There's not much you can do with four strings, you might argue. Bearing in mind how much Leo Fender got right when he introduced the concept of the bass guitar to an unsuspecting world in 1951, it seems like a fairly reasonable argument. There's little doubt that bass guitar playing has improved and developed in leaps and bounds, from the first hints that melody could spring from the rhythmic thumps associated with early styles, to the percussive thwacking and ringing melodic changes of the funksters and beyond. But what have the bass guitar makers been up to? Just how much has changed in the bass guitarist's instrument?
An instrument that does seem to depart radically from previous conventions is the Steinberger Bass, which eagle-eyed readers will have seen in a news page and in an America report in previous issues of E&MM. I can now report back to base, having gone out to sunny Romford to try the instrument. Despite initial shrieks of dismay, I can say with some certainty that the Steinberger is quite a little stunner.
It looks odd, and if you've seen those pictures of it you won't have forgotten it. There's no headstock at all, and the token body is barely large enough to take the pickups, controls, and bridge. I found myself thinking of the Vox Winchester, a strange thing from the strange 1960s, and similarly small-bodied. There was also, more recently, that horrific Colt gun-shaped guitar with a miniscule body — that, too, seems to have been the resounding failure it so richly deserved to be. But a bass with no head-stock? My brain's patent department could come up with no legal precedents. And it's not just the looks of the Steinberger that stun — the bass dispenses totally with wood: it is of an all-plastic construction.
Electric guitar makers have toyed with thermoplastics for many years now — as early as the 1950s when some Hagstrom guitars boasted an 'aerylite' fingerboard — but this is the first totally plastic bass I've come across. Ovation is probably the best-known maker to use plastics, in their fibre-glass and polyester resin round-backed acoustic-electric series, and more recently in their solid electric UK11. Some experiments have fared less well, like Dan Armstrong's 1960s see-through Lucite-bodied guitars and basses (see also Mik Sweeney's comments on Armstrong plastics in the Classix Nouveaux interview in the June 1982 issue of E&MM), and Peavey abandoned their tests on 'Sustanite' (urethane and styrene) when they realised that escalating oil prices had robbed them of their intention of making plastic guitars more cheaply than wooden ones.
Ned Steinberger, designer of the Steinberger Bass, is described in his New York company's literature as 'an industrial engineer'. Young Ned had apparently made a conventional wooden-bodied bass for fellow New York company Spector in 1977, became interested in the bass guitar, and went on to consider the instrument more closely. After three years of experimentation, the Bass was finally completed, after Steinberger had realised that the all-important constituent of an electric bass is the neck, and that a headstock slapped on the end of it is unnecessary and likely to cause nasty colouration in the eventual sounds. Steinberger has been quoted assaying, "Solidity of a stringed instrument is the key to sustain, clarity and brilliance," (Guitar World, November 1980) and in his chosen materials he seems to have clinched his argument.
The thermoset material Steinberger uses is an epoxy resin reinforced with glass-fibres and carbon-fibres, from which the one-piece neck and 'body' are compression-moulded in fibreglass dies, incorporating all the necessary cavities at this stage. A two-octave phenolic fibre fingerboard with conventional fretting is added separately, and the Bass is given a hard coat of polyster gel finish to toughen it up. The reinforced epoxy is said to give up to 12,000,000 psi elastic modulus 'in critical sections', and certainly the resulting instrument is as stiff and tough as you'll find.
And it's light, too — I didn't have my handy Acme scales with me, but I'm assured that the Steinberger weighs in at just over 8lbs, around a pound lighter than your average forest-derived Precision. Yet another nice touch is the instrument's strap-holding projection, a plastic (natch) strut which pivots at the instrument's centre of gravity and is clutched to stay just where you make it stay. There's also a plastic knee-rest you can fit on to stop the instrument slipping around if you choose to play the bass sitting down. Even before you play a note, then, it's clear that someone at Steinberger is thinking clearly and logically about all this, despite how strange it all seems at first.
What about tuning, I hear you cry? Well, the strings are locked at the nut end and fed beyond the bridge into the tuning mechanisms which thread directly on to each string. Each large knurled tuner thus controls its string with a remarkable 40:1 ratio gear — needless to say, tuning is almost frighteningly accurate. The bridge itself is of a standard quality which will be familiar in operation to most bassists — once set, the intonation and height are locked by a couple of screws. The strings themselves can be of normal type — that is with a ball-end at one end and the other end clean. With this sort of string, the clean end (usually wrapped around archaic machine heads) is locked into what remains of the nut by a special headless Allen screw, while this is perhaps easy to lose, it does enable you effectively to fit any string of your particular choice to the Steinberger Bass. If you like Rotosound strings, as many bassists seem to, then you will be pleased to hear that Rotosound have made a special double ball-end string — (that's right, a ball-end at each end!) — one end of which slots more easily into the nut. With either a normal or a double ball-end string, the tuning mechanism mentioned receives the ball-end.
Standard pickups on the Steinberger are EMG (an American make which may not be familiar to you), and on the two-pickup review sample each unit apparently had an incorporated pre-amplifier powered onboard by a single PP3 battery. Controlling the sound were three marked knobs set up like those on a Fender Jazz Bass, i.e. an individual volume control for each pickup and an overall tone control giving, I would guess, somewhere in the region of 15dB cut and boost.
So what we have here is a bass guitar unlike any other bass guitar you've ever played. The impression that comes across is that the bizarre aspects of the Steinberger are, in fact, its greatest virtues. The materials are odd, certainly, but one wonders how many competitors who laughed at Charles Kaman's Ovation round-backs in 1966 are still smiling now. Steinberger's materials are odd, sure, but there is a method in the madness.
It's also very odd not to have a headstock. Once again, one has to concur that there is no harm done by removing it, and while it would obviously require a headstock-equipped Steinberger to test the complete validity of the company's no-deadspots claims, the headless beast as it is delivers a clear, powerful, sustained, and uncoloured signal. What more could a bassist want?
My forewarning of the technology involved led me to some preconceptions of how the thing would sound. I figured it must lose some of that wooden warmth so beloved by Fender fans. Not so — there is warmth there, although one can tie up a considerable amount of time exploiting the devastating top and sustain that is inherent to the instrument. I was determined to catch the Steinberger out — I even ran painstakingly up every single fret, two octaves on each string, in a vain attempt to locate a deadspot. Not one — and the thing was, each note seemed perfectly equal in tone and power to its predecessor and its follower. Thus the bass responded beautifully to any slight changes of playing attack and speed.
One rather large problem facing Soundwave, the sole U.K. suppliers and trade distributors, is the enormous price of £950 (inc. VAT). Yes, isn't it a lot! I've spied rich chaps on this side of the pond like Pete Briquette and Tony Levin with the device, and there would seem to be a demand at that end of the market. But, bring the price crashing down, and the Steinberger could be a world-beater. With things as they are, it's no surprise that there are copies already in the offing, with Kramer, at least, being mentioned as a likely source. Mass production would seem to be one of Steinberger's goals — do let's have products of this quality that the masses can afford. In the meantime, only bassists with Top-20 singles need apply.
For more information contact Soundwave, (Contact Details).
Review by Tony Bacon
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