Steinberger L Series

(updated on 11-4-2008)

In the 80’s, Steinberger started a revoluton in guitar-making by producing the all graphite L series Steinberger gutiar. There is not one bit of wood on the guitar, no headstock and requires double ball strings. Unlike the French revolution, Steinberger’s revolution did not kill anyone. It actually generated a lot of interest at the time. It was fashionable to be seen with a Steinberger; from Van Halen to Mike Rutherford, from Leslie West to Allan Holdsworth, literally everyone had one and was using one at one stage or another. But unlike the French revolution, the after effects of the Steinberger revolution was short-lived. Just few years down road, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it, some players wouldn’t even been seem dead with one. To put it in a nutshell, the guitar is ugly, ungainly and in seem more like a toy in the hands of players of with any substantial physical attributes. The guitar certain has a good sustain and is crystal clear but the sound was cold, frigid and thin. After all what can you expect with not a piece of wood on the guitar and the sound source is two EMG active pick-ups.

I purchased my Steinberger in the early 90’s. I have been a Gibson Les Paul player all my life but I need to do slide guitar in open tuning. Conventional guitar necks just cannot take the tension generated by an Open A tuning. The Steinberger was the answer. With electric slide guitar, the guitar matters none too much, the tone is generated with the slide. I have been using it for years exclusively for slide playing until I decided to get a spare one from E-bay (well, just in case, you never know). These things are not cheap, they go for US$1,200 second hand. I tried out the guitar in standard tuning and found the guitar not very well balanced to say the least. Due to its small body shape, the guitar tilts up and down when you play it standing up. It is not unlike a horse keep running away from you. It was a bit of a challenge to me and I tried to tame this little beast. What happened next? I got hooked onto it and I now no longer player any of my 58 or 59 Les Paul Re-issues.

 

The following features are worth noting :-

1. The entire guitar is made of graphite, not a block of wood on the whole body;
2. The body of the guitar is very small. For players who are used to anchoring the palm of his right hand on the body for leverage, he immediately finds a problem. There is no leverage on the guitar, you have to change your style of playing;
3. There is no headstock, the “machine heads”, if you call them as such, are found at the saddle;
4. The tuning mechanism is a very complicated machinery and on higher models, you will find the “Trans Tremole” which allows you to change the keys of the guitar by means of locking pin. Very new thing even up to now but totally impractical and equally useless. I never touch it;
5. The sound is ice cold although a lot can be said about the sustain.

So, what are that attributes of this ugly thing that would make a man give up a vintage Les Paul and use it exclusively? I cannot speak for anyone but myself and I have this to say:-

a) The sound is so different from any guitar made off wood. You may very well hate it, but you cannot deny it has its own character. The sound is so different you immediately stand out in a crowd;
(b) Given the right amp, you can really get away from the clichéd Fender or Gibson sound and create something of your own. These days having touched nothing but a Steinberger for 6 months, I really think the Gibson sound is really clichéd and well worn. A Gibson has the most beautiful voice but even the most beautiful voice can be tiring and trying on the ear over time. The Steinberger represents a distinct voice;
(c ) Most guitar players experience difficulties playing in the higher octave. With the Steinberger, there is no such thing as a neck joint. The body joins the neck on the 20th fret. Complete access to the higher positions;
(d) The action on the neck is better than any guitar I have played. That together with the small body shape suits me to the bone;
(e) The sound of the guitar is extremely clean and if you run it through an overdrive with the right amount of overdrive, you have this chunky yet razor sharp tone.

Well, if nothing I have said above changed your mind, nothing will. It took quite some convincing on my part to reconcile with fact that the Steinberger is my perfect guitar. It came as nothing but a complete shock to me. It is not unlike finding yourself in love with the unlikeliest woman. When I started using the Steinbereger in earnest, fans and friends at 48th Street gave me a very cold welcome when they see me on stage with a Steinberger. To them, it was not unlike seeing a good friend infatuated with an unworthy woman, but given time he will realize what a fool he has been and come round and fall back in line.

It is the most unusual choice for a Blues player. I find I play better with the Steinberger than any guitar. If it makes you a better player, why not. I have to say the Steinberger is not a guitar you will immediately fall in love with. If you blood is rushing to your head having read what I said above and want to rush out and spend you money to get one come what may, the good news is you cannot get them in shops any more, the only place is E-bay. Just cool down.

One last thing, the fretboard has a coated of chemical coating on it and you cannot apply conventional techniques to change the frets. Do not even try, you will crack the fretboard.


Steinberger had a series call GP series. Basically a small Flying V with a bolt on graphite neck. It was suppose to be a cheaper model. The neck joins the body on the 19 fret. But this thing is equally good. It takes all kinds. A Blues player with a Steinberger, you would have thought you have seen it all.

My new sound : Heavy Blues

Steinberger with the Heavy Blues

I have been using humbuckers all my playing life, they are chuncky, thick and warm, ideal for Blues. As with most things in life, they change after time. My perception of what is a good sound, what is the best tone changed drastically in around March, 2004. This change came gradually but I suppose it is inevitable. It all started turning the overdrive level of my Tubescreamer to the lowest possible level so that I get basically a clean sound with a tiny amount of overdrive and long enough sustain for the notes to ring through. Clarity is the most important thing now, I want every note to come out clean and crystal clear, unhampered by any unnecessary overdrive. The energy and kick of the guitar should come from the notes, the phrasing of the solos and the dynamics created by the fingers rather than by the level overdrive. Of course it is much harder to play this way, but the overall sound is much much better.

Having gone for the 'clean' sound, I found that the humbuckers are too heavy; they have of course the heavy and warm tone but they are not sensitive enough to create the definition I want and lack the clarity which I am looking for. But I don't like the twangy sound of a single coil (I just wound not been seen dead with Fender Startocaster). So what's the answer? Mr. Alex Tei, the distributor of DiMazio pick-ups in Hong Kong and an overall expert in pick-up sounds found the solution for me : The DiMazio Virtual Heavy Blues DP403 pick-up. According to Mr. Alex Tei, the Heavy Blues is a 'single-coil humbucker'. To all appearances, the pick-up is just a single coil but in fact wired like a humbucker. What this pick-up offers is a sound mid-way between a twangy single coil and a full-bodied humbucker. I can get an overall cleand sound and still have enough body in the notes. The high notes are fatter and low notes have more kicks without sounding muddy.

 

DiMazio Virtual Heavy Blues DP403

 

On the white Steinberger which I use for slide guitar, I have put on DiMazio's Air Norton DP193 pick-ups. Mr. Alex Tei has wired the pick-ups for me in such a way it is possible to split the coils. When the tone button is pulled up, the pick-ups are humbuckers. When then tone button is pushed down, full-bodied humbuckers are at work. I use the split coil option most of the time. The Air Norton are smooth and sweet pick-ups. When the coils are split, they have the brightness and the clarity but still retains the kick I need for slide playing.

Air Norton DP193

As to the bridge pick-up, my number one choice is the EMG H1A passive pickup. If you are interested, check out this link.

 

A very rare white GL4T fitted with a Heavy Blues pick-up at the neck position and an EMG H1A pick-up at the bridge position. Very few of these white Steinbergers were made. I think they account for around 6% of the entire production.