The first composite Steinberger prototype used off-the-shelf, open-gear tuners in a staggered array on the end of the body.
We could also see the influence of Stuart Spector in many areas: The brass nut was a dead giveaway, because Ned later decided to use a zero fret. The bass also appeared to have an adjustable truss rod, which is standard on most wood-necked instruments, though Ned determined it was unnecessary and removed it from his final design.
Perhaps the most unusual feature was an appendage at the base of the body that held four conventional bass tuners. Obviously, Ned had not yet designed his own tuning system, so he merely incorporated off-the-shelf tuning machines. The pickups were also unusual—they looked homemade, and therefore were probably from the period before Ned began his association with Rob Tuner at EMG pickups.
Needless to say, Jeff and I were thrilled. We felt we’d uncovered the long-missing “platypus”—the one-of-a-kind original Ned Steinberger prototype bass! But the real proof came when we sent our photos to the man himself. Jeff shot some basic photos, I composed a letter, and we sent them off to Ned at his office, which is now in Nobleboro, Maine. The following day, I phoned Ned. This is the conversation that ensued:
Me: Ned, did you receive the photos and e-mail that I sent you yesterday?
Ned: Yes I did, Don. This is quite amazing! I sold this bass to Steve Freidman in about 1979, and I haven’t seen it since. It has aged and changed a little bit over time, but it appears to be pretty much intact. Hopefully, the same could be said about me.
Me: Where did you build this bass?
Ned: This bass was designed and fabricated at the Brooklyn Woodworkers Co-op, where Stuart Spector was also a member. As a furniture designer, I was naturally intrigued with the electric guitars and basses that Stuart was building. Along with his associate, Billy Thomas, Stuart taught me everything I knew about electric basses at that time.
Me: How did you come up with this unusual design?
Ned: I remember watching the first Star Wars movie—which was the latest thing at the time—and seeing the futuristic bar scene, with all of the exotic characters from around the galaxy, boozing and listening to the band. The band was playing what looked like Fender-type guitars and basses, which had been designed in the 1940s and 1950s—well before the advent of the space age. This struck me as all wrong, and it got me to thinking that it would be exciting to design more modern-looking instruments for the future.
Me: Where does this bass fit into the evolution of your designs?
Ned: This bass was the very first instrument that I molded from carbon fiber. I finished it around 1977. I made only this one bass [this way], and the plaster cast for it is long gone, so this one is—and will remain—a oneof- a-kind instrument. The neck and body were molded as a single, primary structure of rigid, continuous fiber that runs from the headpiece to the tuners. The mold was made with high sides so that the fiber could be saturated with resin as it lay in the mold. Wooden molding blocks were clamped down into the mold to squeeze out the excess resin and to form the top surfaces of the part. The thin, molded-fiberglass cover plate screws onto this structure and carries the electronics in a small pod beneath the cover. It has a phenolic fretboard and conventional frets. The headpiece and fully adjustable locking bridge were fabricated in aluminum by Bob Kretchmar, a great machinist located in Brooklyn. The original finish was in black lacquer.
Me: How does this bass compare to your final production version?
Ned: This instrument has most of the features that would eventually become identified with the Steinberger bass, including the contoured pivot plate molded of fiberglass that rotates so the bass can be played at any angle. Key differences are that it has conventional tuners and virtually no body. It also has an adjustable truss rod, unlike the production models that followed.
Me: What brand of pickups are these?
Ned: The pickups were custom-wound locally. This was before I had discovered EMG pickups. I really don’t remember much about the control circuit, but I’m pretty sure it was very basic. The volume control location and both knobs were changed at some point, I think for the better.
Me: Thank you, Ned. I’m amazed at how much you can still remember about a bass that you built almost 35 years ago!
In this shot, you can see the first prototype’s two strap buttons and chromed hardware.
Ned: I’ve just sent you some photos of the instrument when it was new, including one of me holding it. This bass has always been one of my favorites, and I’m so happy it has finally resurfaced. Nice work, Don.
I’ve played dozens and dozens of Steinberger basses over the last 30 years, so I have a pretty good perspective when it comes to being able to evaluate the prototype. There are similarities with production Steinbergers, as well as differences, neither of which is surprising. Because it’s composed of the same carbon-graphite material as production models, the feel of the neck is about the same as what you’d get from store-bought Steinbergers. The accuracy and sustain are also similar, again due to the consistent construction techniques. The main difference I noticed is the sound of the pickups. Virtually every Steinberger bass I’ve played had factory-installed active EMGs, but as Ned had said in our phone conversation, the pickups in the platypus were hand wound, one-off units. In contrast to the famous plugged-in L2 sound, this bass doesn’t quite have the deep richness of tone and high-fidelity output. It doesn’t sound bad, but it’s certainly not as good, either. However, I still believe it’s of such high quality that it could perform quite well in the studio or onstage exactly as it stands today. That Ned’s very first carbon-graphite bass is that good is truly a testament to his incredible vision.
Locating and securing this long-lost prototype bass was an exciting adventure. I felt like I had rescued a missing treasure— like I had happened upon Les Paul’s Epiphone “Log” or Leo Fender’s first Esquire. I’m thrilled to be able to share the excitement and satisfaction of this event with other musicians who respect and appreciate Ned Steinberger’s genius.
In closing, I’d like to thank Jeff Babicz for his helpful perspective and excellent recollection of design details from so long ago, Robert Tompkins for his fantastic photographic skills, Hap Kuffner for his knowledge and moral support, and, of course, Ned Steinberger at NS Design for inspiring me with his wonderful instruments.