Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Ned Steinberger would agree. His approach to musical instruments has always been ahead of the curve, using new concepts and new materials to improve their sound and playability. The results have sometimes been startling in their ingenuity.
Ned is, first and foremost, a designer. He became an instrument designer almost by accident, when one of his neighbors in the Brooklyn Woodworkers Cooperative in the 1970s was Stuart Spector. Ned was designing and building furniture at the time. Curious about the instruments in Spector’s shop, Ned began to investigate bass guitars. He drew up a design that became the Spector NS bass—a classic that’s still in production. Although he was pleased with the realization of that design, he soon went to work on something even more radical. The result was the Steinberger bass, a headless instrument with a small, rectangular composite body. It was (and remains) the most innovative rethinking of bass guitar design since Leo Fender created the Precision Bass.
In 1979, Ned opened the Steinberger Sound Company to build the instruments he was designing. Seven years later, unhappy with the demands of running a business, he sold his company to Gibson. “From the get-go, I never wanted to be a manufacturer,” Ned says. “I’m a designer. What I want to do is take whatever I’m working on to the next level. That’s what drives my work.”
In the early ’90s, Ned moved on to the next stage of his career, opening NS Design and introducing the NS Double Bass, an innovative electric upright. Now available in several configurations, including 5-and 6-string models, it eventually spawned an entire line; the current NS Design catalog includes an electric violin, viola, and cello as well as the Omni Bass—a hybrid instrument that’s an EUB with a 34" scale—and the Radius, a headless bass guitar. Consistent with Ned’s desire to be a designer and not a manufacturer, almost all NS Design basses are now built by contractors in the Czech Republic (CR and NXT series), India (WAV-series uprights), and Indonesia (WAV-series Radius bass guitars).
Ned is constantly improving his creations. One of the latest variations is the NXTa upright, which features a battery-free active circuit. Developed by Mi-Si Electronics, the circuit is based on a supercapacitor that’s charged by plugging into an AC outlet for 60 seconds; it will then operate for up to 16 hours. “We’re excited to have it on our product. It uses a limited amount of power very efficiently and develops a beautiful low-impedance signal.” And, thanks to a push/pull switch, the NXTa bass can also be played in passive mode.
Another example of Ned’s forward thinking is the self-clamping bridge on the Radius. While the original Steinberger headless basses required double-ball strings, the Radius uses conventional strings, with the ball end at the headstock and the wrapped end running into the bridge, where it’s held in place by a patented clamping system. “That’s something I worked on for a long time. I wanted to see if I could figure it out, since double-ball strings are expensive and hard to find. Eventually I did, and this system works well.” Ned is also at work on another headless tuning system. “It features low friction for smooth, easy operation,” he says.
Beyond that, Ned is contemplating bringing the Mi-Si active circuit to the Radius bass guitar—and thinking about other ways to expand his line to reach more players. “If you’re really interested in making musical instruments for people to play, then the more affordable they are, the better,” says Ned. “That’s important to me.” But you can be sure that whatever the price, any instrument designed by Ned Steinberger will offer ingenious ideas that will open up new possibilities for musicians. That’s been his goal ever since the day in 1976 when he told Stuart Spector, “Hey, I think I could design a bass guitar.”
For more about NS Design, go to thinkns.com.
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).