The Ballad of Beat Pfändler and the Headless Bass
Text: Mike Blanchard
Spotlight | One of the most recognizable, iconic musical instruments of the 1980s is the headless electric bass. The most well-known version of this guitar form was, and is still, made by the Steinberger company. New wave, jazz and rock artists took up this distinctive instrument in droves. Unlike traditional electric basses, it was small and most importantly light. Being made of composite materials, it is also very stable in temperature and humidity changes. Most people thought that this instrument was invented by Steinberger, but in fact it was invented by Swiss photographer and musician Beat Pfändler.
The story involves musician John McLaughlin, a musician’s desire to travel with his instrument, and a lot of ingenuity and creativity. Pfändler was a fan of the great guitarist McLaughlin. He tried to play McLaughlin’s music with his band but found it too difficult. Pfändler decided that he wanted to meet the guitarist, and so he went to New York City to find him and introduce himself. Beat tells the story in his own words:
“I went to New York and I called all the John McLaughlins in the phone directory. I was that naive. One of them said, ‘He lives in Queens but he’s not in the phone book.’ I went to a speech in Washington Square Park before I gave up. I said, ‘Tomorrow I will go to South America without having seen John McLaughlin.’ I went to the speech and when I came out I met a Swiss friend. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He says he came with John McLaughlin, and here comes John McLaughlin (laughing).
“I said to him, ‘Mr. McLaughlin, I am here to meet you.’ And he said, ‘Call me on Thursday.’ On Thursday I called him and he said, ‘Where are you staying?' I said at the YMCA. He said, ‘That’s not a good place. Come out to Queens.’ So I went out to Queens and his wife answered the door. She said, ‘John has not time today but he prepared a room for you.’ Next to the room was this Swiss guy I knew; he was living there for a while. There was a guitar; he assumed I was playing guitar, which I was not.
“John had a double-neck guitar, a twelve-string and a six-string, and I liked that very much, so I thought I am going to make a copy of (a) Fender bass. One with a fretless neck and with a fret just so I can have a double-neck guitar, too. So when I went to Switzerland I did an exact copy of everything just to be like a Fender. I took all the parts I had from Fender. I made the body and did the white plastic (pick guard) just like a Fender. This guitar was so heavy. It was so heavy. It sounded very good. The sustain was nice but it was far too heavy.
“I continued to go to New York to visit John. Once he took me to Miles Davis. I met Carlos Santana, who was a friend to him in a spiritual connection.
“I met many musicians. I thought, ‘I have to bring my bass with me but I cannot bring this bass.’ I tried to put it in a suitcase. I screwed off the necks and in the diagonal of the suitcase that is allowed to board the Fender neck is still too long. What looked out of the suitcase was the headstock. And I thought, ‘Let me cut that stupid thing off and screw it down on the other side. Attach it to the other side of the guitar,’ so I tuned the guitar on the other side and the neck will fit in. I just have to add the neck to the body.
“These basses that were around in these musicians? I never liked them. You wouldn’t want to play on just somebody’s guitar. You know how that feels. If it’s nice, yeah; but it wasn’t. It never was. And then I thought, ‘This instrument tuned down there would be a nice compact thing.’ I thought, ‘Let me make a bass that has the tuning heads inside the body.’ You get smaller, more compact and I can get solid material to have a really great sustain.
“I started designing it. I worked on for years: many, many technical details. There is not one screw on that bass that did not have to be made. I spun up the pickups, counted the windings, then rewound them back in another, better, diagonal windings, so I had Fender pickups that sounded stronger than the ones Fender made. But they still sounded like Fender.
“Then I went to America and showed my first prototypes, and the whole scene thought it was great. One of these guys which later on produced this stuff, he never claimed to have invented it, was one of Steinberger's people. And Steinberger went to produce it and because he could not afford the heavy woods like ebony and Rio Palisander (Brazilian rosewood). He said, ‘Let me produce it with an artificial material that has the same density,’ which was carbon fiber.
“Then Sting and Bill Wyman wanted to have this . ... It looked good, it was small and it had a nice sustain. Steinberger produced them. I was in Japan producing some better electronics. I could connect my bass directly to the studio. I connect with a cable to another guitarist; you could play together without any amplifier. You could rehearse in the train or so. Many features.
“The Japanese were very friendly. I went to Japan to apply for some patents. And the patent would have cost me three times $16,000. I didn’t have the money for that. Maybe later it would have been. $48,000, yes: You can only patent a technical process; you cannot patent an idea. Steinberger, for example, claimed as his patent on the bass was just the attachment to it. People thought that was his patent, which it wasn’t at all. It’s just the backplate. (Ed. Steinberger also invented and patented strings with balls on both ends.)
“I said, ‘I give up. I give up on patenting it.’ I have to go another way. I went to Yamaha and they asked me to design an instrument for them. So the copies, the so-called copies, Steinberger copies Yamaha did, was actually a direct design from me. And that instrument was distributed all over the world. The headless guitars and basses. First was the bass, and then the guitars came.
“I never got any money from the production of Steinberger. Steinberger doesn’t claim he invented it. Steinberger even said in an interview when he saw this the first time, he knew right away this was going to be something. But he produced the stuff. If he would not have produced the [bass], I think my bass would have been too expensive to make it to the whole market worldwide.
“Switzerland invented the electric guitar: Rickenbacker, the Rickenbacker. That was in the ’30s. So Switzerland made an exhibition in Bern, in a museum of communication. And they dug in deep on the production of guitars worldwide. And they [showed] the history of my bass. They made an encyclopedia of the guitar.
“I have here the encyclopedia, and I will show you how it appears. We have here the page with my bass. You see Rickenbacker’s invention, the Frying Pan. These are all guitars that gave an influence to the development of the guitar. And here is my bass.
“The time came when I couldn’t tell any more people that I invented that. People said, ‘Yeah, yeah; you did it; right; OK. Lets talk about something else.’ (Laughing)