay bass, one of its most iconic models, is known for its distinctive mid-heavy tone, versatility, and playability.

It features a unique design with a 3+1 headstock, active electronics, and a range of options for tonal shaping.

The Bongo bass, designed in collaboration with BMW’s Designworks team, offers unparalleled playing comfort. It features dual humbuckers made with neodymium magnets, providing uncompromising power and a wide dynamic range. The Bongo bass also has a 4-band EQ section that allows you to sculpt your perfect bass sound.

The Cutlass bass, part of the Modern Classic series, harkens back to one of the brand’s early guitar shapes from the ’70s. It has a passive electronics system and a more modest control layout, making it suitable for traditionalists. The Cutlass bass has a balanced response and a lightweight Alder body for maximum resonance and sustain.

The Caprice bass, similar to the Cutlass, is also included in the Modern Classic series. It features a P/J pickup configuration and a top-loading bridge for increased sustain. The Caprice bass also has a pickup blend control that allows you to balance the sound of the pickups.

A collage on iconic stringray bass players

Source: Mixdownmag

Famous MusicMan Bassists

MusicMan basses have been the instrument of choice for many notable bassists. Tony Levin, John Myung, Flea, and Marcus Miller are just a few of the artists who’ve used MusicMan basses.

The company also has a series of artist basses designed to meet the specific needs and preferences of the artist. For instance, the Tim Commerford collection of basses has been created to meet Tim’s exacting specifications, including features such as a pickup cover thumb rest and adjustable finger ramp. The Cliff Williams 1979 Stingray has been his favorite bass for over 40 years, and a series of limited handcrafted replicas were made to capture the look and sound of his #1 Stingray.

MusicMan basses have been used across multiple genres, from rock to funk, punk to alternative, and more. The StingRay bass, in particular, has been a staple in the music industry for over four decades and continues to be a favorite among bass players worldwide.

MusicMan Bass Features

Materials and Construction

The StingRay bass, a product of Ernie Ball MusicMan, is a testament to excellent craftsmanship and attention to detail.

The body of this iconic instrument is typically made of ash or basswood, which contributes to its unique tone and playability. The neck, made of select maple, has a comfortable profile and smooth fretboard that makes it a joy to play. The bass also features a massive hardened steel bridge, an elegant oval pickguard, and a 3+1 tuning key configuration, all contributing to its solid and roadworthy construction.

Pickups and Electronics

The StingRay comes with the popular Music Man humbucker, which produces a distinctive and unmistakable sound. This, combined with the onboard active preamp with a 3-band EQ, lets you shape your tone to your liking. This combination of thick-sounding alnico humbucker and active EQ gives the StingRay bass its powerful and punchy tone, highly regarded in the bass community.

Design Details

The design details of the StingRay are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The contoured body ensures comfort during long playing sessions, while the smooth double-cut body shape and symmetrical oval-shaped pickguard add to its visual appeal. The 3+1 tuner arrangement at the headstock is a unique feature that eliminates “dead spots” often found in bolt-on bass guitars.

The StingRay bass is available in different finishes and options, including maple or rosewood fretboards, lined or unlined fretless options, and matching headstocks, allowing you to choose the configuration that best suits your style and needs.

Model Varieties

The StingRay is available in various model varieties to suit your preferences and playing styles. These include 4-string models with different pickup configurations, such as HH (dual humbuckers) and HS (humbucker/single coil). The StingRay 5, introduced in 1987, was one of the first production 5-string bass guitars on the market, offering a more ergonomic design and a slightly different pickguard design compared to the 4-string version.

Other popular Music Man bass models include the Bongo, Sterling, and Cutlass, each with unique features and tonal characteristics. The Bongo bass, for instance, is known for its modern design, balanced body, and powerful neodymium pickups with an 18V low-noise preamp. The Cutlass bass, on the other hand, is a vintage-inspired bass with a single-coil pickup and passive tone control.

A close up image of a musicman stingray bass guitar

Buying a MusicMan Bass

When you’re in the market for a MusicMan Bass, several considerations come into play.


Firstly, you need to evaluate your financial capacity. While the quality and sound of these instruments are unparalleled, they do come with a hefty price tag. For those with a more limited budget, the Sterling by MusicMan line offers a more cost-effective solution, without sacrificing the brand’s signature quality and features.

Picking a Model and Size

Secondly, the model and size of the bass should align with your personal preferences and playing style. The StingRay bass, for instance, comes in both 4-string and 5-string versions, with a variety of pickup options. The Bongo bass, a more recent addition to the line, is known for its modern design and powerful pickups. Other models like the Cutlass and Caprice offer a nod to classic designs, while still incorporating contemporary features.

New vs. Used Basses

Finally, you’ll need to decide between a new or pre-owned bass. While new basses offer a guarantee of quality and come with a warranty, they are generally more expensive. Pre-owned basses can be a more affordable option, but it’s crucial to inspect the instrument thoroughly before purchase. The StingRay bass, in particular, is a sought-after item among collectors, and vintage models can fetch high prices on the second-hand market.

MusicMan Bass Care

As a proud owner of a MusicMan bass, you’ll find that regular maintenance is key to keeping your instrument operating at its best. This involves a few key areas: cleaning, string maintenance, electronics care, and proper storage.


Keeping your MusicMan bass clean isn’t just about aesthetics; it also affects sound, feel, and longevity. A dirty instrument can hinder your playing and even affect the tone. Regular cleaning of the fretboard and strings can prevent buildup that results in slow, clunky playing and a deadened tone.

Using a string cleaner and fretboard conditioner regularly can help maintain the brightness of your strings and prevent your fretboard from drying out and warping.

String Maintenance

The strings on your MusicMan bass are key to its tone and feel. Regular string changes are necessary to maintain optimal performance. The frequency of these changes depends on several factors, including how often you play, your playing style, and the environment in which you store your bass. Remember, dirty strings can affect your playing speed and the overall tone of your bass.

Electronics Care

The electronics of your MusicMan bass, particularly if you own a model with active electronics, need specific care. Regularly checking and adjusting the setup, including the truss rod and saddle intonation, ensures optimal playability.

Adjusting the truss rod changes the angle of the instrument’s neck, while adjusting the bridge saddles changes the height or action of each string. Proper tension in the tremolo springs is also necessary for stable tuning and bridge plate position.

Storage Tips

Finally, how you store your MusicMan bass can significantly impact its longevity and performance. The fretboard is susceptible to changes in temperature, humidity, and light. So, it’s important to store your bass in a stable environment to prevent issues like drying out and warping.

With the right tools and a little time, you can keep your MusicMan bass in top condition for years to come.

Playing Techniques

MusicMan basses are celebrated for their adaptability, catering to a multitude of playing styles across various music genres.

Diverse Techniques

The superior design and components of these instruments support a wide array of techniques. Whether you prefer fingerstyle, slap bass, or using a pick, MusicMan basses can accommodate your style.

MusicMan-specific Features

MusicMan basses come equipped with features that enhance their playability and tonal range. The StingRay, for example, is recognized for its robust pickup and onboard active 3-band EQ, a pioneering feature in a production 4-string bass.

The Bongo bass, a product of collaboration with BMW’s Designworks team, embodies the essence of a contemporary bass with its ergonomic shape, powerful pickups, and onboard 4-band EQ. These attributes allow for a broad spectrum of tonal possibilities, making these basses adaptable to any musical situation.

Matching to Genres

The adaptability of MusicMan basses makes them suitable for a wide range of musical genres. From the clear, articulate tone of the StingRay, ideal for rock and funk, to the broad tonal range of the Bongo, perfect for jazz and fusion, these basses can handle it all.

Upgrades and Mods

MusicMan is dedicated to innovation, regularly introducing new models and features to meet the evolving needs of bass players. For example, the StingRay 4 and 5 string basses have been updated with new features and appointments, including a more comfortable forearm contour and a revoiced 3-band preamp.

The DarkRay bass, a product of collaboration with Darkglass Electronics, features two highly regarded drive circuits, Alpha and Omega, and a bright color-coded LED ring. These enhancements not only improve the playability and tone of these basses but also allow players to tailor their instruments to their specific needs and preferences.

Finishing Notes on the MusicMan Bass

The Ernie Ball MusicMan bass stands as a true testament to the power of innovative design, quality craftsmanship, and unmatched playability. Each model, from the iconic StingRay to the modern Bongo, captures the essence of bass playing, offering distinct tonal characteristics suited for various musical genres and playing styles.

Whether you’re an avid collector, a professional musician, or a passionate amateur, owning a MusicMan bass is more than just owning an instrument—it’s becoming part of a rich musical legacy that spans decades. The reputation and accolades garnered by these basses over the years serve as a validation of their exceptional quality and performance. While the musical landscape continues to evolve, the Ernie Ball MusicMan bass remains a constant—unwavering in its commitment to deliver nothing but the best for musicians around the world.


Andrew Scrivens

Andrew Scrivens

I am a live musician and guitar teacher from Brisbane, Australia, with extensive experience playing live, in the studio and for TV shows. I play in many venues, studios, music shops and with my students and as such am exposed to a lot of different gear. I form my opinions based on my experiences playing instruments in these locations.

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