Lou Reed, Eddie Van Halen, Reeves Gabrels and Blue Öyster Cult's Buck Dharma have all wielded the sleek, lightweight but heavy-hitting guitars created by Ned Steinberger.
The Princeton, New Jersey-born Steinberger is an inventor in the classic American sense — a guy who found a way to build a better mousetrap, or at least a wildly different one. Simply put, he is known for developing guitars, basses, violins and cellos sans traditional headstocks and made of material other than the slabs of mahogany, maple and other hardwoods typically used to create these musical tools. Steinberger is also a whammy bar innovator. And he's done all of that while making designs with high aesthetic values, as well.
Steinberger was born in 1948. His mother was a flute player and his father a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Ned set up his first wood shop at age 13 and opted for college at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he majored in sculpture. In 1975, he moved his one-man furniture-building business into a Brooklyn space shared with Stuart Spector, a bass maker.
As their friendship grew, Steinberger began creating bass designs. The first instrument they produced was the Spector NS bass, a more conventional looking instrument than Steinberger's subsequent designs, but with elegant, long curves and stylish looks.
His first true innovation came next — the headstock-less bass. Steinberger began experimenting with graphite-reinforced epoxy to reduce the weight of the bass while still retaining interesting tonal properties. As he worked, he realized that the headstock was not essential, and he became convinced that placing the tuners on the body would provide better balance.
The debut of his L2 bass in 1979 was widely celebrated in the musical instrument industry, and while some players still eschew his non-traditional designs, King Crimson's Tony Levin, The Who's John Entwistle and Andy West of the Dixie Dregs immediately embraced the L2.
Steinberger's next step was founding the Steinberger Sound Corporation and patenting the L2. While developing his rocket-like early line of guitars, he received the Industrial Designers Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America for the L2, which Time Magazine proclaimed one of the five best designs of 1981.
The next year, his GL prototype guitar was introduced. From there, his business accelerated. Steinberger moved from his workshop to a Newburgh, NY factory site to go into full production. Refinements in his graphite-based guitar and bass designs resulted in the XL-2 bass and GL-2 guitars, but his next revolutionary act was the introduction of the TransTrem locking whammy bar system.
Locking tremolo bars were introduced by Floyd Rose in 1979 and were already standard issue for a slew of metal players, in particular. But Steinberger's bar was an entirely new beast. Steinberger had noted that tuning and intonation issues were endemic to radical application of whammies. In 1984, he unveiled his solution. The TransTrem permitted players to set a controllable — and lockable — level of pitch change so that all six strings can maintain specific pitch relationships while the bar moves. So, in addition to diving and rising effects, Steinberger's bar permits modulation. The TransTrem immediately captured the interest of Eddie Van Halen, who took a Steinberger with the versatile TransTrem on the road.
In 1985, Steinberger upgraded his line's electronics, tapping the expertise of Washington, New Jersey's HAZ Labs, and Roland guitar controller circuitry was introduced in Steinberger guitars, allowing more effective synthesizer interface. In 1986, he began using EMG pickups and introduced a powerhouse version of the GL, with three hot active pickups and the TransTrem.
That same year, Steinberger decided he wanted to return to the challenges of designing instruments, rather than running a growing business. He sold Steinberger Sound to the Gibson Guitar Corporation. Nonetheless, he continues to play an important role in the Gibson-owned Steinberger line, as a design consultant and advisor.
His innovations, of course, have kept coming. The bass TransTrem was next, as was the introduction of a maple bodied guitar — the GM — as part of a quest to create more traditional tones, in 1987. The next year, Steinberger created the first left-handed TransTrem-equipped guitar for The Cars' Elliott Easton.
The electric violin arrived in Steinberger's resume of innovations in 1990 and was quickly adopted by a host of artists, including Laurie Anderson, who remains a prominent endorser. Shortly thereafter, cellos and double basses also became part of Steinberger's creative endeavors.
Steinberger relocated from New York to Nashville, Gibson Guitar's home base, in 1992. Since then he has continued to refine his instrument designs, exploring new body lines and developing new composite materials to blend the tonal qualities of wood and graphite. The current Spirit, Synapse and Z-Series models of guitar bearing the Steinberger name are sterling examples of his most modern work. Likewise the Spirit and Synapse basses, instruments that retain Steinberger's classic looks and easy playability, and incorporate recent design innovations.
The inventor has also continued to improve his TransTrem system. The latest model, the TT3, can transpose to five different keys in half-step increments. It allows chords to be raised and lowered in perfect pitch. Much of Steinberger's current work focuses on his violins, cellos and double basses. He has adopted a trademarked Polar pickup system that's ideal for bow and pizzicato playing. And he continues to collaborate with other designers. Working with New York City's David Gauge, he developed and trademarked the Realist transducer pickup for acoustic guitars and other instruments.
Ned Steinberger looked at traditional guitar designs and said, "Why does it have to be this way?" That is the mark of an innovator — the mark of a revolutionary!