Steinberger Synapse SS-2FA Custom and TranScale ST-2FPA Custom

In 1979, Ned Steinberger designed the L2 guitar, a radical solidbody made from graphite-reinforced epoxy, which featured a headless neck-through design, two humbuckers, and an innovative bridge/tailpiece that incorporated the tuning machines. The L2 won the Industrial Designers Excellence Award in 1981, and was also heralded by Time magazine as one of the five best product designs of the year. Skyrocketing demand for the L2 guitars and basses required Steinberger to relocate to a larger facility in Newburgh, New York, where it subsequently introduced the XL-2 and GL-2 models and the innovative TransTrem bridge (1984), the S-Trem bridge and optional Roland synth controller circuitry (1985), the three-pickup GL3T and GL4T models (1986), and the double-cutaway GM Series instruments and Bass TransTrem (1987).
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Following the debut of the GK Series (the result of a collaboration with boutique guitarmaker Steve Klein), the XQ bass, and the GM and XM models, Steinberger relocated again in 1992. This time, the company settled in Nashville, Tennessee, where under the control of Gibson, it introduced the “Sprit by Steinberger” line, which featured all-maple construction in both neck-through and bolt-on versions. Steinberger production was halted for more than a year in 1999, after which the Spirit line was reintroduced through internet wholesaler Steinberger began making the graphite models again in 2002, and then rolled out the new Synapse line in 2004.

The Synapse SS-2FA Custom and TranScale ST-2FPA are hybrids in the sense that both feature Steinberger’s proprietary CybroSonic hard-maple neck design, which incorporates a graphite U-channel and trussrod assembly that provides the stability and tonal clarity of graphite, but with the added warmth of wood. Common to both guitars are their maple bodies and Direct-Drive Double-Ball bridges, extended front strap hooks, fold-down leg rests, “combo” headpieces that allow the use of double- or single-ball strings, recessed output jacks, and holders for the two included hex adjustment wrenches. The use of a zero fret on both models improves intonation and the consistency of the action, and it also simplifies switching to different gauge strings because there aren’t any nut slots to deal with. Each guitar also comes with a padded gig bag at no extra cost.

SS-2FA Custom

Measuring a tad over 31" end-to-end, the ultra-compact SS-2FA features a flawless transparent-red finish that shows off the figuring in the maple top. The routings for the bridge, pickups, and 3-way selector are very crisp, and the wiring inside the control cavity (which is shielded with nickel paint) is tidy. Located in a recess on the back, the 9-volt battery is accessed by nudging a latch on its spring-loaded cover.

The SS-2FA’s bridge is a masterfully engineered unit that incorporates 40:1 ratio knurled tuners, and it provides for incredibly fast string changes when you use Steinberger’s double-ball-end wires. Just loosen the tuner, slip one ball end into the claw, slip the other ball into the headpiece opening, and tighten up. Once stretched, the strings stay in tune extremely well. You can also use standard, plain-end strings by first loosening the hex screws in the headpiece, routing the plain ends through the appropriate openings, and then tightening the screws to clamp the strings in place. The extra lengths of string poking out the end of the headpiece can then be trimmed flush with diagonal cutters.

The 22 frets are well shaped and highly polished, and the glossy phenolic fretboard sure looks cool—although you can see tiny nicks by the ends of each fret where a file touched the material. The medium-thick neck feels great, and with its ultra-smooth frets and low-action setup, the SS-2FA plays like the 6-string equivalent of a Formula One car. Unfortunately, my thumb tended to collide with the front strap hook whenever I slammed my hand beyond the 16th fret, but if you’re a finesse player (i.e. someone who keeps their thumb glued to the back of the neck), the hook shouldn’t pose a problem. Steinberger says the hook can be bent slightly (you’ll want to remove it first) to provide more clearance, and future Synapse guitars will have this modification.

Auditioned with a Fender Twin Reverb, a 50-watt Marshall, an Orange Rockerverb 100, and a THD Flexi-50, the SS-2FA delivered stout tones in both clean and distorted modes. You can dial in a good balance of low-end mass and top-end slice via the powerful Tone knob, and the Volume control does not attenuate highs when turned down. There’s not a great deal of character to the SS-2FA’s voice, but its hi-fi response is perfect for those who prefer to shape their sound via effects. The guitar’s high-output electronics can make it a bit challenging to obtain pristine clean sounds, however. For example, even with the pickups screwed down as far as possible, I still detected some breakup from the Twin with its volume knob on 2. A very light touch was also required to minimize digital grittiness when running through Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig on my computer. I like the quietness of the EMGs, and their hot output sure makes it easy to get thick, meaty rock tones, but it would be nice if there was a more effective means of attenuating the signal in order to take full advantage of the clear, crisp response that Steinbergers are known for.

TranScale ST-2FPA Custom

In terms of flexibility, nothing beats the ST-2FPA with its ability to be quickly converted from standard to baritone scale. Steinberger pulled off this trick by building the guitar with a bari-length 28y"-scale neck, and then adding a rolling capo that travels along the grooves running from the end of the neck to the 11th fret. Slide the capo up to the second fret, and you’re playing a 25w"-scale guitar. Roll it down past the zero fret, and, presto, you’re in the rumble zone. The grooves for the capo—which are about r" wide and located just below the fretboard—can feel a little weird at first, but they became less noticeable the more I played this guitar.

The rolling capo makes it possible to do things that simply can’t be done with a standard guitar—such as allowing you to go from a faux mandolin sound to a gutshaking metal tone—and sliding the capo south of the zero fret takes you instantly down to D. The only weirdness is that you’re supposed to reference the fretboard dots when not using the capo, and the side dots (which are offset by two frets in certain positions) when capoing at the second fret. Seems to me that it would have been less confusing to just use one set of dots, and let people work out their own ways of relating to the different scales, but Steinberger says their research proved otherwise.

If you really want to hear this guitar in all its sub-harmonic glory, you have to put on heavier strings and tune B to B. Conveniently, Steinberger makes a double-ball .012-.068 gauge set which is quick to slap on. However, I got hung up when the wrapped section of .052 (fifth string) wouldn’t fit into its slot in the headpiece. Okay, I figured I could just use a plain-end .052, but that didn’t work either, because the wrapped part of the string wouldn’t fit through the hole in the headpiece. Dang! Though a replacement headpiece with a widened fifth-string slot allowed me to use the new TranScale double-ball strings, Steinberger says the problem was actually with the wrapped portion of the string, which was out of spec and too wide. Reportedly this won’t be an issue when the TranScale strings hit the stores.

Courtesy of its electronics and piezo bridge, the ST-2FPA delivers a much broader range of tones than the SS-2FA. The EQ features active Hi Band and Low Band controls, and there’s also a Blend knob to adjust the ratio of the magnetic and piezo signals. A pair of trim pots inside the cavity makes it easy to adjust the individual output levels of the two EMG pickups—which is great if you want to optimize the guitar for clean response.

Played through a new Genz-Benz Shenandoah Acoustic Pro amp, the ST-2FPA sounded great with standard-gauge strings, yielding crisp, balanced tones from the magnetic pickups. By turning the Blend knob to add more piezo color, the sound became increasingly rich and deep bodied, but not at all “acoustic,” as you might expect from a piezo-equipped solidbody. Combined with the neck pickup, it was easy to get an incredibly fat jazz tone, and a Blend setting of about halfway (where the detent is felt) produced a very satisfying combination of sparkle and richness that sounded consistently good in all pickup combinations and through all of the amps.

The ST-2FPA sounded massive in full-blown baritone mode, but it was still necessary to roll back the highs and boost the lows to get a balanced sound when using only the magnetic pickups. That situation changed dramatically when even a moderate amount of piezo signal was added, as I actually had to cut bass and add treble in order to keep the lows from dominating the mix. It’s rather amazing how Steinberger has managed to extract so much fatness from a saddle piezo, and the Blend knob is the bomb here, as it allows you to obtain any degree of body and fullness you want. As an aside, it’s worth noting that the removable compensated saddle—which is independent of the piezo elements—will be made available in a variety of materials (an aluminum version was installed on this guitar). As the saddle material has an effect on tone, this will be yet another tool players can use to tailor the ST-2FPA to their particular needs.

Synapse Synopsis

Offering many of the attributes of the classic graphite Steinberger models, but with the warmer sonic and tactile qualities of wood construction, the Synapses are well suited for players who seek a stable instrument with a versatile palette of tones. The ST-2FPA with its TranScale feature and powerful electronics is the clear choice if you want the ultimate in flexibility, and it successfully achieves Ned Steinberger’s goal of creating an instrument that uses piezo technology to do more than simply produce a quasi-acoustic sound. With the ST-2FPA, Steinberger has once again created something that enhances the electric-guitar experience. The ST-2FPA has a lot to offer anyone with a sense of adventure, and if you’re already a Steinberger fan, here’s your chance to fall in love all over again.