STEINBERGER by Jim Reilly – A Review

I’ve long been a fan of Ned Steinberger’s work, and I’ve owned an NS Design creation, my NXT5 upright bass, for over a decade. If there were no limits to my budget and to the ready availability of left-handed NS instruments, I would probably own quite a few more. Since meeting both Jim Reilly and Ned Steinberger at Winter NAMM 2018, and learning that this biography was being written, I have very much looked forward to reading it.

Steinberger is not, strictly speaking, just a biography of Ned Steinberger – it’s much more than that. After introducing the man himself and his family in detail, author Jim Reilly takes us through a gripping journey where the main subject is in fact Steinberger’s creativity, and the serendipitous way in which he ends up using it to design and build a new, revolutionary bass guitar (at the start), an equally revolutionary electric guitar, and an entire line of strikingly modern stringed instruments (later) – despite not being a bass player himself and, initially, having no particular interest in making instruments.

If you pick up this book hoping to read salacious details of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of the many famous Steinberger customers – the likes of Tony Levin, Eddie Van Halen, Sting, Mike Rutherford, Laurie Anderson, to name but a few – you should put it down and walk away. On the other hand, if you are a musician, technically minded, and fascinated by the thought processes and challenges behind the design, engineering and construction of stringed instruments, this extremely well-researched book is a must-read.

There is plenty of information about Ned Steinberger’s forays into starting, running and selling his companies, licensing his designs, collaborating with individuals and companies like D’Addario, La Bella, David Gage of Realist, and Emmett Chapman (he of the Chapman Stick); predictably, however, my favourite parts of the book are the meticulously-documented descriptions of the actual creation of those instruments.

Steinberger’s music-related work began relatively normally, over 40 years ago, when he designed the Spector NS models with Stuart Spector, but soon got more radical on his own creations. With no background in engineering, he simply operates by seeing a problem and deciding to solve it. As he isn’t a trained musician, from the start he has had no preconceptions about what a bass guitar should look or feel like, so he’s re-invented it from scratch, with the sole aim of making it excellent at what it’s supposed to do. The same has happened for the electric guitar, and for all the stringed instruments that are now part of the NS Design family.

Throughout this biography we see Steinberger’s drawings turn into successive prototypes; we discover what each one looks like, how it works, and where and why it fails, to be replaced by an improved version. Along the way, we can’t help becoming aware of the obstacles that the traditional shape of stringed instruments, and the materials used for centuries to build them, throw in our path while we strive to learn, practice and improve. We may decide that, after all, we prefer the sound of a traditionally-shaped, wooden guitar, or that we actually enjoy the sheer physicality of playing a double bass by hugging it. However, through reading this book, we appreciate Steinberger’s reasons for looking at the whole matter from a different angle, and coming up with unprecedented, far more user-friendly solutions.

Recommended reading for traditionalist and modern musicians alike.

My lefty NS Design NXT5

 

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