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I’ve been an avid Steinberger collector for many years, so I’m always on the hunt for rare and unusual iterations of the headless, graphite-and-carbon fiber basses and guitars that Ned Steinberger debuted in 1979—and that subsequently garnered fame in the hands of players such as Rush’s Geddy Lee and Edward Van Halen.
Ned is not a player himself, but he got interested in the world of instrument design through noted bass luthier Stuart Spector. The two began a collaboration, and the experience sparked Ned’s interest in basses. Because Ned was not a musician, he had no experience or preconceived notions of how a bass should look or perform. Arguably, this clean-slate approach was largely responsible for Ned’s early success—just as it had been for Leo Fender’s in the ’50s and ’60s. Leo relied primarily on customer feedback for his design adjustments and modifications. With these notable examples in mind (and plenty of others to draw from), one might argue that not being a musician can have a lot of benefits for a bright, innovative luthier—rather than looking at things the way they have been or “ought” to be done, the builder can observe problems and brainstorm solutions that aren’t hindered by tradition.
Steinberger Sound was a relatively small manufacturer located in Newburgh, New York. From 1976 until 1991, I owned a guitar shop about 20 miles away in Poughkeepsie, and I was an authorized Steinberger dealer throughout the ’80s and ’90s (I now work at headlessusa.com a vintage Steinberger dealer). Since I lived so close to the original shop, I often visited it—sometimes to introduce an artist to Ned, and sometimes to bring a customer in to order a custom instrument.
Over the course of my Steinberger hunting years, I’ve discovered that they built a lot of custom and one-off instruments— a fact that’s a double edged sword for a collector. It makes it exciting to find a rare and unusual piece, but it also makes it rather expensive to acquire one.
A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to find and purchase one of the earliest production Steinberger basses—the earliest I had encountered up to that point. Most of the details corresponded with the production version of the original L2 bass, but there were definitely a few prototype-like features, such as the lack of both a serial number and a cover for the 9V battery compartment. It was apparently one of the first half-dozen or so basses that were distributed to some of the world’s foremost players. I’ve since heard that basses like this one were loaned to such legendary bassists as fusion god Jaco Pastorius, the Stones’ Bill Wyman, session ace Leland Sklar, and the Dixie Dregs’ Andy West.
Unique features on this early production L2 include the pickup covers’ large, embossed EMG logos, as well as the visible hex heads securing the front plate.
I’d heard rumors over the years about a missing Steinberger bass prototype. I encountered a photograph of a bizarre-looking bass that appeared to have a composite neck but also seemed to have a headstock—only at the body end. The story I heard was that this bass had been Ned’s very first attempt at a compositeconstruction bass, but unconfirmed rumors floating around the Steinberger community said it had been lost or stolen at the time, and that it had not been seen again since. This meant it had been missing in action for almost 35 years! This tale reminded me of stories of the elusive Gibson Moderne guitar, of which a confirmed example has never (yet) been found.
Now that I have a business dedicated to my love of all things Steinberger, many customers contact me directly when they have a Steinberger guitar or bass they are interested in selling. But I still spend plenty of time surfing the web—usually eBay, Craigslist, or the many internet forums on guitars and basses.
In early August of 2011, I came across an internet listing for a supposed Steinberger bass that looked unlike any Steinberger I had ever encountered. In fact, the seller apologized in the ad for even using the term “Steinberger” in the title, because he was fairly convinced it wasn’t one of Ned’s designs. He claimed to have found it at an auction for repossessed storage rental units in Texas. He posted lots of photos and described it as very unusual looking, but said it “sounded great.” I emailed and asked him to contact me so we could discuss the bass in more detail. After discussing it for a few minutes, we agreed on a very reasonable price—well under $1000! I paid him via PayPal and asked him to send me the tracking number when the bass was on its way.
Of course, I was totally thrilled—I was fairly sure I’d just secured a rare Steinberger prototype at a very low price. But as the days passed with no reply and no tracking number from the seller, I began to worry. On the third day, I emailed him again to see what was going on. A few hours later, he replied and said he’d been combing the internet and discovered a photograph that convinced him it was, in fact, a very rare Steinberger. He told me he wasn’t willing to honor his original agreement and would refund my money. I was, of course, quite upset— I’d lost the yeti of bassdom. The missing link had slipped through my hands, never to be seen again. When I asked the seller what he planned to do, he said he planned to post it on eBay for an outrageously astronomical sum.
Some of the most obvious design differences between this first Steinberger bass prototype and production models are the rough texture of the composite body and the blade humbuckers.
I called my friend Jeff Babicz to discuss the situation, and we agreed I should still try to secure the bass. Luckily, the seller had spent some time on my website, so I approached him with an offer. In a nutshell, I said, “As you can see, I’m a collector—one of the few people who spends serious money on these instruments.” I made him a very generous offer, and after some negotiating, we finally agreed on a price. Considering what had happened previously, I didn’t feel confident the sale had truly been finalized until I received the tracking number the following day.
The day the package arrived, I brought the sealed carton to Jeff ’s design studio for the unveiling. Jeff slowly unwrapped the layers of bubble wrap to reveal an incredible sight. Because he’d worked at the original Steinberger factory for 10 years, Jeff recognized Ned’s work and design style immediately. After looking it over, he had no doubt the new specimen was a Steinberger. So many of the features were similar in concept to later L2 basses that there was no way it could be anything else. The most obvious giveaway was the carbon-graphite neck-throughbody design. But the bass also had the same phenolic fretboard that was used on later Steinberger instruments, and the iconic swiveling pivot-plate was also there, as well as the fiberglass faceplate.