The Fascinating History of Steinberger Guitars | Guitare.com
Established in 1979, Steinberger introduced a new look and functionality to the music industry. While the headless design of its guitars is rightly the company’s best-known and most striking feature, its innovative ideas didn’t stop there.
Founder Ned Steinberger is the son of Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist Jack Steinberger. In the 1970s, Ned was not a musician, he was a furniture maker, who still holds several patents for chair designs. His first foray into musical instrument building came with the Spector NS2 bass guitar, designed alongside luthier Stuart Spector. It wasn’t until 1976 that Ned started tinkering with his own unorthodox designs.
Between 1979 and 1986, Ned brought these creations to life. His guitars featured a unique minimalist shape and, at first, were constructed entirely from a synthetic fusion of fiberglass and carbon fiber, known as Steinberger Blend. Most guitars are made of wood, a biological agent subject to variation, even within the same species of tree.
This variation is something we appreciate and as guitar builders we can use it to our advantage to fine-tune the tonal properties of an instrument. Steinberger’s blend of carbon fiber and graphite, however, offered more consistency and durability, as it was not susceptible to the ebb and flow that accompanies changes in humidity and temperature levels. Later, however, Ned’s designs would also begin to incorporate wood.
Steinberger has made five models over the years – the P, S, M, K and Q series – and each would typically make up a range of guitars and bass guitars. And, of course, most of them were headless. The S-series instruments, however, had headstocks. But it was Steinberger’s rarest, with only around 300 made.
Steinberger did not invent the headless guitar. Les Paul made one in the 1940s, using a similar design in which the strings are anchored at the nut and tuned at the bridge. The Les Paul guitar, however, was aluminum. He could never get it to stay in tune and intonate properly, so he never marketed it. Decades later, Steinberger remedied this problem with its “straight-pull” tuning mechanism, as well as its calibrated double-ball strings, which did not need to be cut.
Of the dozens of guitar design patents held by Ned Steinberger, most focus on improving tuning stability. In 1984, Steinberger developed the TransTrem, a unique tremolo bridge. On a standard vibrato, the strings are stretched at different rates, but the TransTrem allows whole chords to be raised and lowered in pitch together. The TransTrem can also be locked, allowing it to essentially function as a capo as well. The downside is that the bridge requires these calibrated double-bullet strings – which are only made by a few companies, including D’Addario, La Bella and Steinberger himself. TransTrem’s idea was later replicated by other companies, with varying success. The Washburn Wonderbar, for example, was developed to work in the same way but uses standard chains and has no locking function. More recently, the EverTune bridge has been designed to work similarly.
These ideas were patented under the Steinberger banner, but the patent on the TransTrem has since expired, and Steinberger was purchased by Gibson in 1986. The sale to Gibson allowed Ned to focus on the pattern instruments, rather than their commercial transactions and production. Ned remained involved in the production of Steinberger guitars under Gibson ownership, and even helped design the Synapse line – Gibson-produced, wood-built guitars and basses.
Eventually, Ned left Gibson and Steinberger behind to design and build his own instruments. But since Gibson owned the company label—his surname—Ned was no longer able to make guitars under his own designation. So in 1990 he started making instruments under the NS Design banner – violins, violas, cellos, double basses, double basses, bass guitars, nothing was off limits. NS Design still produces instruments today, but not the headless guitars that Ned is most famous for.
Meanwhile, Gibson stopped production of Steinberger guitars in 1998. It resumed making them later but did not follow the original design. Seeking a more cost-effective way to make these unusual instruments, Gibson instead began manufacturing the wooden guitars in South Korea.
Steinberger guitars and their advances in the instrument have developed a cult following and have been used by artists such as Mark Knopfler, David Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, Lou Reed, David Gilmour, Sting, Geddy Lee and Allan Holdsworth. The first three prototypes of the L2 bass were sold to John Entwistle, Tony Levin and Andy West of The Dregs. Although these instruments are no longer in production, Steinberger guitars hold a creative legacy that still resonates to this day.
To learn more about current Steinberger guitar models, visit steinberger.com. Check out NS Designs at thinkns.com.