Steinberger ZT3 Custom

Ned Lives On
The Steinberger ZT3 Custom

The year is 1979. The disco era is nearing its end and the “Me Generation” is approaching like a freight train. With the impending new decade full of fresh ideas in fashion, music, and everything possible a furniture engineer housed in a New York wood co-op finds his destiny. The man was Ned Steinberger, who through his early design work for luthier Stuart Spector, found himself designing innovative concepts in musical instruments.

Steinberger premiered the now-classic L2 bass at NAMM and at Frankfurt’s MusikMesse that same year, and fired up his company, Steinberger Sound, in 1980, making several bass and guitar models, all with new concepts like the TransTrem, which could transpose the pitch of individual strings.

In 1992, Ned sold Steinberger to Gibson. But he kept a close eye on his and other design evolutions. And he has continued to be involved with new product including the current Synapse line, which includes the ZT3 Custom electric guitar.

The ZT3 Custom uses a more conventional offset body shape. Its three-ply body binding, translucent finish over flamed maple, joined with the classic Steinberger headless neck, screams that this is something new for the guitar world. Unlike early all-graphite Steinbergers, the ZT3 Custom has a bolt-on 251/2″-scale three-piece Rock maple neck integrated with a CybroSonic graphite U-channel with adjustable truss rod and a phenolic fingerboard. The end result is all the stability of the early graphite models with the added warmth of a wood neck. The neck has a slightly more rounded profile, similar to a late-’50s era Gibson. The high-gloss-finished neck feels quite comfortable and the phenolic fingerboard’s sonic properties are reminiscent of an ebony fingerboard in terms of tone and feel.

From a player’s point of view, the electronics of the ZT3 Custom are considerably more versatile. It does not have active EMG pickups like so many early versions. Instead it uses U.S.-built, Gibson designed US90R and US91T in the rhythm and treble positions respectively. This upgrade alone helps warm the tone considerably from earlier models. Switching to the passive pickups also paved the way for the ZT3s sonic flexibility with the addition of push/pull series/parallel knobs for both the neck and bridge pickups.

Even though the pickups are not coil-tapped, they can mimic a single-coil tone quite well. With both in series, the ZT3 had enormous drive through a Mesa-Boogie Dual Rectifier and 4×12 cab. The pickups had plenty of output for even the heaviest distortion, yet kept great definition. Through the EL84-driven US Masters TVA30 it yielded an exceptional blues overdrive, and switching to parallel gave a nice Gilmour-esque tone, a la “Comfortably Numb.”

The ZT3’s clean tone has a nice, full-bodied warmth regardless of which pickup is selected. Using the neck pickup in series, with the Tone rolled off produced a very useable jazz tone. The bridge pickup in parallel worked exceptionally well for country-style chicken pickin’ as well as a fairly decent surf tone. Most impressive was the sound of both pickups run clean in parallel through a Fender Deluxe. This setup was great for a number of genres on a session, especially for funk rhythm parts. Apparent throughout was a nice articulation and attack, whether distorted or clean.

The ZT3 Custom’s secret weapon is the third-generation TransTrem. As a stand-alone guitar, the ZT3 is quite capable of hanging with a number of high-end instruments on the market. The TransTrem allows a player to individually bend each string so pitch changes are even across all six. This allows for bending of entire chords with no pitch issues. Once perfected, this allows for faux steel guitar lines that sound fairly convincing.

The biggest improvement on the TransTrem is five incremental settings you can lock into with the whammy bar. They de-tune or up-tune the guitar in half-step increments from F# to D, eliminating the need for a capo. You can bend up to key with a half-step in between. Even though it took a little time to get accustomed to the positions, the ZT3 stays in tune in each. One drawback is that you lose the ability of the vibrato, as each locked position then essentially turns the guitar into a stop-tail.

In drop D through the Mesa, the ZT3 had loads of heavy grind. In the same position, the ZT3 had a quasi-baritone sound through the EL84 amp. Bending up to F# and playing up the neck allowed for a mandolin-esque vibe on a country session, as well. The tester’s TransTrem was sadly slightly clunky going into the different positions, but Steinberger says this has been remedied in production models.

The ZT3 Custom is another truly great achievement from the mind of Ned Steinberger. Ned’s commitment to putting the player’s needs first while retaining form and function is well-preserved in this guitar. Its appearance may be unconventional, but the ZT3 Custom leaps forward from the days of Wayfarer sunglasses, Don Johnson jackets, and way too much Aqua-Net.

Steinberger ZT3 Custom
Price $2,665
Contact Steinberger c/o Gibson Musical Instruments, 645 Massman Drive, Nashville, TN 37210; phone 800-4GIBSON;

This article originally appeared in VG‘s November 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

The Steinberger ZT-3 Custom

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