Q: Do you remember where were you the first time you encountered that newfangled electric bass of the 1980s made out of some kind of industrial epoxy — and invented by an industrial furniture designer who had no prior experience with musical instruments? Home video of The Dixie Dregs playing “Cruise Control” on Tom Snyder’s late-night NBC show, Tomorrow – I remember quite clearly – as the first time seeing someone play that new “high-tech” Steinberger bass and me thinking “Wow, this is the future of the bass”:
“Cruise Control” The Dixie Dregs 1981
The Dregs, to no one’s surprise, were not that big of a “singles” band, having issued two singles with Capricorn (1978-79) and three 45s during their time on Arista (1980-82). “Cruise Control” would be the A-side of their second Arista single, although curiously the composition had already appeared as part of a three-song demo recorded back in 1976.
Incredibly, Ned Steinberger had both the vision and the savvy to correct every single imperfection of the standard electric bass. I’m not kidding: every single shortcoming — most importantly, by removing the head stock (which makes the instrument rather unbalanced and is an unnecessary holdover of the “Spanish” guitar design) and instead relocating onto the body of the guitar special tuning mechanisms, ones that would allow for a radically-precise 56:1 tuning ratio.
Sly & Robbie – the face of 1980s reggae – with Steinberger Bass
I still have my Steinberger – State of the Instrument compilation of press clippings and promotional materials from July, 1985 that includes a price chart: $1950-2090 for the XL-2 4-string basses; $2250-2390 for the XL-2 5-string basses; and $1800-2450 for the GL-2 6-string guitars — a bit more daunting price-wise than even the Chapman Stick (although Steinberger would offer a “P” series of affordable instruments starting around $1000). And yet these basses were so super-indestructible that, allegedly, you could drop a Steinberger bass off the roof of a two-story building and not only would the instrument be unscratched but also perfectly in tune (assuming it’d been properly tuned prior to the fall).
Ned Steinberger with Prototype in Late-70s
Ned Steinberger photo from article in December, 2011 edition of Premier Guitar in which the “missing link” prototype is rediscovered after more than 35 years
Lenny Kaye (of the Patti Smith Group) Reviews the Steinberger Bass
Country Rhythms Magazine – April, 1983 edition – excerpt
“The Steinberger is more than just a pretty new face, though. The body is molded, not from wood, but from one extremely rigid piece of graphite fiber and glass-fiber reinforced epoxy resin. The acoustics of this plastic are different than wood, increasing sustain and bringing out the harmonic content of each string. There are no dead spots in the neck, and the neck will never bend, warp, or fold. The loss of the peghead does not adversely affect the guitar’s balance; it actually improves it, and the swinging placement of the strap allows the instrument to be played at any angle with perfect ease.
“The lack of tuning pegs means Steinberger uses a double-ball string specially made for the company (it will also take traditional strings). Each string is tuned by a simple threaded knob device set behind the bridge, and all hardware is machined from solid brass and stainless steel. It’s little wonder that the Steinberger not only placed in Time‘s 1981 Design awards, and the Industrial Designers Society of America’s Excellence awards, but has proved to be as playable as it is innovative. Low notes comes out sounding like themselves, distinct and clearly separate from their neighbors, and the degree of touch control is quite savorable.”