The Steinberger Tapes
Why the Thompson Twins, Genesis and Tears For Fears have plumped for plastic.
Tony Bacon records the thoughts of three leading bassists on their four-string all-plastic Steinbergers
Whatever your reaction to a price-tag of close on £1000, you wouldn't be far wrong if you thought of the all-plastic Steinberger Bass as the first radical redesign of the electric bass guitar since Leo Fender paved the way for the conventional instrument back in the early 1950s.
Not that plastic guitars are so new: makers have attempted to incorporate plastic materials into their designs over the years, from Hagstrom's "Acrylite" fingerboard in the 1950s, via Armstrong's see-through bodies of the later 60s, Ovation's well-known fibreglass roundbacks, Gibson's Sonex bodies, and the more recent graphite necks from Modulus Graphite in California and Strata in Britain.
All these guitars use wood in addition to the plastic, whereas the Steinberger is totally plastic. To be exact, it's an epoxy resin reinforced with glass- and carbon-fibres. In liquid form, this is poured into fibreglass dies and compression moulded, with holes left for controls, pickups and bridge/tuners.
Out of the mould eventually comes a thermoset Steinberger Bass (and lately the Steinberger six string, too). This resulting one-piece instrument is claimed to have twice the density of wood, ten times the stiffness of Acrylics, and is said to be stronger, though lighter than steel (the finished Steinberger weighs 8lbs).
The fingerboard, pickups, controls and bridge/tuners are added after a final coat of protective polyester gel has been applied. The fingerboard, made of phenolic fibre, can be either a two-octave fretted board, or fretless.
Naturally enough, there's no conventional strap pegs. Instead, an ingenious "clutched" strap holder is fixed to the back of the body at the instrument's centre of gravity. There's also a knee-rest that can be clipped to the Steinberger's underside for seated action.
The strings, however, obviously need more than will-power to keep them in place. There are two options. First, Rotosound and LaBella make special strings for the Steinberger with a ball-end at each end of the string: one slots into the "nut", the other into the tuning screw down on the body. Second, you can use normal strings and fasten them at the "nut" with four rather fiddly Allen screws. The tuning screws work directly on the strings with an incredible 40:1 ratio.
EMG make the pickups, each having a built-in pre-amp. They're powered by a single onboard PP3-type battery. On the two pickup version, the three controls work like those on a Jazz Bass: a volume pot for each pickup and a single overall tone pot. On the single pickup version (a rarer sight) there's one volume and one tone. And that's the lot.
The appeal of the Steinberger Bass is two-fold: it looks unusual, to say the least, and it sounds clean and even. It's that simple — but did you think of it?
Well, it's possible you may have thought that this is the winning combination for a 1980s bass guitar, but you certainly didn't put it into production. Unless you're Ned Steinberger, of course.
Variously described as an "industrial engineer" and, more directly, a "designer", New-Yorker Ned put his ideas about the electric bass guitar into practice in 1980, and based his new instrument on simplification. He decided that the neck is the most important part of a bass, and so disposed of the headstock — this, he figured, produces undesirable muddiness in the sound and deadspots on the fingerboard — while drastically reducing the size of the body. And, significantly, he decided that plastics would provide the solidity he needed in order to give the bass sustain, clarity and brilliance.
'Course, it's all very well for someone to link a few pet theories together and expect musicians to flock around in adoration — what about the real test, playing the things?
To this end One Two rounded up a few owners and invited them to answer the following probing questions:
1. What bass(es) were you using prior to the Steinberger? Do you now use the Steinberger all the time, or for specific functions?
2. How did you come to use the Steinberger?
3. What were your initial reactions?
4. How is it for studio work?
5. How is it for live work?
6. How do you find the tuning?
7. What are your overall likes and dislikes of the bass?
8. Is it really worth a grand?
And so now we proudly present The Steinberger Tapes.
SUBJECT: Andrew Bodnar
LOCATION: Thompson Twins
INTERCEPTED AT: Subject's residence, south London, 8/8/83
MEDIUM: Phone-tap; mono to JVC MK100, Maxell UL C90
"Up until quite recently I was using a Music Man that I bought early on with Graham Parker — that, or a Precision with a Tele neck. I started the Thompson Twins with the Music Man, then started using a fretless three-quarter scale S. D. Curlee. I'm having to sort of 'duplicate' off the LP a synthesiser that's trying to sound like a bass guitar, which is quite weird. I actually like the sound of the synth bass on that LP.
"I ordered a Steinberger in March this year when I was in the States, but I've only had it about two months. I'd heard and read about it a lot. First I was thinking in terms of a fretted one, but I'd been playing the Curlee a while and noticed that the fingerboard was wearing out. So I decided on a fretless.
"My initial reaction was that it was weird. I thought it sounded absolutely amazing — I don't know whether that's due to what it's made of, the pickups, or both. But it does have an incredibly wide range of sounds — it's very crisp and solid sounding.
"So far I've only used it in the studio on a couple of TV things. I don't know how much I'm going to be able to use it in the studio because of it being fretless. Not everybody wants that sound, it's not always suitable to use. There's certain things frets do best.
"And I've only used it on about five gigs — I've got some good solid touring coming up. I've been using hired gear for a while — BGWs before, and Ampegs recently. I only needed to turn up the volume really, the deviation on tone is minute.
"You only really need to tune up twice — once with the strobe, pull the strings a couple of times, retune them, and I've never known them to slacken after that. It's actually extremely easy to tune when it's not even plugged in, or anything. Just 'acoustic' you can feel the wobble through the body disappear as you tune it up.
"One problem I've found is that there's nothing to stick your thumb on, which I've currently remedied with a pencil. I don't know how other people play, but I like to rest my thumb on something — and there's no body so you can't rest your arm on anything either. So it's slightly awkward for me, unless you're anchored on the middle or end pickup. My ideal playing position, though, is in between the pickups. I suppose I'll have to get a smidgen of black perspex, but at the moment I've cut a pencil and Blue-Tacked it above the pickups. You don't notice it too much. It approximates a synth-bass sound really well if you play across the treble pickup quite hard, near the bridge.
"Although it's wonderful when you have one strapped on — they feel so close and everything — it does tend to move from side to side instead. Again that could be a quirk of how I play, but when you start playing hard on stage it does tend to shift horizontally, even though it stays close to you. That can be off-putting, especially with a fretless where it can momentarily put your fingers slightly out of position.
"I might add, at this point, that the knee rest on mine has broken, it snapped at the point where the gadget fixes into the guitar. I was really pissed off about it — I guess I'll get one made for it. It's not that essential, I usually play it standing up anyway, but maybe that should have been made of metal. The only two weak spots I can detect on it are the back plate, and the knee rest.
"Bass guitars never cease to amaze me. You'd think that something as simple as four strings... you'd think that would be that. Not at all! I think of the Steinberger as all it needs to be, no frills. The ideas are all right and make sense — I'll never be able to make the excuse, 'Well, it's the guitar... ' Let's see what's happened in five years' time.
"It fits in with the sort of 'slightly weird techno band' I'm with, but I don't know how comfortable I'd feel at the moment if I went on stage with a standard blues band, something like that.
"I suppose I've paid a little over a grand with all the fiddling about — it had to be shipped over and so on. I suppose you're paying up to about £600, £700 for a good standard bass, so I don't think £330 is that much more to pay. I suppose you could be seen to be foolish for buying it — but how much is any instrument worth?
"Compare the price to keyboards — one of our keyboard players is just seeing the bank manager for a loan of £2000. So it's not so bad if you think in terms of keyboards, or even drums I s'pose.
"I feel as if I've been conned to a slight degree, but that's almost by-the-by. The same could be said for a lot of things you buy."
SUBJECT: Mike Rutherford
INTERCEPTED AT: Canal Club, Ladbroke Grove, west London, 9/9/83
MEDIUM: Ambient room mic; stereo to Sony TCS300, TDK D C60
"I've been playing an Alembic, and the sound range from that was so great it was almost confusing. The Steinberger, you plug it in, set the level on the channel, and it sounds good straight away.
"I don't know a lot about guitars — I find a guitar and if I like it, I like it. Doesn't matter if it's old, new or whatever. I started off with a Steinberger fretless. I'd always wanted to play fretless but never had time to work at it. One of the dealers came down and I tried it out — I use Trace Elliot stuff, so Soundwave showed me the Steinberger too. The fretless was lovely. It looked odd but I don't mind that, not being a particularly traditional person.
"I borrowed it for a while, recorded one song and it played so easily — it wasn't a particularly easy song, either. That was 'Just A Job To Do' on the new album — it's a fast track to play fretless on, so it's certainly an easy bass to play.
"I still prefer the fretless, even though I've got a fretted one too. I recorded 'Home By The Sea', the long song on the new album, on it — that's obvious — and 'Mama', which has a small bass part. So I thought, I'm enjoying myself so much, I'll get a fretted one too. I've mainly DI'd it in the studio.
"When I go from studio bass to live bass it doesn't sound too good at first — for the first day's rehearsal we sound very amateur, just not having done it for a while. The second day it starts to sound good, so if I plug a bass in having worked in the studio for the last six or seven months, it sounds rotten anyway.
I'll be using the fretted Steinberger for the first time on the upcoming tours — I think it'll sound good. I'll be using the Trace Elliot set-up, 10in speakers seem very good for the Steinberger.
"I'm sure a lot of players won't like the tuning being at the other end — the first few times you tune you tend to go to thin air, but I think they're better and smoother tuning machines, and they hold very well.
"The thing I really like is the evenness. Say you're playing a C-octave on the A and G string, if you then move up to a C on the E string of a normal bass, it would go from a clean 'booommm' to a dirty 'broooph' - a big volume and sound change. On the Steinberger you can play anywhere and you don't suddenly roar out in terms of bass response and volume.
"It feels so comfortable, but I wouldn't give it ten out of ten for looks. The balance is so nice — it doesn't look great, but I suppose they designed it to look different.
"I don't know how it will look on me on-stage, 'cos I'm quite big. It may be a bit odd, this huge guy and a tiny bass. If mine looks dumb I'll have some wood put on, like the Strata — don't tell Steinberger, but I will. Actually I don't mind if it looks a bit daft, as long as it plays well. I think it looks better on someone not too big, though.
"It's an awful lot of money, I can't justify anything at a thousand quid. I think it'll come down as they make more. Once you've got the mould... presumably you're paying for the cost of development."
SUBJECT: Curt Smith
LOCATION: Tears For Fears
INTERCEPTED AT: 24-track studio, Bath (demoing new single), 2/9/83
MEDIUM: Phone-tap; mono to JVC MK100. Maxell UL C60
"We had trouble getting a bass sound on the album and I went through a few basses, a Yamaha BB1200, an Aria Pro, and an Alembic — but we still had trouble getting a roundness and a depth. The Alembic was the best of those, but still wasn't smooth enough. I use the Steinberger all the time now. I'm going to get another bass for studio work but I wouldn't want to use anything other than the Steinberger for live.
"I got the Steinberger in August or September towards the end of recording the album. I used it on a few tracks, for example 'Memories Fade'. The Steinberger was better than the rest, but recording bass guitar is difficult anyway. The reason I bought the Steinberger, although it's good but not perfect for recording, is for live work. It's forte is live work.
"First time I heard and saw the Steinberger was when Tony Levin played one — I tend to hear stuff first through Peter Gabriel.
"Initially the Steinberger was such a relief in the studio, compared to all the trouble we had. Looking back on it now they weren't brilliant bass sounds, but there was the fact that we could actually do it quite easily. The neck is brilliant: the same output from low on the E string to up high on the G string, it's an engineer's dream. We hardly used any eq or compression on it at all.
"In the studio it's a good clean sound, and most of the time it's perfectly adequate. But if you want a bass sound with an edge, to really cut through — a rougher bass sound — the Steinberger isn't really that capable of doing it.
"For live work I don't think you can beat it. I'm quite small, so there's no way I could cart an Alembic about on-stage. They're ridiculously heavy and very big. I much prefer shorter scale necks too, 'cos my fingers don't stretch that far.
"The Steinberger demands an amp with clarity. Initially I used a funny set-up that a guy designed for me with H/H MOS-FETs and a cabinet with two 12s and two 15s in it. It was a very meaty sound but I found it wasn't clear enough. So I bought a Trace Elliot 8x10 and I've not had any problems at all.
"The tuning is brilliant — more accurate and easier than ordinary basses.
"We've been using the Emulator live for a while, and on the next single we'll use it just for the bass — Emulated Steinberger. The single will probably be called 'The Way You Are'. The reason we started Emulating the Steinberger in the first place was because in 'Mad World' I only play a small amount, so it became a real pain to carry a bass guitar around just for a few notes. We ended up Emulating it so I didn't have to play in that number. We've got such a good sound that we decided to use it live in a lot of other things. The Steinberger has such clarity in the real bass end, and the Emulator gave it even more depth, while retaining the clarity.
"The pivot screw on the back is fantastic for movement, but it wore out very quickly, and I had to have a new bit designed to go on the back. The screw wore out after about three weeks of touring — very embarrassing, 'cos the guitar just dropped off.
"If it really wasn't worth the money then people wouldn't buy them — they're a business, and they sell it for what people are willing to pay for it. Every one is sold — it took me ages to get hold of one. It's not a guitar that beginners or people who don't have someone to back them can buy, which is a shame. That's the way it is, I s'pose.
"Sure, I think they're too expensive. But once you get to a certain stage you don't mind spending a lot of money because it helps you in the end. It is overpriced, but I don't regret spending the money on it at all, and I don't think anyone who's bought one will."
Feature by Tony Bacon
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