Monday, June 14, 2010

The Steinberger.


I'll go on record right away: I believe the original Steinberger bass is so far the only true mile stone in bass history since the Fender Precision. There. I said it. OK, before you shoot me allow me to explain.

The Precision was truly revolutionary for the time. Compared to the double bass it was small; it could be wore like a guitar; it could be amplified; it had frets to make intonation perfect. In a world traditionally diffident of new ideas it surely took guts and faith. Leo Fender saw it when others couldn't.

Almost thirty years later, history repeats itself with the Steinberger. It was such a radical departure we'd be hard pressed to find just one similarity with basses of the time - aside from having a neck and four strings.

In the early 80's Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and a few others had basically stated what a bass should look like. Alembic and Co. had added great craftsmanship and combination of exotic woods and brass. The Japanese had introduced decent basses masses could afford. The environment was as challenging for the Steinberger as it had been for the Precision in the 50s.

The Steinberger seemed completely out of touch with reality and, even though it immediately gained a solid followers base, it also left many puzzled. I admit it, back then I didn't like it that much. What was there to like anyway? There were neither graceful lines nor exotic, contrasting woods. Heck! There was no wood, period.

Well, great things have this little peculiarity – either you love them from day one; or you're going to when you finally get it. Many years later, I finally got it.

The Steinberger take on bass.

Problem is, the Precision was designed as large guitar, basically underestimating physic, sound and ergonomic peculiarities of a bass. Everyone else followed suit, content at best to make their creation look different from the Fender. Ned Steinberger saw it otherwise.

Now that I think of it, my opening statement should have been more radical. Something along the line of: The
original Steinberger bass is the only true bass ever designed.
But you wouldn't have gotten this far, would you? The thing is, most of the obvious solutions that work on a guitar become rather a limitation on a bass. For the love of the game or lack of better options, we all adjusted to Fender's vision. But that doesn't mean it couldn't - and shouldn't - be improved upon.
I have elaborate on this point in my earlier post: The Headless Conundrum. If you really want to shoot me, please read that first.

The end of the bass guitar.
Two of the most important qualities
any great bass should feature are balance and stiffness. There are others, granted. A pint holder for example is a fine feature and a Facebook interface will soon become a must.

When it comes to balance, the extra weight of the headstock has always been a problem. Lets just say that without a headstock you get a shorter, better balanced instrument. Cool. Adieu headstock.

Without it one must find another place for the tuners. All previous attempts of moving the tuners, of part thereof, to the body had been clumsy and rather uninspired at best. Makers were basically using the same headstock tuners - or a smaller version of - at the bottom of the body. Things of the past. Nice memorabilia. But I can't believe some still do that today. I won't say whom, else Warwick might take offense.

This one, oh boy!, it's a masterpiece of ingenuity. If you open this thing you wonder what makes it work so well! It's so simple I nearly got pissed off at myself for not having invented it!

The bridge does its job with simple regulations of height and all. But the great achievement lies in the absolute precision and reliability of the system. Again, The Headless Conundrum digs deeper into this and it does wonders with insomnia.

At the end of the neck there is a clean anchor system where to secure the newly designed Steinberger double ball-end strings. It's fast, effective and modern.

Aside from aesthetic reasons, bodies tend to be large to offer mass, counterbalance the weight of neck/headstock protruding so far away from the center of gravity and to provide anchor points to strap the bass. With the new headless system and the stiffness of graphite the Steinberger could afford a much smaller body.

My feeling is that the shape had a lot to do also with the vision of producing something completely unorthodox. I like that touch of subtle arrogance. Why does the Steinberger looks like that? Because it can. Cool.

With a small body a new problem presents itself. Where to hang the strap? Some makers facing a similar question have simply used whatever anchoring point their design left available, sometimes with total disregard for balance, ergonomics and playability.

To that point, I just tested a bass designed like a Telecaster guitar sporting strap locks in the same position as the guitar's. Believe me, that thing is unplayable! Neck-dive would be a gross understatement and the first fret is half way to Mars. How can one make a bass that is so impossible to play? And G&L of all makers!

Look at the Steinberger's inspired simplicity. The center of the bass becomes the pivot point of the boomerang. To its extremities are the strap locks. When you strap it on, the bass instantly finds its neutral position.

Now let's twist the whole balance concept on its head. When we say 'balance' we think of a neck that doesn't dive. That's it. See? We are so used to getting used to limitations around us that every time something simply... er... works, it leaves us in awe. heck, shouldn't 'perfectly balanced' just be the bare minimum, the one feature we take for granted?

What if balance meant a whole new level of performance? Imagine you could hold the bass horizontally, then gradually your playing style shifts to a more diagonal position; at some point you go back to where you were or, why not?, all the way up, almost vertical. How cool would that be?

To do that on traditional basses you have to push or pull the neck to make the strap slide onto your shoulder and to the new position. But that cannot be done while playing. So basically, you adjust to the bass till you can move it.

The Steinberger instead follows your every move while your hands are busy playing! Effortlessly, flawlessly and without you even realizing it. The bass adjusts to you. There. Beat this.

And since we are on a roll, flip the bass and you'll see an ingenious leg rest that pops up when needed and disappear when it's not.

I also find very comfortable the retro fit jack socket. It's out of the way and there is no chance you can unplug it by stepping on the cable. Sure, we all secure the cable around the strap, but shouldn't a clever system fix that shortcoming instead? With this, who needs to fit a Neutrik jack?

Seriously though, this bass is a compendium of new solutions. The headless string retainer, the tuner/bridge, the strap system, the jack socket position, the leg rest, the graphite composite mold. There are more patents in here than in the latest i-phone.

Black diamond.

Graphite composites (epoxy resin reinforced with graphite to be precise) are very very stiff and reliable. One oft-heard complain is that graphite affects the sound. Actually it has a sound of its own. Which simply means building a system of parts around it to achieve the sound you have in mind. Just like you would with woods.

Some say that the feel is not like wood. Well, of course it doesn't feel like a satin finished neck. But you won't find much difference with a high gloss lacquered neck.

And it's black. Like Ford reportedly said: anyone can buy a Ford car in whichever colour they fancy. So long as it is black. (ps. There are actually a very few yellow and white rarities out there - Bergers, not Fords)

The electronics.

EMG. 'nough said. They are clean, precise, consistent. Players like them or not purely based on that. I like them. And I can already tell you who else likes them - studio and live sound engineers.

There are very few pick-up as easy to make sound great as EMG, even in the shittiest venue. They sound good with wood, they sound good with graphite. I bet they would sound good even on a air guitar. Controls are in line with the look: Vol/Balance/Tone. It doesn't play without battery. This is Sparta.

Living with it.

The neck is actually very thick - Fender addicts should be happy. But the action is fantastic and to find a dead note you'll have to shoot one yourself. I tend to prefer thinner necks, but I have adjusted easily and happily. Even an entire gig with it isn't tiring.

I had an initial resistance to such a small body as I am used to large ones - JayDee, Alembic and so on. To be fair, I never got fully used to it, but it doesn't bother me as much as the rest pleases me. Over time, I discovered that the upper end of the body makes for a very comfortable elbow rest when playing finger-style. Thanks to the boomerang thingy the 24th fret falls in a comfortable playing position. Of course, not having body wings helps too.

The sound is very big, clean and quite neutral, piano-like. It has great definition across the spectrum with terrific attack and longer sustain than a commercial break. It's a fantastic axe for slapping acrobatics, rendering even complex machine-gun stuff with clarity and articulation to die for.

Such a clean sound makes it very easy to personalize with pedals or studio gadgets. The two p-ups provide a fair amount of flexibility.

Some find the sound a bit cold. Frankly I think what they miss in the Steinberger is the Fender sound. The classic punchy, warm and tight sound of the F Jazz. So do I. Which is why the Steinberger is not my only bass. God knows, there is no such a thing like a do-it-all bass. And we like it that way, don't we all?

Leaving with it.

This bass gets into any car trunk easily and it doesn't take much room in the overhead compartment of a plane either! I am thinking of making a special gig bag to carry it on my bike. It travels the world easily in a soft gig bag - which would frighten any other high end bass owner. Wear and tear is a joke. This thing can cross the Middle East and come back alive. It's a nearly indestructible instrument, with a neck that has the arrogance of not even mounting a truss-rod. The one pictured here is a workaholic 1982.

Get off the plane-go to the gig venue-plug it in-whack it. Fuck humidity. Sometimes I even forget to check if it's still in tune.

Double ball-end strings might be a bit tricky to find. You can't just walk into any shop and expect to find them in the exact gauge you like. I buy them in bulk online without a problem - GHS makes them, among others.

Headless basses nowadays have switched to a hybrid string retainer system which allows to use both Steinberger and traditional strings. If I'm not wrong Moses sells the same system for S'berger.

Wrapping it up.

Great ideas are in the air. We all come across them once in a while. Most of us ignore them; few toy with them and eventually give up. For a true idea to see the light it takes someone visionary enough to get it and mad enough to believe in it. If that happens at all.

When you think of it, fitting the tuners at the bottom of a bass, using alternative materials to wood and going headless weren't exactly brand new ideas. Some had tried before, no one successfully. No one really believed they were more than gimmicks obviously.

The Steinberger is not to everyone taste. It never was and probably never wanted to be. But it has opened the door to a brand new approach to bass building, breathing new life into an industry that is paradoxically so wiry of new ideas.

Today, makers experiment with a variety of materials, including metal. The headless system is here to stay - albeit still in a sort of limbo. Would this Renaissance have ever happened without the Steinberger? I believe not.

Thanks for reading


ps: It is. In tune. I mean, the bass. When I check.

In a Nutshell:
+ Revolutionary. Perfect action for life. Always in tune.
Big sound. Indestructible.
- look and sound not to everyone taste. Hard to find.

Interview to Ned Steinberger.
Steinberger trivia.
The new official Steinberger website.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Building the uber-J. Part Seven.

A few touches before the plunge.

This is taking longer than I initially anticipated. Considering the five weeks I had given myself when I started this project I am off the mark by just four months. Blame it on work, forcing me to leave the country already twice from the beginning of the year... blame it on this weather, too good to pass a weekend or two by the seaside...blame it on the financial crisis, making us believe that there are more important things to do than building the uber-J. Bollocks.

Anyway, here's where we are now. I have roughly shaped the neck, glued the fingerboard and finally reshaped that hideously bulky heel.

For now I have shaped it slightly more slanted on the lower part, to add extra space for the left hand - I'm really becoming obsessed with this. You'll see from the close-up picture that is still needs some fine sanding. never ends....

The three holes are in fact only marking the position of the knobs. Eventually that area will be routed for the rear mounted electronics.

At this stage you can see the truss rod slot, the fingerboard and, more to the point, the binding.
Eventually, I settled on Maple....on a Rock Maple neck...on a Birdseye maple FB....Yeah, it's nearly invisible if you're not the one holding the bass, I know....

But I like its understated nature. It's yet another tribute to the mid '70s Fender Jazz. Only, this one is Maple, not plastic. It ain't a uber-J for nothing

I am shaping the headstock in line with the body style, shaving enough veneer for the maple to show. I will probably work on those curves a bit more than that. But you get the idea.

I have, as you might notice, blended the design of the J's headstock with that of another masterpiece and personal favorite - the Music man Stingray.

I have long admired Leo Fender's ability to stay true to the basics of the original J headstock design - as much as he legally could anyway - while making it more compact and pleasingly balanced with the body.

When I'm done with mine the two designs should be fairly obvious.

I am planning to make a cover for the truss rod slot. I'm still working on it. Any ideas?

The second picture shows what's going to happen to the back of the headstock. I will shape the profile again to match the rounded, soft lines of the front and body.

I regret I didn't take a picture of the neck. How could I forget?? Anyway, it's still a long way to go. It will be a thin, rather flat neck.
In this picture you should be able to see that the neck scarf is more akin to that of a tilt back headstock
and more pronounced. I find that very comfortable to 'feel' when I'm getting to the first fret without having to look at the neck.

I have also lowered that point a bit compared to the usual position so as the thumb will feel it when the first finger is near the fret....does that make sense?

Two more weeks away and I'll be back to finish this. From now on I'll get to the very heart of the project, where the biggest departure from the original FJ takes place. It will also be, I believe, the most controversial one. Stay tuned.