A Date With U-Turnity

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes" – attributed (uncertainly) to Mark Twain 

Back in the Spring of '84, I had the pleasure of seeing Rush live in Vancouver on their Grace Under Pressure tour. A sense of change was in the air – the new Rush album was a big departure in sound from their entire catalog up to that point (which at that time was about ten albums, one per year), probably due to their recent first-ever change of record producers. Gone was the 'AC/DC plays old Yes songs to accompany Dungeons and Dragons' sound, replaced by a cleaner, slicker, more mature (and perhaps less ultra-masculine) approach. The philosophical Harley biker was replaced by the Toronto Ferrari driver. This was very much in keeping with the times – pop culture in general was moving quickly from the hairy, fashionably unkempt to the neatly urban clean-cut chic. I was at first ambivalent about the new record and the trends in general, but Grace Under Pressure definitely grew on me in the course of a few weeks, even if mullets and skinny pants didn't. 

Rush took the stage that night in May of '84 looking and sounding like a band-with-a-history ably keeping up with the times. Lasers, blazers, lots of keyboards (as a 3-piece band, vocalist Geddy Lee would play bass pedals with his feet when his hands were busy on the keys – otherwise, his legendary electric bass chops were put to full use), the obligatory Fender Stratocasters and Simmonds drums (instrument models come in and out of fashion, too), and...what the hell was that instrument Geddy was playing? *

As a neophyte gearhead, I knew enough to expect Geddy to take the stage with either a Fender Jazz bass or a Rickenbacker, but this was obviously neither. It had no visible tuners, no headstock, and it hardly had a body. From my distance, it appeared he was playing a slender, black stick with four bass strings attached and a lot of frets. The new 80's fashion certainly flirted with minimalism, but this seemed extreme. Geddy's new instrument effectively took the electric bass outside of Essential Ingredients territory. It certainly sounded good, 'though not nearly as bright as his previous basses. I was fascinated. 

In the following weeks, I pored over guitar magazines of the time (pre-internet, don't forget) to find out more about this mysterious new beast. 

I soon learned that these headless instruments were the brainchild of a guy and a company called Steinberger, who built basses and guitars out of one-piece molded carbon fibre (typically, electric and acoustic guitars are made of wood, and their necks are glued or bolted onto their bodies). Steinbergers required special strings, they had their tuners down near the bridge, and they were as fashionable as they were expensive. Players and company copy raved about their strength, stability (conventional wooden necks can warp and be otherwise affected by heat and humidity changes), sound (their-ultra-clean, almost glassy timbre was a hallmark of the times), lack of bulk and eye-catching looks. In the mid-80's, 'Steini' basses and guitars could be seen in the hands of Sting, Jaco Pastorius, Eddie Van Halen, Paul Stanley, David Gilmour, Michael Hedges, Alan Holdsworth and David Torn, to name a few. Ned Steinberger upped that ante when he invented the TransTrem, a vibrato-arm (or “whammy”) bridge that could bend the pitch of all the strings at the same rate, with the option of holding the strings in transposed positions – a significant and very useful innovation. I had a chance to try out a Steinberger Trans-Trem-equipped L-series guitar at a shop in Seattle back in '87, and could immediately see the appeal. The guitar allowed me to play as though my technique were suddenly on super-steroids. Too bad I was a starving student at the time, or I'd have bought it that very night. 

And then, within half a decade – no one was playing Steinbergers anymore, and Ned Steiberger sold his company to Gibson. 

Of course, the cultural tsunami known as Grunge swept quite a lot fashion-bedrock aside, from songwriting styles to established artists. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that a radical design so closely associated with the mid-'80's would become a style anathema a decade later. Grunge was all about low-tech and second-hand-store everything, from clothes to instruments, the rattier and more primitive, the better. A Steinberger was almost impossible to dent or ding, let alone destroy...and it still looked space-age. 

During their relatively brief heyday, Steini's evolved from the compact, paddle-bodied carbon-fibre radicals to wooden, bolt-on-neck, conventional-bodied (though still headless) axes. Gibson still builds Steinbergers to this day, but appears to have lost interest in marketing them. You can still buy the paddle-bodied (albeit wooden) versions, some with a kind of built-on capo to allow for quick transposition in the manner of the old Trans-Trem...and then there are the ZT-3's. 

For better or worse, the days of the all-one-piece carbon-fibre instruments are over, but the Trans-Trem has evolved under Ned Steinberger's continued engineering (despite his having no official capacity with his namesake company at Gibson), so that it can now be mounted on a conventional guitar body. The ZT-3, then, is a somewhat stylized Strat-shape, but with binding and a tiger maple top. It's headless, so it still looks pretty radical – and the tone is closer to the warm electric sound more fashionable today. Nearly thirty years after my first encounter with one, I finally have a Steinberger in my possession, and the big question it brings to mind is: why aren't more people playing these things? 

Not that I'm complaining. Because they're so rare and strange-looking (ZT-3's aren't even retailed in Canada, to the best of my knowledge), my new guitar does tend to draw a few gasps on first sight from unsuspecting audiences, and that's quite okay with me. In fact, I've taken quite a menagerie of weird-looking axes onstage in my time (Flying V's, double-necks, Firebirds, an Iceman, a 12-string bass) and the Steini wins the shock-and-awe reaction award hands down. If these guitars were more widely embraced and commonplace, I'd lose that little edge – but ultimately, I play a guitar because of how it sounds and feels, so I could live without the ooh's and ah's if I had to. 

The guitar-playing community is, ultimately, a very conservative one. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, there are very few popular guitar designs today that didn't originate before 1963. The field is still dominated by Fender Stratocasters (1954), Fender Telecasters (1950), Gibson Les Pauls (1952) a handful of others and copies of all the above. Some of this is due to the fact that 'innovations' in later decades didn't really advance the guitar, but merely cast around fruitlessly for players' interest in different design directions. A '70's-designed Gibson RD Artist or L6S doesn't necessarily sound better or worse than a Flying V, but it is definitely different (and butt-ugly, in the opinions of many)...but a few newer ideas did manage to gain traction – some immediately, some after a few failed attempts. 

Eddie Van Halen, for example, cobbled together spare parts and factory seconds to come up with the Super Strat, or Stratocaster design with at least one Gibson-style pick-up and an ultra-bendy whammy bar (that is, a vibrato bridge that allows you to lower the string pitch so much that the strings will go completely slack when the bar is fully-depressed). These were all very useful ideas for hard rock players, and a number of companies now specialize in Super-Strat designs or parts (Ibanez, Jackson and Floyd Rose leap to mind first). Gibson released the Flying V and Explorer in 1958, to a disastrously icy response...but enjoyed success with the same designs twenty years later. Good ideas might not immediately catch on, but they do seem to have a way of resonating, surviving and gaining a following when the time is finally right. With that in mind, I find it hard to believe Steinbergers won't find their way back into wide use in the future. The TransTrem and headless design are just too practical and versatile not to catch on. Eschewing the one-piece carbon-fibre design seems to have lowered the price and brought a warmer, more conventional tone, so the instrument is about as accessible as it can be now. Still, not one Canadian music retailer with whom I inquired had the faintest idea what a Steinberger ZT-3 or a TransTrem is (in fact, 'Steinberger' stumped a few), and even the Wikipedia article on Steinberger makes only one passing reference to the Z, despite lengthy descriptions of preceding models. It almost seems the instrument is being kept a secret, in favour of old models that are built not only as near-perfect replicas of '50's- and '60's-era instruments, but with factory-originated road-wear and and ageing (yes, you pay extra to have your guitar bashed around and aged in the factory). Guitar fashion took a U-turn in the '90's back to 30-year-old designs and paint jobs; it will be interesting to see if the brilliant designs of Ned Steinberger will ultimately cause guitarists and/or bassists to, if not pull a U-turn, at least take a second look.

*Ironically, Geddy Lee has since become a great collector of many basses, mostly Fender and Rickenbacker. The Steinberger was one of the few instruments in his collection that he eagerly unloaded. Go figure.

1 comment

  • Lola Janssen

    Lola Janssen

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