Interview with Ned Steinberger by Tony Cimorosi

By Tony Cimorosi

The Electric Upright Bass (EUB) has been around since the early 1930s originally constructed by Rickenbacker and later by the instrument manufacturer Framus in the early 1960’s  followed by the Ampeg bass.  It’s been called everything from Stick bass, bean pole bass, baby bass to the electric upright bass.  The EUB has come to it’s pinnacle of perfection through the design and engineering efforts of Ned Steinberger. We musicians would have a difficult time doing what we do if we didn’t have people like Ned building and always searching for new ways for improving upon old ideas for instruments evolution and unexplored and uncharted areas of designing instruments.

Ned and I first met while I was playing in violinist Michal Urbaniak’s Fusion band in the middle 1980s. At that time Urbaniak was playing a violin made by Ned that had a very impressive sound and a very cool look to it. While performing at the Bottomline club in NYC with Michal, Ned brought in one of his basses for me to check out. It was an impressive instrument but at the time I was playing my 62 jazz bass and my Abe Rivera contra bass guitar so I wasn’t’ ready for another bass to add to my bass arsenal and ended up sending it back to him with many thanks and appreciation for his kindness and generosity.  Time moved on and it’s 2000 I’m with a student dropping off his acoustic bass at David Gages shop in tribeca nyc. I see the NS electric upright and started playing it.  Immediately I was connected to this instrument like no other instrument that I’ve ever put my hands on.  This was not only the coolest bass to look at but it was the best EUB sound that I’ve ever heard. Once David informed me that the bass was made by Ned and that’s the logo N.S. I knew I had to get back in contact with him to find out more.  Ned and I spoke on the phone and he offered the NS to me as an endorsement. .  Once I got the bass and started shedding it, I never looked back I knew this would be a life long study of sound and texture development.  I was right and wrong. The sound was there from the first pluck and later when I purchased a bow it was love at first stroke. The NS electric upright (ELB) made requiting myself with the upright much easier.  Since then I’ve recommend it to bass guitarist who want to make the leap form horizon to vertical playing and acoustic players that are looking for a more portable instrument to travel with.

So sketch in another name to the pantheon of instrument makers in the 20th century Ned Steinberger’s contribution to the design and manufacturing of musical instruments ranks with names like Leo Fender and Les Paul.

Tc

Ned you’ve been around music and musicians for a while but you’re not a performing artist yourself.  How did you get into the business of instrument making?

Ns

Stuart Spector, back in 1977. I was working in ny as a cabinet maker as a furniture designer primarily, industrial design.  I was making my living as a cabinet maker and joined a wood workers coop in brooklyn where about 6 or 8 of us shared a space with low over head and all had our independent business sharing the work space. Stuart was one of the guys in the co-op and was making guitars and he was getting a lot of request or basses so we talked and I thought I would give my design of basses that Stuart would produce.  That’s how I got started, I didn’t’ know anything about instruments at the time.

When I started steinberger back in 1980 people were really interested in new stuff.  High tech wasn’t’ a dirty word but then through the 80s it changed by the mid 80s the whole market was going so retro that it was getting more difficult to get people interested in something new. All this stuff goes in cycles and I think it’s cycling back again. The market is interested in innovation and that’s what I’m interested in. always trying to see what I can do to take stuff a step further. There are companies that are out there building electric basses trying to imitated an acoustic upright,  that’s their focus but that’s not the way I look at it. I’m interested in looking at an EUB as it’s own intently and not trying to compete with an upright.

Tc

Your experiences with wood seems to have payed off.

Ns

I know woods and I know how to make things.  Structure is my main thing. There are two things that I brought to the table was a real good sense of structure. So I worked in more traditional parameters as far as tone and I was also very interested in urbanomics. My main thing in furniture was seating, how it fits the body. The way an instrument looks is very important. I put a lot of energy into giving it a appearance that it was going to be.  Trying to make the bass look and feel right and sound.  Stuart was the one that worked out the electronics and was more sound oriented than I was.  So that’s how I got started.

Tc

How did you get into graphite and out of wood?

Ns

The way I got into grafite was, I got this idea of making a headless instrument and the reason I came to headless was because I was having a difficult time with a long neck and get the balance that I wanted to get because the bass tends to be neck heavy. On the guitar it’s beautiful but on the bass it tends to be neck heavy due to the long neck. So I was struggling with this balance issue and one day it just dawned on me that, why put all this weight on the end of this neck, why not put the tuning machines on the body to get the balance then I made the instrument out of wood and didn’t’ really like the sound a all so that’s when I really started learning about sound.  I started experiment with the mass of the instrument and the rigidity selectively and began to understand how mass and rigidity effect the sustain and clarity the harmonic structure and really worked my way into a belief into a very rigid instrument.  All my instruments now days are very rigid and that’s what give the kind of tight clear enunciated tone. Some people prefer a fatter sound a looser sound that’s not so rigid.. there’s all kinds of ways to make instruments and one  thing I learned early on was that there’s no right or wrong in the sound of the instrument, it’s all what somebody wants to hear.

Tc

What do you mean by rigid?

Ns

Rigid as opposed to flexible. In other words, a very skinny neck make out of mahogany is going to be quite flexible. A thicker neck made out of rock maple is going to be more rigid. That same neck made out of grafite is going to be way more rigid and the tone of an electric solid body instrument as far as those issues, rigidity, flexibility are much more determined by the neck than they are by the body because the neck  has to be so thin when you put your hand around that it’s going to be much more flexible no matter what you do. The neck is a very import element in the tone of a solid body instrument especially a bass because the frequency that the neck vibrates is more in a frequency range of the notes of a bass that’s why you get dead spots on electric guitars so learning how to control the dead spots and making a more even fingerboard and create a snappy brilliant tone.  That’s what I was interested in doing and that’s where ridity really comes in.

Tc

Did you have any bassist help out with their point of view of the instrument?

Ns

Rob Washerman was real close to me when I  produced the instrument, he had more input than anyone else. I owe him a big debt of gratitude.  Rob was really hip to the round wound strings.  Upright players use them at all. Round wound strings are very aggressive. You have to realize that these long skinny strings are much brighter than the shorter strings of a bass guitar. So if you take a long scale bass and you put round wound strings on it, you get a whole new dimension of bright.  The cut from the high end is very strong.  It also has a more distinct low end at the same time. I really love the round wound sound, but it much different than what most are looking for.  Keep in mind that the instrument is set up to accommodate any bass string. That will give you a fatter much traditional sound. The ns double bass stings are the strings that we recommend. We use a very special style of string. You can hear rob Wassermann using them on NS bass.  It’s a whole different sound.

Tc

Did you integrate these concepts for the bass guitar into the electric upright bass?

Ns

Yeah all the same principles apply.  The EUB is particular exciting because it has these long strings. The limitation for lower notes is for the length of the string. The longer the string the more brilliant the note can be and the more clarity you have. It’s the most important factor in a bass tone.  T hat’s why people for example make bass guitars with 36 inch scale length. Originally fender came out with the 34 inch scale which I thought was a very good comprise and it has certainly proven itself to be an excellent choice.  I’m a great admirer of leo fender.  That issue is much more significant on a 5 string bass ands of course you have a fan shaped fret system here the frets are shaped in a fan system to get a longer lower note, all that’s about making a better sounding lower note. With the  low B there’s all kinds of opportunity for a lower tone.

Tc

The ns has a deeper tone.. what types of pick-ups are you incorporating with the NS Double Bass to get that clear and sustaining sound?

Ns

The vibrating of a string is effectively polarized by the fingerboard. It may seem like a foreign concept but it’s really straight forward and simple. As the string vibrates perpendicular to the finger board it slaps against the fingerboard and is restricted because it can only vibrate to the extent that there space between the string and the fingerboard where as the side by side version the vibration tangent to the finger board or parallel to the finger board is unrestricted. there nothing to prevent the string from having a much wider excursion. What happens is when you pluck a string the way it vibrates  up and down in relation to the finger board and side by side to the finger board is very different that’s why I call it polarized just like light is polarized with vertical and horizontal polarities and the tone of each pole is a different in particular the side by side vibration which by the way is the only way to get a good bowed response is the side to side sensitivity  that’s the direction the bow drives the string and not up and down. That’s where all the action is on the bow as opposed to a plucked string where the action is  really in all 360 degrees but the bow is very selective.  When people developed the acoustic bass years ago it was developed as a bowed instrument with a tall bridge that rocks back and forth it has a bass bottom sound post construction which is asymmetrical it’s designed to convert that side by side vibration into an up and down movement that’s how the acoustic bass produce a bowed sound so beautifully. That same direction of sensitivity gives you the characteristic of the pizzicato sound with an acoustic bass, cello or violin a big attack and relativity quick decay kind of sound. It’s very percussive and particularly in the case of the acoustic bass it’s developed into an whole kind of sound that is part of music. It’s part of jazz music. People play the electric bass and sometimes don’t get the  sound that they want because it doesn’t have the attack that’s associated with an acoustic instrument above and beyond any tone issue.

On the ns bass you can control how much these two kinds of sound polarities you want to blend in with the sound you’re going for. One of the things I’ve heard from jazz bassist is one of the reasons they prefer the sound of an acoustic bass over the sound of a bass guitar is that a bas guitar takes up too much space in the music and I think the reason for that is It goes from being a percussive instrument with a big attack then a quick decay that takes up less space than an instrument that has a long decay where the note is sustained through a longer period of time so this whole thing on attack and decay is a very big part of the different kind of bass sounds that you get.  Do you  want more of a percussive sound or do you want more of a legato sound. So getting back to this polar sound this bipolar pickup on the one extreme we’re able to isolate the side by side vibration which is a hugh attack in the pizzicato mode and of course with the side by  side is where you get your great bowed response and you also get this percussive pizzicato. If you go and you pan to the other mode of the pickup which is sensitive to the vertical vibration which by the way is the type of sensitivity that a guitar has that whole we tradition of  plucking instruments are all vertical sensitivity instruments in their acoustic form. By having these two extremes in the pick up and the ability to blend them together is why you can get such versatility out of the bass.  That why the pick up is such a big part of what we offer to bassist.

That’s one of the big difference between the ns upright and other electric upright basses.  The sound of the pick up is an integral sound and the sound  actually travels through the pick up which very important.

Tc

NS basses  are manufactured in the Chek Republic.  How did that come about?

Ns

The  chek rep is a very sophisticatedtradition culture over there with a long tradition of work with musical instruments.  You have the juzek basses that they’re famous for that adds to the long tradition of bass making over there. It was a logical place to go to get that kind of product made.  You don’t have that kind of tradition in this country (USA) but you got it there.  They’re ready to take on new projects with a very forward looking culture over there taking the old skills they have and applying them in a new and modern way. Also my partner Hap Kuffner has a very strong relationship with the delica company in the chek republic so there was also that more direct connection and that’s been a great relationship.  They’re using the traditional craftsmanship that they’ve had with modern technology.  It was an ideal place to produce the instrument so that’s why we’re there.

Tc

What is the design concept behind the NS EUB?

Ns

Well, it was kind of an interesting transition for me because it’s so easy in this life to be pigeon holed by other people and to pigeon hole yourself.  When I first started designing musical instruments, I was designing electric basses and developed the headless instrument as a result.  I found that it worked very well the guitar too.   So I went through designing the upright bass, I was thinking headless because that was what I was identified with and the first mock ups I made were headless.  Then I started to think about it. I realized I was doing the same thing that had led people to make acoustic instruments with head stocks for a reason.  The electric bass evolved from an acoustic guitar. So there was the acoustic guitar then the electric guitar and then there was the electric bass.  So nobody really thought particularly about where to put the tuning machines, they just automatically did what they were use to.  Here I was doing the same thing. I was putting the tuners on the body and I didn’t think about putting them on the body.  I finally dawned on me that were wasn’t any reason to put them on the body on the EUB because it didn’t have any balance issues which led me to make the headless bass to begin with.  In fact it made a lot more sense to because that where your hand is and you’re reaching down below the body in an awkward position trying to  tune the bass made no sense to me.

I also designed it so that you could use acoustic bass stings if that was the sound and feel you were looking for.  The NS EUB has slots in the back to accommodate the length of the acoustic bass string or any bass sting to dial in the kind of sound you (the player) wants.

To me the upright bass was and opportunity to work with longer strings and take advantage of the type of tonality that is possible with a longer string. Other companies making electric uprights, their goal was to imitate the sound of the acoustic bass but the whole concept of the NS double bass is to take the electric upright as far along the road where it can go as I can. For example, this instrument does not have a restricted neck, you can access the entire neck of the bass to open up more possibilities for the musician.  Anytime you open up the possibilities you create some  kind of difficulty too, that’s the way life is, not just in musical instruments. If you do something new, it’s more difficult than doing the same thing.  I think that most players that I’ve seen are seeing the possibilities and are willing to put effort into understanding this new instrument and exploring it for what its worth.

Tc

Ned, it’s always great hanging out and talking with you. I have enjoyed playing my NS Double Bass since 1999 along with many of the bands that I work with from 20pc big bands, small quartets, R&B groups, studio work and classical music performances and world music. the NS Double Bass is the most versatile instrument that covers all the ground. Thank you so much for contributing to the advancement of  instrument making.

 

 

  1. rick horvathrick horvath08-26-2013

    Very helpful. Thanks so much!

  2. Tony CimorosiTony Cimorosi08-28-2013

    THink NS has just come out with a Bass Guitar. It Looks and sounds fantastic! Although I love my 62 jazz bass, I think I’m going to check one of these out soon. go to the web site http://thinkns.com/ kiik fir NS Raduus Bass Guitars and WOW!!!!

    tonyc

  3. Gerald CarboyGerald Carboy09-09-2013

    Hi TC, what a wonderful interview with Ned. As you know, I have been playing the NS Design CR4 Electric Upright Bass since 2007. Prior to that I played my old Kay acoustic bass for all of my jazz gigs. I was doing some things that were more electric than acoustic back then which can be problematic for us acoustic bass players. I just could not compete volume and tone wise with the drummers and guitarists who played the more aggressive fusion jazz. On one particular gig trying to be heard above the din, I injured my right hand by trying to play harder to be heard. I knew that I had to investigate an alternative. I spent the better part of the next month playing just about every EUB on the market. I was looking first and foremost for sound and tone, then feel and lastly, portability. Many graded high with some of the things I was looking for and many did not. I was directed toward the NS Design basses by a friend of mine and endorser as well, you TC. Then I went and played one of Ned’s babies at Sam Ash Music and had to do a double take. I was amazed at how smooth it was to play. The fingerboard had a great feel. And it was the perfect size for transporting either in a taxi, bus or airplane. But the real question was whether the tone was right. I was immediately blown away by the sound of this instrument. Ned’s collaboration with David Gage on pickup design was brilliant. I immediately went home to pen a letter introducing myself to the company and asked for more info on the basses and available discounts. I was offered an endorsement discount for an NS Design CR4 and the rest is history. I only play two basses these days. My Carl Thompson Electric Four String Bass which was made for me back in 1977, and the NS Design CR4 EUB. Thanks Tony, Ned, Cory, Mike and the whole gang at NS Designs for producing the absolute best electric upright bass on the market today.

  4. Gene TorresGene Torres10-11-2013

    Hey Tony, Just wanted to say thank you very much for helping me get the N.S. Design Omni Bass. I have been looking for an fretless acoustic bass since the 90’s that would give me a sound like an upright. Due to my right hand technique, (Only with the thumb ala Wes Montgomery style). I had a few different Acoustic bass guitars over the years but nothing really captured the sound I was looking for.
    So my Omni came Oct 9th, and I have not put it down since!! Also much kudos to Jay and Core of N.S. Design, answering a million questions!! and hooking me up with what ever I needed. Looking forward to recording with it and gigging also!! Thanks again TC, over the years you always helped with info and have been a great bass brother to me!!
    Thanks Again
    Gene

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