Being in need of a punchy, modern 5 string bass, and being on a budget of under a grand, I decided to test out Music Man's budget version of the StingRay, the Sterling RAY35. Sterling have several finish options for this model - black (RAY35BK), natural (RAY35NAT) and honeyburst (RAY35HB). Sterling also told us that they also have a Limited Edition Translucent White Blonde (Ray35-TWB) finish that is available as of now. The instrument we reviewed is the RAY35BK.
The guitar shape of this Indonesian-made guitar is the same as its more expensive US sibling. Body is swamp ash, neck is 6-bolt maple with rosewood fretboard. The guitar comes with a single Music Man alnico (Aluminum-Nickel-Cobalt) humbucker pickup, positioned in the bridge position. The RAY35 has a 3-band active preamp with controls for Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass. This bass guitar also comes with a 3-way selector switch which splits the humbucker coils so you have an option of a single coil sound closer to the neck, single coil sound closer to bridge or both together in humbucker mode. Sterling also provides a padded gig bag and a hex wrench for bridge adjustment.
Considering that I had some horrific experiences with an Indonesian line of Ibanez basses, I was impressed with the build and finish of this bass. Sterling says that they do an inspection and setup in their Orange, CA facilities, so in this case better attention to detail definitely pays out. The gloss black finish is immaculate, as well as other little detail pieces which are usually neglected, such as the neck to body fit. The neck of this bass (34” scale) is a bit longer than what I am used to so I had to play it for a few days to get comfortable. For those musicians with shorter fingers, this might be a problem and it did take some time until I could feel more comfortable with the neck length. After spending some time with the guitar, I could actually see my accuracy improving and the longer scale helps with sustain, especially in the lower register where my older bass had some flabbiness that I never managed to dial out. This bass has 17.5 mm string spacing which also took a little time to get used to. The wider spacing works better for finger style but some adjustments had to be made to my playing when doing faster runs and string skipping with a pick. The factory setup was perfect – great action on all frets, definitely a first when it comes to my personal experience.
The RAY35 has a specific punch and presence that makes comparison to its bigger sibling inevitable. Since I've played a few StingRays, I can say that the RAY35 pretty much captures the same sound and playability. The differences between this and its US-made sibling is that the StingRay gets a better selection of woods, a higher grade electronics, better tuning machines and more attention to detail. The StingRay also comes with a guitar case, as opposed to the RAY35 which gets a gig bag. Still, this bass in no way feels inferior.
When it comes to tone, the single active pickup is more than enough. If you're worried that one pickup might not be enough, the tonal control and the 3 way switch provide plenty of sound choices at your disposal. The eq is very responsive and I noticed that little changes go a long way. Overall the sound is meaty, thick and present. Chords stand out very well on this bass – compared to my older 4 string, I can really hear each separate string when picking chords. There are so many good tones on this guitar that it is really hard to pick a favorite, but in my case I settled with a more “woody” tone with the pickup selector on the middle position (both coils) with a little bit of the mid dialed out. When it comes to tuning, the oversize tuning machines exude confidence and hold well.
Recording this bass has also been effortless. For some of my other basses I've had to use a compressor/limiter to push the input signal in order to excite some of the low and high frequencies, but in this case the RAY35 tracks great direct on its own. I had some friends listen in to some new tracks and they picked out the bass sound as one of the first things that really stood out. I've also noticed a big improvement in clarity, as the bass is a lot easier to mix.
On live gigs, this bass is a great performer but it weight 9 lbs so it is a bit on the heavy side. The weight is perfectly balanced so it feels solid and comfortable. The tone stands out in the mix as it has that in-your-face quality.
The Sterling RAY35 elicits a comparison to its bigger siblings. The build, quality of sound and factory setup are the best I've seen in this class. At this price mark ($750 street), I can't honestly think of any other instruments that can compete. Just remember to bring in a spare 9V battery!