ASK NED ARCHIVE

Past questions answered by the namesake of these innovative instruments


January/February 2005

Q:  Dear Ned - I'm excited about the new Synapse line. Both the TranScale neck and piezo bridge look interesting. Can you explain in greater detail how you approached both of these options? How did you make some of the design choices? What were the challenges you faced? -- 
John R.

A:  Dear John - Funny you should ask… Let’s take these one at a time.

Headless instrument design has two big advantages. First, the tuners on the body balance the weight of the neck. Second, the 40:1 micrometer style screw tuner is more accurate and stable than a conventional worm gear. As far as balance goes, the bass guitar gains much more from the headless design than the 6 string guitar, which has a shorter neck and lighter tuning hardware than the bass. So I asked myself, how else can the headless concept benefit the guitarist? I thought about adding a couple of frets beyond the zero fret, to extend the range of the instrument. The idea was to convert the structure that had been necessary for the headstock into a playable extension of the neck. Hence the 28 5/8 inch scale “D” neck. My first idea was to have a fixed clamp (or capo) at what became the second fret, to provide the standard guitar scale. But then I thought, wouldn’t it be better to be able to chose any scale length? This lead to the integrated sliding capo, or “TranScale” design. 

The Synapse piezo bridge system is different from most electric guitars in that the saddle is one piece, rather than 6 individual saddles.  While it is nice to have an individual (hex) output for each string, in my experience it is not possible to create the optimal piezo sound with individual saddles.  I’m convinced the piezo sound of the single saddle bridge, which takes it’s design from the Polar pickup system offered on NS instruments, is superior to individual saddle configurations.  The object of the Synapse piezo bridge pick up is not to try to recreate the sound of an acoustic instrument, but rather to open up new sounds for the electric instrument.  I think of it as the “missing link” between the smooth power of the magnetic electric, and the complexity and detail of an acoustic instrument. -- Ned

November/December 2004

Q:  Ned - I noticed that the upcoming Synapse guitars feature a 22 fret neck vs. the 24 fret neck the original graphite Steinberger guitars always had. Personally I do use those last two frets, so I was wondering what your reasoning was for the change.

A:  Although it may not be obvious from photos, the body of the new Synapse guitar is considerably bigger than the original all composite L-series guitars.  This larger body is to provide more instrument for players to grab hold of physically and visually, and to increase the mass.  This development process lead me towards the 22 fret configuration, which dovetails with the request I have frequently heard from players who miss the warmer tone of the neck pickup when it is located further from the bridge.  This tonal difference is most noticeable around the 12th fret.  But it’s a catch 22, because you cannot move the pickup away form the bridge without removing frets.  Which configuration is best?  I’m for letting you, the players, decide.  I look forward the feedback regarding all aspects of the new Synapse line.  If the popular demand is for the 24 fret neck, we can offer this in future models. -- Ned

September/October 2004

Q:  Ned - Recent discussions in the Steinberger World Yahoo Group have talked about perceived differences in tone between the S-Trem and TransTrem.  Some guys unequivocally state the TransTrem sounds better. What are your thoughts on this?

A:  My first thought is, what do you mean by “better sound”?  This is a very subjective question, depending on the vision a player has for his or her sound. The desired sound can vary widely with the music, the amplification, etc.  I would have to say that the difference structurally between the S-Trem and TransTrem is minimal.  The saddles and rollers are the same.  The structure of the bridge and spring are virtually identical.  The moving tailpiece on the TransTrem is a bit heavier and a little stiffer than the S-Trem, but the lock is at the center of the S-Trem, so any flex in the tailpiece should be minimized anyway.  One might reason that the heavier tailpiece is good, as it would be less able to move sympathetically with the string and thus less likely to drain string energy.  On the other hand, I hear from many musicians that the original TransTrems with the light-weight aluminum tailpieces sound the “best” of all.  In my view, the fixed non-trem bridge sounds “best” of all, so I tend to favor a tremolo mechanism that locks as solidly as possible to replicate a fixed bridge. -- Ned 

We gave Ned the summer off ;-)

April 2004

Q:  Ned - Has there been any thought to incorporating MIDI compatible (i.e., 13 pin) pick-up into any Steinberger models? I understand the RMC piezo bridge pickups have really been a boon to MIDI guitars because they dramatically improve note tracking. I spoke with some people at RMC and they didn't think it would be possible to incorporate their pickups into a Steinberger bridge - have you looked at these pickups at all? -- Mike Labbee

A:  Dear Mike - Piezo pickups are a wonderful option for guitars. For the best straight sound, I tend to favor a single output for all the strings together, such as the Polar pickup we use on the NS Double Bass. However, this doesn't deal with the multi channel requirements of MIDI. But there is no reason that piezo pickups with an isolated output for each string cannot be fitted into the standard Steinberger bridge. I know this has been done on a custom basis, but I don't know how well these may have worked out. Piezo elements are very dependant on and sensitive to the geometry of the bridge. I do believe that piezo pickups will play an important role in future Steinberger instruments. -- Ned 

February 2004

Q:   Ned - I've had the XT-25 Spirit Bass now for about 3 years. The one thing I have noticed that affects the playability is the strap placement. A regular guitar strap "ratchets" the body top away from you in the natural hang of the instrument. It seems that I am always turning the neck with my fingering hand to compensate the twist. The original graphite basses came with a triangular shaped strap pivot mount that balanced this phenomenon. My question is has any one else noticed this? What would it take for Steinberger (Gibson) to start offering this strap pivot mount once again? As an add on? -- Jonathan Rude / Springfield, VA

A:  Jonathan - Your question is very timely. As you may know, I am working again with Gibson to create new Steinberger models. I have a new approach, kind of a combination of the pivot plate and the conventional strap that I believe solves this problem beautifully for both bass and guitar. Unfortunately, I cannot discuss how this works in public until after the product is officially introduced. Please keep your eye on MusicYo for details. -- Ned

January 2004

Q:  Hi Ned - I've had several R-Trem equipped guitars, but have never owned an S or TransTrem guitar. Two questions:

1. Does the S-Trem have better sustain and 'power' than the R-Trem due to the S-Trem bridge being better coupled to the body? (Since on the R-Trem the bridge saddles float with the trem.)

2. Is the R-Trem actually superior in tuning stability? I wonder because it seems the strings would not move over the saddles as much as with the S design.

Thanks -- Mike Rejsa

A:  Mike - You are quite right that the bridge configuration is the key difference between the S trem and R trem. The moving bridge (R trem) vs. the roller bridge (S trem). Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For tuning stability and sonic coupling, I would say the moving bridge wins. However, the moving bridge has limitations. For example, you cannot make the TransTrem with the moving bridge design. -- Ned

December 2003

Q:  I am told that the original Rutherford GM design was a framework face attached to a GL because his child said that the small bodied GL looked too small when strapped to a tall guy.

It seems to me that a set of replaceable faceplates in various standard shapes such as Strat, Explorer, V, Rick, etc., if they had been available for the GL, might have solved the problem easily and cheaply.

Why did you decide instead to go with such a radical departure from your all composite neck through design back to an old fashioned wooden body with bolt-on neck type design? -- desertairhead

A:  That’s the Rutherford myth all right, and I think it is more or less true. I have heard the suggestion a few times about interchangeable bodies. However, the body is an important element in the sonic response of an instrument, and the add-on body tends to compromise the structure. Working out the geometry of the interfacing parts, and then producing them, would be more expensive than simply making a solid wood body. In the proportions of the traditional solid body instrument, wood is an excellent structural material that, in all its variety, can make a great sounding guitar. The neck is where the structural limitations of wood create dead spots on the fingerboard that compromise sustain and clarity, not to mention stability problems. Hence the wood body and bolt-on graphite neck configuration for the original M-series and P-series instruments. -- Ned 

November 2003

Q:  Hi Ned - What prompted the pursuit of the 'headed' Steinberger GS series? Were there any memorable challenges modifying the TransTrem to work with a headed guitar, or any other memorable challenges, for that matter, involving the design of the GS?  Thanks so much! -- Casey Veal

A:  Casey - Anyone who makes headless instruments knows how much market resistance there is to chopping off heads! I guess it was the TransTrem that got me to thinking about a headstock model. We just could not reach the majority of players with a headless instrument, so we decided to cut right thought the resistance and make a headstock model. Ironically, the JamTrem became the leading GS model, which proves that you never know where new projects will end up. A big challenge was the nut, in that I wanted to eliminate the Floyd Rose style clamping nut. This led to the knife edge nut, which combines super low friction with excellent tone, and does not require clamping. The need for a stable tuning system even with extreme TransTrem use led to the Gearless Tuners. Developing the Gearless Tuner was definitely a major challenge for me. Both the knife edge nut and the Gearless Tuner were incorporated in the original GS models, and the system worked well. Unfortunately, the instrument was never advertised or promoted, so it did not have a significant impact on the market. -- Ned

October 2003

Q:  Hi Ned - It is my understanding that the fret height [on the original Steinberger necks] was slightly lower in the middle frets than the higher and lower ones. A ex-Steinberger employee told me that this (along with the extreme rigidity) is what makes such a low action without buzzing possible. My question: if I wanted an exact copy of a GS neck built by Moses Graphite or Status Graphite would I need the data on this graduation of fret heights? -- Thank you, Bob Lustgarten

A:  Bob - Graduating the height of the frets above the fingerboard will not in itself help reduce buzzing.  The tops of the frets are what counts, regardless of the height of the frets off the board.  As far as replicating an original Steinberger GS, I do not believe the Moses or Status necks are as rigid as the original GS, and therefore will not set up or sound the same.  If you are concerned about getting the best fret job possible, I’d recommend sending the neck to Joe Glaser to run through his Plek digital fret dressing machine.  He can tailor the frets to your personal set up preference. -- Ned

September 2003

Q:  Hi Ned - I am familiar with the wood/composite laminate that you've been using with the stringed instruments at NS Design. I must say, they are very beautiful looking instruments. However, I understand that the layered wood/composite material may not be a suitable material for constructing an acoustic or electric guitar.

Are there new materials on the horizon that you think could be a big leap forward in instrument construction?  This is purely "pie in the sky" but perhaps a cellulose/composite material that could be flowed into a mould could provide some of the best of both while simplifying manufacturing (I know...it's never simple). ;-) -- Brad / Vancouver, BC

A:  Dear Brad -  The idea is to integrate wood and graphite to make an instrument that combines the best mechanical, tactile, and esthetic properties of both materials.  This can be an excellent way to make a bass, guitar, or just about any instrument, for that matter.  The laminate system used in the NS Double Bass is particularly suitable for the upright because the wide neck and high arch of the fingerboard results in a thick neck.  The laminate is concentric with the fingerboard, resulting in a concave neck shape that reduces the thickness.

I’m not aware of any breakthrough materials for instrument construction, but I don’t claim to be up on all the latest developments.  My focus is the application of existing fiber based materials, such as wood and graphite. On the other hand, I’m always interested in new ways to improve performance and/or reduce costs, and new materials are definitely an important area for exploration -- Ned

August 2003

Q:  Hi Ned - Having seen Yamaha's silent guitar with nylon strings and I had to remember the violin you designed (I think Laurie Anderson plays one). The basic concept seems to be similar and I wondered if you ever designed a headless no-body acoustic guitar. -- Regards, Mirco Veljovic

A:  Dear Mirco - If I could design a good sounding acoustic guitar without a body I would!  Unfortunately, this would defy the laws of physics, at least as far as my limited mind can see.  I have made headless acoustic guitars, but they require a body like any other acoustic.  Actually, flattop acoustic guitars pose a particular problem, because the strings are tied directly to the bridge.  If you were to put tuning hardware on the top itself, the weight would kill the sound.  That’s where the patented “Stressfree” bridge concept was born.  We just might see this on a Steinberger acoustic model some day. -- Regards, Ned

July 2003

Q:  Dear Ned - I wonder if you ever thought of making a guitar neck (or maybe just fretboard) of an exotic material such as ceramic or reinforced ceramic (maybe carbon fiber reinforced)?  That would be stiff and therefore probably give high response in high frequencies. -- Thanks, Alexey

A:  Dear Alexey - Yes, I have thought about all kinds of materials for fingerboards.  The fingerboard material affects the sound for all instruments, but as you can imagine, the relative hardness of a fretless fingerboard is especially influential on the tone.  A hard surface generates a bright, lively tone, while a softer material like rosewood has a slightly muted, ‘fatter’ sound.  Graphite fiber is bright, but in powder form graphite is not so rigid, and actually sounds pretty mellow on a fretless board.  I would consider phenolic to be medium bright.  At one point there were interchangeable fingerboards available on the market.  This caused basic structural problems, but you hear the difference in the sound of different materials.  They did not offer ceramic, but there was an aluminum board that was quite lively.  Ceramic or steel would be very interesting, but probably not what most players would prefer. -- Regards, Ned 

June 2003

Q:  While doing some research on the internet for a new instrument, I came across quite a bit of your work; specifically, the NS Stick and the Bolin NS bass. Both of these designs are quite different from what you accomplished at Steinberger. Can you provide some insight as to how the Steinberger concept influenced what you're currently doing with the NS line as well as the other ventures? -- Rob H.

A:  Rob - When I started NS Design, after going independent from Gibson, I needed to re-invent myself to some extent.  I wasn’t about to make products that were imitative of the Steinberger line.  That would have been illegal and boring!  Thus the move toward bowed instruments, which are inherently very different, and would inevitably lead me in new directions.  The double bass is what redirected my work toward headstock instruments.  Neck weight is not an issue with the upright, and the bridge and tailpiece are a long reach, so why not just tune from the top end?  The use of the headstock dovetailed into another aspect of the new instrument.  The Steinberger Bass was designed under the banner of freedom.  It was a young man’s no holes barred attempt to unseat the heavy yoke of tradition!  The NS line involves a gentler approach.  It is an attempt at a different balance, where innovation is presented in a more comfortable, tradition-friendly package.  But in my work, function always trumps style.  The violin is very neck weight sensitive, which is why the NS Violin and Viola are headless.  In that sense my new contract with Gibson is liberating, in that I love taking a radical approach to design.  Regards -- Ned

May 2003

Q: Dear Ned - I have owned previous Steinberger instruments.   Why is it so hard to tune the TransTrem?  I've tried D'Addario and LaBella - they both have been too short on the high "E" or too long.  The "G" string is too short also.  The string companies can't seem to find the answers I need.  

I know how to set a TransTrem up, but it doesn't look right or transpose properly.  It's close, but not dead on.  I've looked at pictures the TransTrem pictures.  My old one looks just like it.  I use LaBellas and it transposes perfectly.  Dead on.  On the other one I've tried 12 sets of LaBellas and 12 sets of D'Addarios.  None of them work. Not even close.

I just thought you could help me find the solution?  Every string that is available doesn't seem work on my other guitar.  I would appreciate your help. Thanks -- Dave

A: Dear Dave - You cannot get good answers from the string companies because they do not have people on hand who are knowledgeable about calibrated strings.  The calibration process is not that complicated, but you need to have a TransTrem set up with an adjustable headpiece, and I have the only one I know of. 

At best, you can hope that they might produce the strings within the original specifications I established back in ’93, but these specs were for a specific LaBella set and are not ideal for all string types.  No company that I know of has actually calibrated the strings they make for the TransTrem.  It seems to me that we, the people who care most about having these strings available, might be able to help string companies to make truly calibrated strings. What we need is a testing center with a TransTrem set up with an adjustable headpiece.  A skilled person would then be able to establish the optimal length for each string of a specific brand or type. Then it would be up to each company to keep as close to the specification as possible.

Sorry I could not give you an immediate solution to your problem, but I do think things will be getting better in the near future. Good luck! -- Ned

April 2003

Q:  Ned - Is there a difference in the width, depth, length, etc. of the headless GL & GM necks versus the GS necks?  Or does the headstock just create that illusion? Thanks -- Troy

A:  Troy - The most important dimension, the scale length, is the same at 25.5 inches.  My first prototype guitar was 25 inches, but players said the scale was too short.  So I went to 25.5, which is the standard long scale, and everyone said the same thing!  Even though it was a long scale, they thought the frets were closer together because the instrument does not overhang the ends like a traditional guitar.  I would have to face the neck up to a Fender to prove that they are the same!   

The GS necks were made a little wider and flatter according to popular demand at the time, but the scale length is exactly the same. -- Ned

March 2003

Q1:  From the Yahoo! Groups website - Why did (you) decide to put the output jack on the upper bout of the BACK of the guitar? These instruments have so many ingenious and amazing features....this one thing just seems weird and out of place to me. There must be some logical reason. -- jp

A1:  Dear JP - Thanks for your comment.  Take a look inside the control cavity on an L-series instrument, and I think you will see why I put the jack on the other side of the body.  There simply was no room for the controls and jack on the same side.  Although I have heard this complaint about the jack location from time to time over the years, no one has yet shown me a better solution, but I’m still all ears!  We originally supplied a right angle jack with the instruments, and this works very well. -- Ned

Q2:  I have a hardtail GL with "P75" hand engraved into the body, which I was told was a prototype but seems to be just the early production run. My question is, commercially available strings are too long for the scale length and I had to fabricate a 5mm thick spacer nut (sits on top of the headstock, held in place by tension) in order to use them. Is there a part missing or was there a design change?  Sincerely --  Henry Dorn

A2: Henry - P in the serial number stands for prototype, and this meant that the instrument preceded all the production tooling, which included the final headpiece. I guess I made the first headpiece a little short, and had to adjust on the fly. I am very sorry yours is short, but your idea of the shim should work very well. But those early fixed bridge guitars did sound good! -- Ned

February 2003

Q1:  Dear Ned - Why was mahogany wood only used in the GR guitars and never available as a body wood for a GM?  Also, why weren't passive pickups ever available on the GM's?

I have always dreamed of a mahogany bodied GM since it would be the best of both worlds: the tone of mahogany with the unlimited possibilities of a TransTrem.  Thanks Ned ;) --  Casey A. Veal

A1:  Dear Casey - The physical properties of what is called mahogany can vary greatly.  Mahogany is commonly a medium density wood that is associated with a warm sound on a solid body instrument.  Rock maple is a much harder, denser (heavier) wood, and provides maximum string isolation for a more solid, driving, sustained response.  Lighter woods, like alder, tend to have a brighter tone, and are more “acoustic” sounding. Since they are also much lighter, they are less strain on the back.  Overall weight is a big factor in the sound, so I favor rock maple for the smaller bodies, and mahogany and then alder for the larger bodies.  But to a large extent, it comes down to personal preference for a certain sound and feel.

The M-series were the top of the line, so they came standard with active circuitry. I did think some passive units were made, but I could be wrong. -- Ned

Q2:  Hi Ned - Could you tell me the weight of the ash bodied GU versus the GU standard maple body?  Also, what are the tonal differences between the two woods?  Thanks -- Dave

A2:  Dave - Ash varies a great deal in density. Swamp ash, a popular body wood, can be even lighter than alder. But ash is typically a hard, dense, light colored, open grain wood. But it is usually a bit lighter than rock maple. -- Ned

January 2003

Q: Mr. Ned Steinberger - I am very impressed with your innovative designs in musical instruments.  Unfortunately, most guitarists I’ve met are not open to drastic mechanical changes (improvements) in guitar design, and low-volume tooling costs are expensive. I was wondering if you might share some of your favorite ideas or inventions that you have not pursued or will not pursue due to economic/business considerations. (such as an acoustic headless Steinberger?)  Thanks -- Dave Byrd

A: Dave - Very interesting question!  Reaching way back, I'd have to say that the String Console is the project that I most regret having to give up due to market realities.  The console is a "universal fretboard" concept that ultimately lead to my collaboration with Emmett Chapman on the NS/Stick.  But the console is quite different, in that it is a heavy instrument supported by legs. It is played horizontally with both hands, more like one would play a piano keyboard than a guitar. 

There are 10 strings on a 34 inch scale, so the instrument can be set up with virtually any tuning.  The instrument is now tuned in 4ths, starting with low B, with an octave crossover between the 6th and 7th strings. The strings can be damped beyond the 0 fret for tap style playing technique similar to what Emmett developed for the stick.  There is also a capo to hold the strings down on the zero fret for more conventional picking style, except that both hands access the strings from the same side. 

And that's where the problem lies.  Guitar players have trained their left hand to finger the strings from the opposite side of the fingerboard.  This proved to be a major barrier to acceptance.  But the sound is fantastic!  Due to the heavy contraction, it rings out forever without any dead spots on the fingerboard, and it has the tightest bass you can imagine.  Thanks to your question, I've pulled the old girl out of storage and cranked her up.  She still sounds sweet!  I've included a snapshot of the instrument so you can see what I'm talking about.


Ned's String Console.  Click on the image for a larger, more detailed view. 

Many projects do get set aside when I can't connect them with a practical production and market opportunity.  I may move on to new things, but I don't necessarily give up.  If I think something has merit, I'll keep it in mind and follow up at a later time.  The NS Violin lay fallow for years, but it has again become a major focus of my work.  A project that I put a great deal of energy into that is now collecting dust is graphite bows.  I developed a one piece molding system before the current acceptance of high-end graphite bows in the marketplace, so maybe some day I will pursue this again. 

I found it interesting to read in Guitarist magazine: "But even [Ned] Steinberger later admitted they [headless Steinberger guitars] were too radical and wooden bodied instruments followed culminating in a headstock guitar, the GS, in 1991. Shortly after Gibson purchased the company and little has been heard of it since."  Nothing could be further form the truth!  I still believe totally in the headless design.  I want to see the Steinberger line evolve to embrace a much wider market, not by watering it down, but by improving it!  I know it can be done.  My work at Steinberger was interrupted as a result of the move to Nashville.  But when I signed with Gibson, our mutual expectation was that the connection would always remain.  I am very pleased to report that we are working together again, with new projects already in the works for Steinberger. 

Funny you should ask about a Steinberger acoustic.  Who knows, it might still see the light of day.  You may have seen the new limited edition Martin TransAction guitar, which features a patented neck adjustment system that allows the action and intonation to be easily adjusted at any time.  With this feature, set up can be fine tuned to match different styles of play, and seasonal variations in action height can be easily corrected. I've been working on this concept for a long time, so it's great to see it in the marketplace at last.  But I will need to concentrate more energy on this if I want to see the system achieve wider acceptance. -- Ned

December 2002

Q: Hi Ned - I was wondering if you are open to idea submissions?  Not the "hey, a faux fur fingerboard covering would be so cool" but more workable ideas that I don't have the resources to pursue on my own.  Thanks -- Andrew

A: Andrew - I hate to say it, but it is awkward for me to look at ideas from other designers.  My life is already bogged down with the practical reality of pursuing my own ideas.  And there is very little new under the sun.  If you show me an idea that you think has commercial value, it could easily be something with which I am already familiar, especially if it is in the area of headless guitars.  Then I run the risk of offending you if I use it on my own.  But I would like to encourage you in your work.  We need more, not less, innovation in the field.  If there are any questions that I might be able to help you with, I would be happy to try. Good luck! -- Ned

November 2002

Q: Ned - I am curious to know specifically what the design differences were between the original L2 and the XL2. And was it a matter of construction cost or simplification or to improve the sound or some combination thereof?  Thanks -- Chris Naim

A: Chris - The XL 2 was developed to streamline the production and looks of the original L 2, and to provide more room for electronics.  -- Ned

October 2002

Q1: Mr. Steinberger - I've wondered why you chose the particular model designation system you used.  Why start with 'L'?  I've wondered if 'XL' was somehow supposed to sound like "excel".  Also, you used model letter designations L, M, P, Q, R, S, and K (Klein).  Any reason N and O weren't used?  Just curious. And thanks for your boundless innovation.  The world is a better place because of it. -- Andrew Call / shunkey2001 / Rochester, 

A1: Dear Andy - The first bass models were L-series for low impedance (EMG) pickups, and H-series for high impedance (Dimarzio) pickups.  The low impedance were much more popular, and were a better fit for the high performance product we were making, so we dropped the H-series very soon.  When we re-designed the bass to meet a larger market demand, we just added the X to differentiate the new model.  Why XL instead of something else?  It just seemed to have a nice ring to it.  Maybe the M was for Mike Rutherford of Genesis, but I'm not sure.  For the most part, these model designations were arbitrary. -- Ned

Q2: Dear Ned -- I think that your approach to designing and efforts to bring innovative instruments to players have had a far reaching effect on bass guitar design. Now many instrument designers look at your instruments as examples for creative problem solving. What instruments and instrument makers do you think are interesting? Who do you think stands out from the rest and why? Thank You. --  Eleanor

A2: Dear Eleanor -- There are certainly some interesting new ideas being pursued by electric string instrument designers, such as fanned frets, optical pick-ups, de-tuners, new string designs, etc.  I'm reluctant to start naming names, as I'm sure I'll leave out important people who would be justifiably upset!  Most of the exciting stuff is in electronics, however, and I don't keep close track of what is going on there. -- Ned

September 2002

Q:  Hi Ned --  Given the recent discussion on TransTrems, I thought I'd ask one on the R-Trem.

It seems to be an excellent design and has good tuning stability. My main problem is that I prefer a non-floating trem. (This has benefits for playing in different tunings, lower flutter, no bending reactions on other strings, and also is indifferent to string breakage. All you lose is the ability to pull up.)

I'm planning to modify an R-Trem by gluing a small block in front of the 'tongue' to give it a solid rest equivalent to the locked position. Then by cranking spring pressure up a bit it should stay put with bending and different tunings. Will this cause the knife edge to wander around in its seat, or some similar problem?  Or is there a better way for me to go about it? Thanks. -- Mike Rejsa

A:   Dear Mike --  It should be easy to limit the travel of the R-trem by adding a block under the tuning mechanism (I'm not sure what you mean by the "tongue").  This block would ideally be made of hard wood, about 3/4 inch square and 7/16 inch thick.  It is best to place it on center as far back as possible, directly on top of the spring adjustment housing.  Unfortunately, this requires the removal of the rubber bumper that normally limits upward travel.  The block could also be placed just to the front or side of the rubber, but the more on center the better.  Double face tape, or a little crazy glue, should hold it in place.  You're right, just crank the spring a little to keep the trem seated on the block when it's not in use, and you have a stable, drop-only trem.  This should not damage the trem unless you forget that the travel is limited, and try to pull up very hard, in which case you could conceivably pop the knife edges apart, but I doubt you would ever have a problem. -- Ned

August 2002

Q:  Ned -- I have heard that perhaps you're not a guitar player.   If this is true how did you decide on some very 'guitarist subjective' parameters?  By that I mean neck profile, fingerboard radius, fret size, string spacing, scale length, etc.  I realize that as a designer you did your 'homework' (a lot of it), but some aspects of guitar making aren't black and white. -- C.
A:  Dear C -- Just about the only thing that is black and white in guitar making is the location of the frets, and even that is disputed by some.  Rigidity was a priority to get the ringing tone I was looking for, and this effected neck shape.  A deeper profile greatly increases stiffness, so my goal was to make the neck as thick as I could get away with without making it feel clubby.  The full round shape made sense to me, and seemed to feel good to players, so that's what I went with.  Advice from Stanley Clarke, of all people, put me on track to the narrow string spacing I used on the bass.  He said a narrow, thick neck was the easiest to play, and this fit my structural goals, so it seemed like the way to go.  It still makes sense to me, but I learned a good lesson in that what works for a great player may not work for everyone.  Over time I have come to appreciate how much the narrow spacing does cause problems for some more traditional bass players. 

Scale length is interesting.  I made the first Steinberger 6 string guitar with the compromise scale length of 25 inches (between the standard Fender and Gibson).  Almost everybody who played it said the scale was too short. So I figured, OK, I'll make the guitar with the longest standard scale, which is 25 1/2 inches.  Players still complained that the scale was too short!  The shorter overall size of the guitar created an illusion that the scale was shorter as well, so many players felt sure that their fingers were cramped between the frets.  Many simply would not believe me when I told them it was the full 25 1/2 inch scale unless I held it up directly to a Fender so they could see with their own eyes that the frets and the bridges lined up exactly.  This just points out that an instrument designer needs to listen very carefully to what players have to say, and then interpret what it all really means in terms of known design parameters.  A great player may have some pretty crazy ideas about how a guitar works, and as a result have equally crazy ideas of how it should be designed. 

Too much fingerboard curvature causes "fret-out", or buzzing when you bend the higher frets, so I kept this to a large 15 inch radius.  Most electric players like jumbo frets, so why not give them what they want?  I try to avoid making changes in the way an instrument feels and plays unless I have a clear reason to do so. -- Ned

July 2002

Q:  Dear Ned -- I have a tuning question.  Recently I have noticed various products dealing with tuning problems on guitars, especially concerning open chords and the higher strings.  I've seen discussions on the faults with "equal temperament" tuning.  Yamaha has "the wave" which is a curved fret.  Earvana makes a "compensating" nut, and I have read about the Buzz Feiten tuning system.

Maybe my ear isn't that good (although I've been playing guitar for over 20 years) but I haven't noticed a problem with my GP-2S or any other guitar that I have owned. Are you familiar with these products and this supposed tuning problem?  Was this ever a concern for you when you were designing your guitars?  Do you feel it is a concern for guitarists, and if so what would be your solution?  Thank you. -- Ken Francik

A:  Dear Ken -- The argument about equal temperament is as old as the hills, but put to bed as far as I'm concerned by Bach with his wonderful series of compositions called the Well Tempered Clavier.  While it is true that dividing the octave into 12 equal semi-tones does not yield perfect intervals, and this can be heard by folks blessed with good ears, it is the only practical way to make a fretted instrument.  Unless you are happy to have a separate guitar (with discontinuous frets) for every key you want to play in, then equal temperament is the only option.

I am not familiar with the curved "wave" fret, but I am frankly dubious.  A variation from the equal temperament, which varying the relationship between the frets necessarily involves, may improve the intervals in one key, but will inevitably make other scales sound worse.  I think the reason that certain idiosyncratic fret spacing may be attractive to some players is that they play primarily in one key, and an uneven spacing that improves their favorite key will sound very good most of the time. 

Compensating nuts make no sense to me.  Why should the pitch relationship between the open E and the first fret (F) be any different than the relationship between open A and A#, or any other semi-tone?  I know that many players love the Feiten system, which has certainly given me pause, but I think I understand why.  Most nuts are placed so the front edge is lined up exactly with the center of what would be the zero fret.  This has 2 problems.  First, the nut slots are usually cut a little on the high side to minimize buzzing on the open note.  This means that the string has to be pushed down more between the nut and the first fret than it would between any two frets.  This increases tension and results in a larger pitch interval between the nut and the first fret, which is definitely undesirable.  Secondly, the fret has width, so placing the front of the nut at what would be the center of a zero fret effectively increases the distance between the nut and the first fret, compounding the problem by making the pitch interval at the first fret larger still.  The Feiten System addresses this basic problem by moving the nut forward, which is helpful.  Steinberger instruments do not have this problem because they use a zero fret. -- Ned

June 2002

Q:  I am fortunate enough to own one of your incomparable US series double basses (a fantastic instrument in every way).  The construction of this instrument out of alternating layers of wood and graphite composite seems like the best of both worlds, allowing, as you say, both the tonality and feel of wood, with the strength and stiffness of graphite.

Might you ever consider producing a range of electric basses and guitars using this construction, or does it require a larger size instrument (I notice that your cellos and violins are principally wood)? Might you also consider producing graphite bows, perhaps even with a wood veneer? -- Steven

A:  Steven -- I agree that combining graphite and wood has an important application for guitars and bass guitars.  In fact, I have a graphite and wood guitar project in the works right now.  However, I don't believe the molded layers of wood and graphite used in the US made NS Double Bass would be the most effective way to build a guitar. The laminating process forms a single curved piece. This piece becomes the concave neck, body, and headstock of the bass, but a single curve like this is not so well suited to form the parts of a guitar. -- Ned

May 2002

Q1:  Can a TransTrem guitar bridge be made to function properly with a neck or fretboard that is shorter than Steinberger's standard 25.5" scale -- e.g., 24.75?  If the TransTrem's pitch synchronization functions are not inherently dependent on a 25.5" neck scale, what sort of adaptations would you recommend? 

I had initially considered mounting a short-scale fret layout on a standard Steinberger neck, leaving greater distance between the headpiece and the zero fret to accommodate standard 25.5" double-ball strings.  Without additional modifications, however, this would result in inadequate pressure at the zero fret, causing fret buzz, weak tone, and reduced sustain.  I then considered using a Floyd Rose locking nut in lieu of the zero fret, but this would mean sacrificing the convenience and accuracy of calibrated double-ball strings. 

Bottom line: Unless my fingers magically grow an inch longer in the next month or so, I'd *really* appreciate any insights and tips you might be able to offer! 

Thanks for your generous contributions to this site and for your numerous contributions to the art.  Warmest regards -- Peter Craig Martin / Seattle

A1:  Peter -- I'm sure a shorter neck could be made to work with the TransTrem. The tension would be lower, but otherwise it should function normally, more or less.  It would probably involve more effort than it would be worth. -- Ned

Q2:  Ned -- I own several of your Steinberger guitars with TransTrems and have noticed that some of the TT's have brass rollers in the saddles and some have what looks to be stainless steel. Is there a reason for this, or is one type better than the other?  I've posted this question to the group but no one seems to have any ideas or answers for me.  Thanks and I love your guitars!  -- Troy Fancil

A2:  Troy-- Actually you may find that the many of the "stainless" rollers are plated brass.  We switched to plain brass because it makes a slightly better bearing surface.  -- Ned

Q3:  Hello Ned -- I liked the question that Brad had concerning the TransTrem's ability to do a standard dive bomb, that would be the perfect system (See March 2002 column). I also think the idea you have using just three positions is good also, that's all I use is three positions.

I would like to know if you have plans on making a seven string TransTrem? Is Steinberger going back into production, if so, will they offer a seven string guitar?

Personally, I think Steinbergers are the best guitars in the world and it's unfortunate that they are no longer in production. I have 5 Steinbergers and I hope to obtain more.

Thanks Ned for an awesome design. -- Torence

A3:  Torence -- I don't foresee a 7 string TransTrem in the near future, anyway. -- Ned

April 2002

Q:  Ned -- If you had it all to do over again re the organization & corporate structure of the original Steinberger Sound...What would you do differently...and do you think the original group would be crafting world-class guitars and basses now?

A:  If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't do it at all!  I'm kidding, partly.  I would definitely get better financing, and stay smaller, or at least grow slower.  But I don't think there is any way the original group could still be together.  People need to move on for professional and personal reasons.  I started Steinberger Sound with a utopian fantasy about how the business could satisfy everyone involved, but that naiveté was not long lived.  Financial pressures eventually stressed the company (and me) to the limit, which is why, among other reasons, I sold to Gibson.  Sure, I sometimes wonder what might have happened if..., but we don't get to do it all over, thank God! -- Ned

March 2002

Q:  I have a few product ideas for the guitar that I can't get out of my head and would be very interesting in finding out how you went about taking an idea from conception all the way through to production. Could you also include a little something on obtaining and protecting your patents?  -- Brad / Vancouver, BC

A:  As to how I get from idea to production, the short answer is with great difficulty!  In my case the transformation is generally made in steps.  Depending on the complexity of the design problem, I generally start with a non-functional mock-up, then build an original prototype.  If it looks like it is worth pursuing further, I move on to additional prototypes as required, then to short pre-production runs, on to limited production, and then, in some cases, to volume production.  The product evolves through this process and hopefully gets better, although some compromises for production are hard to avoid. 

When I was 12 years old I discovered woodworking tools and I've been at it ever since.  I have always made my own prototypes, with the exception of precision machining and electronics.  This saves a great deal of money, of which I had next to none when I started out.  Making prototypes one's self cuts through a lot of problems that arise in translating ideas to someone else to implement, and I'm a control freak when it comes to my design work.  Making the original samples does involve a lot of work, but the process can be very satisfying. 

For me, setting priorities and staying focused on the most important elements is a key to success.  No product can be all things at once.  It is important to understand the trade-offs and to make the required compromises as thoughtfully as possible.  One thing I do that is very helpful is to make non-functional mock-ups from pine or other cheap, easy to fabricate materials.  These mock-ups can be quickly made and modified, so ideas can be worked out in space before working prototypes are made.  I've gotten better at this over the years, so that in the case of my latest instruments, the NS Violin and Viola, I was able to go directly from mock-up to computerized machining of prototypes, with almost no changes required for final production. 

I worked out a great deal of the original production machinery for the Steinberger Bass, and still do to a lesser extent for my current work.  At the beginning I had very little experience, and made an ungodly number of stupid and costly mistakes.  For example, I totally destroyed my first all composite bass mold the very first time I tried to use it.  The mold took me literally months to make, and I was never able to make even a single part with it!  Why I didn't give up then I can't explain, but I guess I felt challenged by failure in a way that kept me motivated.  For good or bad, I've always tended to follow the trial and error method.  On the other hand it is important to get expert help.  At Steinberger Sound one of my original partners, who I'm sad to say has died recently, was an older and highly experienced plastics engineer.  I couldn't have done it without him, and in the process I found how valuable (and generous) older associates can be.

Patents are another interesting subject, probably better addressed in another installment. I'm not a patent attorney or an expert on the law, but I have experience with quite a few patents and would be happy to share my inventor's-eye view of the process. -- Ned Steinberger

February 2002

Q:  I was wondering if you might consider making a new transposing tremolo design that would allow the player to disable the transposing feature "on the fly".  The tremolo could then be used for conventional "dive-bomb" pitch bends.  I don't know what the technical and engineering issues are but I would certainly be interested in such a tremolo.  If anyone can succeed in solving this engineering problem, I am confident you can.   -- Brad / Vancouver, BC

A:  Brad -- I do hope to continue development on the TransTrem, so your suggestion is interesting to me.   It would be possible to have both transposing and non-transposing (conventional) modes on a single trem, but this would likely involve a level of complexity that would be considerably higher even than the existing TransTrem mechanism.  For this reason I doubt it would be worth it for many players.  Two guitars is probably a more practical solution.  My thinking for the TransTrem goes in a different direction.  I feel it needs to be simplified, so it's as easy and hassle free to use as possible.  Toward that end, I am thinking of a 3 position arm lock, with center (E), down 1 (D), and up 1 (F, F#  or G?) transposing presets.   It seems to me that it is difficult to dependably catch the right tuning notch "on the fly," as you say, with the current  6 position system now offered.  3 positions would be much easier.  I'm sure some people would miss the extra positions, but I believe it would allow better freedom of access for most players.  Would you agree?  -- Ned