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Steinberger Prototype: The Missing Link

Steinberger Prototype: The Missing Link

How scouring the internet led me to the long-lost first Steinberger prototype— perhaps the most revolutionary bass of the last 40 years.

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 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.

Prior to finding the first composite-construction Steinberger prototype (which he affectionately refers to as “the platypus” or “missing link”), the author had never come across a Steinberger bass that was older than this early production L2.

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.

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.

In this late-’70s photo, Ned Steinberger holds his first carbon-fiber prototype—the same one recently discovered after more than 35 years.

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.

The first carbon-fiber Steinberger prototype featured a scapula-shaped appendage that swivels down to function as a leg rest, or up for use with a strap.

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.