Time for a somewhat unusual blogpost. As you may know, aside from playing with software and hardware, I also dabble in music, mostly with (electric) guitars. I recently bought a new guitar, a Steinberger GT-PRO “Quilt Top” Deluxe in Wine Red:
There is quite a story behind this. I think there are various parallels with my usual blogs, such as this guitar design dating from the 1980s, and a lot of engineering and optimization went into this design.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with guitars, I have to say that the guitar world is generally quite conservative. Revolutionary guitar designs do not come along every year, or in fact not even every decade. I think roughly speaking, there are only a few major revolutions in the history of the guitar:
- The move from using ‘catgut’ strings (actually nylon on modern guitars) to using steel strings. The ‘original’ guitar, commonly known as classical or Spanish guitar, used strings made from animal intestines, as did most other classical stringed guitars (violin, cello, double bass etc). At some point in the early 1900s, a new type of guitar was developed by C.F. Martin & Company, designed for steel strings instead. These are also known as ‘western guitars’. They have a very different shape of the body and neck. The body is generally larger, which together with the steel strings, allows for more volume. The neck is longer and thinner than a classical guitar.
- The development of electric amplification in 1931. Now that many guitars had steel strings, it was possible to develop a ‘pickup’ module that uses electromagnetic induction, which can be placed under the strings, to convert the vibration of the strings to an electric signal, which can be sent to an amplifier and speaker. These pickups are simple passive circuits, with just magnets and a coil of copper wire. They are still used today in pretty much the same form.
- The ‘solidbody’ electric guitar, developed by Les Paul in 1940. As guitars became louder because of amplification, feedback became an issue: the acoustic body and strings of the guitar would resonate uncontrollably from the vibrations generated by the amplifier and speaker, which generated a feedback loop. Les Paul solved this by using a solid piece of wood for the guitar body. The body had lost its function as an acoustic amplifier anyway, now that there was electric amplification. A solid piece of wood was much more resistant to feedback.
- The Stratocaster guitar, developed by Leo Fender in 1954. It had many interesting ideas, including a body shape that no longer resembled a traditional guitar, but was contoured for ergonomic purposes. It also introduced a new type of ‘tremolo’ system. I will get into more detail on this guitar later.
And I think that is pretty much it. At least, as far as complete guitars go. There have been small innovations on certain parts of the guitar, but generally these are considered optional extras or aftermarket upgrades, and do not significantly alter the guitar as we know it. In fact, the Fender Stratocaster remains one of the most popular guitars to this day, as does the Gibson Les Paul (originally from 1952, but the models with humbucking pickups and sunburst finish made between 1958 and 1960 became the archetypal model), and most players still use these guitars in more or less the same form as they were originally launched in the 1950s. Most other guitars are also just slight variations on these original guitars, and are mainly different in shape or choice of woods, but do not differ significantly in terms of engineering.
Enter the 1980s
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a big revolution in rock/metal. Namely, we entered the era of the guitar hero, ushered in by Eddie van Halen. What made Eddie van Halen somewhat unique is that he built his own guitar from a combination of aftermarket parts and parts he ‘borrowed’ from other guitars. He used a Gibson humbucker pickup and put it into a Strat-style guitar. He also was a very early adopter of the new Floyd Rose double-locking tremolo:
His guitar became known as the Frankenstrat. It became the template of the ‘Superstrat’ guitar, and various guitar companies, including Ibanez, Jackson, Charvel and ESP, would jump into this market by offering Superstrat-style guitars straight from the factory.
This was also the time in which I grew up, and this type of virtuoso playing was what attracted me most. As a result, a Superstrat guitar seemed like the ultimate guitar for me, because it basically offered you the best engineering and the most features. You got the best tremolo systems, the most advanced pickup configurations, guitar necks that were designed for optimum playability (generally thin, wide necks with a relatively flat profile and very large, aka ‘jumbo’ frets), combined with the ergonomics of the Stratocaster body design. I have always been attracted to clever engineering and optimized designs, in any area of life.
Getting back to the Stratocaster
What made these Frankenstrats and Superstrats possible, is the vision of Leo Fender, I would say. Above I said the Stratocaster was one of the big revolutions in terms of guitar design. I have to add some nuance to that statement. Namely, Leo Fender designed another guitar before that, in 1950. The first model was a single-pickup one, known as the ‘Esquire’. He then introduced a two-pickup model, which was initially known as the ‘Broadcaster’. However, because the company Gretsch already sold a drum kit under the name of ‘Broadkaster’, Fender decided to change the name to ‘Telecaster’. This model is still sold today. It can be seen as the forerunner of the Stratocaster, but guitarists also liked the original, so it remains a popular guitar in its own right. Fender also designed the Fender Precision bass before the Stratocaster, where he introduced the contoured body shape.
The Esquire/Broadcaster/Telecaster was one of the first solidbody electric guitars on the market. What made Fender somewhat unique is that Leo Fender was not a guitarist, or even a musician at all. He started out with an electronics repair shop, and then focused on designing and building amplifiers and pickups for electric guitars and basses. So Leo Fender was an engineer, not a guitarist, not a musician, and certainly not a luthier.
When he decided to build guitars, he also approached it like an engineer: he wanted the guitars to be cheap and easy to mass-produce, durable, easy to fine-tune, and easy to repair. This led him to make certain design choices that conventional guitar builders might never have made. One example is that he chose to screw the neck to the body. Another example is in his choice of woods, which were very hard woods. They were very durable, relatively light, and easy to work on. But they delivered a tone that was not necessarily very conventional. It was a very bright and jangly tone. But certain artists, especially country artists, loved this new sound, because it would cut through very well with fast lead playing.
The Telecaster introduced the wood types, the bolt-on neck, and had three adjustable saddles for setting intonation and string height for each pair of strings. It had a cutaway on the body to access the high frets on the neck. And it had two pickups, with a volume knob, tone knob, and a pickup selector switch for easy access below the bridge.
The Precision bass introduced the ergonomic ‘contoured’ body shape. It added a second cutaway above the neck, for even better access to the high frets.
The Stratocaster took these ideas further. It perfected the adjustable bridge by having individual saddles for all 6 strings. It added a third pickup and a second tone knob. It introduced a contoured guitar body, inspired on the Precision bass. And it introduced the new ‘tremolo’ system.
Now, ‘tremolo’ needs some explanation: What Leo Fender called a ‘tremolo’, was actually a ‘vibrato’ system (and funny enough, some of his amps had a tremolo effect, which he called ‘vibro’). Namely, tremolo is a fluctuation in volume. The ‘tremolo’ system on a Strat does not do that. It allows you to lower or raise the pitch, so you can perform vibrato effects, or portamento (pitch slides). But somehow, the name stuck, so even today, most guitarists and guitar builders refer to Strat-like vibrato systems as ‘tremolo’.
Another typical feature of the Stratocaster construction is that the body is a ‘frontloader’. That is, the cavities for all the electronics are routed out from the front of the body. These cavities are then covered up by a large plastic scratchplate which covers most of the body.
Customization through mass production
I think it’s safe to say that the simple mass-production design of the Fender guitars is what gave rise to aftermarket parts. It is very easy to replace a bridge, a neck, the electronics, or even to perform some custom routing. The scratchplate will cover it up anyway, so nobody will notice if the routing is a bit sloppy.
That is how Eddie van Halen could build his own Frankenstrat. And how many other players did very similar things to their guitars. Especially Floyd Rose systems were installed by many guitarists on their Strats and similar guitars in the 1980s.
But, the Floyd Rose is still a part designed to be fitted to a standard Strat-style design with little modification. It still makes use of the same idea of a sustain block under the bridge, which is held under tension by three springs and an adjustable ‘claw’:
This system is rather difficult to adjust, and the large springs also have an additional problem: They are susceptible to vibrations and give a sort of ‘reverberation’ effect. When you hit the strings hard, the springs will start to vibrate along with the bridge and body. When you then mute the strings, you hear the springs ‘echo’. This in turn can be picked up again by the strings and pickups, so the ‘echo’ can also be heard in the sound coming from the amp.
Another thing is that you still have the regular tuners on the guitar, which you need to put the strings on the guitar, and perform the initial tuning, before clamping down the strings with the locking nut. At that point, there are mostly ‘vestigial’. The bridge only has fine-tuners. Over time, the strings may go out of tune to the point where they are beyond the limited reach of the fine-tuners, and you need to unlock the nut, use the regular tuners, and then lock again, and fine-tune.
A third issue with a Floyd Rose is that you can no longer adjust the height of each individual saddle. You can only lower or raise the bridge as a whole, but the relative saddle heights are basically fixed.
So, while the Floyd Rose is an improvement over the traditional Strat tremolo in terms of tuning stability, it is basically just that: an improvement on a design dating back to the 1950s, which has to work inside the limitations of the original Strat design to an extent, because it is meant to be an aftermarket part, which can be installed on existing guitars.
Enter Ned Steinberger
So, what you should take away from Leo Fender and his Stratocaster is that he basically ‘started fresh’, with no preconceived ideas of what materials to use, or what kind of design and construction method. The result was a guitar that had a very unique look, sound and identity, and also pushed playability and versatility to new heights.
From then on, most guitars have been more less evolutionary in nature: taking existing guitar designs such as the Stratocaster as the basis, and changing/improving certain details. The Floyd Rose tremolo system is arguably the largest improvement in that sense.
But then came Ned Steinberger. He basically did the same as what Leo Fender did 30 years earlier: He designed basses and guitars without any preconceived ideas, just trying to find the best materials available, and trying to engineer new solutions to create the best instruments possible.
Ned Steinberger was also not a luthier by trade, he originally designed furniture. And as far as I know, like Leo Fender, Ned did not actually play guitar or bass himself. Interesting fact is that his father is Jack Steinberger, a Nobel-prize winning physicist. So he grew up in a household of science.
Steinberger started on designing basses. He wanted to create a bass that was as light and compact as possible, while also being very durable. This led him to use modern composite materials such as carbon fiber and graphite, rather than wood. Another defining feature of the Steinberger instruments is the headless design. By using strings with ball-ends at both sides, rather than only at the bridge, there is no longer any need for conventional tuning pegs, and the big headstock that they are mounted on. The tuners can be moved to the bridge instead. Unlike the Floyd Rose, these are not fine-tuners, but full-range tuners, made possible with very fine-threaded 40:1 ratio. Also, Steinberger did not sacrifice per-string adjustment of string height or intonation.
Another defining feature is the active electronics. Where conventional pickups for guitar and bass are passive coils and magnets, active pickups use an on-board amplifier, powered by a battery (usually a 9v block). Because of the amplifier, the signal from the pickup itself does not have to be that strong. This means that pickups can be designed with smaller magnets and different coils. The result is that there is less magnetic pull on the strings, allowing the strings to vibrate more freely and more naturally, resulting in a more natural tone with better sustain. The on-board active electronics also allow for additional filtering and tone shaping. The electronics for Steinberger were designed and manufactured by EMG.
The body is actually a hollow ‘bathtub’ created from carbon fiber, where the top is like a ‘lid’. This allows plenty of space to house all the electronics. And unlike wood, there is no problem with feedback.
Another detail is the use of a zero-fret, rather than a conventional nut. This means there is no special setup required for any specific string gauge or desired string height (‘action’) for the player. The ‘special case’ of the nut is eliminated.
You could say that everything about this bass guitar has a ‘less is more’ approach. The neck and body are reduced to little more than the absolute minimum for the player to hold and play the instrument.
And then, the Steinberger guitar
Once Steinberger introduced their bass, and it became quite popular with players, the next logical step was to create a sister-instrument in guitar form. It looks quite similar to the bass, and it is very similar in terms of design and construction, except for one important detail:
The bass did not have a tremolo system, because these are very uncommon on basses, and are not very practical anyway, given the big, heavy and long strings. However, a guitar had to have one, Ned Steinberger must have thought. He may have seen this as an interesting engineering challenge.
And boy did Steinberger live up to that challenge! Because of his basic design with the double-ball strings and the zero-fret, there was no need for any additional locking of the strings. This basic design was effectively already equivalent to a Floyd Rose, but with the added benefit of having full-range tuners, instead of just fine-tuners. And the basic design of the bridge could easily be made to rotate around a pivot point, like a Strat-style tremolo does, without sacrificing the adjustability of the saddles.
Also, Steinberger could simply add one big spring to the metal base of the tremolo, instead of the multiple springs and the claw found underneath a Strat-style guitar. This got rid of the ‘echo’ problem of the springs. Also, he added a simple adjuster knob at the back, so you could adjust the spring to make sure the tremolo was in tune in its center position. Much easier than the claw and screws on a Strat.
But Steinberger did not just stop there. A characteristic of any traditional tremolo/vibrato system is that all the strings receive the same amount of movement. This however does not affect all strings equally. The thicker, lower pitched strings will have a much bigger drop or rise in pitch than the thinner, higher pitched strings.
While this is good enough for small changes in pitch on chords (a bit of vibrato), or changes of pitch on single notes, anything more advanced will go out of tune. This has only very limited musical application.
So, Steinberger thought: Challenge accepted! And he came up with what he called the TransTrem. As far as I know, it is still the only system of its kind. The ‘Trans’ in the name is short for ‘transpose’. Steinberger pulled it off to make each individual saddle on the bridge move at its own calibrated rate. This allowed him to make each string change pitch at the same rate. Which means that all 6 strings can remain in tune while operating the tremolo. From there, it was a relatively small step to make the tremolo ‘lock’ in a few ‘preset’ positions. This means you could transpose the entire tuning of the guitar up or down by a few steps (E is standard, you can go down to D, C and B, and up to F# and G), and remain in tune while doing so! This means you can change tuning on the fly while playing a song.
Eddie van Halen was an early adopter of the Steinberger guitar, and he composed a few songs that made use of this special TransTrem feature. The song ‘Summer Nights’ is a good example:
And as you can see, the guitar stays in tune during all of this, and sounds good in all tunings and during all trickery that Eddie van Halen pulls off.
Here is also a nice documentary on Steinberger, where Ned talks about how he came to the headless design, and his thoughts about ergonomics. It also gives some nice insights into the factory itself:
Fast-forward: Present day
I don’t suppose Steinberger ever became such a household name as Fender and its Stratocaster. So what happened? Steinberger’s guitars and basses were certainly ‘space age’ technology at the time. Back in the 1980s, people loved futuristic stuff, and initially Steinberger couldn’t make enough of them. By 1987, Ned sold the company to Gibson, one of the largest, and ironically enough, one of the more traditional guitar companies.
But by the 1990s, the futuristic thing got out of style, and I suppose Steinberger went along with it. Perhaps the instruments were too far ahead of their time? Ned Steinberger had moved on to a new instrument company, called NS Design. Somewhere halfway the 1990s, Gibson stopped producing the original Steinberger guitars.
From then on, the Steinberger name would resurface every now and then, usually on cheaper Asian-made guitars. The guitar I bought is a ‘Spirit by Steinberger’, and is made in China. This Spirit-model has been in and out of production a few times. When they were launched initially, I saw one at a shop, and tried it out. I always liked the original Steinbergers, so I liked the Spirit, because it looked and felt like those original guitars. It just was a lot cheaper. But I never bought it.
Recently, Gibson has relaunched the Spirit guitars again, so I figured I’d not miss out this time, and I bought one right away. Where the original guitars were very much high-end guitars, these ones are clearly budget guitars, and it seems that their price and their compact form are the main selling points. It is marketed as a travel guitar, more or less. There also seems to be some renewed interest in headless guitars in general, where some high-end brands such as Strandberg and Kiesel make headless guitars, albeit with ‘traditional’ body shapes. Perhaps that has something to do with the Spirit re-entering production.
My Spirit GT-Pro Deluxe differs from the original in various ways:
- It does not have the TransTrem, but a cheaper R-Trem, which does not have the transposing capability, but is otherwise more or less equivalent to a Floyd Rose style tremolo.
- It is made of wood, rather than composite materials.
- It has passive electronics rather than active.
Not having the TransTrem is a bit of a shame, but not surprising, given that it was a very complex piece of hardware. The R-Trem works quite well in practice, and is much easier to tune and set up than a Floyd Rose is.
The fact that it is made of wood is also interesting. Namely, there is always a considerable discussion about choices of tone wood and construction in guitars. This guitar has considerably less wood than any conventional guitar does. Yet, it sounds remarkably conventional. Also, it does not seem to suffer all that much in terms of sustain. So perhaps this guitar is just making a mockery out of conventional wisdom in terms of guitar building?
The passive electronics are made by Steinberger themselves, which is a bit of a shame in the sense that I have no idea what they are, so I have no frame of reference whatsoever. Combined with the unconventional guitar body, choice of woods and construction, I basically cannot say anything about what makes the guitar sound the way it does.
All I can say is that I quite like how the overall package sounds. The pickups are not very loud, but I’m not sure how much of that is due to the fact that there’s such a small guitar body, and how much of that is due to the pickup design. The guitar seems to have a very ‘clean’ and ‘neutral’ sound to it. It is something I more or less associate with active EMG pickups, but again, I don’t know how much of this comes from the tiny body, and how much comes from deliberately designing the passive pickups to sound like the original Steinberger with EMGs. What I can say however is that the guitar seems to have a very nice top-end. Pinch harmonics sound really powerful and sustain well on the high B and E strings. The guitar body and neck are mostly made of maple, and that is something I would associate with maple.
The quality of the pickups seems very good at any rate. They are extremely low-noise, and you do not suffer from microphonic feedback or other noises (and as I said, no dreaded ‘echo’ from the trem either).
It has a somewhat ‘dry’ palmmuted sound. It sounds okay on the low E string, but lacks a bit of ‘oomph’ compared to my usual guitars on the A and D strings. Again I’m not entirely sure how much of that is down to the overall lack of output of the pickups, or specifically because of the acoustic qualities of the guitar itself (perhaps lacking a bit of midrange).
So it could be that these are very generic pickups, and the guitar just sounds the way it does because of its wood and construction. It could also be that these pickups are very specifically tuned for such an unusual guitar as this one, and regular aftermarket pickups might not work at all in this particular guitar.
But overall, after I set up the guitar to my liking, I find it quite easy to play, and although it takes some getting used to its specific sonal characteristics, it can sound very nice. It has a very unique feel to it. It is extremely light and well-balanced, and you have excellent reach to even the highest frets. It’s so light that the entire guitar shakes when you perform vibrato with your fingers. Coming from the other end of the spectrum, where my first decent electric guitar was a Les Paul, that is very strange indeed. I suppose it also is an indication that I should try to optimize my playing to use the minimum amount of effort required for vibrato, and let the guitar do the work.
I hope to own a ‘real’ Steinberger one day, the original graphite/carbon fiber model with the TransTrem and the active electronics. Sadly they are rare, and since they are so complex, chances are someone has botched them over the years, so buying second-hand is quite a risk (I often find that even with ‘simple’ Floyd Rose guitars… people with no clue have damaged the tremolo system beyond repair). But I will have one, one day! For now I’d settle on just being able to play a real Steinberger someday, just to know what a real one really feels and sounds like.
For now, I’ll leave you with a quick recording I did of a Joe Satriani song: