Steinberger: Eighties Guitars

Steinberger Guitars and Basses: A History of the Most Radical Design of the Eighties
August 15, 2006

Steinberger Sound – ‘The Guitars and Basses of the Eighties’

No other guitar or bass exemplifies the aesthetics of the Eighties like a Steinberger. Granted, there had been attempts, prior to Steinberger’s appearance, to offer something different in the world of musical instruments: Kramer offered aluminium necks, Dan Armstrong offered clear Lucite bodies, Les Paul even experimented with headless guitars—he just couldn’t solve the tuning problem. Still, no one had come close to offering the true innovations and radical designs that Ned Steinberger unveiled at the outset of the Eighties. I remember seeing the greatest players of the times with these tiny ‘headless’ instruments on stage and in music videos. Musicians including David Bowie, Geddy Lee, Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour, and Sting were all playing Steinbergers and I, like the rest of the world, was marvelling at how different they were from other guitars and basses—and now I am struck by just how ‘Eighties’ they seem. I simply love these guitars. Here, then, is a brief history of the most innovative stringed electric instrument designs since the introduction of the electric guitar.

Ned's Bass Design for Spector

The Design – ‘What is the purpose of the instrument?’

The whole story of Steinberger Sound begins in the seventies, when a young Ned Steinberger, an industrial designer who specialized in furniture, was approached by New York luthier, Stuart Spector, for design ideas for his electric basses. Ned accepted the job and, in addition to designing a bass guitar that is still produced and copied to this day, he began to ask questions about how and why these instruments were built as they were. Ned brought an open mind to this evaluation. Not being a musician himself, and being well versed in design, he couldn’t help but question aspects of the instrument: why are so many basses not balanced properly; why is sustain lost; why do they go out of tune so easily; and why are they so large? Steinberger approached the instrument as an engineer—looking at the problems inherent in a thirty-year old design from a whole new perspective. By ignoring fad and fashion in the name of innovation, Ned was free to rethink the whole spectrum of dogmatic concepts that had existed in instrument design up to that point.

‘What is the purpose of the instrument?’ This question would drive Ned to recognize that the designs of the olden days were in serious need of improvement. Designing chairs gave Ned a deep appreciation for ergonomics—in the same way that a chair must conform to one’s body, so too should an instrument. Balance was also a key issue for Ned; whether playing in a standing or sitting position, the instrument should be comfortable. It’s difficult to make a bass guitar that balances properly because in addition to the long neck, there is a great deal of weight on the headstock due to the tuning machine heads. All of this extra weight pulls the headstock down and either the player needs to compensate for this pull, which is uncomfortable, or the body of the instrument must be made heavier, which is uncomfortable overall. Ned got a ‘flash,’ as he describes it: ‘There’s no reason why one can’t take the tuning machines off of the headstock and put them on the body.’ Just by making this switch, Ned saw the opportunity to completely redesign the instrument—and right there and then the foundation of what would become the Steinberger headless design was born.

With the weight balanced, Ned’s next question was: ‘Why is the body of an electric instrument necessary at all?’ On an acoustic guitar, the body is absolutely necessary—it produces the sound. On an electric instrument the sound is generated by the strings and sent to the amplifier by a pickup. Therefore, Ned decided that the traditional design of the body was unnecessary and, in keeping with the complete lack of a headstock, designed a very minimalist body. By attaching a patented pivot plate to the back, at the exact center of gravity of the bass, Ned also solved the balance issue. By using direct pull tuners at the body, instead of the traditional wraparound machine heads, Ned greatly increased the tuning stability of the instrument. But, arguably, the biggest innovation in the Steinberger design is the use of composite materials: a blend which included fibreglass and graphite—originally developed for the aerospace industry—that was finished with a gel coat used on small boats. All of these materials were quite radical in comparison to the traditional use of wood, finished with polyurethane or nitrocellulose. This blend was many times the stiffness of fibreglass and yet was considerably lighter in weight. The one-piece moulded neck and body design, with a bolt-on faceplate, made of ultra rigid composite materials, also greatly increased sustain. The headpiece of the bass accepted both regular strings (clamped down by grub screws) and new double ball strings (which made it possible to replace a string without tools—cutting down on maintenance time whether playing live or in the basement). Ned had overcome the major failings of the traditional designs. But, in the end, the ‘L’ bass looked as bizarre as the methods that were used to build it.

Forming Steinberger Sound – ‘Where can I get one?’

Ned Steinberger was not interested in manufacturing. He had no desire to make the instrument himself; he was, after all, a designer, not a businessman. However, of all the companies that he brought his design to—Gibson, Martin, Fender, Ibanez, Music Man—hardly anyone took him seriously, and even the ones that did passed on the design. The ‘look’ of the Fender electric bass was already established in the minds of musicians and therefore, no company was interested in taking the financial risk of investing in Ned’s design. Yet, this reaction was the complete opposite of what Ned was getting from musicians who were trying his instrument. Once the prejudice against the appearance and construction of the bass was overcome, musicians who felt and heard the instrument immediately asked: ‘Where can I get one?’

Geddy Lee of Rush with his Early L2 Bass

Ned was forced to turn his small Brooklyn cabinet making shop into the first Steinberger Sound factory. With low output of product, due to limited funds and imperfect moulds, the fledgling company struggled to get off the ground. In fact, Steinberger was losing money despite a million dollar backlog in orders. The initial $36,000 of investment capital that was put together by the original partners was gone within weeks. Steinberger needed more money to fill their backorders. At the same time, due to the loss of its textile industry, the city of Newburgh was trying to deal with an increase in their unemployment rates. To revitalize the area, the city offered financial incentives (low interest government loans) to attract new businesses to found or relocate themselves to their city. In July 1983, Steinberger Sound relocated to Newburgh, NY with all of the major partners (Stan Jay, Hap Kuffner, and Bob Young) personally responsible for the loan—over $300,000.00 borrowed from the government. The Newburgh factory offered more space but it took considerable time to setup operations, hire a plant manager, install machinery, and train the new staff before Steinberger was able to increase production. For the first time, Steinberger would produce enough instruments in a day to break even—but they still had to face the task of meeting the huge demand for product.

Ned Steinberger and his Design Philosophy
The Guitar – ‘B, C, D, E, F#, and G’

The natural successor to the flourishing L series bass was a guitar version. At the time, the market for guitars was roughly five times larger than the bass market. Although Ned’s guitar was already in the prototype stage when the company was located in Brooklyn, it wasn’t introduced officially until 1984. The guitar version featured all of the unique designs of the bass—one piece ‘Steinberger Blend’ reinforced carbon-graphite moulded neck and body, headless direct pull tuning at the body, phenolic fingerboard, and ergonomic design. Although the guitar looks incredibly small, it features a regular scale (25 1/5 inches—the same scale as Fender’s Stratocaster). Further improvements were made to the guitar and the bass around this time, including an attached folding leg-rest (replacing the detachable version), the bolts that held the face plate to the body were moved to the back of the instruments (for aesthetic reasons), and the headpieces on the basses were changed to accept only double ball strings (likely because they were more widely available now—and an adaptor could always be attached to accept single ball strings). This state-of-the-art guitar offered the same amazing sustain, durability, and clarity as its bass counterpart. Still, Ned—who is constantly working on design improvements—was already hard at work on another significant innovation.

Close-Up of the Amazing Trans-Trem Bridge

In 1984, Ned introduced the TransTrem System for his guitar (the bass version coming later, in June 1987). The TransTrem allowed the guitarist to bend all six strings in relative pitch to each other—which allows for whole chord bending or slide guitar sounds. This development was the most significant improvement of the guitar’s vibrato system since the pioneering work of Paul Bigsby in the mid Forties. What’s more, the TransTrem was built with a unique stepped locking device that allowed all of the strings to be locked in a whole new key! The range of keys made possible by the TransTrem included B, C, D, E, F#, and G. Not only did this feature make the use of a capo unnecessary (in most cases), it also allowed the guitarist to tune the whole guitar down by one or two steps. If a guitarist broke a string, all they had to do was lock the TransTrem in the centre position and they could complete the song—the guitar would stay in tune because neither the bridge nor the neck was influenced by the loss of tension! Naturally, one of the greatest innovators of electric guitar playing, Eddie Van Halen, was the first person to see the potential of this new device and put it to great use on his album, 5150 (listen to ‘Summer Nights’). With his custom painted Steinberger (signature red, black, and white stripes) Eddie wrote music utilizing the TransTrem System and those songs still cannot be reproduced without this amazing guitar bridge.

Van Halen plays his Custom GL-2T

Many other advances were made on the instruments at this time: the introduction of active components designed by Henry Zajic of HAZ Labs, a more standard tremolo bridge (the S-Trem), optional Roland synthesizer pickups (advanced at the time), and many other options, too numerous to detail here, became available by request. These advancements would also make their way to a new line of instruments that featured wooden bodies with Steinberger Blend graphite necks. The more traditionally shaped GM model, designed by Mike Rutherford (of Genesis), Roger Griffin and Geoff Banks and the GP model (a smaller ‘V’ shaped instrument) were less expensive to produce—and this savings helped to make the Steinberger designs accessible to more musicians.

Sting with his Early L-2 Bass

Popularity – ‘On the Cover of the Magazines’

Steinberger’s designs won him numerous awards. His bass design received the Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America (ISDA). Time Magazine called his design one of the five best of that year. In 1982, Steinberger won the Reinforced Plastics/Composite Award from The Society of The Plastics Industry Inc. But these design awards did not promote the company in the same way that important artists did. When the basses were first exhibited at the NAMM show (then the National Association of Music Merchandisers, now known as the International Music Products Association), no one took their instruments seriously. As Ned tells the story, that all changed when Andy West of the Dixie Dregs played his Steinberger bass that night. After that, whether it was the sound of the instrument or the fact that artists were getting behind the radical design, the demand for Steinbergers could hardly be met—a demand that would exceed supply by 300% in 1982. Although no musician was ever paid to endorse a Steinberger instrument, they were suddenly in the hands of high profile artists and shortly thereafter, on the cover of the magazines. Steinberger was suddenly able to boast an impressive roster of musicians who were using Ned’s designs—and all without paying a single endorsement cheque.

David Bowie Posing with a GL-2T

The Gibson Buyout – ‘Nashville, Tennessee’

As mentioned, Ned wasn’t a businessman by choice. His heart was in designing; he had received a BFA (majoring in sculpture) from the Maryland College of Art and had been working at Thonet designing institutional furniture. The business aspect of Steinberger Sound was overwhelming and, ultimately, distracting him from being able to design new products. After discussions with Henry Juszkiewicz and Dave Berryman, GMI offered to buyout the company and Ned accepted. In November of 1987, Steinberger Sound became part of the Gibson family of instruments. Some of the former staff at Steinberger Sound recall this time as one of the best periods for the company. They had, on the one hand, all the original workers with the experience to build these unique instruments and, on the other hand, a whole new source of funding coming from Gibson. Before the buyout, Ned wasn’t making any money—he wasn’t losing any either—but he simply didn’t have the capital to move things forward. Shortly after, many new products were developed: a left-handed TransTrem, a bass bridge that allows for the low E string to be dropped to D or B, and a partnership between Steinberger Sound and Klein Guitars, to name just a few. In January 1990, a new bass model was introduced, the Q series. Ned was going to stay on with Steinberger Sound as consultant, indefinitely. Things were looking good for the little company in Newburgh, NY.

Even Jerry Garcia played a GL!

But, at times, the musical instrument market is driven more by fad and fashion than it is by, what might be considered, more legitimate concerns. Among other factors, what was new became unfashionable and what was beginning to be recognized as vintage became popular again. Recognizing this fact, Gibson started to boost support for its classic designs and began to leave Steinberger on the backburner. With the popularity of Steinberger’s designs diminishing, Ned felt that it no longer made any sense for him to stay and left the company. In July 1992, Gibson relocated the Steinberger factory to Nashville, Tennessee. Few of the original Newburgh employees made the move and Gibson staff, from a company famous for its woodwork, had little experience in moulding an instrument from advanced composite materials. Although the quality of Steinberger L series instruments is always impeccable, it has been reported that instruments made during the Nashville period had moulding problems that can be seen through sloppy touch-up jobs inside the instruments. What’s worse, the moulds that were used to make the L series were deteriorating and Gibson was neither motivated by sales, nor altruistically interested in preservation of the line. By 1998 the last of the L series guitars and basses were produced. Gibson contacted musical instrument companies who were more established in graphite moulding to farm out the production of the L series, but balked at the estimate that they received. The Steinberger name then went into hibernation for the next few years.

Allan Holdsworth with his Customized GL

The Present and the Future – ‘The Market is always shifting’

Ned went on to start a new company called NS Design; since Gibson owned the name Steinberger (just as CBS owned Leo Fender’s name after he was bought out). He has produced very innovative violins, violas, and cellos for a new generation of string players. Although Gibson always offered the all-wood Asian made Spirit line of Steinberger guitars, they also eventually revived the Steinberger brand; albeit in a very limited way. Gibson put Steinberger under its Epiphone brand of instruments—imported models that are built, in most cases, to resemble Gibson’s classic designs. There is no graphite moulding done in Nashville. The graphite necks that Epiphone uses to construct their bolt on Steinbergers are made by a company called Moses Graphite. These necks are not built like the originals. Aside from numerous quality issues being reported, the Moses necks are made from a blend of materials that is less rigid; they have a less glossy finish; and they feature a significantly different profile. The bridges are still built by Zen-On in Japan and the bodies are built in-house, though soon to be finished elsewhere. Steinberger instruments are merely assembled in Nashville, not crafted—and they’re hardly ever in stock. Although Gibson originally claimed that their intention was to revive the line exactly as it was, there are no current plans to bring back the L series. Since Gibson no longer has the original moulds—even if they wanted to—they’d have to start from scratch.

Steinberger had its glory days. Steinbergers were seen and heard live and in the studio recordings of some of the most important acts of our time. As Ned related in an interview, the very first Steinberger bass was a fretless that was sold to Tony Levin and used on many of the last John Lennon sessions. But the market is always shifting and some believe that the genius behind Ned’s designs will one day be recognized for what they truly are—not fad, not fashion, but progress. Gibson recently hired Ned to design a new line of instruments. The line was named ‘Synapse’ and is currently produced in Korea—quite a distance from Newburgh, NY. Steinbergers continue to have a loyal cult-like following. There is a longstanding discussion on the Steinberger World forum (Yahoo) and a website of the same name, run by the same dedicated man, Andy Y. This group is devoted to educating people on these designs and dispelling the bogus myths perpetuated by the ignorant fools that run rampant on the internet. It’s not clear what the future of Steinberger will be. Some might argue that without the L series in production, there is no real Steinberger. Others are more optimistic, arguing instead that Steinberger is alive and well. What’s not up for debate however, is that Steinberger isn’t quite what it was in its glory years—the Eighties.

The Newburgh Factory Today
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