Headless History

I believe that the first headless instruments that I ever encountered were Ned Steinberger's early basses, and I (of course) assumed that this was the very first instrument ever designed without a headstock.

Well, I was dead-wrong. It turns out that headless instruments of many types have existed for a very long time. Many different designers have employed this feature on their instruments in the past, and today there are many, many luthiers that have incorporated it into their designs, but to our knowledge, Ned Steinberger was the first to really popularize this design.

Left, prototype headpiece from one of Ned's first basses. Instrument courtesy of Hap Kuffner

We will discuss some of the other headless stringed instruments that have appeared in the past, but first, a few comments about Ned's amazing accomplishments.

Many of the Steinberger owners that we've run into over the years have turned out to be engineers. We constantly hear them comment; "I was intrigued and fascinated by the design and engineering that went into this instrument", and "Whoever designed this instrument must be a very intelligent person".

There is also a definite and direct correlation (in our opinion) between Ned Steinberger and Leo Fender. Neither gentleman was a musician. Each approached the design of their instruments from a "form follows function" ethic. And each took comments and suggestions from talented musicians and artists and utilized their ideas in the designs of their guitars.
After interviewing Stuart Spector of Spector Basses, and exploring the earliest days of "Stu & Ned's Big Adventure", it becomes apparent that Ned was approaching the design of his instruments primarily using his background in furniture ergonomics.

Right, Spector NS bass
By starting with a "clean-slate" Ned had none of the "preconceived notions" that might have interfered with his vision. His lack of experience with musical instruments was probably one of the keys to his success.

It's usually the case that most musical instrument designers are musicians. Seems quite logical, but perhaps that is not always an advantage. The "blank slate" approach certainly seems to have had huge benefits in the design concepts of the first Steinberger bass. Ned may have thought: Who needs a headstock? Who needs a body? Why should it be built of wood?

Ned had designed a bass body for Stuart Spector that was "cutaway" (or carved) in two dimensions for comfort. But the balance of this bass wasn't good. It was headstock heavy and Ned saw that as a problem. So Ned was "off to the races".
Since those days I've done some research on other and earlier headless instruments and I was surprised to find that they've been around for a long, long time.

The oldest headless instrument I've encountered is (believe it or not) a headless lute.

Left, the headless lute, cerca late 1800's.

This is a very old instrument, so obviously Ned was not the first to use this method of construction, but I believe that he was the first to earn a patent on this design.

I've also heard that Les Paul invented a headless guitar. I've not seen a photograph of it, but I believe it is on display at the Les Paul Museum.

It seems that today there are dozens of builders using the headless approach. Just to mention a few: Jon Bondy, David King Bass, Rick Toone Luthier, Strandberg Guitarworks, Rick Canton, and Watson.

There is also a fine website devoted to this field: buildingtheergonomicguitar.com, and of course, there are also some major manufacturers that use this design such as Hohner.


~Yours truly,

Don Greenwald