Retro-Rama: 1984 Steinberger XL25 5-string

HARD AS IT MAY BE FOR SOME OF US to believe, it’s been almost 30 years since the Steinberger bass turned the electric bass world upside down with its unique look and hi-tech tone. Coming to the bass world from a design background, Ned Steinberger arrived armed with a vision to reinvent the basic concepts of creating an electric bass. The first Steinberger bass hit the scene in 1980, and was an immediate sensation—and subject of debate— among bass players worldwide. Appearing at the dawn of the MTV era, the first wave of Steinbergers seemed to be everywhere throughout the ’80s. The Dixie Dregs’ Andy West and reggae bassist/producer Robbie Shakespeare were two early players of this innovative instrument, giving some indication of its global reach.
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HARD AS IT MAY BE FOR SOME OF US to believe, it’s been almost 30 years since the Steinberger bass turned the electric bass world upside down with its unique look and hi-tech tone. Coming to the bass world from a design background, Ned Steinberger arrived armed with a vision to reinvent the basic concepts of creating an electric bass. The first Steinberger bass hit the scene in 1980, and was an immediate sensation—and subject of debate— among bass players worldwide. Appearing at the dawn of the MTV era, the first wave of Steinbergers seemed to be everywhere throughout the ’80s. The Dixie Dregs’ Andy West and reggae bassist/producer Robbie Shakespeare were two early players of this innovative instrument, giving some indication of its global reach.

Ned’s first bass design was for Stuart Spector, who he met in a woodworking collective. Their collaboration resulted in the very successful Spector NS bass guitar, which has endured to this day. But soon Ned began to explore entirely new concepts of bass design, materials, and construction, all with the emphasis on performance. Trying to start from scratch, he experimented with weight distribution by moving the tuners to the body, and by trimming size and weight from the traditional bass guitar shape. Working with different materials, he eventually settled on a combination of graphite fiber and epoxy resin that was lightweight, but had the stiffness and rigidity to provide the tone he sought.

Steinberger’s single-pickup L1 and double-pickup L2 models both featured low-impedance EMGs, which are split Pstyle pickups in a soapbar housing. The 5-string version of the L2 made its first appearance in 1982. The L series evolved into the XL series by 1984, and a later model of this bass, the XL25W, had a considerably wider neck. This bass, which belongs to Nashville bassist Spady Brannan, is one of the earlier “narrow neck” versions, with its bridge and neck sharing the same width as a 4-string, so the string spacing is narrow by any standard.

Getting used to the tight spacing is one of a number of adjustments one has to make to play this bass when you first pick it up. It takes a few moments to get your left hand used to the lack of a headstock. But once you settle in, it becomes fun to play wide double stops and chords that would be more difficult on a standard 5. Playing sitting down is made easier by the leg rest that folds down, and the bass’s light weight feels really nice when playing standing up.

When the Steinberger first started getting play, some felt the instrument’s lack of “woodiness” gave it a cold, unfeeling sound. I respect anyone’s right to say that, but in hindsight, the positive sonic attributes of this bass seem plain to see. The Steinberger came to prominence in an era of drum machines, keyboards, and multitracked guitars, and its consistent, even tone helped the bass cut through the highdensity music of the day. Every single note on this bass is resonant and even, with long piano-like sustain.

By tweaking the bass’s three knobs— volume, blend and tone—there are a lot of tones at hand. The tone control has a wide range, spanning from extreme brightness to warm thud. It’s almost as if the XL25 has a neutral personality that allows your musical concept to emerge uncolored by the instrument itself.

By the late ’70s, various people had already experimented with alternate materials, headless necks, and bridge tuners, but Ned Steinberger brought all these elements together perfectly in 1980. He sold Steinberger to Gibson in 1986, and since 1990, he has been operating under the name NS Design, building an innovative new line of electric upright basses, cellos, and more. No matter what your sentiments about the ’80s may be, there is no doubt that the Steinberger bass changed the landscape of bass forever.

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