While few dispute Leo Fender being hailed as the father of electric bass as we know it, Ned Steinberger may well be the father of electric bass as we never imagined it. His very first collaboration with Stuart Spector in the mid 1970s produced the iconic Spector NS-1 bass, and in the years that followed, his innovative designs literally changed the shape of electric bass with a focus on ergonomics, outside-the-box materials, and improved function. The Steinberger L2 bass (introduced in 1979) was revolutionary in concept, technology, and design; the headless, graphite axe with a minimalist body found its way into the hands of pioneering players like Tony Levin, Andy West, Bill Wyman, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. The L2 spawned a myriad of imitators and has become a defining image of the 1980s music scene.
Another area of focus for Mr. NS has been the amplification of acoustic instruments, and acoustic/electric hybrids. The David Gage/NS Realist piezo pickup set a new standard for upright bass players, and in the hands of Tony Levin, Les Claypool, Rob Wasserman, and others, the solidbody NS Double Bass has become somewhat iconic. The newest offering from NS Design is the NS-CR Radius Bass, a hybrid instrument that straddles the electric/acoustic fence without short-changing either side. The CR in the name designates the instrument’s origins in the Czech Republic, where NS builds its imported CR, CRT, and EU-series electric stringed instruments. The Radius is definitely inspired by classic violin-family values, but there are several forward-thinking developments at work that put this bass on the leading edge—a place Steinberger knows well.
Screaming Headless Torsos
The Radius bass has a maple di-radial body, which simply means the back and top have two different arches. The back has the generous belly cut familiar to Spector fans, while the top’s tighter radius adds to the instrument’s classical vibe. In addition to being attractive, these features make the bass lie naturally against the body, and puts the playing surface in a comfortable spot. The headless design and extended top horn help the Radius hang from the strap effortlessly and avoid neck-dive. The fretted 5-string review bass came in the amber satin finish typical of the NS Double Bass, while the fretless 5’s natural satin finish let the flame-maple top’s subtle beauty radiate. (A charcoal satin finish is also available.)
The Radius sports the new Fusion neck, which embeds a carbon-fiber core in a one-piece, bolt-on maple neck with an adjustable trussrod (easily fine-tuned at the top of the neck). The carbon core gives the Radius neck rock-solid stability and tonal consistency without overshadowing the maple’s natural tone and feel. The fretless model has standard position dots along the top of the fingerboard, with small dots along the fingerboard face for each fret location, moving up the neck in a diagonal pattern similar to the NS Double Bass. The dots are understated enough to satisfy the “go naked” crowd while still providing helpful clues for intonation. The test bass’s fingerboard was planed to perfection, and the aluminum nut was properly slotted, giving the Radius “mwah” and growl.
Steinberger first introduced the headless concept with the L2, and the Radius benefits from the design’s improved physical balance and compactness. In the nicely tailored case (included), the svelte Radius looks more like a tennis racket, and should get past even the most doubtful flight attendant. While bridge-placed tuners are a Steinberger hallmark, this particular body-mounted tuning system originated with the NS Violin design, and has a self-clamping mechanism that allows you to use any long-scale bass string. The floating-style bridge blade is made from aluminum, with an embedded NS Polar piezo pickup. The bridge has adjustments for height and intonation, but I was initially skeptical about how in-tune the fretted bass would play without individual string saddles. To my surprise, its intonation was exceptional, the individual notes of chords above the 12th fret sonorously blended together, and “drone-testing” arpeggios up each string proved that even troublesome 3rds were well-tempered. The Polar pickup gives a balanced response across all strings and can be mixed with the EMG pickups via the blend pot. A three-way mini-toggle activates filters that cut the piezo’s high frequencies, giving you the option for full-on treble, or more rounded, fat tones that can fill out the rhythm section.
The EMG half of the electronics package incorporates its BTS boost/cut EQ circuit, feeding 18 volts to two EMG 40 CS (ceramic magnets, steel core) humbuckers. The bass control is centered around 40Hz, while dip switches found in the orderly control cavity give you four different slopes for the treble response. The slap tone on the fretted model is crisp and modern, with deep-dish lows and crystalline highs, but the Radius can shift gears with the turn of a knob. The 3-way mini-toggle selects among bridge, neck, or both pickups, and while I would have preferred a blend pot to explore different mixes of the two EMGs, it’s no deal-breaker. For fans of the “Willis ramp,” the pickup cover’s radius matches that of the fingerboard, which creates an even feel under the plucking hand, encourages good technique, and looks sweet.
I confess that in the past, I have not been a fan of piezo pickups on electric bass. It’s a tricky idea to implement well, and most piezos sound clacky and unmusical to me in this application. But thanks to the 3-way filter switch, the Radius won me over with warm, round piezo tones that blend well with other acoustic instruments. Rather than having a separate piezo in each string saddle like some piezo/magnetic hybrids, the one-piece bridge and single-saddle pickup design produced a balanced, natural piezo tone. On a Western swing gig I played the fretted Radius through an AER Amp Three, using just the piezo for classic Bob Wills tunes. I plumped up the bottom with the bass control, and palm-muted for maximum old-school upright thump. For the modern (pre-1975) country numbers, I switched over to the EMGs and got studio- ready tone that ably supported the nine-piece band, while providing much-needed clarity in a somewhat boomy room. I greatly appreciated the instrument’s enhanced ergonomics over the span of my two-hour set. The fretless model has quite a range of textures as well—the Jaco palette is all there, but the neck pickup could easily satisfy the fretless P-Bass crowd (you know who you are!). The Polar pickup on the fretless makes more modern upright simulations very possible. With the piezo filter in the two darker positions, you can capture the sustain and Ron Carter-like growl of the ebony fingerboard without too much finger noise. A set of flatwounds or tapewounds would produce a very convincing jazz upright bass tone.
Once again, NS Design brings something new to the table with the ultra-cool Radius CR Bass. The build quality is excellent, the design is forward-leaning yet traditionally rooted, and it’s a pleasure to play. Its split personality works great in piezo or magnetic mode, and the blend of the two opens up uncharted tonal possibilities.
RADIUS CR 5 FRETTED & FRETLESS
Pros Great acoustic or electric tone, ergonomically gifted
Cons No blend for magnetic pickups
Bottom line The Radius successfully integrates acoustic and electric tone in an attractive, highly playable instrument.
Body Swamp ash
Fingerboard radius 15"
Frets 24, .103" x .048" medium-jumbo
Bridge Aluminum, one-piece bridge and saddle
String spacing at bridge .70" (18mm)
Tuning keys NS Patented Tuning System
Neck width at nut 1.85"
Scale length 35"
Pickups Two EMG 40 CSX, NS Polar piezo
Preamp 18-volt, B/T, boost/cut, piezo filter
Controls Volume, piezo blend, B/T, 3-way pickup select, 3-way piezo filter
Weight 8.6 lbs
Made in Czech Republic