This guide will trace the winding journey of headless guitars from obscure origins to popular adoption. We’ll learn how pioneers bucked tradition and solved problems with imagination.
And we’ll see how social media helped propel headless guitars from a cult curiosity to a feasible alternative for gigging musicians. If you ever wondered how these alien instruments came to be, read on!
The Birth of Headless Guitars
Traditional electric guitars have looked basically the same for decades – a body, fretboard, tuners grouped together on a headstock, and a neck joining it all. But in the 1970s, some began to question the standard anatomy.
Furniture designer Ned Steinberger collaborated with builder Stuart Spector on a new bass without a headstock. This allowed tuners to be positioned at the body for better balance.
Inspired by this project, Steinberger launched his own headless bass in the early ‘80s, the iconic L2. Its minimalist shape was a drastic departure from bass design norms.
Steinberger later introduced headless guitar models like the GL2. Critics scoffed at their unusual looks, but Ned pursued innovative solutions to issues like neck-dive and ergonomics.
At first, Ned struggled to convince retailers to carry his designs. But a chance NAMM encounter changed everything. Ned met Dixie Dregs bassist Andy West backstage – wielding a Steinberger bass!
Seeing a pro player adopt it gave the design credibility. After the show, crowds packed Ned’s booth. He knew he had a revolutionary idea on his hands.
The Rise of Headless Guitars in the 80s
As the 1980s dawned, guitar culture was primed for something new. Players were modding guitars with Floyd Rose tremolos and hot-rodded electronics. Into this world came the Steinberger – nothing else looked remotely similar. Yet top artists were soon playing these alien instruments.
Allan Holdsworth’s seamless legato sounded otherworldly on his Steinbergers. Geddy Lee’s punchy bass tones cut through on Rush classics like “New World Man.”
Edward Van Halen casually introduced his audience to the TransTrem system on 5150’s “Summer Nights.” What began as a niche design was invading the mainstream.
At a time when pointy headstocks competed to be ever more extreme, the headless Steinberger almost seemed sensible by comparison.
While some wrote it off as a fad, many players were won over by the comfortable body shape, tuning stability, and singing sustain. Over 3000 instruments left Steinberger’s New York shop through the ’80s. Not bad for a guitar without a head!
The Fade Out in the 1990s Grunge Era
By 1992, times had changed. Grunge bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden ditched cutting-edge gear for a raw, back-to-basics sound. Products associated with ‘80s excess fell from grace – and headless guitars were collateral damage.
Even artists who popularized them, like Geddy Lee and Sting, gravitated back to vintage instruments. Gibson had purchased the struggling Steinberger brand in 1987, but interest plummeted in this brave new decade.
For a while, it seemed headless guitars would end up a curious footnote in music history. But a core of devotees kept the format alive.
The Underground Persists
While flannel-clad crowds moshed to gritty riffs, some musicians still prized technical ability. Death guitarist Paul Masvidal pushed boundaries on 1991’s Human, often playing a headless Steinberger. Cynic’s 1993 debut Focus also put headless guitars beneath jazz-inspired solos.
Online communities like Headless USA and guitar forums are connected to an underground network. Builders like Jeff Babicz shared tips on repairing Steinbergers and creating new headless designs.
For players like Paul Masvidal, the ergonomic Steinberger enabled their creativity. Through the 90s and 2000s, these subcultures kept the headless format flickering – until fresh inspiration fanned the flames.
The Strandberg Revolution
In the mid-2000s, a Swedish guitarist named Ola Strandberg started designing his own take on the headless guitar. He wanted to improve on the Steinberger’s formula and appeal to modern players. The result was the Strandberg Boden – it blended ergonomic body shaping with a more familiar guitar silhouette.
The project was just a hobby at first. But then progressive metal artist Chris Letchford approached Ola about building him one. As Chris toured with other djent pioneers like Tosin Abasi, word of Strandberg’s guitars spread virally. Ola’s order list grew rapidly.
Suddenly, bands known for complex rhythms and extended-range instruments were playing Strandbergs. Their sleek, modern aesthetic perfectly matched the technical music.
The comfortable feel and improved acoustics aided complex passages. Strandberg carved out a new niche and inspired others to follow suit.
Headless Goes Mainstream
Through the 2010s, Strandberg led a revival of headless guitar popularity. The company profited from social media and artist exposure. Soon the larger guitar world took notice of this fully-formed trend. Before long, mainstream brands dipped their toes into headless waters.
Ibanez applied its build quality and metal reputation to headless models like the EHB1005. Kiesel’s headless guitars and basses give players premium options at lower prices.
Traveler Guitars created the ultra-portable headless Escape. The concept had evolved from outsider status to a feasible alternative seemingly overnight.
Of course, headless models from Steinberger and small builders remain available for purists. But now beginners can walk into a Guitar Center and try a headless guitar alongside Strats and Les Pauls.
The format’s tone, playability, and problem-solving mentality earned it a second chance in the spotlight.
The Future of Headless Guitars
Ask pioneers like Ned Steinberger about the future, and you’ll hear confidence. Despite early skepticism, the headless design has followed an arc of gradual acceptance. Its popularity today owes much to artists and builders who stuck with their vision.
New materials and production methods allow for endless variations on the concept. Expect established brands and upstarts alike to advance what’s possible. There will always be players seeking better solutions – and willing to try instruments that look and feel radically different.
Now headless guitars are here to stay, offering distinctive tone and feel. What was once written off as a gimmick has proven its merits. Today’s converts don’t see an absence – they appreciate a thoughtful alternate approach to guitar anatomy. Instead of asking “why,” they ask “why not?”
The headless guitar’s path has been anything but straightforward. From origins in ergonomic problem-solving to niche appeal among technical players, the concept faced indifference and ridicule.
But thanks to perseverance and internet-fueled subcultures, headless guitars are now accepted.
Players have come to appreciate distinctive attributes that set them apart. Unbound from tradition, builders continue to innovate and expand the format’s horizons.
So don’t be surprised when you see a metal guitarist shredding away on a guitar without a headstock! The look that once seemed bizarre is now just another creative option. Some ideas are too ingenious to fade away entirely.
About the Author
Team Guitar Top Review Talk about Guitars! We are a group of friends that bonded over their shared love of playing guitar. We all have different backgrounds and experiences with music, but we share a passion for writing about the things that we love.