In early 2000, German automobile company BMW acquired a small British coupe still widely known today as the MINI. A year after the acquisition, the auto giant revealed its new iteration of the 60s-style rover. The reintroduced “MINI Hatch” was balanced, compact, and retro yet forward-thinking: everything Sterling Ball wanted to see in one of Ernie Ball Music Man’s instruments.
When Sterling learned BMW housed a consultancy design studio in Southern California, he was eager to pursue the opportunity to collaborate on a new, highly innovative guitar or bass.
Much to his amaze, the Designworks team — a division of BMW that works 50% outside of car manufacturing to inspire and create new out of the box concepts — was already seeking opportunities to lend their hand at the music industry, yet had been turned down by several major manufacturers.
With Sterling’s drive and Designworks innovation, the two set to develop an instrument that would disrupt the way consumers looked at the traditional guitar and bass.
After careful consideration, Sterling ultimately settled on the Designworks team developing a new approach to the bass guitar. Sterling recognized that while change is difficult for any consumer, it’s especially difficult for a guitar player.
“The reason I didn’t do a guitar is that guitar players are a lot less open for change,” Sterling said. “After 35 years of making and designing guitars, we’ve gained traction and exception. But it’s very difficult to get a guitar player to change.”
In Sterling’s eyes, bass players are much more open to new ideas — especially if it sounds good.
When it comes to designing world-class instruments, Sterling looks to implement the following criteria: modern advances in electronics, lightweight and balanced body shapes with enhanced ergonomics, and construction using resonant, sustainable, and beautiful sounding tonewoods.
For years it was believed that heavy and dense woods like mahogany provided the best tone, but after testing dozens of prototypes, Sterling and the rest of the Ernie Ball Music Man team discovered that basswood provided the best balance of tonal qualities, resonance, and sustain while also being a sustainable resource.
After about a year of work and with all of these criteria in mind, the Designworks team presented four final concepts to Ernie Ball Music Man. One design, uniquely code-named “Bongo,” stood out amongst the rest.
The most recognizable part of the Bongo is without a doubt the body shape, but its eclectic design is far more conventional than some of the ideas that were thrown around. Designs and drawings provided by Designworks range from fairly standard to almost alien. One potential design involved a body shape that would wrap around the player’s body to eliminate the use of a strap altogether.
Although obtaining the design concepts was one thing, making the design into a fully functioning instrument was another. The Ernie Ball Music Man designers and engineers were hard at work making the provided concept into a reality. Through countless trials and errors, the Bongo bass came to fruition, surprisingly, with much of the original concept remaining intact.
It was really a design experience to figure out how to move the bass guitar forward.
By the 2003 NAMM show, the Bongo bass was officially unveiled to the world. But the innovative design was not exactly welcomed with open arms.
“Oh, man were they hard on me,” Sterling recalled. “How strong the negative reaction was to this design, it was really an embarrassing thing. People thought I had lost my mind.”
Thankfully, the buyer for the industry’s leading chain loved it. Slowly but surely, the Bongo bass started gaining recognition, and world-class players began adopting the new instrument as their go-to rig.
“What makes me happy is that the die-hards that adopted it never stopped playing it,” Sterling said. “The fact that a dangerous, rebellious product that I thought would have been dead by now actually has a niche in the market is incredible.”
Today, the Bongo has officially been on the market for 16 years and is now available in four, five, and six-string configurations. It is a favorite among many bass enthusiasts and is a steadfast workhorse for touring veterans including John Myung of Dream Theater, Dave Larue of Flying Colors, and the Steve Morse Band.
How to play the Bongo
The Bongo is the first Ernie Ball Music Man bass to use both neodymium pickups and an 18v preamp — now standard on both the Bongo and StingRay Special models. The Neodymium pickup magnets provide the bass with a quick response, and represent the full spectrum of tones, giving it a balanced and rounded sound.
However, in order to deal with the extra output of the neodymium pickups, the Bongo would need to have an 18v preamp to provide extra balance to the dynamics and allow for greater headroom. But this extra voltage is surely not for the faint of heart and takes a little practice to get used to.
Luckily, Sterling has some pointers:
It has an 18v preamp, which is twice the battery power of it and gives you a lot more headroom. Because the volume control is active, when you turn the volume control down, it doesn’t change the tone of the preamp. So with the Bongo, start with your volume at half, with all of the tone controls flat, then center the pan control and make subtle changes. Either cut and boost from flat. If you start that way you’ll almost always never end up with anything all the way up.
For more information on the Bongo bass or to pick one up for yourself, visit our website here.