If it weren’t for those tireless innovators, guitar-oriented music wouldn’t have the reputation that it enjoys today. Whether you’re into classic rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, or straight-up progressive death metal – all of these genres rely on the revolutionary concepts set by some of the inventors in the industry. Unfortunately, they never seem to get the credit that they deserve, despite contributing to the music world as much as the musicians themselves.
And it’s always a great thing to find some time to pay tribute to these guys. In this article, we will be taking a closer look at the work of one of the famous developers who’s always been ahead of his time at the very forefront of innovation in the guitar world – Mr. Ned Steinberger.
Being a son of famous physicist and Nobel laureate Jack Steinberg, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Ned was one of the developers who pretty much changed the game in his respective field. In addition, Jack has been playing flute all his life, so that also explains Ned’s interest in music.
Among all the things, Ned Steinberger is most famous for his ingenious design of the so-called “headless” guitars. Of course, there’s more to his work than just guitars with an odd “omission” of headstocks – he’s also used some unexpected materials for building instruments and has also developed a few other great concepts.
With all this in mind, we will be taking a closer look at Ned’s work and exploring his ingenious ideas by going into some of his most important innovations over the years.
Going way back to the old days, Ned began his career making furniture. In fact, he set up his wood workshop back when he was only 13 years old. He later graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art, where he majored in sculpture and has honed his furniture design craft at Cooper Hewitt museum in New York.
But after meeting legendary Stuart Spector in the mid-1970s, Ned got into the instrument building business and began working for the famous luthier. After a while, he made a significant breakthrough with the design of NS-1 bass. Launched in 1977, it’s still considered to be one of the most famous Spector basses.
Although young and not as experienced as some other builders of the era, Ned made some much-needed changes in the world of bass. For those times, it presented a great innovation with its ergonomic features and its slick curved body design. These NS series (with the abbreviation being the initials of the designer) saw some further development and we got the NS-2, as well as the 5-string version called NS-5.
The NS-1 was based on the company’s already established SB-1, with the “melted” twist on the body shape, along with the reduced size. The model featured only one pickup, although the second one was added with the release of the NS-2.
While the world of standard 6-strings saw constant innovations throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, it seemed as if barely anyone cared about making any improvements on 4-string basses. That’s why Ned’s changes were so crucial in this particular era.
But being so young, energetic, and innovative, it was only a matter of time when Ned was going to do something on his own. His ideas were not only ambitious but also pretty unconventional for the early 1980s. His thoughts were, shockingly enough, that headstocks are pretty much an excessive part in the string instrument design. Also, he argued that there were other alternatives to wood when it comes to instrument building. Instead of the good old tonewood, Ned thought about using graphite. Pretty bold.
After finally establishing Steinberger Sound Corp in 1979, he made his first Steinberger bass, the L-2 model. Although it had some wild nicknames like “oar” and “broom,” these headless 4-string basses caught on pretty fast. First presented at 1979 NAMM, the three prototypes were soon sold to none other than John Entwistle of The Who, Andy West of The Dregs, and the almighty prog bass champion Tony Levin.
These so-called “L” series were completely headless instruments. The tuners were placed on the tailpiece instead, and these instruments required specially designed double ball-end strings. You just put one end where the headstock would be and the other one in the tuners at the tailpiece.
But that’s not all. These basses featured extremely precise 40:1 ratio tuners and very minimalistic body shape. The peculiar design is what made these instruments so great.
After seeing potential in them, Ned also began producing 6-string L-series guitars with pretty much the same features. Due to the materials and the reduced body size, the tone and the performance were profoundly affected. The sound of Steinberger guitars was always described as smooth and featuring strong attack. Some were not happy about this, arguing that it’s too “sterile” or “synthetic.” But no one could deny the greatness of Steinberger’s instruments and his innovativeness.
The body shape of the L-series was also a significant innovation in the world of guitars. While most of the people were still breaking their backs and shoulders with Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters, Steinbergers were lighter and way more practical for transport than any other standard guitars and basses at the time. While the design preferences come down to personal taste, it still managed to retain some attractiveness with a highly minimalistic body.
By 1982, Ned Steinberger has won Industrial Designers Excellence Award and the Reinforced Plastics/Composite Award for his innovations. Things kept developing, and he began implementing other innovative concepts in his instruments, including the TransTrem system.
The new series kept coming, all relying on the same headless design, with the only exception being the now extremely rare S series. There were, however, many new different features. The P-series, for instance, had a standard wooden body with a graphite bolt-on neck.
In 1987, after attracting more and more attention in the guitar sphere, Steinberger Sound Corp. was finally acquired by Gibson. As the time went on, we saw some of the biggest heroes of the instrument with one of Steinbergers in their hands, including Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Buck Dharma, and Allan Holdsworth, to name a few.
The company is still active to this day and has an abundance of great and affordable models to offer. Some of these include:
- Steinberger Spirit GT-PRO Deluxe
- Steinberger Spirit XT-25 Quilt Top Standard 5-String Bass
- Steinberger Spirit XT-2DB Bass
During the developing years of Steinberger Sound, Ned also came up with a pretty innovative new tremolo system. After all, the late 1970s and the early 1980s saw some significant improvements in guitar vibrato systems, and this was the era when we got the legendary Floyd Rose and Schaller bridges.
However, one of the biggest issues conventional whammy bar lovers faced was with strings going out of tune from each other. Sure, playing individual notes on the classic Fender vibrato system worked well enough, but if you want to play 3-4 note chords, things might get a bit messy.
And this was one of the things that Ned Steinberger’s TransTrem managed to improve. With this system, you could hold down on the tremolo arm, with all the strings going down in pitch evenly.
But that’s not all. What TransTrem also allows is to drop down tunings in an instant without any additional detuning or adjustments during one playing session. Sure, you’d need to set it all up, and the process takes some getting used to, but it’s definitely worth it for those who play different tunings in one set. All you had to do was push down or pull up the tremolo arm and turn it clockwise to engage different tunings.
The only downside (which is not that much of a disadvantage for the features that you get) with TransTrem is that you have to use specially calibrated double ball-end strings. However, some of the newer systems like the third generation ZT3, which also include specialized headpieces, can work with single ball-end strings.
Aside from Steinberger Sound Corp, Ned started a new company called NS Design in 1990. Here, he was able to let his imagination and spirit go wild in creating new string instruments. The main focus was on bowed instruments like violins, violas, double basses, and cellos.
Electric bowed instruments were not exactly a new thing at that point. Still, Ned just wasn’t satisfied with how all of the manufacturers only tried to focus on replicating tones of the classic wooden acoustic counterparts.
After years of development, the company made huge breakthroughs with its bowed instruments, especially with the advancement of their Polar pickup systems. But, of course, aside from great tone and great dynamical response, these instruments are also praised for their ergonomic features and reduced weight.
At this point, Ned Steinberger’s NS Design has a wide variety of bowed instruments, basses, and fretless basses in their arsenal. In fact, some of the cellos and upright basses can be played with a specialized strap system. With Ned’s innovativeness, it seems that the boundaries between already defined instruments become blurry. His true genius can be seen with some of the NS Design products.
- CR Electric Viola Outfit
- WAV4 Electric Violin
- Boomerang Strap System for NS Cello and Upright Bass
- WAV Radius WAV4 Bass Guitar
If you’ve been following prog champions like Tony Levin, you’ve definitely seen him play that unusual but effective instrument called the Chapman Stick. The instrument in question was named after its inventor Emmett Chapman and can be played as a conventional bass and a guitar or as a tapping instrument.
The name “Stick” comes from its very minimalistic design. The body is unlike the ones you’ll see on conventional basses or guitars. However, the most significant change comes with its unusual configuration. Mostly featuring 8, 10, or 12 strings, the lowest ones are always in the middle. Going both up and down from the center, the strings get higher in pitch. You can imagine just how wild tunings on this instrument can get. The upper half of the neck is the bass tuned to all fifths, while the lower side of the instrument features “melody” strings tuned to all fourths.
But being such a great inventor in the world of stringed instruments, it was only expected to see Ned Steinberger joining forces with Emmett Chapman to create their collaborative new instrument. The result was the so-called NS Stick, which combines the best of two worlds.
Just like the Chapman Stick, it features eight strings, and it’s intended to be played as a tapping instrument. However, tunings are closer to standard basses as the strings go in the conventional order, from lower to higher. What’s also worth mentioning is that these sticks have no headstocks and feature Steinberger’s classic kneebar.
These are, of course, just some of the things that Ned Steinberger came up with that we thought are of massive importance to the world of guitar. Despite being over 70 years old, Ned still works hard to bring innovation and quality instruments to all the lovers of stringed instruments. He is the living example of how people can and should work to make improvements in their respective fields as long as they can.