Saturday, May 9, 2009

Guitar Pron 3: Steinberger XQ-4 Bass (v2)

Today's instrument is a Steinberger bass.

This is not an earlier Steinberger with a Newburgh-manufactured neck; it is a more modern instrument, probably built only a few years ago, while Gibson was marketing Steinbergers via the "Music Yo" web site.

It is a pretty good-sounding instrument, but it is not quite up to the standards of the older Steinberger instruments.

Or, to put it a little bit more cynically, since Ned Steinberger no longer has veto power over which instruments get his name stamped on them, Gibson can ship any kind of crap and try to capitalize on the reputation that Steinberger instruments once enjoyed, due to the incredible amount of hand work and attention to detail that went into their construction.

The neck was made by Moses Graphite. It has a matte finish and seems to be graphite (yes, you could write with it). The older Steinberger necks were molded out of fiberglass resin with various formulations of carbon fiber and what-not, and had a shiny finish.

Note that the Newburgh instruments were stamped "N," and the Tennessee instruments were marked "TN." Until recently, that is, when Gibson started re-using "N." This confused me; based on my research online, I thought I was buying an instrument with a Newburgh-made neck.

And, of course, that confusion is exactly the point. Gibson should be ashamed.

The headless bass is for those poor bassists who were circumcised. Unlike the older Seinberger necks, this one has an adjustable truss rod. This model requires strings with double ball ends.

With EMG pickups, two 9-volt batteries, and HAZ Labs active EQ circuitry, It is a very nice-sounding instrument. The tone settings are very usable and musical. However, I am not all that impressed with the construction of the neck. If you look closely, you can see that some of the slots to hold the fret tangs are cut crooked. This means that a small number of the frets above the 12th are audibly out of tune; in other words, I can get the intonation pretty well perfect everywhere, with my Peterson virtual strobe tuner, except for those frets. That's a pretty glaring quality control gaffe. If I had bought it new at full price and it showed up like this, I would have returned it.

Come to think of it, I have a lot of respect for Moses Graphite (I've been very impressed by the Chapman Stick bodies they manufactured for Stick Enterprises). And I doubt they did the fret work.

This particular incarnation of the Steinberger bridge design uses (I think) steel string saddles on height-adjustable aluminum blocks, which ride on two diagonally-mounted set screws, and are not actually attached to the bridge. If you remove the strings and loosen one set screw, you can remove all the blocks to adjust them. They are wobbly, though, balanced on their diagonally-mounted screws, and don't really stand up on their own.

I found this to be an irritating and fiddly arrangement because tuning to intonate the strings causes the blocks to move, and only the string pressure keeps them in place during this process. When you get them where you want them, push them into as square and upright a position as you can, hold them that way, and tighten the set screw, and it clamps all the blocks together. But since you've just positioned all the blocks so that they aren't aligned with each other, that seems a little precarious, like trying to pick up a horizontal row of cubes that aren't quite lined up with each other by squeezing the ones on the end.

Unfortunately I think this fiddly bridge design is Ned's, not Gibson's, although I don't know all the incarnations of the Steinberger bridge in detail. In other words, I'm not sure the older instruments are any easier to work with. And they all tend to have the well-known problem with the tuner jaws. There's an eBay seller that will sell you stainless steel replacement jaws, but they seem awfully expensive at $35 per string.

This instrument also has a zero fret -- which can help with intonation -- although since the strings rest right on the zero fret, bending and tuning them seem to be leading to a zero fret that is quickly developing notches, while the rest of the frets are still in good shape.

With the very light neck and the tuners at the bridge, the instrument is very well-balanced. The basswood body is also very light for a bass body, and the curved body carve makes it very comfortable to play for extended periods of time. Although from what I hear, the bodies are made overseas. And there were some paint flaws that indicate, again, that Gibson's quality control is just not quite what one would expect from an instrument bearing the Steinberger name.

Given these issues, I can't whole-heartedly recommend this instrument, unless you can get it for a really good price. It remains unclear how long I'll keep it. I'm keeping an eye out for an older Steinberger, if I can find one at a price I can stomach. And I'm very hesitant to try one of the newer ZT-3 guitars, or a Synapse Trans-scale guitar.

I have another Steinberger bass -- a fretless "Synapse" model -- which I will show you in a future entry. It is a very different, and quite decent, instrument, but has some of the same attention-to-detail issues that make it frustrating attempting to deal with the "modern" Steinbergers.


I have another instrument now, which is one of the "version 1" Q basses. This gives me an interesting opportunity to directly compare and contrast the two instruments. The quick summary is that my son now has custody of this instrument and I'm playing the older one. Here is the full article. According to Steinberger World (an unofficial fan site with a lot of information on the older instruments), this bass is a "version 2" member of the Q series -- one of the later ones, from the Music Yo (around 2003-2007) years, around 2003-2007. There also exist "version 2" instruments made after Gibson purchased Steinberger, maybe between 1995 and 1998 or so; I'd like to see one of those someday, although I've read that during those transitional years, quality had a tendency to vary more than it did during the pre-Gibson Newburgh years.

Update 22 Dec 2009

I've had the opportunity to work with my "version 1" XQ bass a little bit, and I can verify that although the bridge design in the old model is similar, it has some features that make it much nicer to work with. For one thing, the cubical string saddle blocks are attached to the bridge using an interesting angled bolt that. It's one of Ned's little imaginative design touches. You don't have to balance them on two separate screws to adjust the block height. That makes it far easier and less fiddly to adjust the intonation. The down side of the older DB bridge on that instrument is that it is lacking the steel inserts, which was a design improvement to make the saddles more durable. There is an entire evolutionary series of Steinberger bridges; it is a subject that warms the obsessive-compulsive heart of a geek like me, but I will spare you. Unfortunately, I also found that the bridge on my older XQ has suffered some abuse. I'll go into more detail over on the post about that bass.


Chris said...

wanna sell the bridge?

Paul R. Potts said...

No, but the issues I have with the instrument are such that I might want to sell the whole thing at some point. That would probably only happen if I had enough money on hand to replace it with a pre-Gibson Steinberger, though, so that might be a while -- they are starting to go for crazy collector money.

Chris, I got a message from you about strings, but it had your e-mail address and I thought you might not want that on the blog for spam prevention. I have not yet had to change the strings on this instrument, but when I do I might consider La Bella double-ball strings. I have not actually tried them, though.

I wouldn't consider ordering strings from again, though -- they refused to accept a return on a very expensive set of black nylon bass strings that I bought for my Steinberger Synapse fretless, because I had opened one and determined that it would not fit. (I didn't even install the string, just determined that the diameter was wrong). I vowed after that that I would not buy from them again.

Paul R. Potts said...

Turns out I wound up getting an older instrument at a decent price -- the weak economy seems to have its advantages, since a lot of people are selling instruments. Also, the Q-series instruments don't seem to be considered quite as collectible as the all-composite L-series instruments.

See my updated comments about the bridges, if you are really interested...