In the opening scene of the iconic 1985 film Back To The Future, a young Marty McFly – played by Michael J. Fox, like you didn’t know that already – stands in front of a giant amplifier, strums a power chord, and is literally blown off his feet by the walloping sonic force. This scene springs to mind when we first plug in the new Ernie Ball Music Man DarkRay four-string bass guitar.
One of 2021’s most talked-about releases, the DarkRay represents a visionary collaboration between Ernie Ball Music Man (EBMM) and the Finnish boutique equipment manufacturer Darkglass Electronics.
The result is a classic StingRay Special, enhanced with not one, but two distinct Darkglass drive circuits, wired into a proprietary two-band EQ preamp designed specifically for the DarkRay. Essentially, they’ve wired two separate Darkglass effects pedals – distortion and fuzz – directly into the bass.
It’s a fascinating proposition, and one that we were keen to put to the test. Here’s what we learned...
Offered in both Obsidian Black and a limited edition Granite Stone, the DarkRay features a roasted maple neck with an 11” radius and 34” scale. The ebony fretboard stretches out across 22 high-profile frets. On the back, a combination of gunstock oil and hand-rubbed wax creates a hyper-smooth finish that allows for speedy navigation up and down the neck.
The DarkRay includes all of the enhancements of the StingRay’s 2018 overhaul – the swamp ash body features enhanced contours and a five-bolt sculpted neck joint for surpassing stability.
There’s also a vintage Music Man top-loaded, black-plated steel bridge, lightweight custom tuners with black matte finish and the iconic three-over-one headstock. Both Music Man and Darkglass logos appear on the neckplate to commemorate the model.
A single oversized neodymium humbucker pickup sits at the bridge position. Neodymium magnets carry one of the strongest magnetic charges – too strong for most guitars, but well-suited for basses – which allows them to generate roughly seven times the electrical impulse of ceramic magnets. In conjunction with the two-band active preamp, this gives the DarkRay fearsome potency.
On the front of the bass, beneath the pickup and bridge, sit five knobs and a three-position switch. The switch controls clean, Alpha (distortion) and Omega (fuzz) modes, the latter two named after the corresponding range of Darkglass effects pedals.
When Alpha or Omega mode is engaged, the LED ring around the gain knob changes color to red or blue, respectively; this light is subtle enough to avoid distraction while indicating the current mode.
In addition to the gain knob, a blend knob allows you to shape how much of the effect you want to mix into your clean signal, unleashing a boundless dynamic range. There are also knobs for volume, treble and bass.
Sounds and Playability
An instrument can boast loads of glitzy technological wizardry, but if it’s not an absolute joy to play, then it amounts to little more than a pricey – and loud – home furnishing. Thankfully, the DarkRay delivers all of the iconic comfort and playability of its EBMM predecessors. It sits easily on the lap and balances equally well with a strap.
The benefits of the neodymium pickup are immediately apparent; the DarkRay uncorks a commanding level of power. In clean mode, with bass and treble knobs set to midpoint, we conjure a smooth, room-filling tone, packed with prominent mids and an oceanic low-end.
Pushing the low and high frequencies creates a round and deeply satisfying thump, suitable for slapping. We could stay in clean mode all day and shape reams of meaty tones, for everything from jazz to blues to most styles of rock and heavy metal.
Setting the selector in Alpha (distortion) mode and pushing the gain gives our lines a ratty, Rage Against the Machine-style bite. Adding gain throws more dirt into the mix, and impressively, there’s no low-end dilution. Moving into Omega (fuzz) mode, we start out with the gain relatively tame, coaxing a moderately-buzzed '60s garage rock vibe.
Nudging the gain progressively higher, the tone travels from space rock to shoegaze, maxing out into the doomy, fuzzed-out chaos of Electric Wizard. With every turn and toggle, the DarkRay unveils bold new vistas of tonal possibility, highlighting its supreme versatility.
In lesser hands, an instrument wired with native effects could come across as gimmicky and impractical. After all, most serious tone junkies rely on pedals and amps for their rhythmic alchemy. However, the DarkRay is built with serious players in mind, and it boasts the reliability and playability that such musicians demand, even if they hardly use the effects.
The reality is that once a player plugs in and experiments with these modes, they will find it nigh-on impossible to put the bass down.
- PRICE: $2,499
- MADE IN: USA
- BODY: Select Hardwood
- NECK: Roasted maple, 34” scale
- NECK JOIN: Bolt-on, five bolts
- FINGERBOARD: Ebony, 22 frets
- PICKUP: Humbucker with Neodymium magnets
- CONTROLS: Custom Darkglass two-band active preamp with two distinct distortion circuits (Alpha and Omega); volume, gain, blend, treble, bass, three-way
distortion selector (Preamp Only, Preamp + Alpha Distortion, Preamp + Omega Distortion)
- HARDWARE: Custom Music Man tuners, lightweight with tapered string posts and ergonomic clover design, Vintage Music Man top loaded steel bridge plate with vintage black plated steel saddles
- WEIGHT: 8.8 lbs
- LEFT-HANDED AVAILABLE?: No
- CASE/GIG-BAG SUPPLIED?: Case
- CONTACT: Ernie Ball Music Man