With a few exceptions, most bass guitars look very similar to Leo Fender’s Precision, Jazz, or Music Man designs. When the first Steinberger headless (and nearly bodyless) designs appeared in 1979, they were very definitely a departure from the norm. Tim Fletcher investigates the birth of one of the most radical instruments ever made…
Birth of One of the Most Radical Instruments Ever Made, the Steinberger L2
Steinberger L2… Ned Steinberger was originally a furniture maker, training at the prestigious Cooper Hewitt museum in New York.
After he graduated, he joined the Brooklyn Woodworkers Co-Operative where he met guitar maker Stuart Spector. Steinberger liked Spector’s ideas, and in 1977, he offered to design a bass using the ‘form follows function’ concept that he had learned at Cooper Hewitt. The result was the NS-1, a through-neck bass with smooth flowing curves that fitted around the player. This bass became quite popular with the bass playing community, and enthused by its success, Steinberger started a company – Steinberger Sound – to produce his own instruments.
Having little experience as a musician, and coming from a background where practicalities were more important than tradition, he wondered why bass players put up with an instrument that was cumbersome and awkward to play.
He recalled that “getting the instrument to be comfortable was a top priority for me. And no matter what, I couldn’t get the bass to balance right with a headstock. It was always neck heavy…the big breakthrough moment for me was when I realized that you didn’t have to put the tuning machines [on the headstock]. You could put the tuning machines on the body.”
Having dispensed with the headstock, Steinberger then went to work on the neck and the body.
During the development process for the Spector NS-1, he had met boatbuilder and carbon fibre expert Bob Young, and was intrigued by the possibilities of using the material in a bass guitar design. Wood, being a natural substance, is not a consistent material, and even seemingly identical wooden instruments have small differences in sound and playability. In addition, wooden bass necks tend to have a ‘dead spot’ around the fifth fret on the G string. It is suggested that most wooden bass necks vibrate naturally around this pitch (C), and the two vibrations (the neck and the string) cancel each other to some extent. Steinberger realised that using a composite man-made material instead of wood could potentially eliminate these issues. Steinberger also considered the traditional large body and bolt-on neck of most basses to be unnecessary, and he developed a much smaller, lighter one-piece design.
The new bass, named the Steinberger L-2, was headless, with a very small body, and made of a synthetic composite of graphite and carbon fibre.
It was premiered at the 1980 NAMM show, but the more traditionally minded bassists were extremely sceptical. Ned Steinberger recalls: “we had made a half dozen basses and pretty much everybody felt we were a joke. Headless instruments made out of plastic?” They were described as ‘cricket bats’ and ‘egg-boxes’ but they did get some support from Andy West of The Dixie Dregs, and by the end of the event, the Steinberger stand was beginning to get some more positive attention.
The new basses had a very even response and were much lighter than traditional designs, but some players found their sound ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’.
However, the new design soon found favour with a number of high profile players, including Geddy Lee, Sting, Tina Weymouth, Tony Levin, and Bill Wyman, and this helped to make the instruments more accepted by the wider bass playing community. Steinberger considers that his bass design came out just at the right moment: “People in the 80s were much more into innovation then. And the idea of hi-tech—people were attracted to that. In the late 80s, it shifted back again to a vintage mentality.”
The development of carbon graphite composite as a bass-making material was taken up by a few other manufacturers, including Status, a UK manufacturer that blended the headless design with more traditional body styles.
Steinberger sold his company to Gibson in 1987 and has since focused his new company NS Design, on developing electric upright instruments such as double basses and cellos.