Very much an acquired taste, the quirky Steinberger bass has been an eternal love-it-or-hate-it design since its introduction back in the 1980s. It has no headstock, just a little brick-shaped body, which looks hellishly cool, but is definitely one of those Marmite aesthetics. Put one in your hands though, and one of the obvious advantages hits you immediately. Weighing only 7.5 lbs and just 38.5’ long, you can stash your Steinberger
pretty much anywhere – and wave goodbye to all that stress and strain of trying to shoehorn your bass case into the boot of your car. The price is even more modest than the size, so don’t dismiss this as a novelty instrument just yet.
The Spirit XT-2 is described by Steinberger as being ‘practically indestructible’ and while I didn’t test that theory to destruction, it is certainly a robust little axe. Steinberger also propose a fairly persuasive theory that instruments should be as minimalist and transparent as possible, so that players can focus entirely on their playing without being distracted by the physical attributes of their guitars. This goes a long way to explaining why they like to strip their guitars right back to the bare essentials.
Having said that, purists would point out that the Spirit isn’t actually a Steinberger guitar, as it’s made by Gibson/Epiphone in the Steinberger name. They would also point out that it’s lighter than an original Steinberger, and made from wood not resin, blah-de-blah-de-blah. What can I say except ‘get over it’?
The XT-2 is definitely not neck-heavy, with no stock or tuning heads, so it’s ergonomically merciful on the shoulders, neck and back – substantial enough to grab hold of, but not so heavy as to be a burden. It’s both light and compact, and quite cool in a futuristic, ostentatious sort of way – and you can really swing it around. With most other basses on a small stage, you’re going to take out one of your fellow musicians, or someone in the front row, but you can rock out with this to your heart’s delight.
At the risk of getting obscure, it’s just like the one that Kalv from Heresy[Who? – Ed] used to play, and if you ever saw some of the shapes that guy could hit live, you’ll know this bass can be used more acrobatically than most.That said, your fingers tend to slide off the end if you go a bit too crazy, so spend some time learning where the end of the runway is before you make a complete arse of yourself taking off.There’s a handy little fold-out leg rest, which you can fold away when you stand up with it, so you can play the XT-2 more easily sitting down.
You load and tune your double-ball strings down by the bridge.The tuners feel quite stiff under touch, and it doesn’t appear to be the easiest bass to fine-tune accurately, but appearances can be deceptive: people who play these swear that they stay in tune forever. During the review trial, the XT-2 tuned up perfectly in a flash and stayed in tune the whole time – even with me playing everything in the wrong place! Those direct-pull tuners apparently coax a longer life from your strings too, and you don’t have to stretch them in over and over again because they’re not wound around machine heads.
At the bridge end, there is a choice of two locations for the strap, so you can wear it either high or low – but wherever you fasten it, this brings us to what is surely one of the big sticking points when bassists try out a Steinberger, and that’s the placement of the guitar on your body…
Sounds and Playability
At first, it’s a bit disorientating playing a guitar without a headstock. Your hand feels further away than you think it is, which is a bit weird when finding frets. You get used to it, though. The first Steinberger designs acknowledged this flaw and featured a rotating strap extension on the back of the body. The Spirit is not similarly equipped, but apparently you can purchase a strap hook which extends the guitar – and strap point – to where the horn would be on a regular body, so it balances like a ‘normal’ instrument. Otherwise the octave sits about three frets to the left of where you’d expect it to be on a regular body guitar, which is a bit strange. You’ll find yourself glancing down at the neck to ensure accuracy, although I’m sure any player worth his salt would acclimatise to this within a few playing hours.
Right-hand placement is also awkward: you may well find that you can’t place it where you naturally play from, so overall this bass will require some adjustments if you’re not already attuned to its unique contours. That said, standing out from the crowd is never easy, and always worth a bit of effort, right? Once you’ve wrapped your head around the Spirit’s peculiarities and start to get to grips with this frisky little beast, it has a nice fast action, with the neck extremely easy under the hand.
Soundwise, the XT-2 possesses a slightly flat tone, possibly due to a combination of the passive pickups and the minuscule body mass. It basically lacks lustre, being a bit two-dimensional in the upper ranges, and a bit hollow in the mids. Crank it up through a good amp or a Sansamp pedal, however, and you can wrench some dripping hot sounds out of it.
Definitely an acquired taste, and one that will get tongues wagging. The makers obviously know this, and relish the fact that it divides opinion. It’s not quite as fun to play as it looks, despite all Steinberger’s hyperbole about the pyschology of minimalism in the modern musician. The glossy black finish is nicely realised, though; in fact the whole guitar is very well presented for under four hundred notes. For such a paltry sum, you could certainly do a lot worse – and you know you’ll be drawing some curious glances along the way.