An Interview with Ned Steinberger, by James Reilly.
I met Ned Steinberger through Emmett Chapman. Emmett and Ned had collaborated on a new instrument: the NS Stick. My job was to interview Ned and put together an article about the NS Stick for the Chapman Stick Website. The interview went great. Ned was forthright, candid, informative and had a great story to tell. Needless to say, when the opportunity to do this project and delve deeper into Ned’s story presented itself I needed little convincing.
I started with a few simple questions: What makes Ned Steinberger different? What has made his work continually rise to the top in an already overcrowded world of musical instrument makers? Why do so many other manufacturers, like Gibson, C.F. Martin, Stuart Spector and Emmett Chapman seek out Ned’s input when designing their own products?
What I found was a family man in Maine, ready to talk about his work, his art and his life.
Ned’s contribution to instrument design is on the same level as Leo Fender’s and Les Paul’s. I see two categories of designers: one modifies other people’s designs. The other sees instrument design as a process, can see their historical place in that process, can then draw upon contemporary tools and create instruments that not only reflect the times in which they were created but also lead to the creation of new music, not simply the recreation of old.
Leo Fender, Les Paul and Ned Steinberger fall clearly into the second category. Ned’s designs have drawn on the past, made use of the present and lend themselves to the creation of great new music for the future.
Before he created musical instruments, Ned designed furniture. From the outset, he was able to look at musical instruments not only in terms of sound and tone but also with the eye of someone dedicated to form and comfort. If you’re sitting in a chair you don’t want to be thinking about the chair. You want to be relaxed, comfortable, enjoying the conversation you’re having with the people around you or lost in the book you’re reading. When you’re playing a musical instrument shouldn’t you be oblivious to the weight hanging around your neck or the angle you have to hold your hands to fret and pick the strings? Ned asked those questions.
A series of events impossible to predict led Ned to Stuart Spector and into the world of instrument design. The rest is, as they say, history. I picked up Ned’s story at a woodworkers co-op in Brooklyn and we went from there.
Jim Reilly: Let’s start with the co-op in New York. How did you end up there? Who was there? What was going on?
Ned Steinberger: I was working for a cabinetmaker in Brooklyn. We made very beautiful custom cabinets for rich people in New York. I did that for a few years with Lee Taylor, my mentor at the time and one of the most talented woodworkers I have ever met.
But, in a freak accident, the wall behind our shop just collapsed one day and the building was crushed. There was no more shop. We had a fire sale to auction off equipment and supplies that had survived. Some of the people who came to look at the equipment were members of the Brooklyn Woodworkers Co-op.
This was a communal organization that combined the limited resources of a small group of woodworkers to share the expense of a loft space and equipment, so that each person could pursue their own business interests.
That’s how I got started there.
JR: What year would that have been?
NS: That would have been 1976. I was 27 years old.
JR: Were places like that common back then?
NS: No. Certainly communal, co-operative efforts were very much the thing but that woodworking co-op was fairly unique. I’m sure there were others across the country but we didn’t have any contact. It wasn’t a spiffy operation, just a bunch of people with very little money getting together and trying to do what they wanted to do.
JR: And you were building cabinets?
NS: I continued to build custom cabinets to make a living but I was pursuing my furniture design work, primarily designing chairs. I was a member of the co-op for a couple of years, then I got a job working for the Thonet Furniture Company in York Pennsylvania.
So I was away for a year. I had been doing furniture design but, by that point, my heart had really been won by musical instruments.
JR: How did that happen?
NS: Stuart Spector. He was an inspiration. He was working on his own, with his own business, making and selling musical instruments, electric guitars. I wasn’t a player but I certainly enjoyed music and there was this man making instruments.
It was very exciting to me to be part of the music world in someway and to be contributing to music. Aside from the technical challenges involved, which interested me in and of themselves, musical instruments to me are the antithesis of bombs. Nothing could be more satisfying to me than building musical instruments. It was something I had never thought of but I was instantly attracted to it.
Stuart, at the time, was making guitars and getting feedback from dealers that the market for custom-made instruments was more bass oriented. They wanted basses. I got involved with Stuart developing a design for basses that would be viable. I took it on as a personal challenge and it worked out. With Stuart’s help I was able to put something together that still works today.
JR: Yes, you hit a homerun with your first swing. Tell me about that first instrument. What made it work?
NS: The ergonomic considerations were paramount. I had come from designing commercial seating, so I was very conscious of how a piece of equipment or a piece of furniture would actually interact with the human body.
JR: Is that what you brought to instrument design that others didn’t bring?
NS: Well, it gave me a twist on it. Certainly people had ergonomic considerations in the design of instruments since the Stone Age, there’s nothing new in that.
I came to the process very ignorant of much of what was going in the development of electric guitars and what was available in electric basses and guitars. I came at it from a very different starting point. I was asking myself: ‘How is this instrument hanging on the human body, how is it sitting on someone’s knee? What can I do to make it more playable, more comfortable’?
It seemed clear to me that an instrument is a tool and a tool should become a part of a person as much as possible. The control and the experience should be something that is natural and comfortable. If the instrument is really performing optimally, then the artist should really be unaware of it. That’s the way I look at it.
I was trying to move in that direction. In the case of an electric bass guitar, the first thing I found was that it was neck heavy. People accept it, but it’s neck heavy on your knee, it’s neck heavy on your shoulder. That is the number one ergonomic issue with an electric bass guitar.
That’s what led me eventually to the headless design. The first Spector instruments were equipped with a small weight at the very back of the body to compensate for the weight of the headstock. Also, the strap location was not all the way at the back end of the instrument, which created more of a balance between the neck and the body.
These were ergonomic considerations that were immediate, right up front, when I started the project. These were ways to get it more balanced.
JR: What about the different curved body shape you used?
NS: The curved body was a play between a shape on the front of the instrument that would be more interesting than just a flat surface and a shape on the back of the instrument that would be more comfortable against the chest and stomach. The curves started to interact and it became an exploration in shape to try and get something that had a nice aesthetic feel to it but was also very comfortable.
JR: Did you strap basses on and walk around? Did you talk to players? How did come to these conclusions?
NS: I strapped basses on and immediately found them neck heavy. Again, I’m not a player so I had to sort of imagine what they would be like in the real world.
JR: I find that fascinating. Do most instrument makers start out as players?
NS: Most, but Leo Fender was not a player and he is, no doubt, the greatest electric bass and guitar innovator we’ve ever seen. Those are good steps to follow in.
JR: Yes, but then you’ve got Les Paul on the other side of the coin. He was a fantastic player.
NS: Right. I think most people come from Les Paul’s side. They’re players but they have a great feel for invention at the same time and combine their expertise playing with ideas abut how they can change and improve their instruments. That’s how most of the evolution of instruments has occurred.
Although I don’t think Stradivarius was known as a player. There’s a long tradition of builders and craftspeople that are not accomplished players on the instruments they make.
JR: How long were you building instruments and furniture? How long did you wear both hats?
NS: I continued to design furniture through 1980.
As soon as the Steinberger Sound Company was established there was no doing anything else. There was barely time to eat and sleep, much less have some other kind of professional activity.
JR: How was the transition made from building one instrument for Stuart Spector to founding the Steinberger Sound Company?
NS: I was looking down at the Spector NS bass and all of a sudden it just dawned on me that the basic balance issue I was first confronted with would be completely solved by taking the weight of the tuners off the end of the neck and putting them on the body.
Once I had that idea, you could say I became intrigued with it, you could say obsessed with it and so I followed it. I was committed to following it to whatever end it would lead me because I felt that the headless design was just a fundamentally better way to make a bass.
Since those days I’ve come to see how subjective the evaluation of a musical instrument is, both in terms of tone and the way it feels. The way things are traditionally is of great value to people, so to come up with a headless instrument that balances ‘perfectly’ by one standard may not be a good balance by a more traditional standard. What’s better or worse is very hard to sort out in musical instruments. But I saw it as better. For an electric bass guitar, it’s hard to beat the logic of the headless design. I still believe in it very, very much.
JR: Did you start with a standard bass design and pare down from there or did you start with nothing and build up?
NS: The headless bass was pretty much designed from nothing up. The way I approached it was to say: ‘What is it? O.k., it’s a neck with strings, a pickup, a tuner and a way to hold it on your shoulder or on your knee. It’s not a body, that’s optional.’
JR: But the NS Spector designs were the other way around?
NS: The NS Spector designs had a lot more given to them. It was an informal arrangement, Stuart and I are good friends and were friends then, but still Stuart was the client so I designed it for him.
The headless model was strictly blue-sky oriented. There were no constraints that anyone imposed on it. Once I got to that point I was really interested in taking it as far as I could.
Originally it was pretty much just a stick. That evolved into the Steinberger bass, which has a very small body.
JR: Tell me how you went from this idea looking down at the NS Spector bass to an actual finished product that was ready for players to play.
NS: My first attempt was totally inadequate. I had some ideas about being able to maintain the vibrations that the strings impart into the neck and body, that by keeping the neck and body minimal the energy transmitted by the string into the body would be transferred back to the strings in an ongoing cycle that would provide good sustain for each note.
That proved to be wholly wrong. Several months of work building a prototype to prove my ideas were wholly wrong was a tough experience and was almost the end of the project right there. I took that first prototype and threw it in the corner.
But the idea of the headless design stayed with me. I pulled the prototype out of the corner, began to experiment and asked why this thing wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do.
It was obvious that I didn’t understand how it worked, or I wouldn’t have built it wrong. So I needed to think about this thing again and I needed to understand it. I thought that if I could learn to understand what was wrong, I might be able to figure out what would be right. So I started to experiment.
The most informative experiment was taking the instrument and clamping it to a very rigid, heavy structure. This happened to be a very heavy workbench I had at the time. I clamped it very solidly to that, but in a way so you could still play it, you could still play all the notes and hear what they sounded like.
The sound of the instruments was reversed 180 degrees. This same instrument that had poor sustain, a great deal of irregularity from note to note with dead spots all over, a wimpy, disappointing kind of sound was transformed into an instrument that had tremendous sustain, a lot of brilliance and clarity, just a wonderful tone.
JR: Just by making it rigid?
NS: By making it both rigid and heavy. It was a big workbench that weighed 150 pounds and had C-clamps all over it.
JR: What was that first prototype made out of?
NS: It was made out of maple but it was very thin and very light. It weighed just a couple of pounds.
That was a revelation to me. I began to understand how the energy of the string can be retained. I began to see that the idea of the energy being stored in the support structure so that it can go back into the string is not realistic. The way to deal with it is not to have the energy come out of the string in the first place.
If you find a massive piece of rock, drill a couple of good size holes in the rock and drive in a couple of large steel pins, attach a tuner at one end, stretch a string between them and put a pickup under it, you will get an amazing, pure string sound that will sustain virtually indefinitely.
JR: Doesn’t that go against the classical instrument design? You’re removing the body as the resonating force and simply focusing on the resonating string.
NS: Well traditional musical instruments have no choice. They have to draw energy from the string to produce the sound. How fast they draw the energy is very important, on a plucked instrument in particular.
JR: But then people started electrifying instruments in the 20th century. I’m starting to see the traditional electric guitar as a step between an acoustic instrument and a more decidedly electric instrument. Is that what you were going for?
NS: What I was doing was embracing the concept of the solid body electric guitar and following that road as far as I could go. The road that was laid down be Leo Fender and Les Paul and others whose names are less well known.
A solid body electric guitar is essentially a rigid structure but you can take it further. You can string strings over a workbench to get a different sound. But you can’t play a workbench, so where do you go from there?
JR: O.K., so you’ve made this bass guitar a rigid structure and realized that that is what you needed to do.
NS: Right, that’s where the graphite comes in.
JR: That’s what I was thinking.
NS: It seemed to me that what I wanted to do was make the instrument as rigid as I possibly could, and as heavy as possible without it becoming a burden on the player. I didn’t want to make a lightweight instrument, I wanted to make an instrument with a fair degree of mass to it, make it as rigid as possible and support it in a way that would be comfortable to the player.
JR: How did you decide on graphite? Few people at that time were using graphite for musical instruments. How did you decide on that?
NS: I had worked with fiberglass and was well aware of graphite. At that time it was a very new, very expensive material that would out perform glass many times over. So it was a very interesting possibility that seemed like the way to go.
At the end of part I, Ned had found graphite. He was a young, energetic furniture designer, in the right place at the right time and had designed the NS Spector bass for Stuart Spector. That instrument remains a cornerstone for Spector’s bass line.
After designing that first bass, Ned was hooked on musical instruments. In a moment of inspiration, while looking down at a Spector bass, Ned had his epiphany: ‘If you take the tuners off the headstock, all the electric bass’s balance issues will be solved.’
The journey to the Steinberger Sound Corporation had begun.
Next we have The American Success Story: a self-made man makes it big. Steinberger basses and guitars were the toast of the town. Awards piled up, including the Industrial Designers Society of America’s Industrial Designers Excellence Award. The Steinberger L2 bass was named one of the five best designs of 1981 by Time Magazine. Demand for the L2 exceeded supply by 300 per cent.
But business was never Ned’s passion. He wanted to design instruments, to create. Eventually overwhelming business and financial pressures prompted Ned to sell the Steinberger Sound Corporation to Gibson, one of the biggest players in the music business.
The sale to Gibson was supposed to ensure the growth, development and continued success of Steinberger but the marketplace is fickle. For a number of reasons, interest in Steinberger waned. Part of the deal with Gibson saw Ned stay with Steinberger to create new instruments and refine existing designs. Eventually, it no longer made sense for Ned to remain.
Ned left Gibson, Steinberger and the instruments he created, but he had no intention of leaving instrument design. In bold fashion, he didn’t rest on his laurels. Ned could have designed another electric bass or guitar but he didn’t. He went where few others had gone before, to the world of electric bowed instruments, and created the NS electric upright bass. The electric upright eventually led to a new of family electric instruments, an NS Design electric quartet: bass, cello, viola and violin.
Ned’s original vision and commitment lived on in his new designs. His beliefs about how instruments function, how ergonomics reign supreme and how if you build the best sounding, most comfortable playing instrument you can, artists will respond.
Part II of this interview follows Ned up, down and back up again. Enjoy the ride.
Jim Reilly: How did you come across graphite? At the time people weren’t using it a lot for instrument construction.
Ned Steinberger: Graphite was in the news. It was a brand new material. Fibreglass was well known to me and now there was this exotic graphite material, many times the stiffness of fibreglass and considerably lighter weight. It was a natural choice.
Actually, what I did with my first, disappointing model of the headless instrument (the very thin, flexible structure of maple) was to wrap fibreglass around the outside. That was after I established that stiffness was an important factor. I stiffened it up with unidirectional fibreglass material. It improved the tone very substantially. The instrument became more ‘normal’.
It was easy to see that graphite would affect the tone much more dramatically.
Graphite is comparable to maple. When you put it together with the epoxy it’s actually a little heavier than wood but it is in the same category. And, it’s much, much stiffer.
Rigidity was the key way to make an instrument perform the way we wanted it to, which was namely a brilliant, sustained tone. That’s what I was looking for and graphite was the way to get it.
JR: Had you worked with that kind of fibrous material before?
NS: I had only worked with glass, never graphite. Again, graphite was very new at the time.
JR: What sort of problems did you encounter working with this new material?
NS: The first thing I discovered was how fragile it is. That was kind of a shock. If you take a piece of fibreglass yarn, it may be several thousand strands mixed together, roughly like what you’d use to knit a sweater, and grab it with your thumb and forefinger on each hand, you can pull, tug, twist, bend, do whatever you want, it’s very difficult to break the fibreglass. If you take a piece of carbon fibre graphite yarn and do the same thing, it will break in your hand like it was defective.
In fact, I thought the first graphite that showed up in the shop was defective. It just didn’t seem to have any strength to it at all. But when you mix that material in your epoxy matrix and you lock all those fibres in relation to each other, the material is very stiff. Graphite becomes extremely rigid when you prevent the fibres from moving in relation to each other.
That’s what we were looking for: something more rigid than what was available in the past. I was certainly interested in pushing the envelope and here was this material that would do exactly what I needed.
JR: Were you doing everything yourself at this point or were others involved?
NS: In the beginning I did all the work myself. I had no one else to do it, and my time was cheap. Buying materials and other things involved an investment, which stretched my very limited budget but there wasn’t that much to it.
JR: How long did it take to come up an instrument you were satisfied enough with to present to the world? Take me through that discovery process.
NS: The first instrument I made had a peg-head coming out of the back of the body. I made a clay model of that design. The clay model worked fine, I made a plaster mould from the clay model. These are all basic techniques that I learned in art school. I just made a very simple female mould.
I had all kinds of problems. During various stages I made several handmade prototypes. At one point I had made a fibreglass mould, both the female part and the male plunger were painstakingly made over months. When I put it all together to mould my very first part, I didn’t use enough release agent and I couldn’t get the mould to separate. The mould, the part and a tremendous amount of work were all totally lost.
After that, I started putting so much release agent on that when I took the part out and went to put a finish on it, the release agent was embedded in the surface of the part and I couldn’t get a finish to stick.
That’s just a taste of the problems you can have when you’re doing something for which you really have no training or experience. Moulding these instruments was a homegrown process that I had to learn as I went along.
There were all kinds of sideshows like that during the development process. There’s the fun part of dealing with the essential problems and understanding what you’re trying to accomplish, how the parts should look and feel, what the basic construction method is. And then there are the problems that aren’t related to the basic thrust of the project but which nevertheless prevent you from realizing it. Like having a part you’ve already invested a huge amount of time into, that you spray finish over and over, then have to clean the finish off because it won’t stick properly, resurface it, grind it away more, apply more chemical cleaners, coat it in paint again and still the paint won’t stick.
The problems that are really frustrating are the ones that aren’t related to the basic thrust of the project but which nevertheless prevent you from realizing it.
JR: According to the Steinberger timeline, in 1977 you were making prototypes, in 1979 you introduced the L2 at the summer NAMM (then the National Association of Music Merchandisers, now know as the International Music Products Association) show and sold prototypes to John Entwistle, Tony Levin and Andy West. Was ’79 the public unveiling of these instruments?
NS: We had already sold an instrument to Andy West before we went to the show. That was very significant because he played with the Dixie Dregs at the show with that instrument.
JR: Was he the first sale?
NS: He was among the first. Tony Levin was absolutely the first sale. He bought a fretless bass that I made from an early mould. It was significantly different than the instruments now. At the time I was using additional steel reinforcements in the neck along with the graphite. So he had a very unusual fretless instrument, which he played quite a bit at the time. He recorded several of the last John Lennon sessions with a Steinberger bass.
But at the NAMM show, Andy played with the Dregs in front of the NAMM audience. At that time the entertainment during the show was more centrally organized. The big NAMM party, which most people went to, was held in a museum. It was a great party, great music. The Dixie Dregs were the featured act. Andy just strode up on to that stage with his Steinberger bass and this fabulous music came out. He was playing this very cranked up bass style, very energetic and central to the music. Andy is great player.
Until then, our booth at the show had been really ignored. People would twitter or giggle when they saw this ‘ridiculous’ looking instrument, but after that show with Andy the situation changed 100 per cent. We were pretty much mobbed after that and started to sell instruments. That was the beginning of the real business. It was through an artist. Artists are the key to getting musical instrument concepts over to the larger public.
JR: Take me through those early days of the Steinberger Sound Corporation.
NS: There were four partners: me, Stan Jay, Hap Kuffner and Bob Young. We formed the company with a total of $36,000 of investment capital. That was gone within weeks. We had planned to have a fibreglass operation Bob Young was associated with do the fabrication on the instruments. That fell through. I had to take the production back into my small design studio and just deal with it. Either I had to find a way to get some of these instruments built or we could just kiss the project goodbye. It was not an easy situation, long hours, hard work, frustrating problems, lack of know-how both in terms of the technical aspect and the business aspect. All this was completely new to me.
But we managed to keep it going and eventually moved it up to Newburgh.
JR: Who were some other important artists at the beginning?
NS: There were many more important players than I can come up with off the top of my head. Certainly Sting was very important. Van Halen was very important. Geddy Lee, Andy West, Reeves Gabrels with David Bowie, David Bowie also played the guitar. Bill Wyman of The Stones was playing a bass. Jamaaladeen Tacuma was tearing up the jazz and funk scene with his Steinberger bass. Mike Rutheford and Daryl Streumer played guitar with Genesis. There are lots of other great people who don’t come to mind right away, some lesser known, but still a lot of great musicians. Allan Holdsworth played the guitar. He was tremendously important.
JR: When did guitars enter the picture?
NS: I was always interested in doing a guitar. People I talked to about a guitar tried to dissuade me from it. They said the bass was viable because bass players are interested in new things and that guitar players would never be interested in anything new. Of course that’s exactly what they told me about the bass, so I took it with a grain of salt.
Bass production was really rolling by 1982. We had made a bit of a splash and people started copying us. We had some bass copies that we were concerned about.
JR: Copying just the shape?
NS: The design and the shape. These were low-grade copies and for the most part were very badly done, completely inadequate. They were copies of the style most of all, nothing else.
We hadn’t even made a guitar yet. But low and behold, people were copying us and were starting to make guitars. That forced my hand a bit, so I designed the guitar earlier than I would have otherwise.
JR: Were there significant structural changes between the guitar and the bass?
NS: No, they were very similar. The guitars originally had a fixed bridge. People were not so happy with that. It was the heyday of Floyd Rose and tremolo mania. Not having a tremolo was a bit of a problem. I started working on that and developed the Trans Trem as an alternative to a standard tremolo. I think the first guitar was ’83. The Trans Trem was about a year later. That’s when the guitar started to take off. Shortly thereafter Eddie Van Halen got a hold of one.
One thing people don’t realize is that we sold many more guitars than basses over the years. The guitar market is really much larger than the bass market. Even though we were known for basses, the guitar was really quite successful.
JR: It’s interesting that your instruments were being copied so much. I think the headless Steinberger instruments have become one of the defining aesthetic images of ’80s popular music. I’ve seen songbooks touting ‘the greatest rock hits of the ’80s? and there’s a Steinberger guitar on the cover.
NS: It is interesting to see how this whole thing has evolved. I’ve recently signed a 5-year contract with Gibson and Steinberger, so I’ll be much more involved with Steinberger again. Over the last 15 years our roster of visible artists has pretty much evaporated. There is very little exposure for Steinberger in the music scene right now. Steinberger still has a very devoted group of people who play the instruments and appreciate them, there is still an ongoing demand for Steinberger instruments but our presence in the pop music scene is very limited right now.
People tend to think of it as something that came and went. To a certain extent it did come and go in terms of a strong visible presence in the music scene. But why? What happened to all those artists who were playing Steinbergers? Is the Steinberger instrument a thing of the past or will the ebb and flow of the market place and the renewed support of Gibson bring it back stronger than ever? There are a lot of different factors involved.
JR: I think it’s a bit of all of that. But I also think that visually Steinberger really fit the times. People were trying to look different and shocking and along came this instrument that not only visually fit the bill but also delivered the goods sonically.
NS: I think that when the instrument came out, it was well timed to fit a certain market orientation towards a space age instrument.
JR: But that wasn’t the logic behind the design in the first place.
NS: No it wasn’t, but it was a conscious decision to make an instrument with a space age vibe to it. It wasn’t something I did as a marketing decision as much as it just fit my own sense of what I wanted this instrument to be. This was a vision of an instrument I had in my mind.
I was lucky it fit the times. Not really lucky, I was in the times. I was a young man in my mid-20s and very much a product of the times, so it’s not so surprising that the style I chose to pursue with that instrument fit in with what people were looking for at that time.
A lot of people told me that Steinberger was a fad. People who I knew and respected would tell me that the guitar business was really a ‘perfume business’. It’s not about substance. It’s about image, perfume. This is very true. Fashion is a big part of the guitar business. But it is much more than that. I never saw Steinberger instruments as perfume or a fad kind of thing. I was very conscious of the fundamental advantages of the headless design, both for guitar and bass but especially for bass guitar. I believe that those advantages remain just as important today as they were then.
As for the style towards a space age looking instrument, these days most people don’t want to present themselves with a space age looking instrument, it isn’t the image people are interested in carrying with them on stage, which is fair enough.
JR: That’s in today’s pop music.
NS: Right, that’s in today’s pop music. Of course, the headless concept has many different forms it can take, including a more conservative style. Gibson and I will explore both radical and conservative styles with Steinberger as we develop the line.
There was an overwhelming retro movement in the late ’80s and ’90s. It had a negative impact on the marketing opportunities for Steinberger products, no question about it. That remains today, however I think that it’s changing again. I think there is more room for new products in the marketplace now than there has been for a few years. There’s more room for innovation and technology.
My sense of why there was such a retro movement in guitars and music in general has to do with the synthesizer. The synthesizer was new in terms of mass availability and came on really strong in the early ’80s with great expectation and excitement for musicians.
When you play saxophone or you play a guitar, electric or acoustic, there is a physicality. The instrument has idiosyncrasies. There is a nuance of control you have when you play a string: you can bend, use a little vibrato, pick in one way or another. There’s this whole world of nuance you can get with a guitar that you cannot get or is at least much more difficult to get with a synthesizer.
I think at a certain point people realized it’s not about all those fancy electronics. It’s not so much about the new sounds you can make as it is about the way you can interact with your instrument. How you can bring out the humanity in the music is what a song is really all about. This is what counts for people. I think the reaction against technology is a reaction against being separated from those qualities.
So with any kind of advanced guitar technology, in people’s minds there’s an association about high-tech that is negative. But the beautiful thing about applying technology to a guitar or bass is that it doesn’t have to separate you from the nuance aspect of the instrument. There’s every bit of nuance available on a Steinberger guitar as there is on a Fender guitar, maybe even slightly more because it has a broader frequency response.
The association with high-tech became very negative but I think that’s changing now.
JR: Do you hear that in the music as well as musical instruments?
NS: Yes. The challenge for me in my work with Gibson and Steinberger is to update the basic ideas that made Steinberger instruments what they were so they can better fulfill the needs of musicians now and into the future.
There are many details that go into an instrument that make a huge difference in the way it works for people both physically and spiritually. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to evolve the Steinberger line more toward what people want these days, to provide the space age style in some models, which is still a cool look, and also to incorporate the technology in styles that are more comfortable for people who don’t want to go in that direction.
JR: What led to the sale of Steinberger to Gibson?
NS: I had been running Steinberger for six or seven years. We were a sensation in the music business at the time and had a lot of interest in what we were doing. We were expanding, making more and more instruments, I had some 30 employees at that point but we weren’t really making money. We weren’t losing our shirts but we were just breaking even and having all kinds of capital problems. The working capital we needed just wasn’t there.
Even though from the outside everything looked hunky dory, the reality was it was a tremendous struggle. That’s the main reason I sold the company.
When I met Henry Juszkiewicz he had just bought Gibson. I talked to him about what I could do with Steinberger, who might be interested in buying it, what I could do to add a more serious business component to the endeavour. He said he was interested himself.
I found business to be very challenging and I learned a lot in the process. I wouldn’t trade the experience, but deep down in my heart or hearts business is not really what I care about. I care about instruments and I care about design.
I didn’t have the business experience. I didn’t have the education and here was this pair of Harvard MBAs, Henry and his partner Dave Berryman, who were interested in buying the company. It was a perfect match for me. The rest is history.
JR: Was it hard to let someone else have control over the name Steinberger?
NS: In practice it forced me to reinvent myself and my work in a way that in the long run has been very satisfying for me.
The brand name of the company was Steinberger and certainly that was what was being sold. Nobody would have bought it without it’s own name and exclusive rights to that name. That comes with the territory, there’s no other way to go if you want to sell a company.
At the time it was even less of an issue because it was my expectation to continue working as a consultant with Steinberger indefinitely. Over the years, as the Steinberger line diminished, it got to a certain point when it no longer made sense for me to be involved with the company. It became necessary for me to go out again and do my own thing but it was never my intention to do that when I sold the company.
JR: What happened with Gibson?
NS: They had difficulty making it work. But they never abandoned Steinberger, for which I’m eternally grateful. Ultimately, in the thick of competing corporate interests, I don’t think Steinberger got the support it needed it in order to thrive.
JR: Was that the result of a large company taking something over and not being able to give it the personal attention it needed?
NS: Certainly that’s true but I think more fundamentally, if you take a business and a product as unique as Steinberger, a business that’s developed idiosyncratically around myself and the partners that I worked with, to come in as a larger organization and try to plug it into the administration that exists is difficult. At the core, I have a certain vision for what a Steinberger product is or isn’t and what it’s all about. I think anyone who builds a company has their own vision. When you trade that vision for the application of a standard marketing and business model, when you try and superimpose that onto it, it can be very difficult to make it work. The vision can be lost.
I think a recognition of that original vision is behind the new contract with Gibson, and the people at Gibson are very interested in re-establishing Steinberger as an innovative leader. You can’t do that by making the stuff you’ve always made, you have to innovate and move forward. So that’s what I’m working with Gibson to do, to get that condition back again, a situation where we’re moving forward.
JR: How long after the sale to Gibson did you start working on new instruments?
NS: About four years.
JR: What was the motivation to start building new instruments?
NS: I found myself as interested in musical instrument design as ever but there really wasn’t an opportunity to do much design work for Steinberger at the time. I started to think about different ideas outside of that Steinberger context and I asked myself what I really wanted to do. That’s when I decided to make the upright bass.
JR: And again it was a bass you gravitated towards. What is it that attracts you to bass instruments?
NS: There’s just something about a bass. It’s hard to say what makes you attracted to something on a very basic level. I think I admire the sheer power of the electric bass. I loved the idea of developing these instruments that would carry a strong bass sound effectively. Basses are gutsy instruments. It’s hard to put into words but there’s something visceral about the bass. Of course the way the electric bass has affected pop music is a very exciting phenomenon to be a part of. The problem I was initially confronted with, with Stuart, was to come up with a bass design and that was fine with me.
The reason for picking the electric upright bass is largely because the long length of the string on an upright electric was very inserting to me. If you have a 34-inch B-string you have a very hard time making that low B-string sound the way you want it to sound. It’s very fat, low tension. It’s just not as long as you’d want it to be. So you can go to 35 inches, which is a great thing and makes it a little easier to get a great tone out of the B but it’s an incremental, very minimal variation.
Now go to a 42-inch scale, and you’ve got something that’s very exciting: a beautiful long string with clarity and definition that is impossible with a shorter sting. But you can’t make a 42-inch bass guitar, nobody could play it. But a 42-inch upright? That’s what people play.
I defied current practice and made my first NS electric upright basses with round wound strings. I wanted incredible tonal brilliance. I had special round wound strings made for me by D’addario and all my first upright basses had round wound strings. Since then I’ve backed off on that a bit because I found that this high definition bass sound was not what most upright players were looking for. But it reveals what I was interested in experimenting with, there was all this potential to make an exceptionally brilliant clear sound with a longer string.
Properly designed round wound 42-inch bass strings set up correctly on a good structure with a good pickup have an amazing sound: an intense presence with earth shaking, articulated low end and extended high harmonics. That first instrument was developed specifically for Rob Wasserman and he still uses the round wound strings today.
It’s been a long journey for Ned Steinberger. His trip through the world of instrument design has taken him from a woodworker’s co-op in Brooklyn, to the top of musical instrument world with Steinberger, then down to uncertainty as Steinberger fell from public eye and now back to the top with a revolutionary new line of instruments.
His company, NS Design, have a quartet of instruments poised to become the link between traditional bowed acoustic instruments and a new electric counterpart.
Once again, it started with a bass. Bass Player magazine calls the NS Electric Upright Bass one of the 10 most important gear ideas of the ’90s. ‘The NS Design Bass has it all,’ writes Bob McCaskey, ‘sweet arco, contemporary-jazz pizz, thumbing Latin, rocking punch and a mammoth low B.’ No other electric upright made Bass Player’s list
Electric cellos, violas and violins have followed the NS bass.
The list of artists picking up Ned’s new instruments is long and crosses musical genres. Laurie Anderson, Les Claypool, Jim Creeggan (from Barenaked Ladies), David Darling, Eugene Friesen, Tony Levin and Rob Wasserman lead the way with many, many more right up there with them. NS instruments are recognized as some of the best in the industry and with versions of the bass, cello, viola and violin made in the Czech Republic, NS Design instruments are more affordable than ever. Even more people will have the opportunity to play Ned’s designs.
As NS Design’s instruments take off, so does Ned’s work with a host of other top instrument manufactures. Collaborations with Spector, C.F. Marin, David Gage, Emmett Chapman, Steinberger, D’Addario, Grimes Guitars and Bolin Guitars solidify Ned’s place as one of the best, most creative and original talents in the industry
From the outside things couldn’t look rosier. There’s even a new line of Steinberger basses and guitars poised to retake their rightful spot in the marketplace. Gibson and Ned have re-joined forces to create new instruments that draw on the best of Steinberger tradition and best of what today’s instrument technology has to offer.
I also get the sense that on a personal level things are pretty good with Ned. He has found a comfortable balance between business and creativity. He continues to refine the NS bass, cello, viola and violin while taking bold new strides with other designers. From his home in Maine, he can raise his family, oversee NS Design and continue contributing to the world of music, making very much ‘the antitheses of bombs.’
Jim Reilly: Why the electric upright bass’ Why not just another electric bass guitar?
Ned Steinberger: The bass guitar is a different direction. One reason I moved in that direction was to do something different than I had been doing. I needed to develop designs that were in no way similar or confusing with the Steinberger line that Gibson purchased. I needed a new direction that would move me away from the work I did with Steinberger. The upright was attractive in that sense but also because the long strings of the upright bass provided a wonderful opportunity to create an exciting new bass instrument.
JR: How much of the original Steinberger ideals, like making as rigid a structure as possible, carry over to the NS Design instruments
NS: The ideas of structural rigidity for a bass remained unchanged. That’s how you get a really clean, clear, powerful low end. Other things took me a while to develop. It took a while to develop an idea of what I wanted an electric upright bass to be.
For example, the first instrument I experimented with was headless. I never built one, but that was the direction I was going in. I was falling into the same trap that I thought I saw others fall into when they made an electric bass guitar with a headstock. People put a headstock on the end of an electric bass guitar because that was the way people were use to making electric guitars. When it came time to make an electric bass, they made it with a headstock because it was familiar. It was a habit.
I had been making headless instruments for so long, it had become my habit. When I went to make the upright, I did what I was comfortable with and made it headless. Eventually, I realized that there was no reason to make it headless. There were no balance issues. In fact, it was very comfortable to tune the instrument with the tuners at the headstock of the electric upright. It just made more sense to have a headstock.
JR: When you made the Steinberger basses you had those intrinsic issues, like balance. Were there any core inherent problems you dealt with, with the upright?
NS: The problems are very different. The player still has to support the upright in some way. A traditional acoustic bass has a huge body and a little pin that sticks out the bottom. The player makes contact with the side of the body and the pin supports the weight of the instrument. I wasn’t going to make a monstrous electric upright, I was going to be as minimal as possible. It was going to be lean. So a way of supporting the instrument had to be decided on early in the process. I found that mounting the instrument on a tripod worked very well.
At that time I was working very closely with Rob Wasserman. I build that first electric upright for him. Rob was very comfortable with a tripod stand, I was very comfortable with a tripod stand, so that’s the way we went.
The real big issue I had to confront with the development of the upright was the balance between bowed and pizzicato response and how the pickup is able to deal with both these techniques.
JR: How did you accommodate that?
NS: My focus initially was to get a good bowed sound. I had learned already, from my work on a violin, that to get a good bowed sound, you need a pickup system that will have a strong lateral response as opposed to a vertical response. The vibrations of a stringed instrument, particularly a bowed, fretless stringed instrument are polarized. Because of the effects of the fingerboard and bow, the vibrations that happen in a lateral direction and those that are happening in a vertical direction are very different.
Most pickups, virtually all magnetic pickups, pick up vertical vibration primarily. That works very well for guitars and any instrument from the lute family because it mirrors the motion from the top, which moves up and down but not laterally. Obviously a flattop guitar does not vibrate side to side so much, the top vibrates up and down.
If you’re making a bowed instrument and you have a magnetic pickup or any pickup that’s sensitive up and down, you end up with a very unsatisfactory sound. To get a good bowed sound you need a lateral response.
So I developed pickup systems that would have a lateral response. That gives you a fantastic bowed sound, very responsive to the bow. The bow drives the string side to side so if you pickup that primary direction and reject up and down vibrations, you focus in on the rich sound that the bow can create and you reject spurious sounds that degrade the overall tone.
It was very effective for bowing but then I realized that you couldn’t get the wonderful, rich, sustained pizzicato tone that I wanted to offer players, at least as an option. I had a punchy pizz. sound with a big attack and a short decay pattern, but not much sustain. This is great for some things, but not the full range instrument I was looking for.
I realized that if I wanted to have that full palette, if I wanted to have a great bowed response and a full range pizzicato response I was going to need to have more than one mode of operation for the pickup. So the polar pickup developed into three: first the lateral direction, then the vertical direction, and a third blending the lateral and vertical together, which gives the sound most like a traditional acoustic upright.
JR: Is the same pickup system on the cello, viola and violin?
NS: The bass is available with the Polar pickup and magnetic pickups. The others are available with the Polar pickup only. The magnetic pickup gives a different kind of pizzicato sound, very smooth, more like an electric bass guitar. The basses have a magnetic pickup in order to give every opportunity for the player to create his ideal pizzicato sound. On the violin, viola and cello it would just be overkill
JR: What ergonomic considerations did you develop for these instruments?
NS: The initial basses I made, and we still make this model, involved a concave shape on the back of the neck, which follows the arch of the fingerboard. We make those by laminating layers of 1/16th inch maple veneer with layers of graphite between the maple. We mould that all at once in mould that is essentially a bentwood structure, which follows the shape of the neck. It’s all one piece, the body, the neck and the peg-head are all moulded from this one long piece that has the arch of the fingerboard carried throughout its length. So the back of the neck is concentric with the fingerboard. That gives you a thin neck from one end to the other.
JR: As I look at the violin and the viola, I see that you’re back to a headless design. Is this because you’re back to instruments that are supported by the body not another support system as with the bass and cello?
NS: The headless violin and viola are about balance. There’s no real option if you want to have precision tuners. Acoustic violins are an advanced art form, fabulous instruments, but nevertheless they use very crude friction tuners. A modern electric violin with friction tuners is just not where I wanted to go, not the kind of performance level I wanted to achieve with the instrument.
I needed to use precision tuners, which ultimately have metal parts on them. To put metal tuners on the neck of a violin would create a very poor balance situation. The only real way to make a performance violin, in my opinion, is for it to be headless. There really is no choice.
JR: Again, once we bring the body back into the picture as the supporting structure, are we back to all those old balance issues?
NS: In one sense they are the old balance issues but they are also somewhat different. The way the violin and viola are held are so different than a guitar or bass guitar. But I would say that in the case of the violin and the viola, the balance issues are even more pronounced. Keeping the weight to the minimum and the balance point back are crucial. Our violin is so comfortable for players because we are able to do that.
JR: Did you have experience making bowed instruments before NS Design or was it like with Steinberger where you learned on the fly?
NS: I made a violin for Steinberger years ago. It was called the V5, a five-string violin.
It was produced in very limited quantities, less than 20. It was quite a radical instrument, had really no body at all. That was where I first cut my teeth with bowed instruments.
JR: Is that the instrument Laurie Anderson plays?
NS: Actually, what she plays is a prototype that I made, an evolution of the design I did for Steinberger. It was originally intended as a prototype for a new production model, but like many designs, it was never produced. So it has become a one of kind piece. These days Laurie mostly plays her new NS Violin.
JR: Andy West blew everyone away at the summer NAMM show in 1979 with the Steinberger bass. Who are the artists playing that role with these new NS Design instruments.
NS: I started with Rob Wasserman playing and consulting on the original upright bass. He is still very important. Soon there after I visited Tony Levin and showed him the new upright. He never looked back. He’s done such fabulous work with the instrument and such a great deal to show the world what this instrument can do. Les Claypool is another major artist with the bass. There are many, many more artists that are showing what the bass is all about.
We have fewer artists on the violin and viola. They’re very new, still evolving in player’s hands. It’s a process. We have some great cellists using the cello. David Darling has the original prototype cello I made.
JR: Has there ever been a quartet using the family of NS Design instruments?
NS: Not yet but there are some things in the works.
JR: That’s exciting.
NS: It’s going to be very exciting. I have heard a quartet using only NS instruments playing a more traditional repertoire. The sound is truly fantastic.
JR: Has it been easier taking care of the business side this second time?
NS: The situation is different for me this second time around. I certainly learned a lot from my previous experience. That helped a lot. I have a much more solid financial situation to work from. When I started I was a kid with absolutely nothing
I have also kept the scale more limited. Things got built up so quickly with Steinberger, it became more to mange than I was comfortable with. I’ve kept the scale of this current business down to a more reasonable level for me.
We work with a factory in the Czech Republic, NBE Corp., a fabulous group of people. It’s owned by Peter Vykydal and Milan Melichar and it’s made a huge difference. These guys are builders of instruments. They’re very excited about the development of the NS line, which they are central to in every way. We build the instruments in the Czech republic and then we distribute them throughout the world. NS is the distributor in the US and we have other people we work with in other countries.
It’s not necessary for me to actually direct and manage the production. We work with a team, that’s what they do and they do a fabulous job. There is a long tradition of instrument making in Eastern Europe. We get to tap into that and make some beautiful instruments that we can make at a more affordable price than we could here.
JR: I get a real sense of community around your instruments, both internally (Stuart Spector, Mike Kropp, Hap Kuffner have all been there from the beginning) and externally (players are passionate about their Steinberger instruments and now are just as passionate about NS instruments). Where does this sense of bonding through a musical instrument come from?
NS: An instrument is part real and part magic. An instrument that has no magic isn’t really worth much to anybody. People who play an instrument are naturally excited about it, especially if they connect with the magic.
Of course we, who make the instruments, have a tremendous identification with the players who are using them. It’s very exciting to have well-known players using an instrument that you make but it’s also a great pleasure to go down to the local event and have someone who’s not so well-known also making beautiful music with the instrument that you make.
There is a connection, a relationship between a maker and a player that is very important. People who play Fender basses feel a sense of connection to the Fender Company and a sense of community with the other players who play Fenders. In a smaller way, the same is true for NS.
In all honesty, I feel more of a sense of community with players than I do with other makers. Not that I don’t feel a connection with other makers but the connection with players is the one that is most special to me.
JR: Take me through NS Design’s team.
NS: In many ways the most important part of NS Design is the factory in the Czech Republic. They’re the people who make the products we sell and they do a beautiful job
As far as the operation here in the U.S., I run it. David Kowalski works directly with me here in Maine. He’s a fine craftsman and is very dedicated to making sure that each and every instrument meets the quality standards that we’ve established. Jenni Johnson, Stacy Lash, and Peter Proeler round out the Maine contingent.
Mike and Janet Kropp make sure we have good communication with our dealers and that the instruments are in the right places for people to see. They are in Rhode Island. P.J. Rubble works with them as a very important link to our dealers.
And of course the person who encouraged me early on to start importing instruments from the Czech Republic is Hap Kuffner. He was my original partner from Steinberger. We hadn’t worked together formally for quite a while but had kept in close touch. Now here we are working together again. He is an inspiration behind everything we’re doing and handles international sales.
JR: And it’s obvious there’s a connection between these ‘behind the scenes’ people as well.
NS: I think there is. Most of all it’s a sense of excitement about what we’re doing. A sense that we are making special instruments that are important to people. There is definitely a shared sense of excitement about it.
I’m just about the only non-musician involved. Almost everyone else has a sense of mission about music that comes from their own talent and experience as musicians. They’re excited to be at NS and be involved in a business that is important for music.
JR: It seems like you’ve got the best of both worlds. You have your company producing your own designs but yet you’re freed up enough that you can still do different and new things. You can still satisfy that need to create.
NS: What I enjoy most in my work is developing new designs so it’s natural for me to work with other people and do collaborations in order to go beyond the scope of what I can do on my own.
For me right now the trick is time management. That age-old problem, trying to find time to do all the things that you have the opportunity to do. It can be a bit of a struggle. I do have a lot of new design work that’s very important to me. There’s a lot of work still to be done here at NS Design. It’s a never-ending process.
JR: Do you see your influence on other’s designs?
NS: I see some influence of my work certainly. There were a lot of headless instruments in the market soon after we introduced the Steinberger headless bass.
My work is out there and people see it. It’s now part of the repertoire. It’s public knowledge that these options are out there and they get mixed into the recipe.
JR: So what do you think you’ve contributed to the timeline of musical instrument design?
NS: That’s probably a better question for someone else but to try and answer that, I think that headless instruments are a very important option to traditional headstock designs. I think that the success of Steinberger Sound, the marketing of new, different instruments to a wide public encouraged a lot of work in that area
I would hope on a more general level, that seeing what we were able to do with the Steinberger instrument, the fact that we were accepted by a larger public, proves that you can make a living, you can have success with a product that is more radical than what people are use to. I think in and of itself, that is an encouragement whether you’re interested in the headless design or not.
When I first came out with the Steinberger bass people in the music business were very clear that there was no way any large group of people were going to buy an instrument as strange as a Steinberger bass. The wisdom was it was a very conservative marketplace and there was no way something as different looking as the Steinberger bass would work.
What they failed to realize was that the difference between all those ‘weird’ instruments that failed (and some weren’t even as ‘weird’ as the Steinberger bass) was that everything about the Steinberger bass was logical. There was a logic to the instrument, which made good sense to players. What really made it successful was that we were able to communicate that logic through the design itself. People understood ‘why’.
As a designer I not only have to come up with something that’s better, I also have to package it in a way that people can understand and relate to. I’m hoping that my experience, the fact that we were able to make such a radical instrument work in the marketplace, might be encouraging to other people.
JR: What do want people to see when the look back on your work? What do you want to be remembered for?
NS: I would like to be remembered as someone who spent a lifetime trying to make better electric stringed instruments, trying to make electric instruments that are original instruments and not imitations of acoustic instruments. That is the heart of it. I would like to be remembered for thinking in those terms or for at least having made a credible attempt at it.
In particular, the violin family has no equivalent to the Fender guitar or Fender bass. If you were to go out to the public at large and say, ‘Picture an electric guitar in your mind.’ A picture of a Fender or a Gibson would likely pop into their head. If you ask those same people to imagine an electric violin, they’re likely to draw a blank.
In that sense the world of electric stringed instruments, violin, viola, cello and double bass, present a fabulous opportunity. There’s a real need for instruments that have an identity and a purpose, a presence, electric instruments that have their own voice beyond the acoustic tradition. A lot of people may prefer acoustic guitars but there’s no question that electric guitars have made their mark and that they are an important evolution of the instrument. The violin world is not at that point.
The NS violin is my attempt at the realization of what a truly electric violin can be. It’s a vision that sees the electric instrument as the logical evolution of a great tradition. I consider the work I’ve done lately to develop the full NS string family to be a kind of mission for this phase of my life’s work.
JR: What’s coming next? What’s on the drawing board?
NS: We have a new instrument that is in the works for NS. We’re exploring new styles and configurations for bowed instruments.
An important innovation we’re just now offering is a strap system that allows the double bass or cello to be played standing up and with full mobility. It’s a light frame with a guitar-style shoulder strap that holds the instrument out from the body so it can be bowed or plucked. This is a new world for people.
For NS instruments, a lot of the work boils down to very, very fine points that need to be tweaked to get everything ready for the larger production levels that we anticipate over the next few years. The Czech violin and the Czech cello are just now hitting the stores. It’s a very exciting time.
In addition to developing new products, getting the information out there about the products we already have is what we need to be concentrating on for the next year or two.
Of course, there’s a lot of new stuff I’m working on for Steinberger, but I’m not really free to discuss it yet.
JR: And yet again it’s falling into the hands of artists. Tony Levin is wandering around the stage with Peter Gabriel with his NS bass strapped on.
NS: Absolutely. The shoulder strap system is a lot of fun. People love it.
This is very much the beginning of a new era at NS Design. With the whole family of instruments all together, bringing them up to the production levels we want is a serious undertaking. That’s the big challenge we face over the next couple of years.
JR: Is there anything you haven’t done yet that is still there percolating away?
NS: There are always new things I want to do.
©James Reilly 2003