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Reasons and seasons

So why Steinberger? Not only the design caught my very attention, but also the usage of space age composite material. The original L-models feature a one piece body/neck and are so stable, one can stand on them and they wouldn't break. There's a nice video of Ned Steinberger himself demonstrating this. Also Steinberger didn't use (S-Model as only exception) a conventional headstock or body (L-model!) which caused many people not to buy them at first. Although there had been some experiments in the forties with headless designs, this was an absolutely new attempt to build a guitar and can be categorized a break through like the Gibson Les Paul or the Fender Broadcaster in the late 40s/early 50s. The headless design provided many advantages, like the strings aren't wound on a tuner, and the tuning machines would pull the strings directly so they‘re more accurate to tune. So this construction is responsible for much more tuning stability than known before. Also it became much easier to change strings. By using 40:1 tuners and double ball end strings, a whole set of strings can be changed in a minute. The basic invention was made in 1979 as a four string bass guitar. After Steinberger, who never wanted to be a producer himself, couldn‘t get any company interested in producing his invention, he had no other option left and founded his company, Steinberger Sound, in the winter of 1979 in Brooklyn, NY.


Another stunning invention was the TransTrem, introduced in 1984. By being able to set the vertical position of each string at the bridge and using calibrated strings (each string has an exact individual length) this Trem was the first that made it possible to bend two or more (even all) strings in tune. This feature can be used for creating lap steel effects as well as in bending intervals and chords up and down. The TransTrem also has some notches at the bridge, allowing to lock the guitar in different tunings (B, C, D, E, F#, G). The locking mechanism also had the big advantage that one could finish a song even with a broken string. Some more info as well as pictures of the TransTrem can be found here.

The TransTrem exists in three different types: The earlier TT1 is made of milled steel, whilst the TT2 is made of cast metal (a zinc alloy). The newer TT3 is featured on the ZT3 only. I never laid hands on a TT1 equipped guitar, but in the internet you can find the opinion very often that the TT1 was more superior in terms of quality and sustain than the TT2 (which also has much more sustain than any other trem I know). I can only say that the TT2 which is featured on the vast majority of all TT equipped guitars is very durable and reliable. My four TT2-guitars have never let me down, even after 25 years of service! So the material choice could not have been the worst one.

The TT1 used threaded ball end strings in the beginning and changed to double ball end strings right after that. The double balls enable a much quicker string change than the threaded ball version. Steinberger offered to convert the original TT1, so regular double ball strings could be used.

Both the TT1 and TT2 use bearings to provide a pivot axis. Although bearings are not used in a full rotation mode, as they are designed for, they provide a friction free movement of the whole system. The only problem is, that bearings wear faster over the time when only moving a small arc compared to full rotating use. But they can he changed. You can find many interesting tips on maintenance and trouble shooting here.

My advice is to lubricate it well with a residue-free lubricant, like a teflon added gun oil.

HAZ Labs active electronics

A Steinberger guitar fitted with EMGs doesn't necessarily mean the guitar is "active". Every low impedance EMG pickup needs a battery to feed the preamp stage located in the guitar to boost the very weak signal resulting from these pickups. EMG also produces high impedance, passive pickups, how to tell them apart from the active pickups can be seen here.

However, back to our subject: In terms of a Steinberger guitar, "active" means a guitar loaded with active EMG pickups AND and active equalization. Normally a tone potentiometer just cuts high frequencies out of the signal. With active equalization, a certain frequency range can be boosted or dampened. Therefore an electric circuitry is needed. In case of Steinberger guitars these were provided by HAZ Labs. They can be easily recognized, by checking the electronics. If there's a little print board, then the instrument is equipped with an active HAZ Labs Tone equalization. But also you can check out by turning the pots:

Older version: If the tone pot has a center position, you have a HAZ Labs board.

Newer version: There‘s a stacked Tone pot where you can boost or reduce bass and treble separately.

More info on HAZ Labs can be obtained here.

At normal use, a 9V battery will last for half a year. If the signal of the instrument shows any distortion (when played clean) it's time to change it. As usual, unplugging the instrument after use will increase battery life. But you can also measure the voltage of your battery using a voltmeter. If it's less than 7,5 Volts, it won't work properly.

Pick it up!

Steinberger guitars were (apart from a few exceptions like the GR-model or custom order instruments) factory equipped with EMG pickups. Mostly active ones were used, but there also have been passive versions, specially made for Steinberger by EMG. These can be distinguished by position of the logo. Note, that there have been custom order instruments that featured stock passive pickups.

Also there has been an Allan Holdsworth signature model GL2T-AH (white) that sported custom wound Seymour Duncan SHAH1 pickups. As far as I can recall this model had a flat fretboard (meaning no radius) and was available in Japan only. For his pickups, Allan used the same version on bridge as well as on the neck. In an interview he stated, he just puts the bridge pickup closer to the strings. But as many of us fans know, Allan rarely uses a neck pickup or even guitars that feature a second pickup.

But back to the EMGs: Some years ago, I read how sterile and bad they would sound and I thought I‘d change them for passive pickups. But after hearing the rich sound of them and felt their great response to every nuance in your picking style, I was totally convinced of the low impedance system. And what really floored me was the amazing sound of the single coils, although I always considered myself a humbucker guy. So, in my opinion there‘s no need to swap them!

Don‘t miss this great article in Premier Guitar Magazine on EMG pickups.

Naming Game

Although there are some sites on the web trying to convince us that the letters of the model names are abbreviations, Steinberger never intended to give their instruments model names. Ned Steinberger once was asked, if the „M“ in GM/XM was short for its inventor, Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford. He answered: „maybe“. So there are no names, just letters.

„X“ stands for Bass, „G“ for guitar, the model names are „L“- the original all graphite broom, „M“ the more traditional wooden body, „P“ the little V-type body, „T“ for TransTrem, „S“ for S-Trem, „R“ for R-Trem. The number indicates the pickup configuration. More info here.

Grab a bag!

Steinbergers were sold in a black canvas bag. Ned Steinberger was so convinced of the durability and quality of his instruments that he dared to sell them in a gig bag rather than a case. The original bag is quite thin and also not really water resistant. For myself, I prefer the Warwick Rockbag premium line bags which are water resistant (but not proof!) and provide much more security for the instrument by using a 30 mm thick padding. They also have very broad shoulder straps, so the guitar‘s weight is more comfortable to carry around. But of course there are custom fit cases. At least MusicYo era GM came with a case.

Pre Gibson, or what?

There're many opinions regarding the quality of pre-Gibson (until Nov. 1987) Steinbergers and the instruments made later. The most trustful source and fan base, Steinbergerworld, states that the quality hasn't changed and in some cases even improved.

In the late nineties, early zeros ;-) MusicYO, a subdivision also of Gibson was founded and used the internet as way of direct distribution to customers. Low end models like the Spirit Line (wooden bodies and necks) but also a Steinberger USA-Line were introduced. The latter featured the M-series again (with graphite neck) and the GLB (a GL Version with a wooden body. The „B“ stands for „bolt-on“). 

Music Yo was closed in 2009. Soon after that, Steinberger (still under Gibson) has launched some new instrument designs, so Steinbergers are available again. The new ZT3 even comes with a new version of the TransTrem. See here.


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