String Driven Things
Guitars in ES&CM? There's a reason... as we look at the Bond and Steinberger guitars.
Guitars aren't usually ESM's cup of tea. But two new models are innovative enough for us to make an exception. Ace Axeman, Curtis Schwartz reports.
Innovative might not be a strong enough word to describe the design criteria of Steinberger's range of guitars and basses. Having begun by chopping off the conventional headstock, sticking the machine heads on the 'wrong' side of the bridge, paring off every spare inch of unnecessary body mass, and then making it all from the same moulded fibre chunk, seems to me to be a pretty fair start for a new company.
The original Steinberger six string prototype of their famous bass was unleashed on the world at the NAMM trade fair in summer '83. This latest offering (retailing at about £1500) is essentially the same guitar with a bridge/tremolo system of the innovative standard we have come to expect of Steinberger — but without the active electronics. Essentially the bridge is designed in such a way that not only have we got an extremely stable tremolo System, but a tremolo which can lock into several different positions both up and down in pitch; what you might call a transposing tremolo!
The model I had a look at was in a fairly prototype form, thus the metalwork of the bridge mechanism looked a little on the home made side. However, the body, neck, fretboard etc. are all fairly similar to the standard six-string model — meaning that it is nothing short of a heavenly experience to play, having a full 24 very accessible frets with a slinky smoothness more akin to a carefully crafted handmade guitar than to something that has come out of a mould.
The range of tones that this guitar is able to produce is fairly wide-ranging considering the simplicity of its electronics; two EMG humbucking pickups, a volume and tone knob and a three pole toggle switch to select between bridge, neck or both pickups. The bridge pickup is bright and 'tasty', unlike many powerful humbuckers that are available (not naming any names). Switching over to the bass pick-up makes a very different, yet comfortable transition in tone to something more akin to perhaps a Strat's bass or mid pickup with its healthy, hollow quality. In the center position, the tone is even more Strat-like, if a little more solid. Overall, a very pleasant compromise between the best of humbucking and single coil, without any coil taps or phase switching.
The Steinberger layout requires special strings with a ball on each end. These slide snugly into the far end of the neck and are clamped into the bridge/tremolo system at the other end. The changing of strings is not a swift business, necessitating the use of Allen keys. As this is a prototype bridge, however, this might not be a problem on production line models (I hope!). For the record, one other problem with the bridge as it stands is the fact that the top E string had a fairly strong tendency to jump out of its saddle, thus adding unwelcome buzzing etc. in the middle of one's playing. However, the bridge, as I mentioned before, is absolutely unique (as far as I know), in that its tremolo mechanism can actually lock into another key as you transpose it down or up. On paper this sounds AMAZING, however I found its uses to be very limited, and the rigidity it requires of the bridge mechanism proved to be a bit of a hinderance. One more point about this new bridge is that the combination of a tremolo system and the machine heads being placed where they are prohibit the Michael Schenker/Status Quo positioning of the guitar on the thigh — as this bends the tuning (very obviously) out of tune.
Despite the minor points aimed at the bridge design (which might all be irrelevant anyway, the one I tried being merely a prototype), this is a truly superb instrument, difficult not to want to play, given the choice. Yet there is no hiding from the fact that it is also a very expensive instrument indeed, although when taken in context with good quality polysynths, I suppose it might not seem too outrageous. However I feel that another three hundred pounds for this guitar over the standard Steinberger six-string is a little hard to justify, especially since you are without the other model's active circuitry. Nevertheless, this is certainly an exquisite instrument.
I wonder what Leo Fender thinks of all this...
It's now well over a year since we first heard about a fretted guitar without any frets called the Bond. Its official announcement was at the '84 Frankfurt show, and after much anticipation, the production line models finally appeared in February of this year, retailing at £525.
Had it been any other product, such a long wait would have been asking too much. However the uniqueness of the Bond's design was such that it was essential that it be 'gotten right' first time if it was not to be just another gimmick. Having finally managed to lay my hands on a production model, I can safely say that this is certainly no candle in the wind (? -Ed)
The most striking innovation on the Bond guitar is its fretboard; or lack of one. The frets have been replaced by a precisely stepped plastic 'pitchboard' (as Bond prefer to call it). Looking not too dissimilar to the titles of a roof, the fretboard, sorry, 'pitchboard' is constructed in such a way as to theoretically make playing the guitar easier, as well as to enable the production of it to be 100% consistent. In fact the whole guitar is made from a plastic base, thus further eliminating the possibilities of production faults as well as the common drawbacks with wood—warping, dead spots etc.
The guitar's electronics are about as active as they can get — phantom powering from a mains supplied transformer illuminates various coloured indicators or the guitar's body. The Bond has no knobs — push buttons have replaced them each with their own colour-coded indicators which link up to a numerical three digit display, indicating the settings for volume, bass and treble. Each one's range is from 0 (off or minimum) to 9 (maximum). The neutral setting for the tone controls is four (something that took me a while to figure out, and this is quite an important fact as with all the controls full up, the background hiss is at a fairly unacceptable level for normal use).
The pickup configuration is basically à la Strat, with three Schaller single coil pickups which can be switched in any configuration, bass and treble pickups having phase switching options as well. This is done with the five push button switches beneath the bridge. The three higher ones are assigned to their respective pickups and act as individual on/off switches, the lower two buttons being for phase switching, whose status is also indicated in the display.
This system is very effective for memorising your favourite settings. However it is not, even with practice, a very quick way of sound switching. I find myself, on my usual guitar, switching quite regularly between my bass pickup (with its respective volume setting ranging from two to three) and my lead pickup (at full volume). Such operation would be practically impossible with the Bond.
All of the Bond's hardware — machine heads, bridge, tailpiece and straplocks are Schaller, the tailpiece being of the Gibson Tuna-Matic design, and another nice touch was having two miniature Allen screws on the nut itself for finetuning of its height.
My overall impression of the instrument was one of 'Well, it's almost there...' It's a fabulous idea, well put together, and yet, possibly due to the lightweight feel of its all-plastic construction, it doesn't quite feel the part.
Tonally it is very versatile, having more in common with a Strat than anything else. Its active electronics are on the noisy side — not unusably so, but when a dirty sound is required this then gets even worse.
The feel of the fretboard, to me, was not so much a new sensation; more like I was playing a 'toy' guitar. I wonder if the model with brass fittings is any better?
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Review by Curtis Schwartz