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The History of The Headless Guitar

by | Gear Reviews, Guitarists

The headless guitar has been the subject of hot debate between purists and innovators since its commercialization in the mid 20th century. At first sight, the guitar seems like a broken or incomplete design, yet many have argued that it far exceeds traditional guitars in tone and playability. While there may be no sure way of telling which is ultimately better, you can rest assured that the headless guitar will be a firm fixture in the future of guitar music. In this article, we’ll cover the history of the headless guitar, discuss some of its attributes and showcase some musicians that help its rise to notoriety.

Origin Story

The absolute origins of the headless guitar remain somewhat of a mystery. While the modern versions have definite pioneers attached to them, there have been various claims as to when and where the concept was first introduced. Historians have uncovered designs for headless guitars dating as far back as the 18th century.

Ned Steinberger is credited as being the primary innovator of the modern headless guitar. Steinberger. An aspiring designer and sculptor, he was enlisted initially by luthier Stuart Spector in 1977 to help with some guitar body designs. Steinberger’s art background provided him with a unique outlook on guitar design. During his early years with Spector, he conceptualized the headless guitar, and by 1980 Steinberger registered his own guitar company, Steinberger Guitars.

Modernization and Evolution

From the beginning of his design career, Steinberger sought out to break the guitar manufacturing rules. While starting up his own company, Steinberger became acquainted with Bob Young, an engineer specializing in lifeboat and sailing construction. The two became fascinated with the idea of using alternative materials in the construction of the guitar. Steinberger would incorporate carbon fiber and metal into his guitars to replace wooden parts. The theory behind this methodology was that synthetic materials could better handle climate and temperature changes than organic textiles like wood. This design change resulted in guitars with distinct tonal benefits that could hold tuning better than their traditional counterparts.

Steinberger’s first major seller was L2 Bass. The headless guitar featured a much smaller body and was broom-shaped for optimum ergonomics. The guitar naturally shocked traditionalist luthiers but fitted in well with the synthetic revolution that swept 80’s music and fashion. Steinberger would continue to release various guitars and basses, with only one featuring a headstock in its design. The company would be purchased by Gibson guitars, who still sell headless guitars today under Synapse, a Gibson/Steinberger collaboration. Synapse guitars boast the same headless designs as the originals but with a few modern additions, such as a built-in Transcale capo that lets players change their tuning without tuning their springs.

Advantages of the Headless Guitar

Tuning

The first question that most ask when discovering the headless guitar is, ‘How do you tune it?’. The tuning heads of a headless guitar are fixed at its bridge and provide extra tension on the strings while relieving the neck’s tension. Decreased stress on the neck and truss-rod results in these guitars holding their tuning for more extended periods than traditional designs. The tuning heads of a headless guitar require fewer turns to keep the strings, so they should last slightly longer than traditional models.

Tone

The tonal characteristics of the headless guitar are unique to its design. Traditional guitars have strings that vibrate at different frequencies on the neck and beyond the nut. The frequencies that come from the headstock can clash with those coming on the neck and detract from the overall tone. Headless has no headstock, no nut, and thus only emits a single set of frequencies when you play them. This design element provides a crucial notable clean-up of the guitar’s sustain and is one of the primary reasons these types of guitars are so popular.

Ergonomics

The ergonomic advantages of a headless guitar are quite possibly its most apparent traits. Guitarists, in general, suffer from shoulder, neck, or back pain if they play long hours without a break. Guitars are heaviest around the body and headstock, and the latter’s removal gives the guitar a more centered balance while playing. Because headless designs are lighter and smaller, their fretboards are easier to navigate. Lastly, due to their smaller size, headless guitars are easier to travel with as they’re lighter and take up less storage space.

Famous Double-Neck Guitar Players

Maurice Gibbs

Maurice Gibbs was one-third of the electric disco powerhouse known as the Bee Gees. The group enjoyed significant success throughout the 70′ and 80’s thanks to their united songwriting and playing prowess. Gibbs would switch between guitar and bass duties during his time with the Bee Gees and make use of headless basses and guitars under Steinberger’s manufacturing.

Sting

Never one to shy from the obscure, Sting has been at the forefront of his enigmatic musical journey for 40 years. As the frontman and bassist for rock giants The Police, Sting fast-gained a reputation for being one of the century’s most revolutionary songwriters. Sting debuted the iconic L2 bass during an infamous headlining performance at the 1982 US Festival. While the festival proved to be a resounding failure, the story of Sting’s headline appearance with his ‘sci-fi’ bass only added to his mysterious caricature and boosted the sales of Steinberger guitars indefinitely.

Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen was the darling of American shred-rock for most of the 1980s. His dizzying guitar skills only topped van Halen’s intense stage performances, and his work remains in many guitar tutorial books today. Van Halen discovered Steinberger Sounds early on in his career and immediately fell in love. He would use a custom version of the L2 guitar, painted in eccentric red and white in true Vedder style. Guitar company Headless USA would eventually buy the rights to this guitar and release their own ‘EVH 5150 GL2T’ in honor of Van Halen’s contribution to the guitar world.

Final Thoughts

There is always going to be room for innovation and reassembly in the world of music and design. Headless guitars changed the way many folks approach the tone, tuning, or ergonomics of their instrument. It may not seem like the headless guitars will overshadow their predecessors any time soon, but that does dilute their quality or appeal. If you consider yourself a curious musician with a nose for novelty, you may want to try out a headless guitar. You may find yourself surprised with what you find. Thanks for reading our history on the headless guitar.

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